This is my 5 minute talk on Business Cases from our ALT-C Session on Evidence Bases and Business Cases (1702). This was composed jointly with Dr Melissa Highton.
It is fashionable to roll your eyes about “management concerns” as if it’s somebody else’s problem. But when you get to a certain level as a learning technologist you have to develop some understanding of management issues and administrative domain Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou illustrated in her opening talk.
If you don’t trust “them” to make good decisions, you need to get better at understanding what decisions “they” are making, and how.
I thought about making a Jargon Bingo card for this talk. But this isn’t a spoof talk. I’ve worked in this field for nearly 20 years, at an institutional and national level. and I am very bored of learning technologists who like to snigger at institutional management. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way …
Business Cases are a structured way of laying out the evidence that a proposed investment in people, time and cash, is a worthwhile risk that will create benefits in the right places at the right time, to a big enough extent that it is worth it. Laying out the Cost Benefit Analysis. And that “is it worth it?” is known as Return on Investment. There are models for all of that, but don’t be blinded by it being management speak: learn it.
It’s not always scientifically applied. But if a senior manager wants to champion your proposal, you need to know how to provide that sort of argument. It goes both ways: if someone important wants to block your proposal, they might ask for the business case. You can’t even have the argument if you don’t speak the language.
I think there’s a paradox to learning and teaching strategies. If they are good, they are obvious, and they make you think they are unnecessary. But we need them. We set strategic direction because anything is possible with unlimited resource but there is never unlimited resource. So how do we avoid exhausting ourselves exploring every new piece of software, academic’s idea, technology practice? We describe our priorities and try to combine our efforts to get us there rather than all do everything at once. So always explain how your proposal will help the institution make progress.
Have I cracked that, personally? Of course not. But I have learned that strategy does matter and if you always ask yourself about what your institutional priorities are then you have a better chance of securing support for what you think is important.
Who makes decisions at your institution, and when? Understand your planning cycle and the priorities of major stakeholders.
Where do learning technologists go wrong? This is from my experience at Becta and Jisc as well as at the institutions I’ve worked at …
Academic time is the biggest cost on campus. You might call it three hours of CPD, but they may see it as three hours mandatory training. Try to be honest about their time: estimate the cost of the learning curve so that it can be weighed up against the benefits. Academic stakeholders will prefer honesty to evangelism.
IT and Library is often treated as an invisible cost, just stretchy infrastructure that doesn’t need quantifying: its just there. Don’t make that mistake. Yes they are there to support the rest of the university but they are also people that are paid for 36.5 hours a week, they’re not magic.
Be realistic about costings: suppliers calculate costs in different ways, make sure you do your research, whether its an upfront cost by FTE banding, or whether it monitors concurrent users, and whether it includes VAT. Do the numbers.
By the way, cash costs are usually the least problematic. And capital spend, one-off spend, is the accountants favourite, they’d much prefer spend £100k this year than £20k a year over four years.
Learn the language of Use Cases: use cases are our friends. And be alert to those early adopters and innovators who push for meeting edge cases.
(Improving 50 people’s fulfilment of use cases by 80% might not be as good an investment as improving 500 people’s fulfilment of use cases by 20%)
Helping the majority of neutral users and solving their pain might be more important than added value for the already active users. That might sound counterintuitive, but think about it.
Also, on benefits: not all benefits need to be pedagogical improvements. They might be efficiency gains to free up departmental administrators from maintenence tasks to planning tasks. They might be PR gains, or data quality gains. Don’t confine yourself to pedagogical impacts: broaden your vocabulary.
Management want transparent decision making about a particular approach or product is best. Share your workings. You can say which is your preference, but understand that if people help make a decision a) it’s more likely to be a good decision and b) they’re more likely to help it to success.
It might not be the outcome you expected but by respecting the process you become trusted as part of it.
Sustainability and Scaleability
When I evaluated bids at Jisc I was often surprised how many bidders didn’t understand what we meant when we asked for a sustainability plan. Many said “another Jisc grant”. Others assumed IT Services will take it on, without evidence that has been discussed with them. Imagine future you five years from now inheriting management of today’s proposal. Take the future seriously.
So here’s my provocation …
Institutional learning technology is not about perfection
As Diana Laurillard might say, anyone with unlimited time and resource could design a perfect bridge. But in institutional capability building terms, which approaches can be repeated and supported, another 20 times, 100 times, 1,000 times? It’s a bit like the National Institute for Clinical Excellence: what is efficacious and affordable at scale?
If you want to influence your institution, learn the language of management. ITIL, Prince2, Business Models. Understand them as much as you want them to understand you. Bring senior managers fully costed business cases with options clearly indicated. Bring them proposals they can say yes to.