The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

April 1996  Volume 12:6

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Breaking the box: a new model for computing services across Penn

A University-wide task force has produced a new model for computing services that will guide organizational change over the next few years. It's no magic bullet or guarantee of success. It offers instead a way of doing business that gives members of the community the chance to make Penn better and exposes each of us to the costs of bad decisions and the benets of good ones. The model values organizational self-reliance even as it encourages confederation for the common good.

The user

The user is at the center of the model. Each person ideally has a local computing "home" and takes all computing questions there.

Primary support

Schools and administrative divisions are responsible for primary support. This includes frontline customer support and support of local processes, services, and innovations. Units can provide primary support themselves or buy it from other schools, from the central computing group, or from outside Penn. The task force urges that guidelines for basic primary support levels be set and that Penn institutionalize ways to keep those levels moving up.

Secondary services

Beyond this circle of primary support are expanding circles of secondary services - provided by schools, by ISC, or by outside vendors. But the map of services is irrelevant to the user: The primary support person navigates that landscape.
  • Market-based service bureaus. Small businesses, or "service bureaus," will be set up where feasible. Not all secondary services will be delivered on a market basis; the intent is to establish, over time, enough of a marketplace to help control costs and encourage a focus on the customer. Service bureaus already exist at Penn. Wharton Reprographics is well known; Information Systems and Computing sells support-on-site, training, application development, and integration services and will scale up these businesses. A market may exist for additional services such as multimedia production or local area networking; any unit is invited to set up a service bureau in Penn's evolving economy.

  • Network as a regulated utility. The task force recommends running Penn's network as a regulated public utility - with service-level agreements, campus-wide standards, and a "Public Utility Commission" or governing board, to keep it responsive. The principle here as elsewhere is to let the common business of the institution be managed in common as far as possible. As a utility, the network would be funded by a mix of allocated and direct charges, with specic funding strategies to be taken up by the PUC.

  • Focused set of enterprise services. Some services help make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Into this category the model puts standards and architecture, second-tier support, core administrative systems, data administration and information security, site licensing, and communication at the enterprise level. These services will be performed by ISC and supported by allocated costs. ISC will review each of the services it now provides, eliminating some and concentrating more heavily on others.

Process teams

The model offers a potentially powerful way for Penn to take action at the University level. A few cross-cutting processes will be funded directly and managed across traditional organizational boundaries. For the moment, Penn will concentrate on two or three high-priority processes, such as "academic innovation" and "student services." These processes can be considered "institutional bets" with high potential payback.


Cost-effectiveness, targeted investment, and giving units more control over their costs are aims of the model. In an area where investment is sure to expand, Penn wants to see money saved in some areas and reinvested in others. For example, as ISC reduces the number of things it does for allocated costs and cuts costs in other ways, funds can be returned to the Provost's budget. The task force strongly urges that these particular savings be spent strategically on forward-looking computing activities. Process teams are a prime target for these funds. We freely and frankly say that we cannot tell whether this model will be seen by individual units as costing them more or less. Rather, in an environment of exploding demand, the model will give units more control over their costs. The model tries to unite responsibility and authority where they have grown apart, to reveal real costs where they have become obscured, and to return choice to purchasers where it has been eroded.