College administrators love to boast about how their institutions are national leaders in all kinds of ways. But when it comes to technology systems used for colleges' many business operations, very few people claim to be leaders. Most, in fact, seem to think their systems aren't so great.
That is the chief finding of a survey  of college chief information officials, released Thursday by Educause.
The CIOs were asked, in a series of business categories, whether the systems they had in place put their institutions at risk, were adequate, satisfactory, make their colleges leaders, or made the colleges exemplars. Generally, "adequate" and "satisfactory" were the most common answers, with relatively few institutions seeming to feel that their systems were at a point of crisis, and even fewer feeling that their systems were anything to rave about.
For instance, in the category of "developing budgets," 61.6 percent of those responding said that their systems were adequate, while 9.7 percent said that they were at risk. Only 1.4 percent thought that their institutions had systems that were exemplars. Similarly, in the category of "tracking budgets and expenditures," only 1.4 percent saw their institutions as exemplars while 11.3 percent saw their institutions as being at risk.
The study organizes business functions into various categories. In the area of human resources, functional areas that received relatively high "at risk" ratings included managing positions (18.2 percent), recording time and attendance (16.7 percent), managing compensation (14.1 percent) and recruiting employees (12.9 percent). An area with atypically strong satisfaction is payroll, where only 1.3 percent saw their institutions at risk and 8.4 percent saw their institutions as leaders.
In student services, areas with high "at risk" responses included auditing degree completion (20.6 percent) and managing events (20.2 percent). Maintaining grades was a function with high satisfaction, with only 0.7 percent seeing their institutions at risk, and 15.9 percent seeing their institutions as leaders.
Grants management is a category causing consistently high worry among CIOs. More than 20 percent considered their systems "at risk" in the areas of tracking proposals, preparing proposals and reporting time spent on grants management.
So why are so many colleges less than thrilled with the technology that they pay so much to buy, license and maintain? The Educause report attributes this to concept of "satisficing," which holds that decision makers in certain situations will decide to stick with technology is "good enough" because the costs of getting optimal performance are too high.
Richard Katz, vice president of Educause, said he was initially surprised that so many colleges appear to be only modestly satisfied with their spending on technology related to business operations. But he said that the "satisficing" theory makes sense when you consider that "so much of higher education is fixed costs," such as salaries, benefits and utilities. "There's only a small share of free-floating money" and many administrators feel that they will face faculty opposition if they spend too much on technology (or anything) that isn't related to academic mission, Katz said.
"It really is a zero sum game," he added.