The Pandemic Pivot Helped CIOs Shine
In response to the COVID pandemic, almost all colleges and universities pivoted to online instruction and remote work in a matter of hours and days. Information technology departments played an essential role as firewalls were adjusted, VPNs and campus WiFi were expanded, student laptop and MiFi checkout programs were implemented, video conferencing capability was added to classrooms and conference rooms, digital signature applications were integrated, virtual computer labs were added, a virtual helpdesk and support was established, as well as many more accomplishments we could add to this list! IT departments were applauded for their work and often held up as shining examples of creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance.
For many IT leaders, the pandemic provided forward momentum unlike anything they’d seen before. They had the full support of campus leadership and sufficient funding in the form of government COVID economic relief. If they didn’t before, they now had a seat at the table. For a moment in time, the technology leader was truly seen as an institutional leader.
Stay Engaged and Partner to Support Transformation
While the pandemic created an unprecedented and easily identifiable crisis, higher education is in the throes of a much longer-term crisis that has been well documented for years. At the core are a multi-year decline in enrollment that is projected to continue, institutional costs and associated tuition increases rising faster than inflation, external competition, and societal questions about the value of a higher education degree. In response, most campuses are actively engaged in planning and implementing some form of institutional transformation in an effort to recruit and retain students while shrinking or stabilizing institutional budgets and costs. Most higher education leaders will agree that the institutions that embrace change and institutional transformation will be better prepared for the rough waters ahead.
Are you and your IT department as involved in solutions to this crisis as you were with the pandemic? For some of you, the answer is yes—you are engaged, have a seat at the table, and the campus considers you a strategic partner in this work. For others, the answer is sometimes, maybe, or no. The institution may still be learning about your leadership capabilities; maybe you are still learning too.
Whether you and your IT department are actively involved in campus transformation or you desire to be more engaged moving forward, the following steps will help you partner with your campus on the essential transformation steps needed now and in the coming years.
Start with Self-Awareness and Reflection
At a recent NACUBO annual conference, we asked a VP for Finance and an AVP for Budget about digital transformation on their campus. After a brief pause, their response was a common one, “Our IT leader sure is spending a lot of money, and we are not sure it is worth the investment.” Could this have been said by one of the leaders on your campus? If yes, do you know how you and your IT department are viewed across campus? If you don’t, some proactive steps are necessary.
- Initiate some form of 360 review.
- If it has been a while since you met with your peers across campus, make a point of initiating meetings where you really listen. While this would be best accomplished in person, it might be via videoconferencing depending on the social environment at the time. If it is in person, go to their office. People are more likely to be open and honest with you in their own environment.
Collaboration Is Key to Success
Collaboration has always been important, but to work successfully in today’s higher education environment, it is essential. Without intentional and sustained effort, it is very easy to become insular or siloed over time.
- Spend time as an IT department identifying ways to collaborate with your campus partners and implement them.
- Prepare to be a better campus collaborator by spending time with regional and national peers discussing successful innovations and transformation initiatives at other institutions. Develop ideas to discuss with colleagues at your institution.
Get the Big Picture on Campus Priorities
Learn about the business of the institution and engage with your institutional leadership about the larger problems they are discussing and working to solve. At a recent NACUBO conference, a large room of higher education business officers were asked this online poll question, “What is your institution’s largest strategic priority that needs a funding plan?” The answers were mostly what you would expect: enrollment, equity, faculty, recruitment, research, DEI, workforce, student success, compensation, and staffing. Do you know what the funding priorities are for your campus?
- Attend some conferences and events outside of IT, e.g., NACUBO, ACE, and others. Go prepared to listen, ask questions, and learn.
- Don’t just discuss IT needs. Be able to speak about other areas and campuswide priorities.
- Yes, this is a real investment in time, but one you need to make to partner effectively.
Talk Less About Tech and More About Campus Needs
Focusing on the academic or business needs of the institution is difficult to do since we live and breathe technology—and we often fall into the trap of thinking everyone loves technology as much as we do. EDUCAUSE provides an excellent website devoted to digital transformation, which they define as shifts in culture, workforce, and technology. By this definition, technology only plays a third of the role and probably even less when you consider technology projects also often involve changes in business processes and workflow. As IT professionals, we should keep these ratios in mind as we speak with our colleagues across campus.
Champion Process Improvements
Process improvements are at the heart of institutional transformation. Our last century processes need to be totally rebuilt. It is imperative that we reshape our most critical institutional processes to match current and future needs. Spend time with your business counterparts planning for these improvements, deciding where technology helps to achieve those results, and collecting data on quantifiable resource savings and success stories.
- Prioritize institutional processes for review and look for ways to cut process steps in half (or more) by streamlining non-customer facing touchpoints.
- Set audacious goals for process improvements, then apply a cohesive business and technology strategy for process automation(s) to the newly created processes.
Explain Technology from a Strategic Perspective
Be ready to explain technology initiatives through the lens of the institutional plan. Most of our campuses spend significant resources to create and follow strategic plans. We should know those plans and discuss technology projects through the lens of the plan.
- It is important to remember technology or digital transformation is not the what or the why—it is part of the how.
- Consider where digital transformation fits into institutional transformation to focus efforts, including data and integration initiatives; streamlining and automating processes; creating workforce efficiencies; improving access and flexibility to meet future student and workforce needs.
- Financial officers advise CIOs to be aware that your institution may be facing intense pressures, have thin resources, and will have to pick those areas where investment can be most effective. Be open to innovative and effective solutions by seeking out shared service models, partnerships, and sourcing strategies for technology platforms and services.
Communicate ROI with Stories That Resonate
Dr. Russ Hannah, Chief Financial Officer at Arkansas State University, advises CIOs to consider return on investment, “Learn to articulate the need in terms of ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI). We’re often not comfortable in higher education speaking in these terms, but, in an era of increasingly constrained resources and capacity, leaders have to make difficult choices about where to allocate resources and effort. CIOs have to be able to speak to why transformation is so vitally important, how technology can support it, and why our institutions should choose to invest in this work rather than alternatives.”
Remember that while investments may be needed in technology, the ROI will likely be measured on the administrative or academic side.
- Work with leadership colleagues to set expectations for those enrollment and retention process improvements.
- Map out expected gains for faster admissions, financial aid, enrollment, and registration processes.
- Collect data and stories about better access to data and shorter time frames from asking complex questions to deriving dependable data and actionable answers.
- Measure improved workforce capacity for mission-critical work versus transactional processing.
Don’t Give Up!
The challenges faced by higher education are many and growing, and we must plan for significant changes and institutional transformation to weather these growing challenges. As a CIO and an institutional leader, remember that you are not alone and should not try to act alone. More than ever, the institution needs you to work collaboratively on institutional problems. Build your relationships; have important conversations; research ideas; network with peers; and communicate return on investment. Don’t give up! You are needed as an institutional leader just as much as you were in the initial days of the pandemic.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 2022, Higher Ed’s Enrollment Crash Has Been Underway for Years
- Forbes, August 31, 2020, College Tuition Is Rising at Twice the Inflation Rate—While Students Learn At Home
- EDUCAUSE, Dx Journey: Defining Dx
This post was coauthored by Associate Partner Cathy Bates, who advises clients on technology strategic planning, data governance, IT governance, and initiatives that transform institutional academic, administrative, and research capabilities, and Vice President Kirk Kelly, who advises clients on data governance and analytics, strategic planning, organizational assessments and development, culture and engagement, and IT governance design and implementation.