Shared Leadership Transforms Higher Education IT

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Key Takeaways

  • Moving IT from simple technology management to strategic partner and catalyst for transforming higher education requires shared leadership that emphasizes seamless collaborations.
  • Internal alignment and external evaluation are necessary first steps before shared IT leadership and excellence can take center stage.
  • Creating the conditions for shared leadership requires increased focus on the value of IT investment to the institution.
  • A four-year effort at the University of Minnesota developed highly coordinated IT leadership as well as the institutional conditions for enabling strategic shared leadership.

Globalization, immersive research and learning environments, unlimited access to information and analytics, and fiscal realities continue to impact higher education — and higher education IT. Although IT organizations face immense pressure to meet significantly greater expectations at significantly less cost, with such pressure comes the opportunity to move IT beyond managing commodity resources to serving as a strategic and catalytic force for transforming higher education. To do so, however, demands an evolution from distributed to highly coordinated leadership as well as fostering the institutional conditions for enabling strategic shared leadership.

In this article, we challenge all those engaged with IT in higher education to think even more boldly about leadership. After a brief overview of how our understanding of IT leadership and collaboration evolved, a case study documents a four-year effort at the University of Minnesota to develop highly coordinated IT leadership as well as the institutional conditions for enabling shared leadership. We conclude with a view toward the future that includes success indicators made possible through the foundation and practice of shared leadership.

Evolution of IT Leadership and Collaboration

The IT community's understanding of IT leadership has evolved; it began as a focus on leadership style and working relationships. Today, the emphasis is on the need for collaboration across boundaries and the role that IT professionals play in transforming higher education. The following EDUCAUSE resources document that evolution:

  • In 2004, an ECAR study on IT leadership in higher education noted that its IT respondents "are good role models: they inspire, empower, and motivate staff; encourage creativity; and effectively communicate a shared mission and vision."1
  • In 2006, James Bruce and Brian McDonald defined shared leadership as when "the leader builds working relationships with coworkers and external parties, negotiates and handles problems without alienating people, obtains cooperation through influence, and delegates both responsibility and authority appropriately."2
  • In 2010, the EDUCAUSE report The Future of Higher Education: Beyond the Campus emphasized the need for collaboration: "IT professionals need to understand the range of problems their institutions face so they apply IT where it brings greatest value. Creating this future will require collaboration across organizational and national boundaries."3
  • Also in 2010, an ECAR study on the future CIO emphasized that "CIOs must be seen as leaders who go beyond technology. Critical competencies include a strategic institutional perspective, communication and outreach capabilities, and the ability to collaborate effectively."4

Jolene Koester, president of California State University, Northridge, in her article on IT and tomorrow's university recently stated: "IT professionals can and should be at the core of envisioning and shaping the future of our colleges and universities … IT professionals have the exciting potential to be agents of transformation."5

It's a tall order to be agents of transformation. We contend that to do so requires shared leadership.

In defining shared leadership, researchers Craig L. Pearce, Charles C. Manz, and Henry P. Sims, Jr., wrote that "Shared leadership entails broadly sharing power and influence among a set of individuals rather than centralizing it in the hands of a single individual who acts in the clear role of a dominant superior."6 Ann Hill Duin and Linda Baer provided additional detail in Table 1, noting characteristics present in more traditional (that is, vertical) and shared-leadership contexts. Although IT organizations, mirroring their higher education institutions, most often embody vertical leadership models, IT leaders must identify, understand, and foster models of coordinated and shared leadership.

Table 1. Characteristics of Vertical and Shared Leadership7

Vertical Leadership

Shared Leadership

Identified by position in a hierarchy and downward influence from a superior

Identified by individuals' knowledge sets and consequent abilities to influence peers

Evaluated by whether the leader solves problems or not

Evaluated by how well people are working together

Leaders provide solutions and answers

Leaders provide multiple means to enhance process

Distinct differences between leaders and followers

Members are interdependent

Communication is formal

Communication is critical

In the following sections, we share an in-depth case study of the evolution from distributed to coordinated to shared IT leadership at the University of Minnesota. This case study is about ensuring alignment to institutional priorities and the pursuit of deep coordination within a central organization and across a university system. It is about developing the capacity to meet immense challenges and serve as agents of transformation.

Case Study: Background

The merger of seven IT groups in 1995 created the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at the University of Minnesota. The merger's goal was to avoid duplication of services, set architectural standards, and improve and expand services. OIT oversees all aspects of IT at the university's five campuses, regional extension offices, and research and outreach centers, providing guidance to central and collegiate units and managing the system-wide IT enterprise. The vice president/CIO is a member of the institution's executive team and reports directly to the president.

In 2006, as part of the university's strategic positioning process, an administrative task force had as its goal "to transform the 'centralized versus decentralized' administrative structure at the university into a 'defined-distributed' model." The task force emphasized that "without commonality, the university cannot compete against other educational and research institutions and cannot otherwise effectively leverage limited resources." At this point, the university further emphasized OIT's system-wide role and established a new funding model to clarify costs of central administrative services.

In this funding model, the university began using a cost pool allocation method to distribute the costs for nine centrally provided services, one of these being technology. The cost of centrally supported IT is allocated to academic units based on a unit's proportionate share of total employee and student headcount. The technology cost pool funds certain centrally provided services, called common good services. In each case, a service statement describes the service and levels of support that all users should expect.

The university spends 6.4 percent of total campus expenditures on IT, with the central unit representing roughly a third of these IT expenses. Given that the majority of funding for central IT comes from collegiate units and coordinate campuses (via the technology cost pool), alignment, coordination, and transparency are imperative.

This case study began in July 2007. The launch of the new funding model resulted in tremendous growth in the use of common-good IT resources; however, no additional funding came to the central unit to support this growth. In addition, the university was devoting significant central resources to completing the five-year development of an enterprise financial system. Add to this the increased expectations of IT resources by faculty, staff, and students, as well as the State of Minnesota's financial deficit and the resulting university cuts, and OIT found itself in the perfect IT storm.

At the same time, the University Relations office was working to align branding across the university. Its analysis labeled the central OIT office as a "bad unit" for using over 50 different logos representing multiple (and at times duplicative) services. In short, users were confused; alignment was imperative.

Phase One: Internal Alignment

Before we could work to align and leverage all IT at the university, we first needed to align efforts in the central IT office. Our approach was as follows:

  • Connect to the university's land grant mission and align central work to institutional goals
  • Introduce and practice ACTIVE principles
  • Launch a strategic One OIT organizational identity
  • Launch cross-functional working groups

The first key to alignment was reframing OIT's mission and goal statements as follows:

  • Mission: Serve as a catalyst for innovatively leveraging technology to advance and support extraordinary education, breakthrough research, and dynamic public engagement.
  • Goal: Advance the University of Minnesota's goals of becoming one of the top three public research universities through the innovative and strategic application of IT.

A second key was to implement the following ACTIVE (alignment, communication, transparency, input for innovation, value on investment, evidence) principles:

  • Alignment: OIT worked to identify and align similar work across the central organization. This included consolidating servers and forming cross-functional teams, for example, to develop and deploy change control, analyze options for a future course learning system, and investigate and pilot desktop virtualization.
  • Communication and Transparency: To foster open and transparent discussion of challenges and opportunities, OIT began sending a weekly e-mail that included information about alignment and cross-functional team efforts, updates from supervisors, staff changes, and kudos. OIT launched cross-organization meetings, such as weekly meetings of the senior management team and subunits, monthly all-supervisors meetings, and semiannual all-staff meetings.
  • Input for innovation: OIT developed an employee Climate Survey, a short set of questions designed to elicit input from OIT staff members and to chart a course for increased leadership and support for all. OIT partnered with the university's central human resources unit to process the results; foster an environment of supervisory excellence; bring value and consistency to the performance review process; and foster an environment for employee development.

Although an evolution to coordinated and aligned internal work resulted in greater alignment across central IT, creating the conditions for shared leadership required increased focus on the value of IT investment to the institution. After developing service statements for centrally supported services, OIT needed evidence of their impact as a means to determine, through partnership, those to discontinue and those to enhance or develop.

To better understand the value of IT to the institution and begin acquiring evidence in support of future directions, OIT followed a process — the external review — that aligns IT to higher education as an academic enterprise.

Phase Two: External Evaluation and Coordinated Leadership

System Academic Administration at the university launched an external review of central IT, identifying an exemplary team to perform a complete external review. In preparation, OIT conducted a complete self-study from fall 2008 through spring 2009. The study included a 10-year history of finances and human resources, comparisons with other institutions, SWOT analyses from every unit, and a historical summary of major initiatives (defining moments) that also served to showcase leadership initiatives since the organization's beginning in 1995. For input, OIT also conducted satisfaction surveys with all stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, and administration). To promote transparency, OIT made all materials for this review — surveys, reports, final evaluations, and next steps — available online.

The external team met with over 100 people. In its final report, the team noted the tension between the competing demands of providing stable common-good services and world-class technology leadership to help the university make transformational changes to reach its goals. The team made three main recommendations:

Recommendation 1—Determine appropriate balance between service provider and innovator:

OIT must jointly fulfill the roles of a service provider and an innovator and communicate both roles directly with the university community and its leaders. OIT must also determine in consultation with university leadership the balance point in its efforts to execute each role.

Recommendation 2—Establish a transparent IT governance process:

Today, independent, distributed IT organizations across the university are unconstrained in developing independent and/or duplicate solutions that are a best fit for their project, department, college, or campus. This dynamic un-architected solution growth helps fuel a demand for technology that exceeds resource availability; current economic conditions will likely exacerbate this situation… The review team recommends a well-defined two tiered governance process to provide clarity in OIT's mission and ongoing priorities. The first tier should include key stakeholders and technology savvy participants, for example, the IT Directors… The second tier of governance should include a small group of university executives who will review periodic reporting, arbitrate escalated issues and confirm technology's strategic alignment to the aspirational goals of the U of M.

Recommendation 3—Align IT with aspirational goals of U of M:

The review team recommends that OIT should align its internal projects and services with campus activities directly related to making strategic progress toward the university's aspirational goal. Services that do not provide a strategic advantage should be eliminated, outsourced, or evaluated with an eye toward reducing resource consumption. Resources freed in this manner can then be reallocated toward more strategic projects and services.

The team shared the results from this review with senior executives, who endorsed the findings. They charged OIT to proceed on the three recommendations.

To start, we began meeting regularly with deans and with chancellors and their cabinets to determine priorities and align IT work with collegiate, campus, and university aspirational goals. As a result of these meetings, OIT developed a multiyear IT investment plan that it shared and vetted with the university community. The President's Executive Committee later endorsed the plan.

We also developed and shared a yearly planning cycle document to make visible the overall IT planning and governance process at the university, and to help each group better understand its executive, central, collegiate/campus, or local role in the process throughout a fiscal year.

The vice president/CIO elevated the strategic work of the IT directors group, issuing a formal charge to each member to:

  • Participate in IT planning by identifying and describing emerging or forecasted collegiate technology needs that might require servicing through an inter-collegiate partnership and/or enterprise solution
  • Participate in the development, rollout, and adoption of services
  • Participate in the development of service levels and their associated expectations
  • Account for the communication and adoption of technology-related best practices, standards, and adherence to applicable university policies
  • Serve as the collegiate unit's primary representative to central IT

These collective efforts laid the groundwork for coordinated IT leadership across the institution. However, OIT still lacked a roadmap for evolving to shared leadership. The opportunity to develop this roadmap came as part of leveraging the president's Advancing Excellence initiative.

Phase Three: Advancing Excellence and Shared Leadership

In early 2010, the university president launched an Advancing Excellence initiative, asking chancellors, vice presidents, and deans to develop concrete plans for advancing excellence despite enormous budgetary challenges. OIT worked to leverage this initiative, charging a small group of executives, faculty, and an external statewide IT leader, with "design thinking" to provide a roadmap for advancing excellence in IT. The framing questions for this working group were as follows:

  • How can IT be an even greater strategic and transformative driver of extraordinary education, breakthrough research, and dynamic public engagement?
  • How can IT help increase administrative and academic effectiveness, reduce costs, and boost efficiency?
  • How can OIT build on the success of the six-year IT plan to ensure the alignment and leveraging of system-wide IT planning processes to advance the university's vision and strategic priorities?
  • How can OIT develop an IT strategy that reduces overall cost by 10 to 20 percent (that is, $20 million to $40 million) while also increasing IT effectiveness?
  • How can the university take increased advantage of its research cyberinfrastructure?
  • How can OIT achieve significant and lasting results?
  • What should be strengthened or expanded; what should be reduced or consolidated?

Within three months, the working group recommended a highly coordinated IT organizational model system-wide that required:

  • The alignment with academic direction and coordinated oversight with academic units
  • Highly coordinated deployment of IT across the university system
  • Transparency and oversight, commitment to standards and best practice strategies, standardization in support of interoperability, and disciplined innovation
  • A focus on outcomes and analytics
  • Alliances for shared infrastructure and inter-institutional collaboration
  • The use of viable "above campus" commercial services whenever and wherever possible

The working group specifically stated that each IT director should function as "the Dean's, Chancellor's, administrative or service unit's direct representative to IT decision making," and that "the IT director has responsibility for working collaboratively with his/her Dean, Chancellor, Director or Vice President on the role that IT should play in the unit's teaching, research, outreach, academic planning, administration, communication, and management of finances and risk."

The working group also recommended that, given the expanded role for IT directors, OIT launch a local IT leadership development program. Therefore, OIT contracted with MOR Associates to provide a local IT leadership development program designed to do the following:

  • Enhance the professional and personal development of individuals who will play increasingly important management and leadership roles within IT
  • Broaden each participant's understanding of the strategic and technological issues facing the University of Minnesota
  • Strengthen the relationships within and across the participating departments to foster the collaboration needed to leverage resources when working on common interests

As part of this program, 22 IT directors across the university, along with 12 managers from central IT, completed the eight-month program. This shared experience was crucial to the university's "one IT" future. During this program, the IT directors renamed themselves the IT Leadership Alliance (ITLA). They now function as a highly strategic group for collaborative direction setting and implementation of all IT at the university.

Examples of work under way as a result of ITLA's shared leadership include the following:

  • The Data Center Modernization Program, a collection of 11 different projects, sought to modernize and secure the central data center, consolidate over 225 server hosting locations to a few sites, and virtualize 75 percent of servers on campus. This program will reduce the number of physical servers by 1,500.
  • OIT deployed Google Apps for faculty, staff, and students.
  • Collaborative initiatives (the Collaborative for Academic Technology Innovation) targeted mobile learning, course transformation efforts, iPad deployment for teaching and learning, and research on the impact of active learning classrooms.

Of most importance is ITLA's work toward developing a system-wide, strategic view of IT service delivery. The expected outcomes of this effort include:

  • The transparency called for by the OIT external review and the Advancing Excellence work
  • The university's improved understanding of the overall IT environment
  • An ITLA unit-by-unit peer-review process
  • Baseline data for IT leaders to use in analyzing and planning the future delivery of IT services

In three months, ITLA developed clear evidence: an inventory tool to count the number of service instances provided by each reporting unit. Each unit provided information for about 80 service categories across nine major service areas. These service categories allow each unit to document the array of IT services it offers. Services consist of people, processes, and technologies that provide value to academic, research, and administrative customers, as well as internal IT services that support IT operations in the unit.

To date, ITLA has inventoried the vast majority (90 percent) of IT services across the university. Ongoing work includes:

  • Investigate data consistency in detail and analyze the high percentage of services provided at the local (department and unit) level. This would permit comparisons of this information to that of other institutions with recently completed IT inventories, and help us determine what service areas need further investigation and where new models of service make sense. Developing an ongoing inventory process also allows for progress tracking and consistent metrics, which in turn provide a basis for recommending the best data maintenance methods.
  • Refine the service category framework, which includes developing a higher education model for strategic service delivery at large research institutions. ITLA is also beginning a peer-review process for using a strategic service delivery model as a means to help units align and plan their service offerings.
  • Determine a method for improving ongoing decision making and cloud services deployment.

Toward the Future

We have shared a case study of the evolution from distributed to coordinated leadership with the current and future focus clearly on shared leadership as a means of advancing excellence. Evidence that the institutional conditions are now in place for enabling successful shared leadership has come in the form of a system-wide IT inventory and a set of ITLA-led next steps.

Today, Minnesota faces an unprecedented funding deficit, and the legislature must conduct a special session to resolve budget issues. As Figure 1 shows, success indicators for IT leadership must continue to evolve as to meet these pressures.

1990s   2000s   2011 and Future
Competition Cooperation/coordination Collaboration/shared leadership
IT as independent IT in partnership IT as interdependent
Unit thinking Alliances for common good Systems thinking/outcomes
Innovate and see Link to strategy Link to shared strategy
React Plan Plan in partnership
Funding will come Fund before starting Lower operating costs to increase funding to academic direction
Custom build Buy and integrate Pursue alternate (cloud) solutions
Iterative design Requirements-driven design Sound analytical design
Speed to market Appropriateness and sustainability Alignment with mission / vision
Reporting Information Intelligence / analytics

Figure 1. Continued Evolution in Success Indicators

As Shel Waggener wrote in a recent EDUCAUSE Quarterly article, "The days of a silo controlling all aspects of an IT solution are gone."8 Success in IT demands shared leadership that can navigate the constant and complex factors of change. A critical competency of shared leadership in IT is that leaders across all parts of the university be conversant and knowledgeable about academic and administrative technology, aligning efforts to the strategic directions of their institution and organizational units, and lowering operational costs to increase the funding available for investment in our academic mission (teaching/research/outreach).

Again, we challenge all those engaged with IT in higher education to think even more boldly about leadership and collaboration. In fact, we contend that fostering the institutional conditions for enabling successful shared leadership is the most critical asset for IT leadership in this century.


Our thanks and acknowledgment to the ITLA and these IT directors and central staff who championed the UMN IT Services Inventory effort: Connie Buechele, John Grosen, Jim Nichols, Michael Scheuerman, and John Sonnack. We also wish to thank Brad Cohen, Director of the Collaborative for Academic Technology Innovation, for his insightful comments and direction on earlier drafts of this article.

  1. Richard N. Katz and Gail Salaway, "Information Technology Leadership in Higher Education: The Condition of the Community" (Key Findings) (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, January 2004).
  2. James D. Bruce and Brian McDonald, "Perspectives on IT Leadership," Cultivating Careers: Professional Development for Campus IT, Cynthia Golden, ed. (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2006) Chapter 1.
  3. "The Future of Higher Education: Beyond the Campus," white paper, EDUCAUSE, January 2010.
  4. Debra Hust Allison, "The Future CIO: Critical Skills and Competencies" (Research Bulletin, Issue 15) (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, 2010).
  5. Jolene Koester, "Information Technology and Tomorrow's University: A President's Confessions and Advice," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 1 (January/February 2011).
  6. Craig L. Pearce, Charles C. Manz, and Henry P. Sims, Jr., "Is Shared Leadership the Key to Team Success?" Organizational Dynamics, vol. 38, no. 3 (2009), pp. 234–238.
  7. Ann Hill Duin and Linda L. Baer, "Shared Leadership for a Green, Global, and Google World," Planning for Higher Education, vol. 39, no. 1 (July-September 2010), pp. 30–38.
  8. Shel Waggener, "The Future and Challenges of IT Shared Services," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 1 (January–March 2010).