A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?

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Interviewed members of the IT Issues Panel believe that higher education IT organizations are going through a period of great change and may even be in the throes of an identity crisis. Are higher education IT departments utilities, or are they service organizations that provide leadership? Taking a proactive stance and remaining adaptable are two ways to deal with ongoing transformations.

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From delivering institutional and business process efficiencies, to ensuring that students are provided with the technologies they need to succeed, the IT organization must be prepared to engage with its institution in a number of ways in a fast-paced environment. In their discussions this year, the IT Issues Panel touched several times on the issue of transformation. The IT Issues Panel believes that higher education IT organizations are going through a period of great change and may even be in the throes of an identity crisis. In answering five questions, the following IT Issues Panelists provided their thoughts on this transformative period:

  • Charles Chulvick, Vice President for Technology, Assessment, and Planning, Raritan Valley Community College
  • Diane Dagefoerde, Chief Information Officer, Arts and Sciences, The Ohio State University
  • Butch Juelg, Associate Vice Chancellor, Lone Star College System
  • John Lawson, Vice Provost and Chief Information Officer, Western Washington University
  • Bob Solis, Vice President and Chief Information Officer, University of Massachusetts System Office
  • Joseph Vaughan, Chief Information Officer and Vice President for Computing and Information Services, Harvey Mudd College

1. Is higher education IT going through a transformative period?

Dagefoerde: Yes, both higher education in general and higher education IT organizations in particular are going through a transformative period. This could be the year where we really start seeing spirited public debate regarding the pursuit of a quality higher education degree, what it costs a student to earn that degree, and what it costs an institution to make that degree available.

Solis: Absolutely. If we aren't collectively acknowledging that higher education is going through a transformative period, then we are going to be in trouble. Higher education is absolutely going through a transformation. In response, IT needs to be more focused not simply on delivering technology but in helping the business community, teaching, and research deliver on their targeted outcomes more efficiently and effectively. Today's IT must focus its attention on and be completely engaged in partnering with the business community to achieving success in outcomes and performance. Given the global economic backdrop and the national spotlight on the 'business' of higher education, business process transformation is essential to becoming a more efficient and effective organization. My role as CIO is to fully partner with the business community at all levels in achieving this.

Lawson: Technology is transformation! IT continues to be at the forefront of change as new devices, software, and processes take advantage of what technology offers. The rate of change is not slowing because the rate of innovation continues to increase as technology diffuses though our culture and in different forms (phones, tablets, healthcare, keyboard to touch, etc.). This rate of innovation challenges us to transform our support for workers and students for productivity and teaching and learning.

Vaughan: Higher ed IT is being driven through a transformative period, whether we like it or not. As well as the ever present mandate to do more and cost less, it is now completely feasible for an individual or a department to source their IT from lots of different places. That's a huge transformation.

2. If you believe that higher education IT is changing, what are the factors (strategic or tactical) contributing to the transformation?

Chulvick: I think a number of factors are contributing to this transformation. For example, the appearance of remote resources, such as subscription cloud services, is forcing a change in the IT organization. Our IT organizations are no longer directly providing some of these services, but we are expected to coordinate them and be a broker. The expectations are that they will be safe and secure, and we must certify that. These new services also must be totally integrated to the services that we continue to provide. These new services require a different skill set in our organizations, and we must learn to provide that skill set.

Juelg: Factors contributing to the transformation include a requirement to show value (not just money spent); we also need to justify cost and to drive organizational change. In addition, we must understand the inner workings of the institution and where the true value of technology really lies — within the application of technology and not in the technology itself.

Dagefoerde: Education is a high priority at both state and national levels. For example, President Obama outlined initiatives that would affect higher ed during his 2013 State of the Union address — initiatives focused on assessing the value of a degree and increasing the number of graduates in STEM fields. These state and national pressures, plus other issues like tuition increases, MOOCs, and the fast pace of research and innovation, are forcing higher ed institutions to think differently about revenues, budgets, and how resources are organized — including IT. IT will have a big role to play in helping organizations change; and IT itself will have to change, to become leaner and more flexible.

3. How might higher education IT organizations adjust to these factors?

Lawson: One strategy is more collaboration with other institutions. That can occur in many ways, through national organizations like EDUCAUSE to regional organizations, to state or local groups. The key is developing the culture that, while we are in competition, there is a greater good, a greater satisfaction, and, to be blunt, greater protection, in working together for common solutions.

Solis: IT organizations need to get out in front and that doesn't just mean simply seeking and aspiring for the proverbial seat at the table. It's about relationships and communications throughout all levels of the organization. It's a lot about the skills not traditionally considered requisite for IT or the CIO. It is about the soft skills: marketing and promoting ideas, and promoting the value that technology brings in achieving business outcomes and performance.

Juelg: We have a number of adjustments to make. We need to adjust how we address consumerization, new technologies, and services. Our policies and practices are often too regimented; they need to be swift and agile. We also need to be ready for the new job skills that will emerge from this transition. Fundamentally, we need to move from thinking about the "technology" to thinking about the institution and its goals.

4. Is higher education IT having an identity crisis?

Chulvick: I think we have always had an identity crisis. Are we utilities, or are we service organizations that provide leadership? This duality varies depending on your institution's structure and your institutional leadership. Some of the transformative factors are going to continue to fuel this duality.

Lawson: Yes, we are unsure of our identity. For the past few years we have seen discussion at conferences and in publications asking whether higher education IT organizations are plumbers or strategic leaders. We want to be both, but the realities of resources and leadership impact the balance and can leave us with confusion of where to put our efforts. If we do not have a clear vision ourselves, how can we communicate a clear vision to the institution?

Solis: Proactive engagement now will avoid a crisis. The pace of technological change can be completely overwhelming both for the business and the IT function as well. To avert the identity crisis we need to get in front of key business constituents, connecting with them on a continual basis, either in single communications with stakeholders or in discussions with key committees. Appropriate technology can and should enable better service, business outcomes, and results. However, it is the partnership [between] the business and IT that is required to ensure technology is applied effectively. If you are doing these things, you are on a good path to averting an identity crisis. If you are not and are waiting for an invitation to the dance, an identity crisis will be inevitable for you. It has to be about being proactive in understanding the challenges that the business faces and offering solutions to solving those challenges.

Vaughan: Maybe higher ed IT is collectively experiencing an identity crisis as we try to figure out what it is we should be doing. There's a curious tension between the nature of IT and the nature of academic institutions. IT tends toward massive scale, efficiency, and ever lower costs. Academic institutions offer an experience that is often individualized, and the cost seems to be going up. A higher ed IT organization is surely going to feel the pull of both.

5. What happens next?

Chulvick: For want of a better term, I think CIOs will become the managers of a mixed environment. The mix will include commercial (third-party) hosted systems, as well as multi-institutional hosts. We will start to have reduction in costs from institutional collaboration, and perhaps this peer collaboration ends up being the best outcome of all.

Juelg: CIOs and IT leaders are going to have to learn the business at a low level, how things are done and why they are done in a particular way. IT needs to become a part of the institution as a whole. IT should be involved at every level: academic, business, student services, etc. The change will be difficult and expansive. IT will be looking to a new workforce with the right skills that match the newly developing technology goals and initiatives in order to discover how technologies are implemented and measured.

Dagefoerde: Funding models have created the environments we have today. If we are going to meaningfully transform, then the funding models need to change. We also need to change our collective mindset from service provider to service broker and solutions architect. Our constituents will also need to shift their views on how to interact with IT, focusing more on partnerships and collaborative IT investment planning. We have to work together.