Aligning for Partnership: How Enterprise IT Can Help Transform the Institutional Mission

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IT organizations must become strategic partners in their institutions to support and further IT's ongoing evolution.

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Credit: Peshkova / Shutterstock © 2018

For 2018, the EDUCAUSE Enterprise IT Program is focusing on next-generation enterprise IT,1 which is a key precursor to enabling digital transformation in higher education.

Digital transformation, which shifts how we manage and deliver systems and services, is part of IT's continuing evolution.2 Whereas IT's purview was once limited to delivering technologies, it has evolved to focus on delivering services. Taking this further, next-generation enterprise IT focuses on how to deliver value to the institution by closely aligning IT efforts with the institution's mission and strategy. Thus, in this new evolutionary phase, IT must adopt the role of strategic and transforming partner in the institution.

To do this, IT leaders and their organizations must develop innovative practices and create new digital architectures that give their institutions the agility and flexibility required to rapidly and efficiently achieve their strategic aims. Such a shift has implications for enterprise IT that impact the technology, the workforce, and data management.

Here, five members of the Enterprise IT Program Advisory Committee consider digital transformation from an enterprise IT perspective and provide insights and advice on how enterprise IT leaders might respond to the challenges and the opportunities this transformation presents. Those committee members are

  • Chris Boniforti, Chief Information Officer, Lynn University
  • Josie DeBaere, Director of Technology Architecture, Boston University
  • Jay Eckles, Director of Business Intelligence, The University of Tennessee
  • Peggy Kay, Assistant Vice President, Technology Customer Experience, University of the Pacific
  • Cindy Mitchell, Chief Information Officer, Colby College

Digital transformation is a difficult concept to define. How would you describe it?

DeBaere: Higher education institutions are facing major challenges resulting from demographic changes, decreasing public funding, and competition from nontraditional providers of education. Addressing those challenges requires a digital transformation — a cultural, technological, and workforce shift in which the adoption of innovative practices and architectures enables the enhancement or replacement of traditional services with digital ones that deliver more value to our communities.

Boniforti: We often confuse digital transformation with digital substitution or enhancements. I would consider the development and adoption of e-forms as an example of digital substitution, as we simply turn a paper form and its process into a PDF and eventually into a web form that populates a system or database. This is not transformational and simply replaces a process with a technical tool. An example of a digital transformation, on the other hand, would be the introduction of a technology solution that offers a completely new way of doing things that simplifies the process and adds value for the end user. In my previous example of an e-form, adding a redesign of the form process that is tied to digital workflows and automated communication tools, which may be part of a CRM solution, would offer a digital transformational experience for our users.

Eckles: To me, the important distinction is that we're talking about transformation in the way the university accomplishes its purpose through digital technology rather than a transformation in the way we use digital technology. Transformation of IT practices or systems is unto itself of no substantial value to a university. But transformation in the processes of teaching, learning, research, and service that are enabled by newly available technologies indeed has the potential to be substantive. Perhaps most important of all, the notion that transformation is enabled by technology should not imply that transformation is driven by technology; the transformation should be driven by the core mission and strategy of the institution.

Kay: Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology into all areas of an organization, resulting in fundamental changes to how organizations operate and how value is delivered to constituents. It is reimagining how we bring together people, data, processes, and technology to create value for our faculty, staff, and students. Students are entering our universities and colleges with enhanced and evolving experiences with the digital world. We in higher education need to make a more concerted effort to meet students where they are and move them forward with an understanding of the impact and influence of digital in all aspects of their lives. Mobile applications as well as new devices and delivery mechanisms are introducing and fostering new capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, new behaviors and expectations. Higher education should be in front of this movement, incorporating our core academic endeavors into modes designed for a new generation and purpose-built to deliver exceptional experiences.

What does digital transformation mean for enterprise IT specifically?

Eckles: Enterprise IT leaders have the responsibility to imagine how sea changes — like cloud computing or analytical capacity or mobile computing habits — could impact teaching, learning, research, service, and the operations that support these core tasks. It also means that these leaders, having imagined such possibilities, need to share that vision with the faculty, staff, and administrators leading those core functions.

For digital transformation to be effective, enterprise IT must be responsive, adaptable, understandable, and capable. IT organizations and systems must be responsive to the functional leaders in the university and their needs; those needs are likely to be ill-defined and constantly changing. This is at least part of what is meant by the buzzword "agile." IT must be adaptable to the local environment; as much as we desire efficiency through standardization, we simply must acknowledge that far-separated corners of the institution or system have varying local needs (not just varying local wants). IT must be understandable to those who consume it — else how are they to make use of it? Perhaps most importantly, IT must be truly capable of enabling the work of the university. Technology that doesn't work, isn't available, or isn't secure does not enable; it hinders.

Kay: As the infrastructure backbone of an organization, enterprise IT sits at the heart of digital transformation. But technology alone is not what makes enterprise IT foundational for transformation; it is the integration of people and processes that interact and integrate with the technology. Enterprise IT will fail or be greatly diminished if the emphasis of transforming is placed squarely on technology. The technology is an enabler of people and processes. Enterprise IT has to see itself holistically and aligned with the business goals to reach the full value of transformation.

Boniforti: As we think about digital transformation and what it means for enterprise IT, we should think about the impact that such a transformation could have on the end user. Often, we get caught up on the tools and technologies and forget who we are impacting and for what purpose. Enterprise IT professionals and tools should enable digital transformation changes with our focus on delighting and enhancing the end user's experience. So, I would argue that enterprise IT solutions need to account for the end-user perspective and have the ability to transform that experience by offering completely new ways of interacting with tools and technologies.

DeBaere: As part of digital transformation, new tools and new services in enterprise IT will be introduced to our students, faculty, and staff. Further, they will expect the new tools to have the same level of personalization and mobility as the tools they use in everyday life. A student who shops for clothes online using recommendations from a digital personal shopper might expect to shop for next semester's classes using recommendations from a digital advisor. Enterprise IT systems will also need to accommodate changes resulting from the expansion of digital education. Offering educational programs that require learners neither to travel nor to take time out of a nine-to-five work day will allow an institution to reach more students. Also, technology makes possible online project or research work to enhance a student's mastery, although these learning experiences are rarely reported in transcripts today. Enterprise IT systems will have to scale and evolve to match these changes, particularly in the number of registered students, in the number of different programs of study, and in the level of granularity with which we track students' accomplishments.

What impact does this new approach have on workforce issues?

DeBaere: Digital transformation will cause a shift in the profile of job functions in IT organizations. Work in areas focused on the management of physical systems or on the development of customized software is likely to be reduced, while work in data analysis, system architecture, and end-user support for digital education technologies is likely to be expanded. Some workers will have to be retrained. But all workers, in all industries, must commit to lifelong learning to stay employed and to advance in their careers.

Kay: Old mind-sets and skills will not translate well into the creation of a digital workforce. Training and communication with the people supporting the business processes — as well as the technology — are key to the success of any change. Reinforcing the value of moving to a digital workplace by keeping teams focused on business goals helps to anchor the workforce teams as they transition skills and processes while learning new tools to support the work they perform.

Boniforti: It will be important for the workforce to understand user experience and design, as well as to have the technical capacity to learn, implement, and integrate new technologies such as automation, AI, and machine learning.

Eckles: In order to have responsive, adaptable, understandable, and capable systems, an IT organization must be comprised of individuals who are themselves responsive, adaptable, understandable, and capable. Much has been written lately about the increasing value of creativity as a workforce skill, and this holds true even in enterprise IT. Creativity allows an individual to find ways to bend systems and standards to meet the needs of the human in front of us rather than the other way around. And, while technical skills such as system analysis, programming, and data analysis will continue to be necessary in our workforce, empathy may soon be the most important skill that a software engineer can demonstrate.

Mitchell: The workforce for both IT and the functional units of the campus will need to understand and consider the larger purpose of information. Functional office employees must be able to see beyond the data necessary to make sure a course schedule is set, an academic transcript is accurate, or a housing assignment is in place, and to understand how that data contributes to the student's goals and experience at college and beyond. These skills are of a higher order than being able to accurately enter a transaction to produce a report. They are analysis, synthesis, connectedness across functions, and inquiry.

The IT workforce is following a similar path. IT is evolving from experts in specific technologies to teams of people who enable our stakeholders to use processes and data for their own functional purposes. The IT staff who will lead and enable digital transformation will be skilled at bringing processes and data together for cross-functional decision-making and analysis. They will be partners in developing institutional visions for data management through technology skills, collaboration, processes, and policy.

What impact does this new approach have on data management?

DeBaere: Advances in analytics and data collection techniques will allow better-informed decision-making in areas ranging from student success and retention to procurement and space planning. We should maximize those benefits by providing broad access to both the analytics tools and the data; the data can thus become a shared strategic asset for the institution. But being a good steward for this data brings some new challenges. We vigorously protect data from unauthorized use, but what about protecting it from misuse? For example, institutions will need data governance to ensure that the uses of a student's personalization data are ethical and appropriate.

Kay: Strong data governance and integrity is a cornerstone for transformation. One goal of digital transformation is to get information to the individuals who need it in the most efficient way possible. Placing high accountability and integrity on data-management practices and the people who directly support these practices is critical to the success of the transformation.

Boniforti: We continue to be challenged by sheer amount of data and how we organize it, classify it, safeguard it, and make it actionable. These skills will continue to challenge us. In the examples of digital transformational technologies, data-management principles may need to be modified to fit the new paradigm. It is becoming even more important to develop data-management practices that are portable and agile to help meet digital transformational changes within our environments.

What advice do you have for enterprise IT leaders regarding digital transformation and enterprise IT?

DeBaere: Start preparing now, working with leaders across the institution; the forces threatening to disrupt higher education are real. Institutions that are tuition dependent must consider the sustainability of their financial models in the face of decreasing public funding combined with increasing questions about the value of traditional degrees. At the same time, competition for students is stiffening; nontraditional programs such as coding boot camps and employer-provided courses are very attractive as faster and lower-cost alternative paths to success in the workplace.

Eckles: Soft skills like creativity, empathy, and the ability to interact with nontechnical colleagues are apt to become more critical in a transformation-enabling IT organization, and it's likely that these skills already exist in your current staffing. Do this exercise: Ask your staff who can play a musical instrument, draw, sculpt, or write. Ask them who has volunteered in their community or cared for a loved one or donated to a charity. These skills probably exist in our workforce already.

That said, in order to exercise creativity or act out of empathy, enterprise IT leaders must give their workforce the latitude to make choices on their own by providing guidelines and coordination, not proscriptions. You have some of the smartest people on the planet working for you; as scary as it is to let go of some control, you've got to do just that in order to take full advantage of their abilities.

Boniforti: I think it is important to expand our knowledge base and explore other technology practices — such as user experiences and design principles — to truly understand how we can make a digital transformational change within the users' environment and experiences. As enterprise IT leaders, we must be able to support the growth of our staff beyond the technologies and help educate the university community about our environment and the possibilities of our transformational technology solutions.

Kay: Digital transformation requires IT leaders to work closely with other leaders of the university to understand the business value and goals of their areas. The conversations should initially be focused on people and processes before discussing technology. Creating a culture that understands its challenges in delivering value to the people it serves is vital to moving forward with technology to serve the transformation. At the same time, IT leaders need to keep their technology teams up to date with the new business and technology architectures available. This allows technology to be a ready partner in the conversations.


  1. For more on this year's focus, see Betsy Reinitz, "Preparing the Institution for Next Generation Enterprise IT," EDUCAUSE Review, January 29, 2018.
  2. Betsy Reinitz, "Digital Transformation and Enterprise IT," EDUCAUSE Review, May 7, 2018.

Betsy Tippens Reinitz is Director of the Enterprise IT Program at EDUCAUSE.

Chris Boniforti is Chief Information Officer at Lynn University.

Josie DeBaere is Director of Technology Architecture at Boston University.

Jay Eckles is Director of Business Intelligence at The University of Tennessee.

Peggy Kay is Assistant Vice President of Technology Customer Experience at the University of the Pacific.

Cindy Mitchell is Chief Information Officer at Colby College.

© 2018 Betsy Tippens Reinitz, Chris Boniforti, Josie DeBaere, Jay Eckles, Peggy Kay, and Cindy Mitchell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.