Success through Collaboration: Establishing a Stakeholder-Driven Governance Process

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A private liberal arts college created a stakeholder-based technology governance structure that focuses on robust decision-making. In addition to ensuring transparency, the new IT governance process emphasizes strategic, operational, and technically sound decisions to facilitate innovative and powerful technology solutions.

Success through Collaboration
Credit: Long Mars / Shutterstock © 2018

Wheaton College is an explicitly Christian, academically rigorous, fully residential liberal arts college and graduate school located in Wheaton, Illinois, a residential community twenty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. Like many private liberal arts colleges, Wheaton College found that all areas of the college were investing in technology solutions to solve discrete business problems and improve their processes and efficiency. Further, they often made these investments without consulting the college's technical experts or thinking about how the solution would fit into the college's overarching technology eco-structure. As a result, the technical staff felt overburdened by the seemingly never-ending list of needs and projects, all of which had an escalated sense of urgency.

The situation created frustration across campus at many levels. The expense and lack of coordinated effort was unmanageable, and it was creating a bottleneck in the technology support team, which lacked the ability to prioritize. Within the campus community, comments about "lack of transparency" and "technology projects taking too long to complete" and "random technology solutions being forced on the community" were common—and could be remedied by creating a strong technology governance structure that served as a campus-wide resource. To achieve this, however, we needed involvement from stakeholders across campus rather than a technology staff that was operating in a vacuum.

To address this, the college created a CIO role, with the intent of acquiring the expertise that was needed to lead the college in a new, more coordinated direction and make the development of a technology governance structure the top priority.

Defining Needs, Creating Structure

Established in 1860, Wheaton is guided by its original mission to provide excellence in Christian higher education. The college has four academic divisions: Music, Arts, and Communication; Humanities and Theological Studies; Natural and Social Sciences; and the Graduate School. It offers more than 40 degrees in the liberal arts and sciences to its 2,400 undergraduates and 14 graduate degrees to its 500 graduate students.

As CIO at Wheaton College, I report to the vice president of Finance and Operations and work closely with the provost and other campus stakeholders to advance the college's mission through appropriate use of technology. When I began my work at the college, there was an established IT Steering Committee of administrative stakeholders, but the group did not have the necessary champions to advance initiatives, nor did it represent sufficient constituents across campus. Further, the faculty-led Technology and Information Resources (TIR) subcommittee of Faculty Governance seemed disconnected from campus technology processes and lacked strong technology leadership.

New Governance Goals and Strategies

To ensure a broad representation of voices as we developed and implemented technology plans, Wheaton needed a governance structure that represented the primary campus constituent groups: faculty, students, and staff/administration. We also had to ensure that this governance structure was the "right size," as our constituents already wear multiple hats and have little time for additional activities.

With these requirements in mind, we set three primary goals for the Technology@Wheaton Governance effort:

  • align the Academic and Institutional Technology (AIT) direction with the College Strategic Plan and the business priorities;
  • create a snapshot of technology systems and services on campus that is efficient, meaningful, and innovative; and
  • share awareness of the decision-making process for determining where we apply technology resources.

To accomplish these goals, we are

  • fostering a dynamic and direct partnership between AIT and its surrounding community;
  • ensuring comprehensive and integrated technology review; and
  • providing oversight, led by stakeholders who are responsible for and directly accountable to their respective communities within the institution.

Stakeholder Committees

As a first step, we developed three committee charters that were reviewed and approved by the president's Senior Administrative Cabinet. Those committees are

  • the Administrative Applications Advisory Committee (AAAC, or Triple-AC) for staff/administrative systems;
  • the Student Technology Advisory Committee (STAC), in partnership with student government; and
  • a revitalization of the existing Technology and Information Resources Subcommittee (TIR, a subcommittee of Faculty Governance) that represents faculty.

Each of the committees is led by a constituent leader and serves as advisory to the Office of the CIO. Their primary roles in the governance process are as follows.

AAAC: This committee meets monthly and includes representatives from Admissions, Advancement, Auxiliary Services, Center for Vocation and Career, Facilities, Finance, Financial Aid, the Graduate School, HoneyRock (the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development at Wheaton College), Human Resources, Library and Archives, Marketing Communications, Registrar, and Student Development.

The AAAC committee has supported many IT security and policy changes that could not have been implemented otherwise. Examples include the launch of the Wheaton Portal, a new Acceptable Use Policy, required data security training for all faculty and staff, and the launch of a Banner revitalization effort that has impacted every aspect of the college's operations.

Having representatives from across the institution discuss technology priorities and best practices reduces campus resistance to change and helps us deliver solutions that are applicable and reasonable to most stakeholders. The committee's work has also helped each of the members better understand the breadth of work required to accomplish IT at the college, and ad hoc subcommittees are created to work on projects as needed.

STAC: This committee meets twice each semester. Its goal is to include a variety of students representing each of the college's academic divisions, as well as to include various class years, ethnic backgrounds, and genders. The CIO collaborates with the committee chair to develop meeting agendas. The executive VP of Finance and Technology for Student Government chairs the committee, a position that changes each year.

A STAC highlight is the annual "IT Fairy Discussion" where students are asked to consider and share their responses to the following question:

If there were an IT Fairy who would grant you ANYTHING you asked for to make your life better here at Wheaton College… without regard for price, complexities, or legality… what would you ask for?

We share the results of this discussion across campus and make efforts to respond to students' needs and concerns.

TIR: This committee comprises faculty members representing each of the academic divisions. The committee is chaired by a faculty member, and the CIO is an active member of the committee. Although TIR tries to meet monthly, coordinating faculty calendars can be challenging. As a result, when face-to-face meetings aren't possible, we discuss items through email.

TIR committee members advocate for technology changes in the classroom, and they were instrumental in leading a highly successful learning management system transition. TIR also oversees the distribution of grants from the CIO-managed Academic Technology Grant fund, which encourages innovative technology use in support of student learning. We have found that, when working with faculty, we need to go beyond this committee to share information with the broader faculty community. In addition to TIR, we solicit input from department chairs on a regular (and informal) basis.

Committee Activities

Once the committees were organized and staffed, we worked collaboratively to develop what we affectionately call the rules of the game. This consists of a document that outlines 15 campus technology Guiding Principles that we refer to when discussing technology solutions for the campus These principles are as follows:

  1. Technology resources must be focused on efforts that directly support Wheaton's priorities in the academic arena.
  2. College technology principles apply to all of Wheaton. We will seek to work together rather than to create or expand duplicate solutions.
  3. Academic and administrative users will strive to communicate their needs and goals as completely and clearly as possible to their technology partners.
  4. Technology service providers across campus will actively solicit input from users and each other on product and service requirements and will include their input in our technology decision-making process.
  5. We will work collaboratively as a community to evaluate and manage technology deployment projects utilizing project management best practices.
  6. We will employ open standards and best practices where feasible and define our college technology architecture (specifications and guidelines).
  7. We will encourage exploration of technology innovation at Wheaton.
  8. We will provide and support tools and applications that facilitate electronic collaboration of the faculty, staff, and students over diverse locations, in line with college goals.
  9. The college should ensure that electronic information is readily available to those who need it to accomplish their jobs, regardless of either the physical location of the user or the information.
  10. Institutional data should be well defined and accurate. Wherever feasible, information will be captured once, as close to the authoritative source as possible, electronically validated, and shared with those who need access.
  11. We will promote an environment that provides protection from unauthorized or inadvertent access, sabotage, or disasters and ensures the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of information yet does not unduly hinder the college from conducting business as usual.
  12. As a college community, we will adopt an IT service life-cycle process that provides robust and cost-effective enterprise services.
  13. Highly routine manual processes will be automated when real benefits can be achieved and documented.
  14. We will consciously establish quality objectives for each technology service and measure performance against those objectives. We will proactively identify and efficiently resolve all issues associated with the quality of our services.
  15. We will facilitate training for approved technology tools purchased by the college and will support those tools.

Typical governance meeting agendas include CIO updates; reviews of potential new services, programs, and policies; high-level budget reviews; and a roundtable to let committee members share their thoughts about the technology initiatives they are involved in. These roundtables frequently expose opportunities for collaboration that are explored after the meeting.

The committees also contribute to an annual Technology Planning Process, in which we assess current and forthcoming technology across campus and together develop a rolling three-year Technology Plan that guides future investments.

Process Outcomes

Within the first six months of my arrival, we launched this new stakeholder-driven technology governance structure to establish the strategic, operational, and technical decision-making process necessary to ensure innovative, reliable, and robust technology solutions. The new technology governance provides strategic leadership, establishes campus-wide technology priorities and policies in accordance with college's strategic plans, and is accountable to the college.

Cultural Change

After three years of success, technology projects are now being successfully completed and budgets are being appropriately expanded to meet campus needs. The launch of the new governance process gave us the opportunity to try something new in an effort to make things better. From the start, we sought to clearly communicate two key things to all stakeholders:

  • Technology and secure data management is a campus-wide responsibility, not just the job of technology staff.
  • If departments want to advance their technology initiatives, they must participate in the governance process to ensure that those initiatives are properly considered and slotted on a timeline.

As a result of the Technology@Wheaton governance process, campus stakeholders now understand that an IT change is not just "another IT project" but rather is a change being introduced by many people who are working together to do what is best for our campus.

The CIO and IT Office Coordinator proactively work with the governance chairpersons to keep the governance structure on track. We schedule meetings into the future, meet with committee co-chairs ahead of time to set meeting agendas, and then distribute those agendas in advance of the meetings. We keep minutes and distribute them and maintain all relevant committee documentation in a shared Box folder. Committee participant lists are approved by the president's Senior Administrative Cabinet at the beginning of each fiscal year.

Lessons Learned

Although the overall governance structure has been highly successful, we have learned four key lessons along the way:

  • Effective governance does not mean that everyone will be happy with every decision. The chair and CIO must be willing to bring issues to a decision point, targeting solutions that satisfy a majority—rather than 100 percent—of our stakeholders.
  • Having the right people at the table, with the appropriate authority to speak on behalf of the areas they represent, is key to moving things forward in a timely manner. At Wheaton College, we make decisions at the meetings and move forward. When members are absent or unable to represent their area effectively, they miss out on contributing to the conversation.
  • Determining the best meeting frequency for each group is a work in progress. For example, we found that AAAC was meeting to address issues related to our ERP Revitalization Project so frequently that we did not need to hold formal committee meeting as often as planned during that season. We need to be mindful that our committee members have other duties, beyond technology, that require their attention.
  • Taking the time to educate the committees about what it means to be advisory versus managerial at the start of each year goes a long way toward keeping discussions on track and appropriately focused.

Looking Forward

Implementing Technology@Wheaton governance has completely shifted how our campus thinks about technology and data/information security. These are shared problems and opportunities that we must address with limited resources. The governance program has reenergized technology staff members; they now feel appreciated by the campus community, which better understands how the work they do directly impacts the college's mission. Most telling of our success is a simple fact: Now that the governance structure is in place, we cannot image functioning without it.

Wendy Woodward is Chief Information Officer at Wheaton College.

© 2018 Wendy Woodward. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.