Kent State University: Focusing on the Mission, Not the Technology, to Communicate Enterprise IT Value

min read

At Kent State, communicating value is a continual effort that is informed by listening to constituents and communicating with them using familiar, mission-focused language.

One end of string is tangled and the other end is neatly coiled.
Credit: Yuliya Chsherbakova / © 2019

Kent State University is categorized as one of seventy-six public higher-research universities by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and is ranked in the first tier of U.S. News & World Report's Best National Universities list. With eight campuses across Northeast Ohio, a College of Podiatric Medicine, a Regional Academic Center, and academic sites in major US and international cities—including New York, Geneva, and Florence—Kent State is one of Ohio's leading public universities and a major educational, economic, and cultural resource far beyond the Northeast Ohio region it has served since 1910.

The university's student body comprises more than 38,000 students, including more than 1,700 international students from 100 countries; worldwide, its alumni family exceeds 245,000 people. The addition of new learning environments from the sciences to the arts and the development of exciting new academic programs—such as aerospace engineering, geographic information science, and business analytics—characterize Kent State's focus on transformational educational experiences.

Confirming Enterprise IT's Value

What is the definition of "value" in higher education, and what does digital transformation have to do with it? To oversimplify the answers, many organizations want to improve productivity and create positive experiences that exceed users' expectations. IDG's 2018 State of Digital Business Transformation [] study shows that 89% of educational institutions have adopted or plan to adopt a digital-first business strategy. This suggests that many of us are already leading conversations about digital transformation and that our respective organizations already recognize enterprise IT's value in enabling these outcomes. But … is this actually the case?

Perhaps. However, confirmation of enterprise IT's value is not a one-time occurrence; it is a continual reaffirmation that we clearly understand our mission, that our efforts align with that mission, and that our messaging resonates in the organization's language.

In higher education, our constituents are continually trying to assess the value of what they see and hear from trade shows, journals, vendor visits, and a growing number of advertisements about digital platforms that promise "transformation." But enterprise IT value is not about the success of a single project or a shiny new solution; value comes through taking every opportunity to engage the organization, listen to needs and aspirations, and then respond with the right solutions that drive mission-focused outcomes, improved productivity, and great user experiences.

Our Approach

At Kent State, digital transformation and the communication of IT's value go beyond technology. Yes, technology often is the enabler, but people, processes, and data are central to our discussion. When we think of productivity, we have people and process in mind. When we think of user experiences that exceed expectations, we think of how data can support personalized experiences. To communicate enterprise IT's value, we must first understand what value means within our organization. To that end, we are taking steps to better understand

  • the mission's objectives through the lens of each division,
  • our constituents' needs,
  • the processes that support the critical value streams throughout the university,
  • the language and conversations best suited to represent our value to our key stakeholders and the enterprise, and
  • how to leverage our investments and present options to support value.

We are also seeking to better align our organization, shape our budget, and invest in the resources that support continued modernization.

The Listening Tour

We conducted a listening tour across our campuses that helped us gain deeper insights into the needs and aspirations of our academic, research, and administrative divisions. But we also heard comments such as "we have always done it that way," and we heard projects referred to by the vendor or product name rather than the project's purpose. These insights and observations gave us an opportunity to think differently about how we communicate—such as by putting the mission conversation in the spotlight rather than talking about the technology as though it solves problems by itself. The tour also helped us recognize the need to improve our IT divisional organization to better align with the mission. The listening tour thus led us to three key transformations aimed at helping us communicate value.

Transforming Our Organization

We developed a group within our division that was solely focused on functional and business process needs; that group then expanded to include a new Lean project promotion office within the IT division. We also moved similarly situated services under common leadership to leverage skills and resources. These organizational changes gave us the first opportunity to communicate value: that of people aligned to support the mission and the (digital) needs of the enterprise.

Transforming Our Vocabulary

While it may sound strange coming from a technology division, we shifted our emphasis from technology and tools to mission-focused outcomes. The listening tour gave us the chance to understand divisional strategic priorities and how they related to the university's strategic priorities. As a result, we are changing our vocabulary to help our constituents understand how we can add value. In this subtle way, we are communicating value around our subject-matter expertise and our ability to enable strategy.

Transforming Our Thinking

The biggest perceived barrier to transformation is culture. As we began increasingly talking in the language of the mission, we shifted our thinking to what can be done rather than the tools that can do it. That is, we shifted from a myopic view about change to an enterprise view of change and its impact throughout the organization, including the user experience. This transformation in thinking does not occur overnight, but we are making great progress through one-on-one and group discussions, as well as through the growing number of Lean process-mapping exercises, which are communicating another form of enterprise IT value across our campus.

Mission-Based Value Communication

Developing "digital-first business objectives" is not how university leaders commonly characterize their strategies. But, as a result of our campus-wide engagement and listening tour, we found clear parallels between the mission objectives stated by our constituents and the common digital-first objectives that IDG describes. The IDG report offers various examples of digital-first business objectives and how institutions can communicate mission-based goals.

Using Digital-First Objectives to Communicate Value

The IDG report noted several key trends related to digital business strategies.

  • 52% of enterprises say that enabling worker productivity through tools such as mobile, data access, and AI-assisted processes is essential to their digital business strategy.
    • At Kent State, we are communicating value by emphasizing the outcomes rather than the means. For example, we don't lead with "mobile or AI." Instead, we lead with consistency, productivity, personalization, and engagement. This vocabulary references our ability to support users through new approaches and tools, including our portal and mobile platforms, AI-informed BOTs, and data initiatives.
  • 49% of enterprises say that their digital business is defined by better managing business performance through data availability and visibility.
    • For us, this entails collaborative discussions that support our mission, such as discussions about the most effective use of scholarships and early identification of at-risk students. These discussions lead to focused efforts with our data initiatives, which will ultimately improve our insights through analytics.
  • 46% say meeting customer experience expectations using digital technologies is the center of their business.
    • The rate of change within digital industries is dramatic, and trying to identify the right technology or tool can be an exercise in futility. When discussing a core infrastructure need, we are changing our message to represent the need in the customer's voice and the value to the enterprise. Tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) and analytics are central in this conversation, as is designing a network that is flexible and extensible enough to support an increase in the experience expectations on our campus.

Leveraging Governance to Communicate Value

Governance can and should be a means to communicate enterprise IT's value by protecting and enabling the enterprise mission. Having discussions that emphasize budget alignment with mission-based outcomes and identify areas in which new investments enhance productivity and improve the user experience demonstrates value. Sharing organizational changes that support the expectations of constituents in our highly digital world also demonstrates mission value. We can further describe experiences that are common to Generation Z students and how we designed our architectures to support a great experience. In many instances, metrics and measures that show productivity improvements through Lean exercises and related technology projects are bright spots in communicating value derived through enterprise IT.

Using Industry Encounters to Communicate Value

Digital transformation is being presented in many ways, including through trade shows, commercials, journals, and direct vendor visits to business office leaders. Relationship building and communication give us the opportunity to recast what digital transformation means in terms of our strategies, investments, and mission-focused needs.

Closing Thoughts

Communicating value is not a one-time event—it is a continual effort, and one that is a work-in-progress for us. We take every opportunity to listen authentically to what our constituents are saying and recast our message in a vocabulary that they understand and that focuses on their objectives. In addition to this approach, our team has found two other important factors that contribute to success.

First, not everyone in an organization is interested in change. Have patience as you work across the enterprise, and identify champions who seek out change. These champions will be good partners in the work ahead and will often communicate value on your behalf.

Second, be consistent in communicating plans, strategies, and impactful changes around digital initiatives. Tell people what you are going to do in language that aligns with their own mission objectives and needs. As your plans move forward, continue messaging your progress and quick wins. After your plans are implemented, let your constituents know how those changes have positively impacted the mission.

Tools and technologies will change, and new tools will be introduced even more rapidly in the future; if you clearly communicate the value that they bring in mission- and outcome-focused ways, your efforts will continue to evolve and succeed.

This article is part of a set of enterprise IT resources exploring the role of digital transformation through the lens of understanding costs and value. Visit the Enterprise IT Program to find resources focused on digital transformation through the additional lenses of governance and relationship management, technology strategy, business process management, and analytics.

John Rathje is Vice President of Information Technology and CIO at Kent State University.

© 2019 John Rathje. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 International License.