Between pandemic and post-pandemic, IT leaders need to take some deliberate steps to make "strategic IT" an irreversible feature on the higher education landscape.
A shorter version of this article was published as John O'Brien, "Using Digital Transformation as a Springboard to Strategic IT," EdTech, April 24, 2021.
IT leaders and IT staff are running on fumes—but still running, and running hard. Yet the adrenaline rush will undoubtedly fade, and our collective heart rate will slow in the months ahead. Eventually, we will find ourselves talking about this 100-year pandemic in the past tense. In the meantime, however, IT leaders are presented with a unique opportunity to build on all that they accomplished in the mad rush to create "online everything."
As proposed by the EDUCAUSE Top IT Issues analysis for 2021,Footnote1 we could simply restore things to the way they were in February 2020. Or we could evolve and adapt to the next normal. But for many, the chance to do so much more—to transform our institutions—is most compelling. Between pandemic and post-pandemic, IT leaders need to take some deliberate steps to make "strategic IT" an irreversible feature on the higher education landscape.
Events from the time of the COVID-19 Great Pivot and onward have dramatically elevated the strategic value of technology and technology innovation. When American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell spoke at the EDUCAUSE annual conference a year and a half before the pandemic, he noted that only 12% of surveyed college and university presidents viewed information technology as an important area of strategic development.Footnote2 In 2021, the tables are turning. An EDUCAUSE QuickPoll in October 2020 clearly demonstrated the elevation of both operational IT and strategic IT. Two-thirds of respondents saw operational influence of IT "increase or increase greatly," while 56% saw strategic influence similarly elevated. Comments in this QuickPoll referred more than once to the genie being "out of the bottle," and over 80% of respondents said they are either moderately or very confident that this influence will persist after the pandemic.Footnote3
EDUCAUSE will continue to advocate for strategic IT among presidents and other senior leaders, and we are encouraging campus IT leaders to build on the hard-fought influence they have earned during the crisis. Below I offer three ways they can do so.
Become Strategically Indispensable
Because technology has created a lifeline for remote learners and workers, few would question that it is indispensable. But IT leaders never tire of saying "It's not about the technology, it's about the people," and this maxim remains true. The technologies in the years ahead will come and go, but technology leadership is critical. Strategic IT leaders are talking not just about the technologies but about the Grand Challenges that campuses face now and will face post-pandemic.Footnote4 These leaders know what keeps presidents awake at night, and they bring technology solutions to the table proactively, whether the challenge is enrollment, marketing, student success, research, or the "student experience" more generally. These IT leaders are building on the relationships forged or deepened in fire-fighting mode and are determined to continue the conversations with senior leaders and C-suite colleagues. They are not silently waiting for something to break or for someone to use the word technology so they can spring into action. They are bringing metrics and data to campus conversations and are connecting the dots in a bigger picture than their traditional domain. They are working hard to better understand the non-IT enterprise, and at the same time they are building empathy and understanding about the exigencies of technology innovation and execution. The effective IT leaders who made strong impressions on me when I was a president or provost were those who actively listened to non-IT discussions, asked clarifying questions, and—either in the moment or as a follow-up communication—suggested solutions without waiting to be asked. Whether we agreed on any given technology solution wasn't the point; what mattered was that these leaders offered strategic counsel and understood how strategic IT fit into the puzzle of the Grand Challenges we faced.
At institutions where the role of the IT leader is not seen as strategic, IT leaders may be tempted to revert to past practices. These IT leaders may not be on the cabinet or may not even enjoy regular, strong connections with presidents and other senior leaders. As a result, their focused interactions with C-suite leaders may be reserved for making funding pitches or whittling away at IT-deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, that role will always be perceived as more transactional than strategic—and largely unwelcome, given the eternal realities of limited funding. This is particularly true when the pitch is fear-based (e.g., "If I don't get funding for X, the sky will fall in the following ways"). This time-tested approach is enticing because it has worked in the past. But this "Chicken Little" approach is not strategic, and now is the time to find another model, one in which IT projects don't just plug holes but, instead, contribute to solving Grand Challenges. As I have stressed repeatedly, "what got us here won't get us there."Footnote5
Strengthen Collaborative Skills
In past EDUCAUSE research, IT leaders have acknowledged that being a collaborative, "integrative" leader—one embedded in the work of those areas supported by IT—is crucial. IT leaders have also admitted that they have room to improve their collaborative skills, as do non-CIO managers and non-managers.Footnote6 The massive disruption of the pandemic (e.g., median 10% IT budget cuts)Footnote7 presents an opportunity to reimagine IT departments to become built for collaboration. "Utility IT" requires brilliant tacticians to work brilliantly behind the scenes, but strategic IT departments rely on more than tactical genius and technical skills. Post-pandemic strategic IT needs to be connected to other departments and be more proactively aware of the departments' challenges and needs. These IT organizations are embedded in departments, to varying degrees, so that they learn about technology dreams or concerns before it is too late to make a difference. These strategically collaborative IT departments know, through regularly benchmarked survey data, how they are perceived. They ask students, faculty, and other staff where they may have hit or missed the mark. They measure their effectiveness with the stakeholders they serve, and they hold themselves accountable for making and sustaining the connections needed.
IT leaders have a chance to change how they think about their strategic role and the strategic assets they bring to the table. And there is reason to think that others on campus are ready for this sea change to come about. IT leaders should be resolutely focused on building, across their organizations, the kind of collaborative service approach that has been the source of the elevated influence of IT over the last year.
Tell the Story of Digital Transformation
Perhaps one of the more compelling ways IT leaders are accomplishing a strategic focus is by starting, amplifying, and/or accelerating conversations with other senior leaders about digital transformation (Dx). To help these efforts, EDUCAUSE has created a "Dx Journey Map." It offers an elegant, visual way of telling the story of digital transformation to non-IT campus leaders. Some IT leaders, lacking senior leadership support, may hesitate to launch a conversation about Dx on their campus. But digital transformation is more than just a trendy phrase: there may be no better way to highlight strategic IT than to put it in this broader institutional context and thereby build the needed support. IT leaders can "walk the talk" of Dx by demonstrating how—with culture, workforce, and technology changes happening in lockstep—institutional transformation is truly possible.
As Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc has written so compellingly, technology can allow us to do what we have been doing, but do it better, and technology can allow us to do what we've been doing, but do it less expensively. With creative and collaborative leadership and a culture that expects innovation, technology can also allow us to reinvent—that is, transform—what we do.Footnote8 Add in the opportunity to reinvent IT leadership as well, and the golden moment before us becomes both illuminating and exhilarating.
- Susan Grajek and the 2020–2021 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top IT Issues, 2021: Emerging from the Pandemic," EDUCAUSE Review, November 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- His featured session was published as Ted Mitchell, "Changing Demographics and Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review, 54, no. 1 (Winter 2019). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- D. Christopher Brooks, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: Senior IT Leadership," EDUCAUSE Review, October 9, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- Susan Grajek and D. Christopher Brooks, "A Grand Strategy for Grand Challenges: A New Approach through Digital Transformation," EDUCAUSE Review 55, no. 3 (2020). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- John O'Brien, "Strategic IT: What Got Us Here Won't Get Us There," EDUCAUSE Review, 53, no. 6 (November/December 2018). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Ibid., Figure 4. See also Malcolm Brown, "Integrative Leadership: A Necessary Ingredient for Dx," EDUCAUSE Review, September 1, 2020. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Susan Grajek, "EDUCAUSE QuickPoll Results: IT Budgets, 2020–21," EDUCAUSE Review, October 2, 2020. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- Paul LeBlanc, "When IT No Longer Remains Anonymous—For All the Right Reasons," EDUCAUSE Review 50, no. 6 (November/December 2015). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.
© 2021 John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.