The Importance of Respecting Expertise in IT Professionals

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An environment in which IT staff are valued for their knowledge and perspectives enables those individuals to contribute effectively to institutional missions and grow as professionals.

outline of human head with gears and cogs in the shape of a lightbulb where the brain would be
Credit: Sky Motion / © 2019

Information technology changes at a rapid pace, and the higher education environment is also changing at a fast rate. Combined, these two forces create a challenging environment for IT staff. Because the higher education IT environment consists of a wide user base including faculty, researchers, staff, and students, the IT landscape is a combination of an enterprise and a home environment, with IT staff troubleshooting many different devices from classrooms, offices, and dorm rooms. The Internet of Things (IoT) adds complexities of support and integrating devices to work together. The result is very different from an IT environment in which the business usually controls the technology that is used. In higher education, the user often determines the technology.

Because faculty, staff, and students have access to so many devices at home and in their workplace, they have had to gain technical knowledge to become proficient. This knowledge often clouds users' judgment when it comes to the workplace due to the perception that anyone can be an expert on technology. This perception may have negative impacts on IT staff morale because they spend a lot of time and effort learning about technologies in-depth and yet are not always seen as experts. Their in-depth knowledge allows IT staff to understand the logistics of the technology, not just how to use it. This information is necessary to both fully utilize technology and integrate it into the current technical environment.

Integration of devices and software into the current environment is important for the security of information, authentication, sharing of information, and ease of use. Without this integration, each device acts separately and may not be usable with other devices. Because of this need, IT staff spend considerable time and effort to keep up with technology, and it is for this reason that they should be treated as experts. Each IT professional can have expertise in particular systems, and each adds a valuable contribution to the team and the organization. If one individual leaves the organization, other staff members may not have that particular set of skills and may be able to gain that expertise. This makes IT staff positions critical to the organization.

Sometimes when IT staff make suggestions to faculty and staff, those suggestions are not seen as expert advice because the faculty and staff have used a system or have received advice from friends or family that contradicts what the IT staff member is recommending. Imagine you are an IT professional who specializes in classroom technology and are working with a faculty member on how to create a more interactive classroom environment. As you make recommendations on technology that may assist, the faculty member explains that his brother-in-law works at the local computer store and has recommended that he use a different device from what you suggest. You try to persuade the faculty member to use the technology you recommend because it integrates with the other technology in the classroom and because students use it in other classrooms. In the end, however, the faculty member chooses to use what his brother-in-law recommended. Because most corporate environments provide equipment and have strict standards, they do not face these same issues.

When decisions are made in this manner, it may have consequences to other faculty, staff, and students, and the technology might not integrate into existing systems. These decisions might also result in students having to have to purchase or learn different software or hardware for different classes. There are also implications to the reputation of the organization if security is not adequate on such devices. An impact might also be felt by the IT staff who must support all of these devices because they have to learn each device, how it integrates into the current environment, and how to provide the security necessary to protect student information. It also leaves staff with a feeling that their expert opinion is not important and that they are under-appreciated, which, according to TINYpulse, increases the likelihood of employee turnover by 26%.

How can you provide that respect for your staff? Daniel Pink states that for people who have tasks that are cognitively challenging or that require creativity, analysis, insight, or judgement, the best motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Technology staff tasks that are performed daily as part of their work include these items. In reference to information technology staff, Bob Lewis says that autonomy helps give employees power, mastery allows employees to stretch their abilities, and purpose helps employees understand that what they are accomplishing is important. To apply these concepts from Pink and Lewis to IT staff, we will look at self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a theory of human behavior and personality development and, according to Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, "is centrally concerned with the social conditions that facilitate or hinder human flourishing." SDT holds that individuals have three basic psychological needs and that they are motivated only when these needs are met. These include the need for autonomy, competence (mastery), and relatedness (purpose). Competence is the basic need to be optimally challenged, receive relevant feedback, gain skills and master tasks. Relatedness is being socially connected and involved and having a feeling of belonging. Autonomy is the need to self-regulate with minimal pressure and having freedom in doing work.

To assist technical staff in these basic needs, it is important for leaders to assist staff so that they can flourish in their own ways. Leaders can assist with the need for competence in ways such as providing immediate feedback and performance evaluations, recognizing successes, and providing opportunities for skills development, including both hands-on and classroom learning. The need for autonomy can be supported by allowing staff to make decisions about how to accomplish the goals of a project within its overall parameters. Relatedness can be provided by showing technical staff how the project is important to the mission of institution, how it impacts users, or how it will improve working conditions.

Providing the basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to employees will create an environment that fosters openness, empathy, and non-defensiveness, which will increase motivation. This can be done by reinforcing the skills and expertise of the department and employees with all faculty, staff, and students. Outline for the campus community how IT staff can assist them. Showing appreciation for their skills, abilities, and expertise will lead to a better environment for IT staff.

Professional development can play a large role in meeting the basic needs by advancing skills, learning to work independently, and learning more about how projects may fit into the larger scope of the institution. Because most colleges and universities offer opportunities for staff to take classes, leaders should become familiar with what is available at their own campus and encourage staff to attend classes. Certifications are also a great way for staff to grow professionally and CompTIA and Microsoft both offer a wide variety of courses for technical staff, ranging from IT fundamentals, network, security, servers, and project management.

EDUCAUSE also offers opportunities for technical staff to develop skills, demonstrate competence, and be connected through annual conferences and online communities where staff can meet others in their field and share information and ideas.

Michelle Rakoczy is Associate Director Infrastructure & Operations at the North Dakota University System, Core Technology Services.

© 2019 Michelle Rakoczy. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.