Published on 2014/10/29

How to Make Sure Your Team is Suited to 21st-Century Higher Ed

How to Make Sure Your Team is Suited to 21st-Century Higher Ed
It’s critical for postsecondary leaders to assess how staff time and effort is spent to ensure they are working in the most effective way possible.
Higher education is on a continuous path of improvement as we all clamor to meet the educational needs of an ever-evolving student base. Fairfield University is no exception. We’ve embarked on a high-energy, campus-wide strategic planning initiative titled “Fairfield 2020: Building a More Sustainable Future.” Like #Fairfield2020, improvement efforts assume all are working as a cohesive unit with a goal of formalizing best practice via strong collaboration. In most cases, a successful operation at its most basic level is a transparent reflection of one thing: its people.

Today’s learners are different, decisions are pondered via metrics and, as the creation of a simple headcount report is no longer considered witchcraft, clearly our users on campus have higher expectations and increased knowledge of how to interact with technology.

Technology itself is all about change. When managed effectively, that change organically results in improvement. An improved process. Additional steps eliminated. Automating a cumbersome, repetitive task. The same is true for change within technology staffing and support. The staffing make-up of a technology department should morph to best reflect and serve current and future need. Let’s face it. Technology itself changes rapidly, so an ever-evolving support system should be expected.

Naturally as a CIO, my industry-focus is technology. We are accustomed to rapid change. But it’s critical for all campus areas to continually focus on staffing structures and talent assessment. The entire higher education climate is continuously evolving and, to remain competitive, your staff needs to as well. Our customers have educated themselves on our areas of expertise. Time previously spent explaining standard process is better used at higher levels of conversation. To quote Daft Punk, we all need to be working Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

From new managers to long-time institutional C-level executives, it’s never too late to get a climate check on your staff and reevaluate structure. It’s also easier than you could ever imagine.

First things first. Think about your department as an integral piece of the business puzzle. Envision beyond the operational (in technology this is up-time, reliability of service, wiring) and bring institutional business–goals, value, mission, finances, products–into the puzzle. The technology department impacts, directly and indirectly, every single facet of the institution’s business. Now look at your organizational structure. How is that structure aligned with driving exceptional impact on the total business? Map it out now. Look at other organizational structures. Look beyond peers. Look at institutions that you want to emulate. I’ve found most leaders are open to sharing ideas on organizational structure and efficiency. So, draft two documents: One, how your organization is aligned today and two, a very rough draft of possible changes to better serve the whole puzzle.

Second, it’s important to know who’s working for you. From a small staff of five to a fleet of five hundred, meet your team members. Set up 15-minute sessions with each employee to reacquaint yourself with the people who can make or break your effectiveness and impact. This time is important. Find out who they are, what they do, what they want to do and what their goals are. Is there a new trend or path that’s piquing their interest? There are many questions to ask, but getting the answers is key. Who’s open to change and who is staunchly anti-change? Who is change-adverse and who just really has a passion for what they’re currently doing? Note: There is a difference. If your staff levels are too high to accommodate one-on-one meetings with each individual, create a quick survey or rely on your management team to fully vet their respective staff and provide an update to you. Speaking of your management team, vet them too.

Finally, here is where the rubber meets the road in defining your agility at strategizing. Now that you have a a full departmental climate check and a total picture of what your department needs to do to align with total business in conjunction with, it’s time to review your rough draft of possible changes. Map it out and plug it in. Becoming proficient in reallocating resources is crucial in this day and age. Restructuring can be a bold move but if you identify areas you would like to improve and document baseline, improvements are easy to see. Don’t keep a leader in leadership simply because they’ve always been there. Don’t impede an entry-level staff member’s future by keeping them in a stagnant position where they exceed expectations if you know in your gut they would excel on an upward path to management. Promote the engaged and effective and try to develop those doing just enough.

When all the puzzle pieces fit together, the effectiveness and efficiency of an institution will exponentially increase. The phrase, “we are only as strong as our weakest link” is so simplistic yet so very accurate in the business of higher education.

Change is not a buzzword. It’s a tangible, direct result of peeling back an onion and finding something that stinks.

At Fairfield University within the past 18 months, the Information Technology Services department has morphed to better serve our campus by splitting apart the support areas and giving each its own “legs.” We’ve eliminated a 20-plus year managed services arrangement for administrative computing (currently boasting substantially improved service, up-time, system usage and more). We’ve reallocated administrative support staff to academic support staff. We’ve repurposed a desktop support position to a help desk support position, and more. All of this shuffling has occurred while concurrently reducing our headcount footprint by three and aggressively cross training support staff on “what’s next” technologies.

Why reorganize and reenergize your staffing structure? Well, because it’s 2014. Today’s needs and climate require it. As expectations and strategies continue to evolve, a team standing still will simply watch progress go by. A responsive, agile, streamlined team is ready for the next change. Trust me. It’s coming.

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Readers Comments

P.J. Allen 2014/10/29 at 9:37 am

Enlisting the help of other institutions, even if they aren’t quite in your league, sounds like great advice. We’re so focused on differentiating and being competitive that we forget that sharing ideas and processes can be a great way to elevate everyone.

    Paige Francis 2014/11/12 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks P.J. It really can speed up the improvement/response process.

Morgan Hendrie 2014/10/29 at 12:19 pm

What does “reducing our headcount footprint” mean?

    Paige Francis 2014/11/12 at 12:57 pm

    Reducing the number of technology employees we have at the university resulting in better service.

Lisa C 2014/10/29 at 3:33 pm

No matter what your end goals, I think getting to know your staff is a great step. Too often leaders sit in their offices and expect employees to stay motivated and aligned with broader goals without ever showing any interest in who they are as people and what they could contribute.

    Paige Francis 2014/11/12 at 12:58 pm

    And I look at it from a selfish perspective as well (surprise, surprise) in that as fast as tech is evolving, knowing your team’s strengths and interests helps reposition them in a fantastic way – it naturally supports effective and welcome succession planning.

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