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Coming In From the Cold: The Critical Role IT Must Play at Smaller Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Coming In From the Cold: The Critical Role IT Must Play at Smaller Institutions
As the student demographic and its expectations change, IT is more important than ever to helping smaller institutions stand out and succeed. However, it’s up to IT leaders to ensure their divisions are seen as strategically valuable rather than cost centers.

As the world becomes more digital, so too must colleges and universities. Unfortunately, with limited resources, increased external skepticism and intense competition, many institutions tend to double down on what has worked in the past rather than exploring new options. At smaller institutions, this can mean that critical departments for a 21st-century institution, like information technology, get left out in the cold. In this interview, William Morse shares his thoughts on the critical role IT divisions and CIOs can and must play in the success of smaller institutions and reflects on what it takes for senior IT leaders to prove their value.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What role does IT play in the effective management and business growth of a smaller postsecondary institution?

William Morse (WM): The first thing to keep in mind is that an IT unit at a small college—or any college really—is a service unit. Its existence is solely for the enhancement of teaching and learning and supporting the faculty and the staff.

IT has to tightly tie what it’s doing to the mission of the college, and then to be as efficient and effective as possible at meeting that particular college’s needs. That means IT leaders have to take time to meet with the faculty, the chairs and the administration to know exactly how they’re going to meet their college’s needs.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about what IT does to support effective institutional management is that IT alone does not and cannot make a college great. However, IT is essential to helping a college accelerate its move towards meeting its needs because IT is the glue that holds the college together. We provide the systems that register students, the systems that hire people and the systems that manage the accounts of the institution, and we know how all those various systems come together. Those are the components that drive how the college really functions. This puts IT in a unique position where it might meet with finance, with student affairs and with deans to see how those systems interact, and to identify opportunities that might exist for various offices to think and work differently.

On the academic side of the house the world is changing dramatically. How we interact with students is changing, the students we serve are changing and their expectations are changing. IT can work with the faculty members and departmental administrators to think about how we can provide the different modalities of learning that students expect today.

Evo: What are some of the key challenges you’ve identified in being in that position where you can support the growth of different aspects of the institution but aren’t necessarily solely driving the bus towards achieving those ends?

WM: The challenge for IT in general is to make sure that they are tightly tailored to the mission of the college. IT can find itself in a world of trouble if they start picking up agenda items that are not part of that mission and unfortunately there are IT units that have done that. For example, IT might get distracted by the possibilities of networking and spend a lot of money on building a beautiful network that works amazingly well, but because they didn’t connect that to the work the institution was doing they don’t have anything on the network that serves their students or serves the administrative functions of the institution.

If you’re an IT unit you’ve got to look, as Jim Collins says, at the “brutal facts” about your department: Be critical of yourself and what your team is doing. I don’t mean critical as a negative, I mean critical as in constantly assessing whether the work you’re doing is the work you should be doing. The scary thing is that “the right thing”—that work we should be doing—changes all the time. What was right a year ago or two years ago may not be right today. As such, IT leaders have to be able to think outside the box and that’s really hard. It means IT has to be constantly nimble and constantly moving.

Once you do that—align your work to the mission of the institution and create a nimble environment—you can make your case to the administration about why hard-earned dollars should be spent on IT. After all, you’re going to be able to know (and say!) that every dollar that you spend is serving the mission of the institution in an efficient way.

If you can get to that point with your administration and you get that trust from your fellow vice presidents and other senior leaders, then that’s an environment where IT can really shine and really help an institution achieve its goals.

Evo: How can leveraging IT help smaller colleges and universities navigate the challenges of standing out and remaining successful in today’s competitive higher education market?

WM: IT is immensely important to the success of smaller colleges. The irony is that many smaller colleges say, “We need to invest in academic programs and IT is a burden, it’s a cost center and we want to spend as little as we can.” IT really can help these small colleges and is essential to helping small colleges compete.

The secret is building a very efficient administrative system that can automate a lot of the processes that might be manual. That means staff can focus on doing what they do really well—which is being human and meeting with students—and that’s one of the key differentiators of smaller colleges; that personal touch. You want to free up people’s time so that they can have the personal touch with the students that bonds them to the institution.

It is also central to collecting and analyzing data that’s critically important to helping small colleges find students who are likely to be successful at a small college and analyze their progress toward a credential. That success tracking is particularly important because it can help that small college catch a student if they start to fail, because retention at a small college is a big deal. Every student counts towards meeting that budget.

This combination of factors—the personal touch and the dedication to success—can help a small college maintain their connection to alumni, which are essential towards getting the money needed to continue to meet the college’s mission.

That’s the irony. Yes, IT is expensive. Yes, it may mean that you don’t get to do some other things. However, investing in IT is going to help that small college continue to thrive and grow. It’s an investment in the future that small colleges should strongly consider.

Evo: Broadly speaking, how has the role of postsecondary CIOs evolved over the past decade?

WM: The CIO today is moving away from what used to be the core of the job: keeping the machine room running, the network humming and making sure all those wireless things connect. A lot of those things are moving to either consultants or the cloud. Now, the CIO is focused on creating an architecture around the college’s technology.

They’re bringing systems in that make coherent sense and that function seamlessly. They’re helping bring together analytics, they’re helping offices across campus examine and re-engineer their business processes to keep up with modern times. Today, the CIO is doing much more consulting and is focused much more on high-level institutional strategy.

This is only going to grow because colleges are no longer dealing with just one administrative system. Today, there are multiple different systems interacting. There can be dozens of systems integrated into one-another to manage the institution. These little applications are, really, micro-best-of-breed applications because they do very specific things and you want to integrate them into your administrative environment. Figuring out how to do that is becoming the job of the CIO. It’s also coordinating cloud-hosted applications and consultants the institution is working with.

Evo: What are some of the key security measures that an IT leader needs to keep in mind so that students can have a world-class customer experience without creating vulnerabilities for the institution?

WM: That’s the thing that I think is the on the mind of many CIOs. CIOs, ultimately, need to be thinking about their services from an architectural point of view. There are too many colleges where application after application gets put in and there’s no thought to how they work together or how the data flows together. There’s just not that high-level thinking. CIOs need to start thinking about the experience they are delivering, how their applications are working together and how they can ensure their environment makes coherent sense.

I like to think of it in terms of an iPhone. On the iPhone, a user might have dozens of apps and can download new apps quickly and easily. Users can figure out how a new app works because it works within the ecosystem they’re very familiar with. That’s what we in postsecondary IT need to do. We need to look at our own applications to make sure that they make sense, because we don’t want an issue with an app preventing the college from working well and preventing people from being able to use our resources. I want people to be able to rapidly use our services without having to think about the technology behind them.

Now the problem with all of this, of course, is that you have applications in the cloud and hosted locally. You have integration brokers supporting your environment. You have robust analytics, collecting and analyzing data. The security issues surrounding the modern higher education institution are incredibly complicated. You have to secure not only your internal resources at the college but you have to worry about whether your cloud provider is also doing the security work. We have a standard contract with standard terms that we developed over time that we want to see from all of our providers. We also have a questionnaire we provide to vendors that goes into great detail about what they do, how they’re operating and diving into their security procedures so we can be sure, before we work with a company, that they’re meeting our needs.

We’re also quite intentional about our data architecture. We don’t just integrate; we have a data architecture so we know where the systems of record are so we know where our data is being stored and where’s the authoritative source. If a system isn’t the system of record, we may design it so it gets only the data it needs just in time to operate, so in reality the data isn’t even there. That’s a great way to protect yourself from a third-party cloud application. That’s the kind of thinking you have to put into this.

Evo: How do you expect the role and responsibilities of higher education CIOs to continue to evolve over the next decade?

WM: The role is going to be more and more that of the in-house consultant, instead of providing IT directly.

It’s possible to think that almost all—if not all—services will be in the cloud and institutions will be buying applications that do very specific things. Individual institutions will have a large number of these applications and the CIO is going to have to integrate and bring them together.

There’s also an aspect of the role that will be a business analyst, or a project manager. Project management is going to be so important in the future of IT. It’s going to be helping offices work through the variety of tools they’re going to want to have and make them make sense together. These applications will have to be architected in a logical way and IT leadership will be suggesting new and alternative tools that different offices could be making use of.

That’s very exciting. It’s a lot more intellectual and will require CIOs to dig into the processes that are central to managing institutions. It’s also a lot more strategic than IT has been in the past. This means it’s going to take a different type of person—or a current person who is willing to evolve—to do the job but it’s a bright and exciting future. CIOs are going to help these colleges be even more effective in the future. They’re going to need to be because money is becoming tighter at every college, even ones that have large endowments. We have to be careful with our resources now more than ever. Technology can help us become more efficient, take advantage of new resources and advance the mission of the college. Achieving that potential is going to take someone who can talk about these needs in plain English and sell the strategic nature of IT.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance and the role that CIOs play especially when it comes to helping smaller institutions stay competitive?

WM: Senior administrators at smaller colleges need to keep in mind that IT can be incredibly powerful for their institutions. If it’s done well, IT can help a small college be successful and serve its students in new and exciting ways. IT divisions can be a real strategic asset, not a cost center.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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