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Tech Support to Strategic Growth: The Evolution of the CIO at the Modern University

The EvoLLLution | Tech Support to Strategic Growth: The Evolution of the CIO at the Modern University
As the capacity of tech tools and services grows, the role and responsibilities of institutional IT leaders need to evolve from one of support to one of strategy and business growth.

Technology is becoming increasingly central to the day-to-day as well as the overarching management and operation of higher education institutions. No longer on the side, tech tools and services impact almost every aspect of every institutional stakeholder, from students to staff to senior administrators. It impacts bureaucracy, academic delivery and planning, communication and everything in between. Yet, at many colleges and universities, institutional IT is still seen as a support shop. In this interview, Luc Roy shares his thoughts on why CIOs need to take on more of a strategic, business-focused role at today’s colleges and universities and reflects on the impact technology has on every aspect of the institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can university IT leaders impact the student and customer experience for learners enrolled at their institutions?

Luc Roy (LR): In today’s higher education environment, IT leaders must have an impact on the student experience. It’s no longer an option.

The student experience today is so technology-driven that it’s got to be integrated with everything we do. It’s not just about providing a service but crafting an entire technology-enhanced experience.

One example is in the different types of communication technologies. At universities today, we have students who are comfortable with four different generations and types of communication technology: telephones, emails, texts and social media. It’s quite challenging to deliver on this array of expectations, but communication is a central part of the student experience. We must meet the expectations of students, whether they want to use Facebook or whether they want to send us an email.

It’s extremely important that technology is also present in postsecondary teaching. Technology-enhanced instruction increases student interest and engagement, which benefits learning outcomes and student success. Ultimately, that increases student retention, which increases institutional revenue.

Technology plays a critical role in everything that we do.

Evo: When it comes to delivering a high-end customer experience, how has the role of IT changed over the last 10 years?

LR: At Laurentian University, we’re a focused administrative IT department. We support institutional administrative functions like making sure we can pay people, making sure we can keep track of students and so on.

Changing student expectations have directly impacted our role and work. Academic summaries are a great example of this, actually. Students now expect to be able to access this kind of critical documentation online—they don’t want to have to fill out a PDF. So we had to build an online workflow to accommodate that. However, with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in Ontario, students know that their academic summary is very confidential, even within the university. This means we also had to build a range of controls to manage access to this kind of documentation, even from within the institution.

The responsibility for IT goes beyond the delivery or availability of services. On top of creating these workflows, we also need to be focused on the back-end control—making sure that things are confidential and secure. There’s a big culture change in terms of how we need to visualize the services for students and it involves a lot more than just providing a clicker for lecture halls.

The role of IT in colleges and universities is changing significantly, both on the administrative side and on the pedagogical side of the institution. We’re playing less of a support role and becoming more of a strategic partner across the university.

Evo: How important is a business mindset to CIOs at colleges and universities today?

LR: Experience in private industry gives you a different perspective. For example, even if you were in a support role in the private sector, you needed to sell your product. Support is important, but selling is extremely important to the strategic aims of the organization.

For institutional IT, now that we’ve gone from serving in a support role to more of a strategic role, it’s critical to start selling ideas and driving culture change. This means a lot more than just providing tech support, and that’s where the benefits are.

For example, institutional strategic planning processes are designed to understand where students will be in 4 to 5 years’ time and to design the university to make sure we’re able to meet their expectations. I was asked to be involved in that process at Laurentian and I was able to add elements of technology to that plan to ensure we would be able to meet the expectations of today’s and tomorrow’s students.

That experience in private industry has been, I believe, very positive for me and has contributed a little bit to our success here.

Evo: What are some of the critical tools CIOs at colleges and universities need to deliver on the expectations of today’s students?

LR: When your shop is very administratively focused, you tend to focus on big, enterprise-type applications. However, this tends to create an environment where people had to adhere to the system, rather than the system adhering to the environment. We’re moving to an environment where the tools and services we leverage will come from the consumer side of businesses, rather than the enterprise or corporate side.

So, for example, with the consumerization of email we have the ability to offer institutional email services through Gmail rather than maintaining a traditional corporate email structure. The student portal we have for learners is more like Facebook. We have to work in a way that responds to students’ preferences, and that is reflected in the kinds of tools we need to look for.

To that end, we in institutional IT also need to step back to ensure different departments are able to adopt the tools that are best for them, and we generally need to step away from this tendency to control every aspect of the institutional IT environment. We don’t control all the enterprise email, since we use Gmail and we need to adapt to the way Google wants to manage email. How you do that transition is extremely important because your tools are ever-changing.

In fairness, we do still have those kinds of “Mack Truck” tools and applications for major functions, like running payroll or student records. However, all of the peripheral services around those core functions have to change to more closely fit what students expect.

This strategic shift makes institutional IT very challenging, but the first step is to get outside of our corporate IT mindset.

Evo: At colleges and universities across North America, part of this customer experience is being able to speak to students in their own language. Be it Spanish at many American universities, or French at many Canadian universities, this is central to delivering a great student experience. At Laurentian, which is a bilingual university, how challenging is it to deliver a world-class student experience in students’ chosen language?

LR: Delivering a world-class student experience in two languages is extremely challenging, especially as we shift to a more consumerized model of technology applications. One side effect of the consumerized model is that institutions have less control of what you can actually modify.

You really have to revisit your language-choice policies in this consumerized-technology era as it relates to maintaining status as a bilingual university. Now that a lot of services are moving into the cloud, we need to ask ourselves whether it is okay just to have a facade that’s French—with French-based menus and options—but ultimately English in the deep applications side. This would mean things like error messages would be unilingual. We need to ask ourselves whether that really matters. It brings up a very interesting debate because if we decide that the error messages must be also in French, but the best system available is a cloud-based solution that doesn’t offer bilingualism, does that mean we have to forgo providing a best-in-class experience for the student? As a bilingual university, the sacrifice we have to make to make everything bilingual may translate to a sacrifice for the university itself.

Bilingualism presents a very challenging aspect to institutional management. We’ve been very fortunate at Laurentian to have been able to negotiate with vendors to have access to their source code to manually create a bilingual experience, but it does tax us. For instance, my department has about 7 percent of its overhead—that’s two full-time individuals—dedicated to making sure that everything is bilingual. That’s okay because that’s what we’re all about, but it’s still significant.

I’ll give you an example of how this plays out. If we get an update on our ERP system, it impacts a huge percentage of the software. Assuming 500 parts of the application have been updated, we may have previously modified over 100 of those applications to be bilingual. That means every time we get an update, which is approximately every six months, we have to re-verify all this software. We take this very seriously and we invest the time, effort and resources to do it.

As we move into more of a consumer-type environment that leverages the possibilities of the cloud, the challenge is going to be defining how far we go with the effort to create a fully bilingual environment. After all, we won’t have access to the source code once a tool goes to the cloud. We can put pressure on our vendors to make sure our tools are fully bilingual, but it’s not always going to be the case.

Evo: To your mind, how do you expect the role of higher education CIOs to continue to evolve over the next decade?

LR: The role of the CIO will evolve to become equal parts businessperson and technology person. You can even argue that the role is actually now being transformed into more of a business role than a technology role.

The CIO won’t be seen this way by every college or university president—many senior institutional leaders understand the value of IT but still see IT in more of a support role than a strategic one. We’re fortunate at Laurentian because we have a great president who understands the impact that technology can have on the institution, and this will continue to evolve over time.

Technology is moving more and more into the way that we’re teaching, the way that we’re learning and the way we’re interfacing with students. It’s a way of life. It’s no longer about just making an email work—it’s about making the whole experience work for students.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the evolving role of the CIO ensuring that institutions are meeting the expectations of today’s students?

LR: The funding model has to change to ensure that the IT department is better funded and more able to meet the demands of students and the market more broadly. As we increase the services we offer, there are a lot of cybersecurity issues that arise because there’s more exposure. We’ve noticed for example, a number of foreign entities pursuing the intellectual properties of graduate students—especially students doing their Ph.D.

The dynamic of providing better services and a better experience for students comes with being taxed on issues of protection, so the funding model has to change to reflect all of these things. IT has to be looked at from a more holistic perspective because we are involved with every aspect of the institution, not only the teaching but also how we do business.

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