The Expertise and Language Gap in Technology Procurement: Reducing Bloat and Improving CollaborationJames Wiley | Principal Analyst, Eduventures
Technology solutions and tools are more important to the effective management of a postsecondary institution today than ever before, and this trend is only going to pick up speed moving into the future. Unfortunately in higher education, different divisions and staff have a tendency to be very siloed, which leads to a number of different people with similar priorities purchasing different incompatible technologies in isolation. Additionally, another key element of the procurement team—the IT staff—will have different priorities altogether than those in program areas. The end result of all this miscommunication and differing priorities is an institutional technology infrastructure that is disconnected, operates in isolation and often underused. Underlining these issues is the cost and bloat of maintaining so many different tools. In this interview, James Wiley expands on this expertise and language gap and shares his thoughts on how institutional leaders can ensure their procurement leads are on the same page.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is the expertise and language gap between IT and program staff?
James Wiley (JW): Different staff views are dependent on how they view the world. For programs staff, their concerns would be largely around efficiency and whether a certain technology solution will solve all business strategies, which can drill down and specifically address areas like enrollment or retention or learning etc. The IT concerns are going to be a little bit different. They’ll be overlapping in some ways but they’re looking at the world of technology differently and they’re talking about it differently. So as a result, sometimes when IT and business talk there’s a bit of a breakdown. But there are some areas in which they should come together because there are some underlying questions there about whether you want the overall ecosystem to be agile, flexible and scalable over time. That’s a policy decision about how you want your system to grow—if at all—overtime.
Evo: What are the long-term ramifications of not addressing this gap?
JW: One is just bloat. I’ve seen some institutions where you ask about the number of applications they have and then the number is something insane and you think why on earth would you need all of that? They were bought independently. They were bought without a cross-team or cross-domain view of business and IT. Two is actually incompatibility. If you don’t have a holistic view of how this all works—because it should work together to promote your goals—you might actually overlap or compete with one another.
I’ve heard institutions tell me about what comprises the backbone of their biggest systems and some of those are insane. “I have two CRM’s and they have a CRM and an ERP and ERP/CRM and SIS,” they tell me. And I think, “What!?”
The final one is management. With all of the bloat I have to bring on resources or over tax my current resources to manage this wild, unruly ecosystem. I need to think more strategically about when these are fully in alignment with where we want to go as an institution and the only way to do that is for IT and business to work together.
Evo: What can institutional leaders do to help ensure their program and IT staff are on the same page?
JW: To start, tech teams need to know just what they have. Advancement might buy something on its own and the building might buy something on its own, so get your arms around what your application portfolio is. For the business side, you have these long-term goals: We want to promote student success. That’s great! No one says they don’t want to do that, but what actually does that mean? Do you mean student success in terms of persistence? Do you mean in terms of academic achievement? Do you mean in terms of career advancement or some combination of those? You have to go one step down. You have to deconstruct them to the key outputs that you need and then IT can begin to think about how their portfolio can contribute. After that, it’s a very painful process of mapping goals onto existing systems. Tech might say, for example, they don’t have systems to support career advancement but they have systems to support enrollment. So IT can go upwards from application to application through the entire ecosystem to get its arms around that, and the business can go lower from the goals to the definition of the components or the capabilities of those goals and then you can do a mapping from there. You have to be brave because the resulting map might be in fact very messy, but then at least you get some idea of how well aligned your technology is to your overall institutional goals.
Evo: When you have an institution where IT staff and program staff are all on the same page, what are some of the positive outcomes? What are some of the benefits of creating this culture?
JW: You’re actually more flexible. One, you can now say we’re going to get this system for this reason and it goes with this goal in this way and this is how we measure it. And you can do it much faster. Two, in terms of your management of the entire system, people now understand why a particular system is critical and can now devote resources to where they’re needed. This is critical to my student success initiative as we’ve established during the alignment so now I’m going to sign these off. Third, it positions the CIO as a strategic thinker. There are a lot of CIOs who want to be at the table with the provost, the president and the CEO, and now the CIO is seen as not just operating some sort of call center but a value center. The CIO can say, I’m trying to provide value by organizing, selecting and deploying my IT portfolio. All of the systems align with the business side so the CIO promotes value in the same way as anyone else in the institution.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of closing the expertise and language gap between IT and program level staff?
JW: At its heart it’s fairly common sense to know where you are and where you’re going, and to align those two things. It’s about finding ways to communicate effectively, finding a common language. It’s almost as if one of you speaks Spanish and the other speaks French, but you both understand enough Italian. Ok good! Let’s now focus on that. We might lose something in translation, but at least it gives us much better communication than if we’re trying to cross two languages. Find whatever the middle is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Analyst