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How an Evolved IT Unit Can Take an Institution from Good to Great

AUDIO | How an Evolved IT Unit Can Take an Institution from Good to Great
Institutional IT units must play a central role in the development and transformation of colleges and universities.

The following interview is with Tracy Schroeder, vice president for information systems and technology at Boston University. Schroeder recently penned an article for EDUCAUSE Review exploring the evolving role of a university’s IT organization. This role is closely related to the growing importance of operational efficiency for the modern postsecondary institution. In this interview, she expands on that topic and discusses how IT organizations can support the success of an institution.

1. What’s the role of the internal IT unit in the modern university, given the proliferation of highly-specialized service providers entering the space?

That role is to make sense of it all and understand, from the very beginning, what’s going to integrate best with the university’s infrastructure and other systems.

Ideally, we don’t want things like integration and data security to be afterthoughts. As well, we don’t want it to be every local department’s responsibility to learn how to negotiate with IT vendors and to know what questions to ask about their data center maturity and their security protocols and their service level agreements. It’s not reasonable to expect every area of the institution to be able to manage the university’s risks in that way or to be able to negotiate the best deal.

Increasingly, it’s the role of the internal IT unit to provide that service to help with the assessment of options, to provide guidance on what integration protocols are supported, to review the providers for best practices and, often times too, to reach beyond the institution and work with consortia to adopt common solutions at even lower prices than even a good IT independent negotiator can achieve.

2. How do IT leaders juggle the competing demands of meeting the unique needs of individual units while staying true to the infrastructural needs of the wider institution?

That’s tricky and it requires a layered approach. It requires, first of all, a governance process that attends to shared infrastructure needs in a focused and deliberate [manner]. There also has to be governance bodies as well as program and project management resources for small to large projects that come from individual units.

Often times, on a small project, that approach may be just helping with options assessment and integration protocols and getting out of the way of the department that’s ready to move forward on something that’s relatively small and low risk. On larger things, it involves getting more involved in needs assessment and coordination across the institution and connecting to what interdependencies there might be with the infrastructure.

Often, especially in the largest institutions, you have a central IT organization and a variety of local IT organizations that need to work together. My goal is to have the local IT organizations be in a position to focus on providing truly value-added services to their area, not providing commodity services that should be provided by central IT on scale.

3. What role do IT units play in supporting the competitiveness of higher education institutions, and their individual units and divisions, in the highly-competitive postsecondary marketplace?

If you can provide the core infrastructure on a highly efficient and coordinated basis that enables both IT organizations and administrators and faculty to focus on IT and that serves their differentiating activities uniquely, you enable your institution. That’s a core mission we have to have and that’s a non-trivial thing to accomplish.

The other side of it is, as we’re able to take more things off the cloud and be in more of a service management business than a truly IT “build it, run it” business, it should hopefully free some of our IT leadership — especially the CIO and our chief architects, our security people, our educational technologists and our research competing specialists — to spend some more time on thought leadership and to share their insights while working truly collaboratively with faculty and administrators.

You have to get past the notion that IT is strictly responding to a well-defined request and set of requirements because, especially now with a lot of emerging technologies and evolving pedagogies, if you wait until there are firm requirements, you’ve missed the boat entirely. The need is for a partnership at a higher level and it really raises the bar for what we need to accomplish in terms of efficiency, of running the infrastructure to free ourselves, of participating at that higher level.

4. With the availability of high-quality products on the marketplace and with this notion that it’s really not possible to continue hiring people and focusing on inefficient operations, how important is it for higher education to commit to a highest common denominator in terms of service provision and in terms of partnerships?

Highest common denominator; that’s an interesting one. The reality of large-scale information systems implementation in higher education over the last 20 years or so is that, while there was a lot of talk about implementing minimal customization, the reality is many of us customize a lot and had to customize a lot because of the demands of our institutions and expectations for specialized processes. Many of the systems reflected the lowest common denominator and were not as configurable as is possible with more contemporary architecture today.

There are a couple of things that need to happen and are hopefully finally going to happen in the enterprise application space of higher education, and that is raising the bar on both the sophistication and configurability of the applications themselves as well as coming to grips at the institutional level with the reality that we simply cannot afford to customize to the nth degree in the way we have historically. There simply isn’t the strategic value there and the impact of that on the cost of education is no longer acceptable.

We’re going to see both a more acceptable product coming to us from providers, hopefully reflective of our influences and our input, but also greater discipline coming from administrators at all levels requiring that we not spend inordinate resources customizing commodity functions or processes that should be standardized.

This interview has been edited for length.

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