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Bringing IT to the Forefront of Innovation: How to Leverage Technology to Drive Innovation on Campus

The EvoLLLution | Bringing IT to the Forefront of Innovation: How to Leverage Technology to Drive Innovation on Campus
IT can play a central role in the transformation of a postsecondary institution, but only if the CIO and his team are given the necessary space to evolve the institutional IT infrastructure.
Ideas and creativity seldom happen in a vacuum. They are collaborations characterized by free expression and sharing of information. If ideas and creative works have to be translated/converted/interfaced between these systems as people try to engage each other, some important context or element will certainly be lost and ultimately inhibit the development and implementation of such.

This suggests the need for some commonality in communications and implies the use of shared technology solutions. Hence, it is essential to have an infrastructure that is elastic and responsive to the user community. This implies that the infrastructure is standards-based and ubiquitous.

Infrastructure in this context extends beyond servers, networks and storage to included identity management and shared collaboration systems that can be used by all stakeholders and participants.

In this article, I’ll outline how technology—and technology leaders—can facilitate innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement across a number of different areas of a postsecondary organization.

Connecting the Institution to Facilitate Collaborations

The adoption of standards as part of an infrastructure is essential to facilitating connection among different stakeholders across the organization. It is tedious to overcome de facto standards and favorite applications in highly decentralized environments. Many institutions have multiple email systems, video conferencing tools, and learning management systems (official or de facto). CIOs might do well to try and explain why such standards are important—to focus on efficient and effective exchange of ideas, to focus on outcomes not processes, and to elicit a choice to be aligned with human endeavors rather than technology choice. When all else fails, exercise leadership to for change through a coalition of the willing to demonstrate how standards in infrastructure enable collaboration and results that benefit participants and stakeholders.

NAU adopted Google Suite for student email and collaboration, but the prior administration had not facilitated the deployment to faculty. Faculty adopted their own Google accounts or other systems to collaborate with each other and students. Hence, there were critical disconnects. By simply putting students, faculty and staff on the same infrastructure (Google Suite) the university was able to promote more collaboration between faculty and students (learning) and among faculty (discovery).

Something as simple as setting up your campus wireless infrastructure to use the same SIDs for network access can also promote collaboration. NAU adopted EDUROAM to facilitate ubiquitous access across campus and for students and faculty who may be traveling to our 22 campuses or other institutions. When colleges, student housing and transportation services used different SIDs and authentication methods, there were significant barriers to students being able to move around campus and staying connected to the network infrastructure.

Creating infrastructures that facilitate collaboration doesn’t have to be complicated or hard. It often just needs to be coordinated and accessible from the student’s point of view.

Leveraging IT Infrastructure to Rapidly Bring Innovations to the Forefront

CIOs are hired for strategy but fired for operations—a statement a mentor shared with me decades ago and it has stuck. While CIOs aspire to digitize their business and weave IT into the DNA of their organizations, it requires that we rethink what “infrastructure” means.

As the Cloud Computing enthusiasm washed over CIOs, we were troubled to think of building IT Data Centers as the future of computing. Nobody wanted to be the last CIO to build a data center. The better strategy was an infrastructure that enabled the creation of virtual machines (VMs).

At Northern Arizona University we’ve partnered with Dell to consolidated 300 physical servers into a single architecture. The vision is to provide efficiencies through shared virtualized compute/storage and through converged architectures, which provide efficiencies in the management of these once-disparate and individual resources. By creating this new infrastructure with cloud services, our vision is to be able to easily move VMs and storage to cloud and on -premise resources to optimize services in response to customer needs and maximize the benefits/cost ratio.

This new approach has transformed our IT services to be outward-facing instead of machine-facing. For example we can now deploy and invoice for VMs on that architecture in four minutes. That’s an improvement over the four weeks (or longer) it took in the past to stand up services. The ability to create, move and manage compute and storage loads across the spectrum of on-premise to in-cloud creates the flexibility, elasticity, and alignments that allow us to “fail fast” and support experiments and ideas. It has allowed us to reallocate/reassign staff from managing things to engaging people in solving problems with technology on one display

The infrastructure of networks is also critical. The adoption of software-defined networks creates the ability to quickly address evolving needs, like:

  • Complying with security standards;
  • Quickly addressing innovations in IoT technology to clearly identify the differences between people and things;
  • Managing network services and creating transparent experiences for users;
  • Integrating software like Cisco ISE to create self-managed environments;
  • Adding IPD/IDS on the edges to monitor network traffic;
  • Providing capabilities to shunt DDOS traffic.

A modern network infrastructure allows the IT business to move fast with confidence knowing that the tools are managing based on established security principles and taking human error out of firewall/switch configuration.

It is important for CIOs to expand on the definition of Infrastructure to include such things as identity management, policy and organizational attributes. To optimize the traditional infrastructure we have to expand our thinking to platform services and align organizational resources to make the best use of these, eliminating bottlenecks and streamlining business process to deliver services that allow our “customers” to move at the speed of thought.

Also in this new infrastructure context is the consideration of how IT is organized. Traditional IT is heavily dependent on back-office operations. Modern infrastructures allow CIOs to move their staff out of the computer center and into the offices of stakeholders. At NAU we’ve reallocated IT resources to create the SPIES—Strategic Planning and Information Education Services. These systems analysts, project managers, and technology training groups provide integrated services that drive adoption of standards, leverage our new infrastructure architecture, and focus on digital transformation within the university. I consider this service to be an extension of our infrastructure architecture that maximizes and leverages our investments and enables our stakeholders to rapidly adopt and apply technology.

Leveraging Technology to Deliver a Modern Student Experience

At NAU we’ve had different ways of leveraging infrastructure based on the college/major or building. Centralization of IT provided new institutional perspectives on collaboration. More recently, we’ve taken a more ubiquitous approach to simplifying and unifying how students access personal storage for their school work. Using Office 365, Google Suite and other cloud-based tools students and faculty are provided robust network services that connect to on-premise resources to provide unlimited data storage and intuitive collaboration tools in environments they prefer to work in.

NAU has also driven application infrastructure and application standards across the enterprise and have consolidated multiple CRMs into one (Salesforce) to create an integrated 360 degree view of students and provide opportunities for faculty and staff to intervene on students’ behalf and share in the responsibility of moving these students to successful outcomes.

When all of these are in place—the ability to act spontaneously, confidently and safely to enable new ideas to grow uninhibited and scale fast—you reduce dependencies on technical staff.

Don’t Be Afraid of IT’s Potential In Higher Ed

New things are not laborious but exciting opportunities to help others explore ideas and avoid the “who owns this” roadblock. What’s more, putting the tools and policies in place to allow technology to support the work of the institution can transform the experience and success of students, faculty and staff alike.

A few final pieces of advice:

  1. Deploy things securely at speed
  2. Provide synergy of work (shared tools)

Technology can play a significant role in the continuous improvement and ongoing transformation of any university—as long as you allow IT leaders the space to make it happen.

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