IT Alignment Helps Solve the Technology Investment PuzzleJudith Pirani | Consultant, EDUCAUSE
The pressures facing today’s higher education institutions are well known and documented. We’ve all read about student success accountability, mounting financial and sustainability pressures, and changing student demographics. We also all too frequently feel yet another institution’s pain: scaling back programs, laying off faculty, or even closing down completely.
Every institution continues to determine the best way forward in view of all these pressures, devising ways to help its students thrive academically; operate smarter and efficiently; and form closer external ties. Technology underpins many of these priorities, but the problem is there are so many investment choices and so many technology solutions—for example, analytics, mobile technology, cloud services, customer relationship management systems.
It can be hard to know where to start, and the stakes are high. Technology is expensive and complex, and can easily become an institutional mish-mash of systems, business processes and data silos that can hinder—rather than help—the institution.
There are only so many institutional resources, and the right or wrong technology investment—like an aborted expensive ERP implementation—can have considerable short-term ramifications (poor student service, for example) and can even impact long-term institutional viability. But the correct answer can be hard to ascertain simply because of the sheer magnitude and speed of higher education technology’s evolution, where today’s hot technology may quickly become yesterday’s news. Another factor may be the “blinder” syndrome where one becomes so focused on daily, departmental activities that it is hard to consider the broader institutional picture.
That’s why sound IT investment requires an understanding of both institutional and technological contexts so IT plans, priorities, resources and actions match broad institutional vision and strategies—in other words, aligning institution and technology. You might say that IT alignment resembles a jigsaw puzzle where the institution and technology pieces fit together to create a comprehensive institutional picture. Add in other pieces like institutional academic, administration, and research needs as well as broader higher education trends, external factors like student demographics and government regulation—and a very colorful puzzle emerges.
IT alignment can be a daunting proposition, much like when you empty a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle box. All those pieces with different shapes and colors spilling all over the table. But over time you begin match up pieces and complete sections. Distinct images soon emerge in the puzzle, like a patch of water lilies at Giverny or an offshore island at Lanikai beach. But it takes time and patience.
IT alignment requires the same mindset: starting and building over time. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, though, IT alignment is never truly done. After all, institutions and technology are constantly changing, which in turn introduces new pieces to the puzzle.
These activities can help institutions identify and assemble their IT alignment puzzles:
1. Build technology into institutional strategic direction:
For the institution pieces, leadership needs to understand technology’s current role in fulfilling the institutional mission, its user benefits, and its impact on long-term strategic plans. An institution’s CFO is the institution’s financial point person, communicating the dollars and cents implications; today’s CIO or IT leader must fill that role for technology.
EDUCAUSE research indicates it’s easier when the CIO is a president’s or chancellor’s cabinet member. Today almost 60 percent of CIOs belong to the president’s or chancellor’s cabinet, and more cabinet-member CIOs report engaging in executive discussions about the IT implications of decisions as well as shaping institutional administrative and academic directions than their non-cabinet member counterparts.
2. Understand your institution’s current technology situation:
If you understand where you are going, it is helpful to know the technology puzzle pieces at hand—the synergistic opportunities of how different systems or technologies can fit together, and whether investment is required to fill in some missing puzzle pieces.
Identifying and documenting all of the institution’s technology systems and processes is a formidable task, but the short-term benefits are more efficient operations and the identification of redundant, obsolete or overlapping functions. Additionally, it provides a baseline that helps institutional leaders to add, modify and retool systems and processes to meet future demands and guide long-term technology investment.
3. Develop IT governance:
Good IT governance helps an institution assemble the pieces and create alignment by providing a transparent, representative institutional decision-making structure. As mentioned earlier, technology is complex and expensive, and an institution has to prioritize technology investments as well as fund and resource them—and then solicit buy-in from the community.
EDUCAUSE research noted a few distinct governance benefits. Namely, institutions with governance structures agree more strongly that their institutions make IT investments decisions transparently and they have a clear IT mission, vision or strategy.
IT alignment can be demanding, complex, and even frustrating—much like any difficult puzzle. But when done effectively, it enables deployment of technology resources in a way that contributes most effectively to the institution’s current and future mission and goals.
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 Bichsel, Jacqueline, Today’s Higher Education IT Workforce (Research Report), Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, January 2014, 33, available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar.
 Bichsel, Jacqueline, and Patrick Feehan. Getting Your Ducks in a Row: IT Governance, Risk, and Compliance Programs in Higher Education. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, June 2014. 18. Available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar .
Author Perspective: Association