Sep 12 2017

Uncertainty Puts Pressure on Higher Education IT Leaders

Knowledge and agility are key factors in leading teams through ongoing change.

If there ever was an era in which uncertainty about the future ruled the day, we’re in it. Those of us at the intersection of technology and higher education find ourselves in an environment that brings to mind the old saying, “May you live in interesting times.”

Uncertainty creates challenges for leaders, employees and organizations. Keeping pace with evolving technologies is difficult enough. Anticipating and preparing for emerging technologies is even harder, especially when they may lead to new models and experiences that are so unlike anything we’ve experienced before.

For example, some experts are predicting that the four-year approach to higher education will eventually become a lifelong learning model.

Others predict that artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the role of educators. In fact, there are already people researching the use of robotics in teaching younger children.

These and other radical changes — such as the ubiquitous connectivity of the Internet of Things — will not just alter the way we work, they will fundamentally transform it. So, how do we prepare?

Ed Tech Data Limits Educational Uncertainty

A major trend that’s already under way is the proliferation of data in a connected world. Data — or more precisely, information and the knowledge that it yields — is a good place to start when it comes to alleviating as much uncertainty as possible, so stay informed. In an ideal world, we would dedicate time each month (or each quarter) to read up on the latest trends and keep abreast of forecasts and developments that might affect our work. In reality, day-to-day demands often shove this to the bottom of our to-do lists.

In a world of constant change, however, ongoing education takes on new importance. We can’t, and we shouldn’t, expect to fall back on our knowledge and experience, no matter how well they have served us in the past. Some would suggest the campus environment will be quite different five years from now. Actually, a five-year window might be too conservative; I’d say we can safely count on a two- to three-year window in which major shifts may occur.

That rapid change makes it imperative to keep ourselves informed of what’s coming around the bend and how it could affect our industry. In many cases, CIOs are rising to the challenge, as their role continues to take on a more strategic aspect when it comes to advising campus leadership, ensuring that we are well informed about future challenges and opportunities.

Mitigate Risk as Part of the Mission

Another strategy for positioning ourselves effectively comes from the head of global programming for the World Economic Forum, an organization well versed in uncertainty. W. Lee Howell’s recommendation — to understand the difference between uncertainty and risk — strikes me as sound advice that is apropos for IT professionals. Risk is something we’re all too familiar with; managing it is, in fact, deeply rooted in IT culture and organizational mission.

Howell points to the distinction, first noted by economist Frank Knight, that risk is an uncertainty that is measurable, while an uncertainty can’t be measured so it can’t be a risk. Howell suggests that a practical approach is to “think of risk and uncertainty in a continuum when contemplating how to deal with both.” In other words, be cognizant of the developments that we can identify and prepare for in concrete ways versus those for which we might need to maintain a more general, flexible state of readiness.

Embrace Technical Agility for the Future

A third strategy is to embrace the uncertainty. It’s not going to go away soon, so the smart move is to develop the individual mindset and the organizational culture to thrive regardless. As we’ve noted before, change is tough, but it pushes us to perform at the top of our game.

Agility is the watchword of the future. Proactive leaders will ensure that their teams have the skill sets and the willingness to be adaptive. From a leadership perspective, that’s one of the best things we can do for our employees and colleagues, because it will help each of them to thrive in coming years and to respond wisely to whatever the future may bring.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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