When I took on the role of CIO and vice president of IT at Northern Arizona University, I wanted to create a 21st-century IT organization capable of leading transformational change within the institution. At that time, central IT staff were mired in a posture that was reactive and even risk-averse. I quickly recognized that, before we thought about upgrading equipment or putting new IT policies in place, we needed a shift in culture.
Changing culture is, in many ways, far harder than upgrading a Wi-Fi network or rolling out a campus app. But the challenge is worth the reward and absolutely necessary for creating sustainable change.
Universities Can Start by Simplifying Their Program
Einstein said it best: “If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” The IT department had been in the habit of programming complexities into the system. The student information system alone had more than 700 modifications.
Simplifying is reliant on several factors. The chief data officer and I took the ideas we found in Peter Weill’s and Jeanne W. Ross’s book IT Governance as a starting point to improve our charter and ensure that it encourages participation and collaboration from the entire university.
We adopted IT service management best practices instead of constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. We adopted an agile process that allowed us to progress without getting bogged down in perfectionism. We implemented technology standards across campus that made the entire system easier to maintain, while also giving faculty a standardized experience as they moved from classroom to classroom. Finally, we separated our policies from our procedures, simplified them and linked them back to a knowledge base of articles.
Consolidate Systems to Speed Up Response Time
I inherited a system full of redundancies and force dividers: multiple help desks, a disparate classroom support staff and 300 servers in various states of disrepair, to name a few. We moved to a single service desk with three tiers of support, which took the guesswork out of whom to call when something went wrong.
We standardized 70 percent of our classrooms on state-of-the-art technology. Modern diagnostic tools helped us create a fast-moving rapid-response team for classroom support, averaging a response time of less than 10 minutes and a first-call resolution rate of 97 percent. Finally, we ditched an aging server population in favor of Dell EMC hyperconverged server technology and virtualization. Together, these changes allowed us to shrink IT Services from 250 employees to 195, with no reduction in services.
Prioritize Planning and Communicate with Stakeholders
Our move from a reactive to a proactive IT culture would not have been possible without a focus on planning. We think in terms of cycles: 90 days for project work, 18 months for strategic planning and 36 months for capital projects, such as network upgrades.
Regular planning meetings that involve our stakeholders are also a vehicle for everyone to share their ideas. I want everyone to feel like a part of the team. A good idea can come from anyone, and it can’t be more than an idea unless it is broadly shared. Continuous planning also helps us recognize that our steady state isn’t stasis. In an organization like ours, the one constant is change.
Invest in Your Team to Build Ownership and Communication
Valuing everyone’s contribution goes hand in hand with giving them the tools they need to succeed. Technology is a fundamentally human endeavor. It exists solely to enhance human life. This extends to our IT departments too. I recognize that, as CIO, I am in the people business.
As I worked to centralize IT services, I also measured our climate and culture. What I discovered is that we needed to build up teamwork and break down communication silos. We attacked the problem in several ways: We trained everyone — not just managers — in project management, helping them to see their role in and contribution to the greater project at hand. We instituted a communication framework designed to help staff better understand themselves and others and to collaborate more effectively.
To address problems of training equity, I centralized and increased the training budget to ensure we provided this resource to staff who most needed it. We also worked with our human resources department to simplify job descriptions and create a new work-at-home program. IT staff now routinely acknowledge others for work well done with shout-outs in emails, handwritten notes and recognition in meetings.
Create a Clear Focus on the Mission
Ultimately, the shift in our culture made us an organization that puts service at the center. Students don’t choose a college based on its awesome enterprise resource planning system. Whenever possible, it behooves us to offload as many mundane tasks as we can to the cloud, or to a service or business partner, so that our staff can focus on tasks that make a difference to the student experience.
It makes a powerful difference when decisions are framed with the question, “What is best for the students?” When we do that, we ensure that our time, both as individuals and as a department, is optimized for the work that matters most.