Feb 26 2020

The Role of IT in Education: How Tech Leaders Are Taking Charge in Higher Ed

The perceived value of technology on college campuses is changing — but how do IT workers translate this shift into meaningful differences in their roles?

The “IT guy” stereotype is entrenched in popular culture: Socially awkward and technically adept, these experts excel at connecting devices and fixing network problems — but they’re rarely consulted about strategic business decisions.

This pervasive attitude translates to a lack of action at the boardroom level: As noted by CIO, just 29 percent of CIOs are full-time boardroom members, despite a 71 percent jump in the total number of technology C-suite positions over the past few years. According to Damian Doyle, assistant vice president of enterprise infrastructure solutions at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this also holds true at many colleges and universities.

“While there are an increasing number of institutions that recognize the strategic value of IT, many still view IT as a necessary function: Schools need to have it, but it’s not strategic,” says Doyle. As a result, IT experts are often brought in after decisions have been made, limiting their ability to positively impact policy and spending.

But change is on the horizon: At schools including Oregon State University, new approaches to on-campus IT have shifted the perception of technology teams. With research firm Deloitte now highlighting tech initiatives such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) migrations, identity and access management adoption and strategic risk management solutions as some of the top industry trends in 2020, tech teams must adopt new strategies to stand out from the IT crowd.

Here are three ways technology leaders can help take charge in higher education.

1. Prioritize the People Before the Technology

Technology is the mechanism, not the mission. While Software as a Service, the Internet of Things or Wi-Fi 6 deployments can help improve user access and reduce overall complexity, they’re not enough in isolation. Doyle puts it simply: “We’re not in the business of technology. We’re in the business of higher education. We are a support organization.”

Delivering on this mandate means prioritizing people — something many IT leaders haven’t been taught to do.

In practice, this demands better communication with stakeholders at all levels of the organization, from staff and students to other department heads and the university board. It means taking the initiative and asking questions about technology needs rather than simply responding to immediate technology demands.

“It’s all about trust and meeting people where they are,” says Doyle. “You need to understand what their goals and their priorities are. You need to help them get where they’re going.”

2. A Proven Digital Transformation Approach

As noted by the EDUCAUSE Review, effective digital transformation is now critical for colleges to leverage the competitive advantage of emerging technologies. But according to author, speaker and innovation adviser Greg Satell, the biggest factor in successful digital transformations isn’t technology investment; it’s how users leverage new technologies to achieve specific outcomes.

For IT teams, this presents a unique challenge: Their innate understanding of technology means they’re predisposed to finding solutions to problems that aren’t on the radar of other departments. As Doyle puts it, IT experts often have “the perfect solution for a problem you didn’t ask about.”

Getting other campus leaders on board means listening first and speaking second. IT teams need to discover where technology meets department expectations and where there’s room for improvement before advocating for new 5G connections or single sign-on solutions. For Doyle, it’s about the development of emotional intelligence — the ability to understand where nontech users are frustrated, articulate how IT can help and then facilitate the deployment of new solutions to deliver specific outcomes.

3. Translate Technical Complexity and Avoid Jargon

To excel in IT, technical skills are paramount. But Doyle notes that “to be a leader requires a very different skillset. It’s about how you relay the value of IT. How do you help translate IT? How do you meet people where they are?”

Without a permanent seat on the board, campus IT leaders must take the initiative, seek out key stakeholders and advocate for their departments. Doyle offers a simple rule for achieving this aim: no technical jargon.

Consider the case of information security solutions, often seen by administration as a necessary spend rather than something of strategic value. While IT professionals can articulate the hard data — common attack vectors, data volumes and the expanding number of connected endpoints — in support of the purchase, to capture executive interest, Doyle suggests that IT pros “need to tell the right story.”

Here, it’s not about the number and type of malware threats identified and remediated, it’s the cost savings delivered because there have been no major incidents over the past several months. It’s the positive public perception that comes with secure registration and student ID systems. Effectively translating technology helps identify IT input as a strategic advantage rather than an afterthought.

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