Apr 24 2021

Using Digital Transformation as a Springboard to Strategic IT

As university IT teams assume a more prominent role, here’s how they can keep a seat at the C-suite table.

IT leaders and staff are running on fumes — but still running, and running hard. Eventually, though, the adrenaline rush will fade, and our collective heart rate will slow. In the months ahead, we’ll find ourselves talking about the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense. In the meantime, however, IT leaders are presented with a unique opportunity to build on all that they accomplished in the mad rush of the transition.

An EDUCAUSE QuickPoll in October clearly demonstrated the dramatic elevation of both operational IT and strategic IT brought about by the “great pivot” of COVID-19. Two-thirds of respondents said the operational influence of IT had “increased” or “increased greatly,” while 56 percent saw strategic influence similarly elevated. More than 80 percent of respondents said they were either moderately or very confident that this influence would persist after the pandemic.

EDUCAUSE will continue to advocate for university IT leaders to play a strategic role among their schools’ senior leadership, and they should keep building on the hard-fought influence they earned throughout the crisis. Here are three ways they can do so.

INSIDER EXCLUSIVE: See where higher ed IT began — and where it’s headed.

Become Strategically Indispensable in Higher Eductation

In the years ahead, technologies will come and go, but technology leadership will remain critical. Strategic IT leaders are talking not only about technologies but also about the greater challenges that campuses face now and after the pandemic. They’re building on the relationships forged or deepened while in firefighting mode, and they’re determined to continue these conversations with senior leaders and C-suite colleagues.

They are not silently waiting for something to break or for someone to use the word “technology” so they can spring into action. They’re bringing metrics and data to campus conversations and connecting the dots in a bigger picture than their traditional domain. They’re working hard to better understand the enterprise beyond the scope of IT while simultaneously fostering empathy and understanding about the exigencies of technology innovation and execution. Effective leaders actively listen to non-IT discussions, ask clarifying questions and suggest solutions without waiting to be asked. These leaders offer strategic counsel and understand how strategic IT fits into the puzzle of the challenges we face.

At institutions where their role is not seen as strategic, IT leaders might be tempted to revert to past practices. As a result, their focused interactions with C-suite leaders are often reserved for making funding pitches or whittling away at deferred IT maintenance. Unfortunately, that role will always be perceived as more transactional than strategic — and largely unwelcome, given the eternal realities of limited funding. This is particularly true when a funding pitch is fear-based (for example, “If I don’t get funding, the sky will fall”). This approach is enticing because it works, but it’s not strategic. Now is the time to find a better model focused on our greatest challenges. What got us here won’t get us to where we want to be.

MORE ON EDTECH: Reflecting on 2020 and reimagining higher ed IT.

Information Technology Leaders Strengthen Collaborative Skills

In past EDUCAUSE research, IT leaders have acknowledged that being a collaborative, “integrative” leader — one embedded in the work of those areas supported by IT — is crucial. The massive disruption of the pandemic (IT budget cuts, for example) presents an opportunity to reimagine IT departments as units built for collaboration.

In contrast to the tactical brilliance required by “utility IT,” post-pandemic strategic IT needs to be connected to other departments and more proactively aware of the departments’ challenges and needs. These IT organizations are, to varying degrees, embedded in other departments so they can learn about technology dreams and concerns before it’s too late to make a difference. Passionate about collaboration, they ­regularly ask students, faculty and staff where they may have hit or missed the mark. Strategic IT teams measure their effectiveness with stakeholders and hold themselves accountable for making and sustaining the strategic connections needed.

IT leaders have a chance to change how they think about their strategic role and the assets they bring to the table. Moreover, there is reason to think that others on campus welcome this change.

RELATED: Define and illustrate DX and its role in student success.

Use a Visual to Tell the Story of Digital Transformation

Perhaps one of the more compelling ways that IT leaders are accomplishing a strategic focus is by starting, amplifying and accelerating conversations with other senior leaders about digital transformation. To help guide this conversation, EDUCAUSE created a journey map for digital transformation. This visual provides higher education IT professionals with an elegant, compelling means to tell the story of digital transformation to other campus leaders.

It’s critical to remember: Digital transformation is more than a buzzword or a trend. There may be no better way to highlight the value of strategic IT than to put it in this broader institutional context, thereby building the necessary support. IT leaders can exemplify the benefits, necessity and importance of digital transformation by demonstrating how — with culture, workforce and technology changes happening in lockstep — institutional transformation is truly possible.

Digital transformation represents the ultimate expression of strategic IT and the most potentially energizing outcome of this otherwise exhausting pandemic experience.

Photo Credit: Kevin Cruff Illustration (boardroom table): grafikazpazurem/Getty Images

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