Mar 21 2023
Digital Workspace

Why Universities Are Seeking Help Managing Their IT Environments

As universities adapt to remote work and IT skills shortages, they are turning to third-party assistance to manage security threats and software licensing.

University IT departments are adapting to the rise of remote work and an increasing number of devices to support.

In the 2022 Survey of Campus Chief Technology/Information Officers, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research, 51 percent of CIOs say they are having difficulty hiring new technology workers, and 62 percent struggle to keep employees. In addition, 53 percent of CIOs reported that more flexible remote work policies were among the biggest factors contributing to difficulties hiring technology employees.

Retaining talent is a key challenge for university CIOs as workers leave to seek jobs at tech companies that can pay twice as much, says Matthew Leger, research manager for worldwide education digital transformation strategies at IDC Government Insights.

“Higher ed just cannot match the salaries the tech industry can offer,” he says.

When deciding whether to seek help from a third-party vendor, universities must consider what skills they have difficulty finding and the costs involved, says Leger.

Universities such as California State Polytechnic University, Pomona have difficulty retaining IT workers as they move on and advance their careers. In addition, the university’s IT department has grappled with the pace of technology adoption since the start of the pandemic, according to John McGuthry, vice president and CIO at Cal Poly Pomona.

“We did a lot of quick things to ensure that the university continued to operate, and so now we’re going back and adding more automation, more intelligence and more systems,” McGuthry says. “There are so many additional solutions that are coming on board that we can’t come anywhere near owning all of the business processes.”

As many universities have lost IT workers over the past few years, they have turned to outside services to help manage their IT environments in key areas.

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Universities Seek Outside Help With Cybersecurity

Managing security threats is the biggest challenge higher ed institutions face as they protect their physical and digital footprints, according to Leger. Universities are a major target for ransomware attacks, he notes.

IT departments need help with visibility into network threats and verification that users are who they say they are, Leger says. The challenge is to keep schools collaborative while still ramping up security.

“Cybersecurity, of course, is keeping everyone up at night,” McGuthry says. To gain more peace of mind, Cal Poly Pomona turned to CrowdStrike for help monitoring its most critical systems.

He says it was an easy decision to call on CrowdStrike for cybersecurity help: It’s a fraction of the cost of the university tackling these tasks on its own.

LEARN MORE: Proactive desktop management brings efficiencies to university IT.

Cloud Software Management Helps Institutions Improve Efficiencies

At Cal Poly Pomona, McGuthry says he is constantly evaluating which third-party vendors can best manage the university’s software solutions. It recently moved its content engagement solutions to ServiceNow. It also began using Adobe Acrobat Sign for university documents.

Infrastructure as a Service can help universities manage software across a large base of remote students, Leger says. Cloud services are critical for allowing people to access devices from anywhere, he adds.

Nearly every university uses learning management systems and student information systems, which store grades, contact information and health information. These are important tools for universities amid the shift to remote learning. Universities previously had entire teams of people that would maintain student information systems on campus, but those needs have changed, according to Leger.

“You can’t rely on six people whose job it is to handle that, and the six to nine months of software upgrades that it takes to do that,” Leger says. “You need to move a lot faster, and so shifting away from that application to the cloud or switching to a cloud-based application makes a whole lot more sense because you can move faster. You can innovate.”

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Universities increasingly also need help from third-party vendors to track their software usage. They may have bought 1,000 licenses for an application over the past few years but only used about 500, Leger says.

“Spending management around licenses and things of that nature would be extremely helpful in higher ed,” he says.

When it comes to software licensing deals, schools such as Cal Poly Pomona benefit from being part of large state university systems. It teams up with the 22 other universities in the California State University system. With the deals the state system has with third-party vendors, some warranties are prenegotiated for Cal Poly Pomona, McGuthry notes.

Many software systems sit in silos across university departments, and that leads to communication breakdowns and incompatible systems, Leger explains. Companies such as ServiceNow bridge these gaps with case management solutions.

“Historically, the only way to connect with another department was to send an email, which is not the most effective way to connect with people across departments,” Leger says. Tools like ServiceNow have created more opportunities for university departments to collaborate, he adds.

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Higher Education Faces Evolving IT Management Needs

Higher ed continues to adapt to a remote workforce and the IT talent shortage. The practice of using outside partners to manage IT environments will evolve along with these trends.

“Higher ed is undergoing this massive transition around the IT workforce not being able to attract and retain talent, and one of the biggest inhibitors to this transformation is having the skills and the talent and the workforce capacity to make that transition happen,” Leger says.

Cal Poly Pomona is adjusting to some IT workers working remotely full time, some going hybrid and others on campus full time, according to McGuthry.

“We are still learning from this exercise,” he says. 

As universities continue to adapt to remote learning, they will need IT talent from third-party partners to make that transition possible, Leger says.

“If you can’t bring in that talent internally, then you really have no option other than to work with external managed services.”

Illustration by Janne Iivonen

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