Jennifer Triplett, CIO of North Central Missouri College, says the school’s digital transformation project was critical for continuing success.

Feb 07 2022

How Higher Ed Institutions Manage Long-Term Digital Transformation Projects

Higher education IT leaders share what it takes to successfully manage a long-term digital transformation initiative.

Looking back, there are some who might say that North Central Missouri College got lucky.

Jennifer Triplett is not one of those people.

Triplett, NCMC’s CIO, led a recent initiative at the community college to modernize its IT systems. The discovery phase of the project kicked off about two years ago, just months before the pandemic hit, and the college had already paved its path to digital transformation by the time it was forced to pivot to remote learning.

If NCMC was ahead of many other institutions when it came to its readiness for COVID-19, it wasn’t because of luck, Triplett says: “It was because we were already assessing our systems and working with experts to identify a strategy that would give us what we needed for success.”

DISCOVER: Strategies for reducing complexity during digital transformation.

That strategy, Triplett notes, was eventually adopted as part of the college’s “Plan 2025,” a five-year roadmap the institution laid out ahead of its 100th anniversary. “Providing state-of-the-art technology in our learning and work environment” was critical to serving students and the community, the plan notes, and the college’s work to upgrade its IT infrastructure enabled NCMC “to bolster the entire campus and enhance technological capabilities for teaching, learning, communications and administrative efficiencies.”

This upgrade began as a current-state analysis by the school’s IT department and was the central focus for Triplett soon after her hiring in 2019. Working with an IT team of nine, she met repeatedly with NCMC leadership, listened to concerns from students and faculty, and assessed the school’s technological posture to pinpoint areas that needed improvements.

It didn’t take long to determine “that most of our technology was either out of date or soon to be out of date,” Triplett recalls. It appeared that the college’s systems had made it as far as they had only because the IT team spent the majority of its time troubleshooting.

“Things were failing everywhere,” she recalls. “We had to get to a more stable state. We couldn’t keep bailing water and plugging the dike.”

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Digital Transformation Helps Higher Ed Institutions Prep for the Future

Digital transformation (DX) is at or near the top of nearly every list of the buzziest terms in higher education: “Digital transformation is upon us,” notes EDUCAUSE on the website the organization has devoted to the subject. It’s the “future of higher education,” “the result of a process,” a change that usually requires a lengthy “journey.”

But what is DX, exactly? And what does it take to manage a DX initiative successfully?

“Digital transformation,” says Betsy Reinitz, EDUCAUSE’s director of enterprise IT programs, “is the process of optimizing a college or university through shifts in culture, workforce and technology.” It’s about deploying digital solutions that enable an institution’s mission and goals, she adds, but it’s also about “making your value proposition more obvious to students, faculty and the entire school community.”

While digital transformation looks different at every institution, those that have led successful DX initiatives have typically excelled at making quick decisions and changing directions when needed, Reinitz says. Similarly, the technologies they’ve turned to are tools that allow for this kind of flexibility, and the IT governance processes they’ve put in place ensure their digital investments align with institutional strategy.

“The important thing to understand is that DX makes the institution prepared for whatever challenges are coming,” Reinitz explains. “I hear from university CIOs all the time that that’s what they’re trying to do — to get themselves ready, to become more resilient. They see digital transformation as the key to moving forward.”

EXPLORE: 5 emerging technology trends higher ed is watching for in 2022.

SMU Opts for Change via Human and Digital Solutions

One CIO who would agree with that is Michael Hites, at the Office of Information Technology at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

In SMU’s case, Hites notes, the starting point for digital transformation was in 2015, two years before he joined the team. Back then, the university maintained many different IT departments, each of which served a different SMU school. It wasn’t a cost-effective way of doing business, and it meant that the college lacked an overarching strategy for providing quality services across the entire campus.

Jason Warner, SMU’s associate CIO of academic technology services, was there when the university made the decision to consolidate IT into a single unit.

“We knew that in order to do special things with technology, we needed to act cohesively,” he says. Hites, Warner adds, inherited that consolidation, “and has helped us to see that digital transformation is really about people and building relationships.”

Among the DX-focused projects that Hites and his team determined they needed to tackle first was the development of a new, three-year strategic plan. “Every aspect of our university uses information technology,” the plan notes before spelling out goals leading up to and through 2022.

RELATED: Advancing and streamlining DX in higher ed.

Their strategy would entail close collaboration with community members across the SMU campus, including teachers, students, researchers and administrators. It would also involve significant investments in new systems — the tools they’d need to support and provide services to those stakeholders.

When the pandemic arrived, Hites recalls, the new structure was operational, IT governance was “fully functional” and the updated strategic plan was in place. The team had already implemented or tested many of the technologies that remote learning required.

Headshot of Jason Warner
We knew that in order to do special things with technology, we needed to act cohesively.”

Jason Warner Associate CIO of Academic Technology Services at Southern Methodist University

“We’d transitioned to Zoom, we had a Microsoft Teams license, we were in the process of moving to Skype for Business for Voice over IP, and we’d experimented with technology in the classroom,” he says, “things like cameras, quality audio and whiteboard capture.”

All these solutions, Hites adds, “were just lying there in front of us.” The college was already on a path to digital transformation, he says, “we only needed to accelerate the process.”

LEARN MORE: CDW expands IT solutions and services for higher ed after acquiring Sirius.

Digital Transformation Helps Keep Universities Ready for Anything

It was a similar story at North Central Missouri College as Triplett and her team set their DX project in motion. As the pandemic picked up in early 2020 and the federal The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided a welcome source of funding, the college secured approval for the initiative from its board of trustees, and Triplett and her team were soon ordering equipment and scheduling installations.

“There were months of conversations,” she recalls. “With school leaders, with vendors, with all kinds of different people — there were so many conversations, I couldn’t count.”

Eventually, Triplett says, the team leaned on several proven IT vendors to help reimagine the school’s digital footprint. As faculty and staff deserted NCMC’s campuses — and the need for remote learning and work intensified — the college started work on the networking side, partnering with Cisco Meraki to install access points and switches and bring its wired and wireless networks under the same system.

Next, the team turned to Cisco’s HyperFlex hyperconvergence solution to do the same with computing, storage, and network resources. The main advantage of HyperFlex, Triplett notes, is in the way that it streamlines data center management. With the college’s old data center, when a disc or host failed, the fix inevitably required manual intervention. “But now, that process is entirely automated, and that makes us much more efficient,” she says.

MORE ON HYPERCONVERGENCE: Superconvergence is the next iteration of data center technology.

Other components of the NCMC initiative included new cybersecurity solutions from CrowdStrike and Proofpoint, and an upgraded video management platform from Denmark-based Milestone Systems. The latter product relies on a fleet of IP cameras and gives her team centralized visibility over NCMC campuses.

“This upgrade strategy allowed us to migrate many of our existing cameras. It was a cost-effective path forward to a supported state.” Triplett says.

In the end, NCMC’s digital transformation has readied it for 2025 and beyond, but it’s also proved to be just what the school needed to meet the demands of the pandemic. Its networks are strong, its data center is reliable, and her team has confidence in its ability to maintain and protect its systems effectively and efficiently.

“We’ll always have more we need to do,” she says, “but I think we’re off to a really good start.”

Photography by Dan Videtich

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