Jan 10 2020

4 Ways to Improve Tech Conversations with Your Board of Trustees

Make a stronger case for IT investments by ensuring trustees understand how solutions support institutional goals.

A tech-savvy board can make the difference between technology-based initiatives that get off the ground and those that don’t — that’s true for higher education as well as any other enterprise. Many universities, however, may not have a board stacked with trustees who are deeply knowledgeable about today’s enterprise technology, much less the emerging technologies of tomorrow. 

In the past, choosing members from technology fields hasn’t been a priority in higher education. In addition, as one writer has noted, trustees traditionally have been chosen from among older candidates, who are less diverse generationally and otherwise, and this can affect their knowledge of IT. 

This matters to IT leaders who have a stake in securing technology funding and making sure that technology is part of — and perceived to be part of — institutional strategic planning. The first step toward buy-in, of course, is achieving understanding and consensus, and that’s no less important for trustees than for any other stakeholder. 

Here are four ways IT leaders can elevate conversations with boards about technology initiatives on campus.

1. Make Technology a Routine Part of Board Meetings

Technology should almost always be part of the conversation. Making it a routine agenda item, on its own and in the context of other topics, sends a message that technology is integral to institutional success. 

This practice also has the benefit of educating trustees and other campus leaders about key aspects and priorities of IT, such as cybersecurity. The importance of data security, for example, should be top of mind for trustees all the time — not only after a data breach. By keeping technology at the forefront, IT leaders can help trustees do their jobs better by being as informed as possible about important issues.

Rather than talk in the abstract about the need for technology, IT leaders should discuss technology in concrete terms, particularly how it relates to campus operations. IT leaders have an important role to play in helping trustees understand technology — with a minimum of jargon.

For instance, if increasing enrollment is a priority, the conversation could include a review of institutions that have used artificial intelligence–powered chatbots to minimize summer melt. If student retention in STEM courses is a focus, leaders can point trustees toward success stories in which digital nudges have improved STEM performance.

2. Enlist Campus Stakeholders to Present a Full Picture of Objectives

IT leaders should already be having regular conversations with academic and department heads about their goals and how technology solutions can help to attain them. Getting clear, detailed and timely information from these stakeholders also helps IT leaders make a stronger case to the board

As an article in Nonprofit Hub notes, “know what you want” and why you want it: “Do your research when it comes to what tools are out there so you know which ones provide the best value for [your] organization. Remember that return-on-investment is of utmost importance to board members, so showing them projected results should be a primary component of your proposal.” 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Find out what you need for digital transformation in higher education.

3. Frame IT Initiatives in Terms of Broad Institutional Strategy

The role of trustees is such that they strive to see the university as a whole and, as much as possible, take the long view of what is best for the institution.

Accordingly, it can be helpful to frame technology investments in terms of how they help the institution achieve larger objectives. Often, that starts with an educational component: Assess trustees’ level of knowledge and familiarity with IT infrastructure and initiatives and, as needed, provide the information they’ll need to fully understand the context behind certain asks.

“Speak in terms that everyone can understand so they’re not sitting there wondering what you’re talking about,” notes Nonprofit Hub.

Without that context, IT professionals may inadvertently present technology investments as worthy in and of themselves. The tangible benefits that an IT professional may take as implied, however, may not be obvious to those who aren’t IT experts. A more effective strategy is to explicitly establish the connection between technology solutions and the institutional goals they can support. 

“Leaders should be prepared to make the case for technology investments by conveying their direct connection to the organization’s mission, financial health, reputational well-being, operational efficiency or some other objective,” advises an article in BizTech. This holds true for universities as well. 

4. Build Relationships with Individual Trustees

Finally, make an effort to approach individual trustees instead of the entire board with a pitch or a recommendation. Sound out opinions, get a feel for how much education might be required and, if possible, enlist an ally. As institutions increase their efforts to diversify trustees, there may be more members who bring their own technology expertise to the table.

“Don’t be afraid to get individual board members involved in the selection process or pitch process — they’ll feel like they’re helping out directly with the cause they care about and you’ll form a better relationship for the future,” the Nonprofit Hub article states.

Robert Daly/Getty Images