Keeping up to date on tech news helped Tim Dugan of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati decide thin-client computers could help his students.

Oct 27 2008

Seven Habits for Successful IT Strategy

Understanding technology, district goals, and teacher and administrator needs can help lead IT execs through a bevy of projects.

Understanding technology, district goals, and teacher and administrator needs can help lead IT execs through a bevy of projects.

Leonard Niebo knew his idea was a hit before he even started. The Brick Township (N.J.) School District’s director of information technology was scheduled to speak at this year’s National Educational Computing Conference. Looking to spark a “campfire” discussion among IT professionals, Niebo had decided to use one of the most famous self-help books ever written as inspiration.

The book: Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The confirmation: A standing-room-only audience let Niebo know before he started that he had struck a chord.

Covey’s 1989 book includes nuggets of advice such as “be proactive,” “put first things first,” “begin with the end in mind,” “first understand; then be understood,” “think win/win,” “synergize [work in teams]” and “sharpen the saw [focus on balanced self-satisfaction].” Niebo saw an opportunity to apply Covey’s thinking to school IT strategy, particularly because the author’s points involve staples of successful tech management, such as understanding goals, communicating those goals to others and executing a plan to achieve goals within defined parameters. “It was kind of like a campfire discussion. I took the chapters of the Covey book and put them into slides and gave some anecdotal information,” Niebo says.

Picking up the theme Niebo started, this story extends the discussion. Talking with seven K–12 IT professionals, EdTech highlights the attributes, attitudes and habits that make up the mind of the successful school IT chief. These pros explain how having the right mind-set can help run a tech staff, maintain relationships with faculty and administration and manage tech deployments.

The result is our list of seven habits:

You’re Still a Student (Keep Learning)

Covey’s “six cancers” that inhibit greatness are: cynicism, criticism, comparing, competing, complaining and contending.

It’s an understatement to say technology evolves quickly, so staying abreast of new developments is vital.

You can stay current about hardware and software news by reading journals and keep up to date on new products by maintaining a productive relationship with your supplier, says Tim Dugan, director of the Office of Technology and Information Services for Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati. He says having a good relationship with suppliers can make you aware of new products and, more important, inform you on how those new products can be used.

In Dugan’s case, he read materials that made him aware of the benefits of thin-client notebooks, leading the district to purchase about 240 HP Neoware m100s for K–5 students. The district is also in the midst of deploying HP wireless notebooks for elementary students.

“You have to force yourself to find the time in the day to keep up,” he says, adding that tech guides and journals are helpful for keeping tabs on new technology and how it can benefit schools.

Think in the Ideal and Act in Reality

It might sound like pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but James Ratchford, chief information officer of the Seattle Public Schools, encourages members of his tech team to brainstorm solutions and problems without regard to budgetary and staffing constraints.

“You can get too tactical at times, and it can be hard to conceptualize what’s possible,” says Ratchford. “I ask, what would you do if you were unencumbered?”

After goals are set, constraints of budget, time and staff levels are added, and the project is developed as a hybrid of the ultimate goal within the parameters of the real-world situation. This mind-set recently led the district’s IT department to adopt the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, which is a best-practices standard used to solve work flow issues by matching needs with staff levels and deployment. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Ratchford says.

By using this standard, the district hopes to improve its performance on service calls, in part by deploying an automated information technology service management solution to better manage requests for service. The district is using those principals in a current project that involves migration from its legacy mainframe to a client-server platform.

Begin With the End in Mind

It’s one of Covey’s seven habits, and it’s a mantra that came in handy as Brick Schools in New Jersey automated its data management, human resources and other operations as part of a move to data-driven decision-making. Components of the project included drilling down into student progress data to aid in No Child Left Behind compliance, a server virtualization project and measuring how the district uses energy by matching past electricity use to future strategy. This last effort has saved the district more than $20,000 in a year.

The thinking behind the habit is that when you take on a large project, you must have a clear vision of the ultimate goal to avoid either an incomplete project or project creep, which can impact your credibility with faculty and staff. “You want to get a sense of what you want a project to look like when it’s done, so you can find your resources and fill in gaps in terms of what you need,” Niebo says.

Embrace Project Management Skills

Pleasant Valley (Pa.) School District recently upgraded its entire phone system to a VoIP solution from Cisco and also upgraded its servers to an HP blade system. It also runs a three-year lease program of 1,600 computers. Of those 1,600 PCs, every summer about 600 are returned and replaced. Managing all of these initiatives requires an expertise in project management, an age-old business discipline that organizes efforts around a strategic matching of available resources, time, staff and budget parameters to achieve a final goal.

Rocco Seiler, technology systems coordinator for the district, says it’s important to know what’s necessary to complete a project and to make sure its aims aren’t out of whack with what can be accomplished with available resources. “You have to know your boundaries and be realistic in your goals. You aren’t going to change a district in one year,” Seiler says. “You have to know what your goal is and get that one project done so you have success in the end.”

Make Sure the Customers Trust You

In the nearly 20 years since it was first published, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 15 million copies in 38 languages.

Remember to practice good customer service. Greg Davis, executive director of technology for the Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools, says being thorough, insightful and friendly when communicating with administrators and teachers can pay off later.

Responding to service requests promptly and in plain English builds trust among IT staff, faculty and administrators, which can smooth the adoption of new initiatives. In the case of Des Moines, keeping a good relationship between IT staff and faculty has made it easier to get teachers on board for the rollout of interactive whiteboards.

There were a few glitches implementing the new devices, but Davis says his department’s accrued goodwill paid off when problems arose. “The users know we’re doing everything we can to get them what they want. They know we’re going to work to get their problems resolved,” he says.

Know Where Everybody Is

Encouraging teamwork is an obvious component of any management toolkit. For Mitzi Macon, manager of technology services for the San Jose (Calif.) Unified School District, a key aspect of teamwork is the ability to know where your teammates are.

San Jose, which has 20 IT workers, recently deployed an online calendar that’s available to the entire tech staff and lets all members of the IT team know where other members are at any given time. The CIO says the calendar works wonders as a customer service tool, allowing any IT worker to see at any time where a member of the staff is and how long he or she will be gone.

As simple as it sounds, knowing where tech workers are going to be at a given point in time is vital information for customer service or when coordinating a project or training.

“It’s critical to what we do. If someone from the administration or faculty comes in or calls and is looking for me, a member of my team can say, ‘She’s not in, but she’s due to be back at a specific time, so you can catch her then,’ ” Macon says. “It’s a small thing, but it’s important to be able to give your customer even just a bit of that information in a customer service setting.”

Be on the Leading Edge, Not the Bleeding Edge

Terry Laster, chief information officer of the St. Louis School District, says it’s important to deploy technology that’s modern enough to stay ahead of the curve, yet not so modern as to be unready for widespread use. St. Louis recently deployed a SAP platform that runs the entire district’s business operations, from human resources to payroll to accounts payable.

The district’s CIO says when embarking on a rollout, it’s important to keep maintenance in mind — how much is it going to take in terms of staff and money to make sure the platform keeps working properly?

Training and costs are important factors to consider when deciding whether the technology you deploy is “adequately modern” for a district’s needs — but not beyond those needs — at a point in time. “People tend to get focused on technology, and the novelty of technology,” Laster says. “We try to focus on the design of the technology and how it’s going to help the district.”

The Bad Habits of IT

There are a lot of places where IT strategy can go off the rails, but strategies that lend to project creep are among the biggest pitfalls.

When Leonard Niebo, director of information technology for the Brick Township (N.J.) School District, gave his talk on positive habits at this year’s National Educational Computing Conference, the discussion also turned to “sins,” or negative habits.

He says it’s tempting (but a recipe for failure), to forge ahead with projects that aren’t well planned or to internalize tech tasks. Delegation is a skill, and lack of it can doom a project or IT department operations. “You can’t take it all upon yourself,” Niebo says. “You need successful delegation of your own staff, or know when to farm out the tasks that need to be done.”

He also says poor planning can lead to a project being incomplete or growing beyond its original scope. “You can’t leave a project unfinished and walk away,” he says.

A poor outlook on service can also spell trouble for an IT department. James Ratchford, chief information officer of the Seattle Public Schools, says it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of a person who’s making a service call or who needs help using a new piece of software or hardware. “Too may times, technology people approach solving a problem from their [own] perspective,” Ratchford says.

And one of the greatest failures may be not stressing the overall importance of technology. “It’s no longer a luxury,” Niebo says, adding that it’s vital to communicate the importance of technology when campaigning for funding. “Technology is a utility like oil and gas and fuel. From an operational standpoint, you need technology to be working well for a district to be up and running.”

Creating Leaders Is Elementary

The challenge was simple and difficult at the same time. The extended-day approach to learning of A.B. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., had run its course. The magnet school needed to reinvent itself, and quickly.

The district’s superintendent told Principal Muriel Summers she had one week to find a new focus for the school, she couldn’t plan on receiving any extra money, and for good measure, it would be nice if her theme was something that hadn’t been tried before in Wake County or in North Carolina — or for that matter, in the United States.

Seven years later, the renamed A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School has racked up a string of awards, including being named the top magnet school in the country. Summers’ decision to base her Pre-K–5 school on the popular book by Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has obviously paid off.

When people hear about an elementary school dedicated to creating leaders, Summers knows what the first question will be: “How can a 5-year-old be a leader?”

“Typically, people think children become leaders when they leave middle school and run for student body,” she says, warming up to the question. “I’d challenge that all day long. … We empower them to have a voice. Five-year-old children very much have opinions.”

Students at the school learn public speaking, how to manage their school schedules and set learning goals for themselves, how to work in teams and how to weave analytical thinking into their creativity. The first graduates of Combs Leadership graduated from high school this year, and Summers said the group was replete with merit scholars and other high achievers. “We literally wept when we saw how well they had done.”

—Wayne D’Orio