Managing IT to Find Solutions in Higher Education

By Michael Hites, CIO, University of Illinois system

Michael Hites, CIO, University of Illinois system

Is IT an enabler of efficiency in higher education, or is it an unavoidable expense? There is no doubt that processes like recruiting and registration have become more efficient though automation; however, innovative teaching and learning is expensive. Many years ago, children went to small schools with numerous academic levels in the same classroom. As schools became larger and more efficient, levels were separated and courses were taught as specialties, but still as in-person lectures and discussions. In the present, students now enjoy face-to-face classes with ubiquitous wireless networks alongside video lectures, technology-mediated mastery of subjects, and the ability to study with peers through mobile devices. These services became an “and” proposition rather than an “or”. All modes are generally available on a college campus, and the services that students demand are expensive to supply, even at scale. In some cases, a university may have an enterprise-wide contract for teaching and learning cloud services, but not require the use of the tool in every class. Instead, instructors and students can choose to use a free competitor or even build their own, which can sometimes increase costs and frustrate those who run the service and also the vendor. Regardless, it fosters innovation in teaching and learning and keeps universities at the forefront of technology-enabled education. In higher education, IT must be able to support services at the enterprise level and remain flexible enough to promote innovation.

 “In higher education, IT must be able to support services at the enterprise level and remain flexible enough to promote innovation.”

What does a 360-degree view of the customer look like in higher education? The student is the primary customer, and we need to recruit, retain, and graduate the student in a manner that encourages life-long learning and life-long giving. Revenue generation has become more difficult, and in terms of recruiting and fundraising, it’s like an arms race where data analysis, multi-mode communication, and purchasing external databases are the norm. In a single week, my son can get a call from a potential university, and I can get a call from a student fundraising for my alma mater. These schools know about us, and they want to know more about why we give and why we would pick one university over another. On the back end, there’s data mining to determine the next potential donor and which student might be the best fit for their college. These systems, and their multitude of data interfaces, are maintained at an enterprise level so that local recruiters and fundraisers can work seamlessly with their constituents.

Faculty members engage in research sponsored by government, philanthropic organizations, and private industries. A quarter of a university’s budget might be from research funding, which creates obligations for initiating, performing, and reporting research. Conflict of interest, human, and animal subjects, ethics, Title IX, FERPA, HIPAA, and procurement reform affect the ability to perform research. It has been estimated that 40 percent of a faculty member’s research time is strictly for administration. At our university, we have created new tools to consolidate information about a faculty member’s grants and awards. Our conflict of interest compliance process is now mobile-enabled and simplified. As IT professionals, we need to remove as much burden as possible so that faculty can maximize time spent on research and innovation.

What are the mobile development demands at a university? There are the basics like mobile-enabling business transactions such as registering for classes or paying student bills. While this is a necessity, most IT staff prefer to work on the newer and more exciting mobile applications. Some of the more interesting requests are for enabling processes for the department of athletics, creating apps for biohazard management, updating a dining application that shows students were to get the food they want, and working with objects that fly like drones and balloons.

All of these demands are supported by both central and distributed IT at a university, usually with 50 or more IT employees at the highest organizational level, and many smaller units throughout the institution. There is the ongoing quest for efficiency and effectiveness, and work needs to be done well, fast, secure, and compliant. Larger IT departments might find it difficult to follow corporate trends, like the move to DevOps, even if they have become agile or embraced scrums and Kanban. The expectation is to be on the forefront of new trends and also bulletproof.

After years of 12-point, 50-page, Times Roman progress reports written mostly for our fellow IT professionals, we took a cue from the questions we were being asked and now produce three distinct packets of information that describe what we do, how we do it, and what it costs. We shifted from IT language to business language, and our what-we-do packet starts with a single page where the left-hand side describes our services in business terms and avoids the use of IT speak. On the right-hand side are those same services cast in IT-friendly language for our IT colleagues. Besides just summarizing our strategic plan and completed projects, the report uses info-graphics and specific metrics to describe business impact, service improvements, and cost savings. Not only has the content of these reports evolved over time, but the delivery methods have, too. These documents are also now the source of tweets and posts to interact with our peers and customers.

We have also prepared for inevitable budget reductions by creating a list of all hardware and services purchases, along with a list of all projects, in priority order for the next three years. In final form, it is a spreadsheet that list the item, a summary, its priority, and the importance or consequence of the item. This relatively simple exercise allows us to draw a line where you want work to stop so that it is clear to everyone what will not be purchased and which projects will not be done at different resourcing levels.

Is there a good method for IT change in higher education? In working through these challenges, it is most effective to have a good strategic planning process, a respected IT governance process, and a mindset that looks at business process optimization as the focal point. Good processes get the stakeholders involved with the decision making process, and focusing on business process first will provide the right context for discussions regarding software purchases, organizational structure, and cloud services. By understanding the business problems that must be solved, even though universities are not actually businesses, we can provide an atmosphere of shared success and sacrifice as opposed the internal competition and arbitrary decision-making. The best way to support innovation and survive budget hardships is by having a highly-regarded, transparent, and repeatable process for IT decision making.

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