Leverage the IT Model to Create a Competitive Advantage

Marsha Henfer, CIO, The Ohio State University, College of Engineering
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Marsha Henfer, CIO, The Ohio State University, College of Engineering

The competition to attract and retain the most sought after students and faculty is fierce. Reductions in government funding and political pressure to control tuition fees, have public institutions scrambling to find ways in which to reduce costs without impacting their quality and brand. Added to the problem of universities trying to do more with less is the growing expectation of access anywhere with any device at anytime.

Technology is often seen as the magic tool, however inter-dependent solutions are often complex and strategy must come first. A comprehensive strategic solution takes into account services that support the entirety of a higher education institution, including the student, faculty member, administrator and researcher. These consumers of the service want ease of access. This seamless access must be balanced against security and compliance requirements.

So what are the major challenges in designing an IT infrastructure that’s all things to all people?

Just a short time back, universities were built on teaching models and administrative functions that were void of modern day technology. Today, our deep dependence on computing services impacts everyoperation within the university. Technology done right adds great value and is a differentiator in the competitive market. The technology department has taken on a new form and has evolved from an afterthought located in undesirable space on campus to a strategic business partner with representation at the leadership table.

This relatively fast paced transition has left many IT departments playing catch-up as they must examine and perhaps redefine their structure and services, so as to take advantage of strategic opportunities and design innovative solutions. Architecting an infrastructure and service portfolio requires new talent from IT leaders and their employees.

Pressure has mounted for technology departments to develop their operations into a delivery model of excellence and agility, and ensure full alignment to support of the business of higher education. Backend infrastructure and support models need to be in place so that universities can seize opportunities in research and outreach.

“Designing a technology platform that integrates solutions into instruction along with a support system for the faculty to embed the technology into curriculum are keys for success”

The non-traditional student population continues to increase necessitating flexible solutions that promote quality of life and the ability to balance class schedules with jobs and family. Incorporating online delivery models and just in time learning modules into the traditional university setting promotes a culture of “student first”. However, developing online materials requires a shift in faculty workload and a knowledge of how to create engaging lessons with the aid of technology.

Designing a technology platform that integrates solutions into instruction along with a support system for the faculty to embed the technology into curriculum are keys for success. Those comfortable in the traditional classroom setting may view an online delivery model as substandard and the designing of digital content intimidating. Ensuring that the faculty understands the benefits of new delivery models and connecting them with necessary support resources will allow them to become comfortable with blended styles of teaching and learning. They in turn will become champions.

Moving the IT department into an era of incorporating both cloud solutions and shared services into the strategy is only part of the challenge when orchestrating a comprehensive and successful solution. These models require expanded responsibilities for the information technology professional, including vendor management, compliance, security, cost and availability. Outsourced services may need to integrate into backend systems. The technology department must fully understand the business requirements and dependent processes as they develop a strategy.

Duplicative services and related systems add cost without value. These are often identified in a highly decentralized organization. Implementing a new service that would meet the needs of all consumers and retiring the duplicative systems results in a consistent service experience for the customer and reduces budget outlays.

One approach is for the IT organization to define its desired end state, examine current practices and then chart the effort and dependencies required to move services and processes towards a shared service model. The undertaking is not small and can create angst with the IT professional as well as the consumer of current services.

The immature IT organization in regards to Service Management needs an understanding of best practice principles as new roles are defined and a comprehensive approach to service strategy is developed. The focus is to identify and provide excellence in service delivery at all times with the right solutions embedded at the right layer of access.

Shifting to a focus on process and identifying what services the consumer wants as opposed to what the IT department offers can be more difficult for the seasoned IT professional, staff or faculty member. There may be a sense of what’s in it for me. A multi-pronged approach to assist with “adapt and adopt” is an important component of the overall strategy. A communication campaign and identifying champions of change will help shift the culture towards a new mode of operation. Effort and investment must be directed at re-tooling the IT employee for new or expanded roles.

The top 10 IT issues identified by EDUCAUSE for 2015 touch on most of the above. Updating skill sets, capacity to manage change, agility and security, optimizing technology in teaching and learning and information technology’s value as a business partner. Change is here to stay. It has become a way of life for a Chief Information Officer and the technology professional.

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