Interactive Report: The State of Higher Ed Strategic IT Planning

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Prioritizing Technology, Becoming Entrepreneurial

March 15, 2019
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By Rajiv Shenoy, Chief Technology Officer, Apogee

Higher education institutions are intended to be meccas for learning. Their ultimate vision is to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders are well-prepared to be productive members of the societies into which they graduate. To do so, these institutions must be up-to-date with the changing landscape of society, and that includes technology. But technology is changing rapidly, and universities often feel pressure to always be on the cutting edge. Rather than react to the latest and greatest technologies, higher ed leaders must not only plan for strategic change but also support the operational technology infrastructure — “the plumbing” — which remains critical to learning.

To take advantage of emerging trends and to meet the institution’s strategic mission and goals is often a balancing act. In this white paper, we will address the considerations leaders must evaluate when balancing strategic change with optimizing operationally essential technology. This is extremely important, because if we are ineffective operationally, we’ll never be able to excel at strategic positioning.

Operationally Essential Technology

Almost everyone is familiar with Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” a principle for human motivation symbolized by a pyramid. Some have applied the pyramid to technology, naming it Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Technology” and picturing the pyramid with “Infrastructure & Connectivity” at the base and “Paradigm Shifts” at the top. In this digital age, Infrastructure and Connectivity is a service that has become surprisingly similar to water and clean air— a fundamental operational need of the modern institution and a necessity for success. (But students won’t choose your university because you have a great Student Information System or grants won’t be awarded because a university has strong ERPs, or Enterprise Resource Planning systems.) While critical to the operation of your campus, these functions aren’t always associated with driving strategic or innovative change. The assumption that connectivity is abundant forms the base of technology hierarchies, whose ultimate goals evolve into paradigm shifts.

Consider the situation at Furman University. Furman is a private university known for its solid liberal arts education, but an initiative launched in October 2016 put this South Carolina school on the map for what it can do for students outside of the classroom and into their futures.

The initiative was “The Furman Advantage,” a four-year pathway that focuses heavily on not only providing experiential learning opportunities to every student but also tracking their progress through specially-designed software to prepare them for accelerated career and community impact. The program was brought on under the leadership of Furman President Elizabeth Davis.

When Chief Information Officer David P. Steinour returned to Furman in 2017, after having spent seven years at George Washington University, he was tasked with a commitment to meeting deadlines for the strategic goals associated with the Furman Advantage. This is how he chose to start addressing these goals.

Since the assurances of The Furman Advantage required unprecedented tracking of activities and outcomes across the curriculum, Steinour’s first decision was to implement a new ERP system. The ERP was the cornerstone of The Furman Advantage.

ERP systems are operationally essential technologies necessary to any institution – combining sensitive data such as student information, financial management, financial aid, and human resources materials in one system. They centralize business processes in what historically has been a hodgepodge of siloed legacy systems. Without efficient ERP software, schools cannot implement, and track technologies more directly related to student success.

“Early on, we realized that to support the campus-wide initiative to personalize virtually everything about the Furman experience, we needed a store of clean, integrated data, with everything connected to and drawing from a core system of records,” said Steinour.

For the initiative to succeed, Steinour determined that ownership of the ERP and its associated systems had to be distributed across the enterprise rather than seated within Information Technology Services (ITS). Individual departments had been growing the inventory of one-off, siloed systems for years; ending this would require the strategic participation of departments at every turn. So, Steinour emphasized relationship prioritization to implement the new ERP. Since cultural buy-in is key for any change, including that of changing operationally essential technology, Steinour and ITS leaders created focus groups and discussed the upcoming changes with stakeholders to ensure successful campus-wide collaboration. Representatives from key areas participated in the selection process of an outside partner to implement and optimize this operationally essential technology.

“Next generation IT requires not only transforming IT’s role from provider to facilitator, but also evolving its primary concerns from operational activities to strategic participation. To support this realignment, Furman is moving its data center off premise and outsourcing its student residential network to enhance internet and online services for students, which also removes the residential internet traffic load from its core university network,” Steinour added.

By relinquishing its role as a provider of technologies, Furman ITS instead became a relationship manager, ensuring cultural alignment on campus, and managing infrastructural technologies that would promote the Furman Advantage. They used enterprise system implementation as they transitioned from technology supplier to broker and partner.

Strategically Essential Technologies

In the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Internet of Things (IoT), and myriad other acronyms and buzz words, being a higher education technology leader can be a dizzying task. After stabilizing operational technologies, leaders must prioritize strategically essential technologies by ensuring investments support student success and institutional strategic plans. Just because cutting-edge technology exists does not mean it is a cultural, financial, operational, or technological fit for every institution.

Here are some strategies for evaluating and prioritizing technologies.

Is the Technology Advancing Rapidly?

Consider how fast strategic technologies may be growing so that you can first ensure operational technologies will be up to par before the need arises to implement a strategic technology. Educause’s “2018 Trends and Technologies: Domain Reports” is a helpful place to start and analyze the speed at which technologies are developing. Understanding the technologies that are most relevant for your institution and how fast a certain strategic technology may be growing is critical to institutional IT strategy.

Are Students Empowered?

Strategically essential tasks will support students in the short and long term. According to the Educause report, for example, the most influential trend on teaching and learning is the focus and imperative of student success. Of the 25 technologies occupying the domain of teaching and learning, 7 of them appear in the Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2018: uses of APIs (#1); active learning classrooms (#2); incorporation of mobile devices in teaching and learning (#3); technologies for improving analysis of student data (#5); technologies for planning and mapping student educational plans (#6); predictive analytics for student success (institutional level) (#8); and student success planning systems (#10).

Look at Outcomes

When prioritizing technologies, look at outcomes. While AI chatbots have been proven to reduce “summer melt” and increase matriculation by helping students complete pre-enrollment tasks, such as submitting transcripts and taking care of immunization requirements, the verdict is still out about what VR technologies have been able to accomplish thus far in the classroom due to content challenges. Along with the “intelligent things (IoT),” we’d suggest keeping an eye on some additional education-specific trends in 2019: integrated systems to support student-centered learning, online collaborative learning/co-construction, technologies to support project-based learning, and technologies to support virtual and physical maker-spaces.

Finally, Consider Culture

The University of the Pacific, for example, a nationally ranked university (#106 in Best Colleges in Universities) with three distinct campuses united under one goal, worked with university stakeholders before reworking ITs structure and creating the university’s first IT strategic plan. IT then created goals including analyzing emerging technologies and defining initiatives to map university goals. The first step over two years was “stabilizing the technology infrastructure” – shoring up operationally essential technologies to create a culture of innovation. These efforts, combined with a series of meetings with university leaders on the need for technology governance, slowly turned the institution in a new direction.

“IT is currently implementing our outcomes-based strategy with the innovation section of the plan including the ability to proactively engage, partner, and contribute to university’s innovation,” said Peggy Kay, assistant vice president, Technology Customer Experience.

*Figure 2 – University of the Pacific Plan

Training Your Team to Be Entrepreneurial

To move from operationally essential to strategic initiatives requires change. And the prospect of change can be daunting. But if managed correctly the process doesn’t have to be painful. Given higher education’s changing landscape, IT leaders must be ready to lead this change. Cherishing an entrepreneurial mindset is an important piece of the puzzle. Here leaders are catalysts for change for their teams, and teams feel confident tackling new projects and improving the organization. Leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset will:

  1. Search for New Ways to do Business – A change leader continuously questions processes and searches for better ways to do business. These leaders create a culture in which identifying and solving challenges is encouraged.
  2. Communicate Clearly – Communication is king when it comes to change. From Day 1 it’s critical to have all members of the team behind the leader.
  3. Let your Team Create Solutions – Once challenges have been identified, work with teams to solve the challenges. The scale of challenges will vary, and leaders can help teams prioritize accordingly. Some challenges will be small undertakings, others will be large. As a leader, organize your priorities accordingly. We all have limited resources, so allocating appropriately within our priorities is essential.

Entrepreneurs must be very pragmatic about how they invest their limited time and resources. The matrix below is a best practice that will help prioritize your team’s energy and effort.


  • Bottom right. These are low cost/low impact endeavors. They’re are worth pursuing but should be only done when the team has extra time.
  • Bottom left. These high cost/low impact endeavors can be difficult to manage, as teams will generally assume high costs must automatically mean solutions will be high impact. But this is not always the case. Leaders must be prepared to reject these. Quantify its impact and be ready to say no – with a solid explanation.
  • Top left. Here are high cost/high impact investments. Choose these selectively, as they can create a paradigm shift, and require a dedicated team.
  • Top right. This quadrant is straightforward. These are low cost/high impact tasks which should be accomplished first and require immediate attention.

Adapting this impact/time-cost formula will help you determine how to invest your team members’ time and resources. Part of the entrepreneurial mindset is to delegate tasks. Often, we want to create functionality within our organization; however, the reality is several partners, companies, and even other universities have solved the same issue. Understanding when to outsource a task versus doing it in-house is a critical next step.

For example, a large state system with 15 regional campuses was evaluating the university’s strategic plan and inefficiencies. They discovered each regional campus had its own email server and email engineering team. The provost and CIO determined that although email was not strategically essential it was operationally essential to the institution’s mission. The team issued a RFI to outsource email management. After receiving responses, they realized the impact of outsourced email would be high and the cost would be low – they would save millions per year and see a return on investment almost immediately. To create strategically operational tasks for the team of 20 email engineers, the CIO offered the team training in data engineering to support a more strategic mission than email– the university’s research goals. The email engineers felt more strategic, accepted the training, and had greater job security upon transitioning. The entrepreneurial mindset here created tremendous value for the organization.

 Educause posits that the four major themes of 2018 trends and strategic technologies are: institutional adaptiveness, improved student outcomes, improved decision-making, and IT adaptiveness. Innovating around these categories will help students experience success, leading to more productive and better-prepared 21st century young people contributing to a global society. Supporting institutional and IT adaptiveness will prepare institutions for future success, allowing them to innovate alongside technologies of the future.

Identifying and planning for operationally versus strategically essential tasks is no small feat. But it is one that can be accomplished with an entrepreneurial team and collaboration with trusted partners when cultural alignment exists.

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