IT Trends | Feature

Reflecting on the Top IT Issues of 2012

MOOCs may seem to be at the tip of every IT leader's tongue these days, but the No. 1 concern for IT in higher education is staff and skills development, according to the annual "Educause Top-Ten IT Issues 2012" research project run by Educause's Center for Applied Research (ECAR).

According to Susan Grajek, vice president for data research and analytics at Educause, the list of issues was developed with input from a panel of 19 higher ed leaders who met quarterly to identify and prioritize the IT issues their institutions faced. Grajek and others reflected on the findings this month in a session at the Educause annual conference, which took place in Denver.

Top 10 IT Issues for 2012

  1. Updating IT professionals' skills and roles to accommodate new technologies and changing IT delivery models
  2. Supporting IT consumerization and bring-your-own device programs
  3. Developing a cloud strategy
  4. Improving the institution's operational efficiency through IT
  5. Integrating IT into institutional decision-making
  6. Using analytics to support the important institutional outcomes
  7. Funding IT initiatives
  8. Transforming the institution's business with IT
  9. Supporting research with high-performance computing, large data, and analytics
  10. Establishing and implementing IT governance throughout the institution

Source: "Educause Top-Ten IT Issues 2012" from Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR)

Issue 1: Developing Skills and Roles of IT Professionals
The issue of staff and skills development hasn't appeared on the list since 2008, coinciding with the onset of the current economic downturn; before that it had only previously surfaced in 2000 and 2001, during the dot-com boom, when a number of segments struggled to find sufficient IT talent.

Laurie Antolovic, deputy CIO and finance officer at Indiana University, who was not part of the Educause committee, said she isn't surprised to see this issue top the list. To address financial shortfalls, budgets for training and professional development have been gutted in most institutions, though it has stayed intact at Indiana U.

Not addressing staff development on a continual basis poses several potential problems. As schools look to define the best way to deliver any given IT service, including insourcing, outsourcing, cloud delivery, consortium sourcing, or some other model, those currently delivering the service may not see a role for themselves, Antolovic pointed out. "Once you start talking about sourcing options... and you don't pay attention to professional development, people begin to feel threatened."

Plus, asking people who are delivering a given IT service to examine alternatives may be a mistake. If they don't see a role for their own skills and talents, "I'm not sure we get the most unbiased opinion from those people," she said.

"I think sourcing decisions have to be made at a certain level," Antolovic noted. "But you can't ignore [the fact that] these are human beings, not machines. They have emotions." Institutions need to grow their people, she said, "so they're helping you and moving with you as opposed to holding you back. You have to paint what the new roles are so they can see a new place [for themselves]; otherwise, they will not march with you."

Issue 2: IT Consumerization and BYOD
Supporting trends toward IT consumerization and bring-your-own-device programs on campus starts, Grajek said, by figuring out what an institution's operational definition is for BYOD. "Is it BYOD or bring-your-own-environment?" she asked. Along with defining the terminology, schools need to understand the infrastructure implications, figure out what IT will and won't support on campus, and understand the security implications.

ECAR, which is just at the beginning stages of a study specifically about BYOD, offered this BYOD advice:

  • Worry about securing the data, not the device;
  • Know what services are important to your users;
  • Support as many devices as possible;
  • Make technology available to everyone, even those who can't afford it;
  • Ensure a robust network, both wired and wireless; and
  • Invest in continuous training for IT staff.

Issue 3: Developing a Cloud Strategy
Developing a cloud strategy will require IT leaders to understand how the cloud will add value to their schools. Among the areas that need to be addressed include understanding the implications for institutions, getting buy-in, and being ready to measure return on investment. Whatever the answers, ignoring the cloud isn't an option, according to committee member Joseph Vaughan, CIO and vice president for computing at Harvey Mudd College in California: "The bottom line is that you have no choice: Do it, do it soon, and keep it agile."

Quoting from Gartner, Grajek said, "Cloud computing starts at home." That means making sure services are sound internally before thinking about moving them out of house. She offered this advice from the IT consulting firm:

  • Make sure before you move to the cloud you have good data governance;
  • Don't start with a use case that would be the most difficult; go with one that'll offer a quick win;
  • Get operations virtualized before moving to the cloud; and
  • Make sure you have staff skills to manage cloud solutions, "so you go in empowered and prepared."

An Interactive View of Issues Past and Present

ECAR offers a unique graphical perspective on the changing issues that institutional IT leaders have grappled with between 2000 and 2012. Only one shows up across all 12 years: funding IT. Others, such as e-learning environments, have come and gone; e-learning didn't surface at all this year. One has shown up only in 2012: using IT to improve institutional efficiency.

Issue 4: Improving Operational Efficiency Through IT
Business process management made it into the issues list this year. Although most institutions have key technologies such as digital signing and electronic forms in place, it's far less common for schools to "broadly" restructure their business processes to exploit electronic workflow, the report stated. Currently, it's usually done piecemeal, within a given functional area.

Issues that need to be addressed in this area include figuring out which of the business processes could benefit the most from a revamp, asking whether IT's partnerships are strong enough throughout the institution in order to "define new processes and to champion and implement change," and doing a skills assessment to know what expertise or roles may be required in order to implement new processes and technologies.

The advice offered by ECAR:

  • Build applications to change rather than to last;
  • Develop expertise in business process management;
  • Because IT can't do process change alone, develop strong partnerships on campus;
  • Recognize that change touches on multiple areas: cultural, organizational, governance, and policies; and
  • Understand what the objectives are for the transformation.

Issue 5: Integrating IT Into Institutional Decision-Making
It's a constant struggle, Grajek said, for CIOs to make sure they're included in the strategic discussions taking place on campus when they walk into meetings "and they're being asked, 'Can you help me connect my mobile device to some resource?'" Ultimately, the big question CIOs must ask themselves, she noted, is whether IT's goals align with those of the institution.

To get strategic discussions going, she pointed out, IT leaders must make sure they possess the necessary skills to take part in the important campus discussions and that they understand the institution well enough to participate fully.

Harbingers of the Future
Participants in the ECAR study offered hints about what issues could possibly show up in next year's list:

  • Balancing resources with priorities;
  • Selecting right sourcing and solution strategies;
  • E-learning;
  • Supporting institutions' mobile IT needs; and
  • Workforce issues.

To keep up with the pace of change on campus and make room for the new and innovative, however, also requires that IT learn how to eliminate what has become obsolete. Among the services most schools should think about dumping, according to ECAR: personal storage for students, personal web pages, and e-mail for students.

Overall, Grajek said, "North American CIOs are quite optimistic about the CIO role." When asked to come up with a word that best described their current work, participants suggested, "hectic," "challenging," multifaceted," and "administrative," among others. When asked to describe their role for the future, they still used, "multifaceted," but they also offered, "transformed," "innovation," and "strategic."

Additional Information:

The complete ECAR report is publicly available on the Educause website.

ECAR has also developed a list of resources that pertain to each of the IT issues on the list for 2012.

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