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How Can the Campus IT Department Be Saved?

University of Georgia CIO Timothy Chester offered attendees at last week's CT Forum five crucial guidelines for keeping campus IT relevant and responsive in a changing technological and cultural landscape.

The conditions that gave rise to centralized IT departments in higher education no longer exist. So in order for IT leaders and staffers to survive--let alone thrive--in this new milieu, the focus of the college and university IT department has to undergo some dramatic change, according to Timothy Chester, the new CIO at the University of Georgia.

Chester, who was CIO at Pepperdine University from 2007 to 2011 and CIO at Texas A&M University's Qatar campus prior to that, was a keynote speaker at the 2011 CT Forum, held last week in Long Beach, CA, where he addressed the evolving role of IT in higher education and the challenges it will face in the coming decade.

He said that while he thinks the fate of higher education is, in fact, intertwined with technology, it is not necessarily intertwined with central IT--at least not in its present form.

"The world has dramatically changed [on] us," Chester told attendees, "into a world that is decentralized, where individuals and institutions no longer have to depend on [central IT] organizations for information or services. They can go out and get these things themselves. So while technology is absolutely incredibly important to the future of higher education, for those of us in the technology business in higher education, the world is not necessarily so clear."

In fact, he argued, "There are real questions out there about whether or not IT organizations can survive this very decentralized world."

Among the challenges to the traditional way of doing IT on campus, he said, is the ease with which faculty members and campus community at large can access technologies that, 10 years ago, were the exclusive domain of the IT department, from consumer- and office-level services like e-mail to high-end compute clusters.

"Ten years ago when I wanted to send e-mail or if I wanted store documents or if I wanted to collaborate with others as a faculty member, I had no choice but to depend on services that my institution provided me.... Today, with a credit card, I can go and have document storage; I can have an e-mail account; if I'm a researcher, I can go to an have a cluster of computers running inside of an hour," he said. "I have tremendous flexibility and control to take the reins of my own destiny like I never had before. And because of that, I no longer have to depend upon central IT like I used to."

The way forward in this new environment, however, isn't entirely obvious. Competing opinions from influential voices have made their way into the discussion in recent years, with suggestions ranging from changing the reporting structure to realigning the mission of the organization to scrapping central IT altogether. At the core of most of the discussions though is some sort of fundamental change in how IT does its business and how it can be refocused to address both the technology and leadership needs of higher education to improve education as a whole.

Chester offered five guidelines, or what he termed "lessons," for IT leaders to consider as they move forward in a time of dramatic cultural and technological changes that have led to the current uncertain position in which central IT finds itself.

1. First, he said, IT departments must define and approach their work in fundamentally different ways.

"We've got to dramatically rethink the way we approach the roles that we play in the organization," he said.

Chester laid out those roles on a "value curve"--from the transactional roles (important but purely technical functions) to the "thought leader" roles (requiring a broad and versatile skill set and producing "transformative" contributions to the organization).

Timothy Chesters IT value curve. Complete presentation materials can be accessed in PDF form on the CT Forum site.
Timothy Chester's IT value curve. Complete presentation materials can be accessed in PDF form on the CT Forum site.

Campus IT, he argued, shouldn't choose between one or the other. Rather, competent execution of the lower-order roles will lend the IT organization the credibility it needs to be considered for higher-order functions.

"They're incredibly symbiotic. One depends on the other. You don't get to do the upper-right-hand-quadrant stuff unless you do the lower-left-hand-quadrant stuff incredibly well," he said. "If you cannot make the trains run on time, you do not have the credibility to convene any conversation."

2. IT departments also have to adjust their hiring, professional development, and retention practices. This involves, among other things, establishing competencies for each position in the value curve and working those into employee hiring, training, and management.

At the transactional level, these include skills like teamwork and accountability; at the next level are analytical thinking, communications, and project management; at the third level are staff leadership competencies (such as the ability to develop and encourage others), relationship-building, and "emotional intelligence"; and finally at the top are change-advocacy and strategic planning.

These are key, Chester argued, not just for accomplishing what needs to get done in the lower left but for establishing the credibility needed to move up to the upper right in the value curve.

3. Chester advised that IT also engage in rigorous assessment and program review to focus on IT outcomes and ensure accountability. For Chester in his time at Pepperdine (and now at U Georgia), this has involved surveying a sampling of the university population (as opposed to relying on sometimes quirky focus groups) to determine how well the IT department is serving its constituents, what those constituents expect, and what IT might need to do better.

4. Next, he said, IT departments must rethink present sourcing arrangements and make adjustments where it makes sense. Though outsourcing may be frowned upon by central IT staffs, Chester said, where it makes sense to embrace the concept for efficiencies and economies of scale is in the lower left of the value curve, the "transactional" roles. At the same time, the upper-right, transformative roles should be kept in house more often than it currently is and relegated to the "best and brightest," rather than farmed out to consultants while the in-house staffers wait for their orders from outsiders.

"We need to stop that, and we need to change that model," Chester argued.

5. And finally, he said, IT has to focus on building and leveraging natural alliances for the IT organization--from researchers and facilities staff to the business staff to academic and library leadership.

"The question is: Can we change to develop ourselves so that we can engage these natural alliances and we can go out and do dramatically different things?" he said. "I want to challenge you with that ... because I think that if we approach this from the same technology-centric view--the same way we approach the building of networks, the way we approach bringing the Internet to our campuses, the way that we approached Web-enabling services on the Internet--if we take that same mindset and that same skill set into the challenge of technology advocacy, we really, really will struggle...."

Chester's presentation materials can be accessed online now on the CT Forum site. Session recordings are expected to be available within the month.

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