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4 IT Professional Development Challenges Solved

Keeping college IT teams up to date and at least in line with — if not ahead of — the technology curve is becoming more difficult as technology continues to evolve, students bring more mobile devices on campus, and budget cuts take their toll on the nation's institutions. Developing and using an effective professional development program is critical, but not always easy to create and implement. Below are four challenges that usually come up and some tips on how to work through the issues.

Endless Need for Continual, Overall Improvement
"Demand for IT services is extremely high on campus right now," said Nancy Crouch, deputy CIO at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. "That pressure is on to continually update the IT team's skills and roles to accommodate emerging technologies, support existing services, and manage change both within the IT organization and for the university as a whole."

That 3-pronged goal can only be achieved through continual, overall improvement, said Crouch, who said she sees open communication and transparent processes as the two vital ingredients for a successful professional development program. Involve everyone from the lowest-level position to the CIO, she suggested, and reward those who commit to continual improvement. "Everyone on our IT team has a development plan that's revisited two to six times annually," said Crouch. "We're always raising the bar on continual improvement."

Keeping Up with Technological Evolution
As a project manager with the Learning Space Design group at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA, Matthew Silverman helps design the AV and IT systems for learning spaces on campus. He and his team are constantly being barraged by new technologies, with recent projects including a complete transition from analog to digital systems.

"That move required a fundamental rethinking and retraining of our staff members, some of whom have 20+ years of experience in IT," said Silverman. Successful strategies that GMU employed included partnering with one of its largest vendors to conduct two-day onsite training classes, providing supplemental training over time, and explaining to team members the need for the overhaul.

"We explained why the change was taking place and that the world wasn't against them," said Silverman, who estimates the rate of change for the typical IT professional to be at least every three years. "The industry just keeps evolving and we have to keep up."

Proliferation of Student-Owned Devices
The days when college IT teams controlled and supported all of the equipment, software, and computers in use on campus are long gone. Today's schools play host to a wide range of laptops, tablets, smartphones, videogame consoles, and other student-owned devices. When those computers and phones fail, however, the IT team is expected to be able to fix them.

"Students and faculty are bringing an ever-increasing variety of devices in for tech support," said Jim Harnden, CIO at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ.

To keep up with the onslaught the school buys sample units and/or asks vendors to provide evaluation units that the IT team uses to familiarize itself with the devices. "Play time" takes place on Friday afternoons in a sandbox-like atmosphere where staff members experiment with the equipment.

"This is a low-cost way to keep everyone up to speed," said Harnden, "while also motivating them to actually want to get hands-on with the same equipment that students and faculty are using."

Unclear Career Paths
The path to the top isn't always clear for entry-level IT professionals, according to Crouch, particularly when becoming a manager isn't on the individual's agenda. She said convincing technical types that there are indeed opportunities to grow without becoming a manager or a director isn't always easy.

"As universities we compete with the rest of the world for the top IT employees, but we don't always have defined career paths for our team members," said Crouch.

Getting around this professional development challenge requires clear definitions of roles and organizational structure along with a commitment to providing both formal and informal learning opportunities.

"Plan for career growth in parallel tracks — both technical and management," stated Crouch, who said she sees online and face-to-face mentoring among team members as a particularly cost-effective way to convey potential career paths and opportunities.

Involving the human resources department in the process can also be helpful, said Crouch, who advises IT departments to align their career path goals with university-wide initiatives. "Be sure to map professional development activities not only to individual and team plans," said Crouch, "but also to the institution's strategic goals."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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