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10 Ways to Change a Higher Ed IT Culture

The information technology services department at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse transformed its culture via a simple, step-by-step process.

10 Ways to Change a Higher Ed IT Culture

In early 2010, the Information Technology Services (ITS) department at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse was looking for a new start.

Over the previous two years, the department had undergone a difficult and challenging external review and audit. The results of that process were not good: The audit cited low staff morale and a general leadership void that had led to concerns about the organization's ability to serve the IT needs of a state university with more than 10,000 students, nearly 600 faculty, 91 undergraduate programs and 26 graduate programs.

The ensuing changes started with the hiring of a new chief information officer, Mohamed Elhindi, who almost immediately charged Academic Technologies Director Jim Jorstad with the mission of transforming a moribund IT culture into one that would embrace change, empower employees, promote teamwork and encourage collaboration.

"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy, quick fix," Jorstad said, now five years into the transformation. "You have to strategize to do it." That's why Jorstad and his team came up with a process they believe has successfully turned their organization's 40-plus-member staff around.

Today, he said, the rapport between the university and the ITS team has never been better. Assessments indicate faculty are ever more interested in expanding their use of technology tools, to the point where it is not uncommon to get more than 200 responses (a 35 percent rate) on surveys. More and more tech training classes have to be scheduled because attendance is so brisk and, in the fall of 2014, hundreds of faculty, staff and students from universities all over Wisconsin came to La Crosse for a Technology Showcase at which companies like Dell, Oracle, Intel and even General Motors demonstrated their latest products for higher education.

The process all started with an effort to build 10 distinct qualities into all ITS activities:

1) Increase Communications

Jorstad said the first thing his team realized is that ITS had to improve its delivery if it wanted the university community to listen to its messages. With that, the department increased the quality of all its e-mail communications, including the production of highly polished videos. For example, one series with a continuing "Tool Time" theme invites viewers to sign up for workshops and training sessions.

"When we use a highly produced video program, I can send a message out at 8 a.m. and I will double our projected attendance at an event by lunchtime," he said.

2) Be Innovative

Expose faculty and students to innovation by giving them the opportunity to do some experimentation themselves. In its own facility, ITS installed a 3D Printer Lab, equipped with a Web cam, so that community members could investigate the technology on their own, learning the best way to use it in their work and courses. With the IT staff's help, for example, an art professor was able to simulate the reliefs of Egyptian hieroglyphics for an ancient archaeology class.

3) Build Relationships

"This is where a cup of coffee can go a long way," Jorstad said.

The department began holding day-long training sessions on a variety of technology topics, interspersed with plenty of networking opportunities. "This kind of thing gets people talking to each other," he said.

ITS distributed "passports" in which attendees could collect stamps certifying their session attendance. And at the end of one three-session workshop, every attendee got an IT-related "goodie bag" of gifts. "Everybody stayed the full day because they wanted the parting gift," Jorstad said. "It was a big thing; they wanted their door prizes."

4) Create a Vision

Understanding the ITS department needed to be less isolated and more a part of the larger university community, its staff initiated collaborative efforts with other campus units. For instance, when the university library was planning a Learning Commons that students could use in a number of different ways to enhance their own learning, Jorstad enlisted the help of furniture maker Herman Miller to study what would be the best configuration of furniture and technology for the facility — and then watched how students were using it.

The result wasn't perfect: "We realized that the students weren't talking to each other," he said. Yet rather than being a stumbling block, that realization led to further discussion and collaboration.

5) Create a Strategy

With the understanding of why the new Learning Commons might be underutilized, the now-collaborative team of ITS and library officials opened up the process to an even wider group and invited faculty members into the discussion. The key was to help faculty members find ways to engage students with assignments that would encourage them to communicate more with one another.

6) Earn Trust

This quality goes back to the heart of one of the most serious findings in the ITS audit: low staff morale. Jorstad started having detailed meetings with staff members, both in small groups and as an entire group, during which ITS leaders tried their best to describe the department's role in the university.

"Sometimes staff in IT don't understand the political realm they live in," he explained.

The goal was to make every single staff member understand that he or she was part of a team that was working together to serve a purpose that was greater than the sum of all its parts.

"To have trust, you need to speak with one voice," Jorstad said. "You have to be as honest and have as much integrity as you can."

7) Take Risks

"Sometimes we don't push our staff to grow," Jorstad said. That's why he changed the process for making IT purchasing decisions. Replacing a model whereby purchasing was the province of a handful of senior managers, ITS set up a new procedure that put those decisions directly in the hands of the people who knew the most about what was required: the staff itself.

It took a while to get this element rolling, Jorstad admitted. "People would think, 'This is too scary,'" he said, "but I want these people to have involvement" that leads them to take more risks and develop more confidence.

8) Accept Failure  

Of course, taking risks also means experiencing some failures.

"We celebrate it," Jorstad said. "We're all human. There have to be times when you say, 'I've learned from my mistakes.'"

He likes to remind the staff that inventor Thomas Edison didn't say he made 10,000 mistakes during his career. "He said he conducted 10,000 experiments before he got it right," Jorstad noted.

9) Have Empathy

"IT is not an 8-to-5 job," Jorstad pointed out, and managing that can be a challenge. "It's important for us to help people balance their lives."

That includes the acknowledgement that employees have things going on in their personal lives that can impact their work, and vice versa. It's a lesson, he said, that was not always taught previously in the department.

10) Empower the Staff

Whenever new staff members come on board, Jorstad spends time with them — often several hours — getting to know them and explaining the importance of their contributions to the ITS total mission.

Having staff members who understand they have both the opportunity and the responsibility to act to benefit the department and the university is probably the most important of the 10 attributes, Jorstad said: "It helps you get through change."

Information technology, he added, "is always about change."

The department is constantly introducing change to other people in the university and helping them deal with it. To do that, the department has to deal with it as well. "It gets you through the tough times," Jorstad said.

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