Open Menu Close Menu

IT Management

Developing Your IT Staff for a Service World

While technical expertise definitely has its place in higher education, increasingly IT departments need to sharpen other kinds of skills to succeed.

The University of Toledo has consolidated several IT departments, and now it faces a new challenge: rationalizing the numerous job titles possessed by people from all of those various areas. "From one area we have 32 different job titles. From another we have 15. Then in another we have 18, and one with nine," bemoaned Carol Lawrence, the assistant director for IT Project Administration in charge of the project. "We want to make them 'centralized' and also be meaningful in terms of where are we going for the future."

The effort isn't simply a matter of simplifying the org chart. It'll also help IT leadership build "a roadmap of opportunities" for the employees so they can figure out how to maneuver in their careers. Eventually, Lawrence predicted, the university may offer a "rotational," to allow staffers to "learn different areas within the departments."

IT is an area where skills are continually being redefined as innovations and new practices in technology evolve. In fact, in Educause's 2016 roster of top IT issues in higher ed, workforce hiring and retention came in at No. 4. (Last year, it was first on the list.) But some skills are turning out to be more important to the future of the institution than others.

Later this year, Educause will be issuing the results of a large study based on a survey filled out by some 1,800 people in the IT workforce. According to Susan Grajek, vice president for data, research and analytics, 16 skills were listed and respondents were asked to specify how important each was to their "work success" and how proficient they already were at the given skill. Three-quarters, she reported, specified "IT as a service" as "very important or extremely important" for the success of their jobs. While the smallest gap between need and personal proficiency lay with "technical proficiency," the top four skills designated as most important could all be classified on the soft side: 1) to communicate effectively; 2) to influence others; 3) to negotiate; and 4) to think strategically and plan.

The question for IT leaders is how to keep operations humming at the same time you bring your people up to speed on the kinds of skills particularly well suited for a service world.

Practice and Mentoring

"Anything-as-a-service is growing," declared Lori Sundal, deputy CIO for IT Service Delivery at Georgia Institute of Technology. When her IT team goes in to fulfill a request these days, she said, "We [know] we could do this with a Web service." So instead of staffers keeping their skills tuned as "subject-matter experts" on whole applications, they're becoming "much more engaged" in the integration aspects of the work, she explained. (She anticipates a day when "integration specialist" or "integration analyst" could become a common job title.)

Boning up on integration skills calls for retraining through vendor classes; bringing trainers on site; and encouraging people to do self-study. It also necessitates assigning tasks that let people practice their new skills immediately while benefiting the institution as well. If they don't get the chance to use their knowledge, Sundal pointed out, "then it goes nowhere."

At the same time, Sundal's staff needs to get more comfortable in dealing directly with the "customers" they're delivering services to. That puts the emphasis on soft skills. "As we move forward, customer relationship management, vendor relationship management, things like that, become even more important," and so do the soft skills, such as "being able to communicate effectively with a diverse group and understanding things like emotional intelligence and your personality type compared to someone else's," said Sundal.

Those abilities aren't so easy to obtain in a class, so Sundal and her peers do mentoring. She'll step in for some just-in-time coaching when it appears her technical people "aren't communicating effectively or in a very harsh way that's going to cause a different kind of problem."

Embracing a Change Mentality

George Claffey Jr. faces a different set of challenges as CIO at Charter Oak State College, an entirely online institution in Connecticut. "It's a public college. We're a union workforce," he explained. While union rules mandate a 40-hour workweek for staff, an all-online school requires coverage 24/7. So the college has turned to a combination of on-call planning and third-party providers for support coverage right alongside the use of "outsourcing to commodity providers in the cloud."

The mix has required his workforce to become "more nimble," he said, particularly as the cycle of change is happening faster. "We used to be able to put a desktop on the faculty workstation that was by and far going to be there for five years. Maybe we updated it once and maybe we didn't. But it was pretty static," Claffey said. "I think that's a good example of how the staff was too. They would learn a single operating system or a single version of code, and we expected that that was going to persist for a long time. We don't have that today. We need to become a much more agile organization."

Plus, IT no longer sets the bar for standards — users do. And their expectations are fixed by places like Amazon and Apple, Claffey added. "The students are comparing us with their best experiences, not experiences of other colleges, which is a struggle for us, because we don't have Amazon's budget."

In response, IT at Charter Oak has evolved from doing more than just providing help. "We're almost providing concierge services where possible to help [improve] the student's experience," he said.

About three years ago his organization embraced ITIL, the service management practices that map IT work to business needs. The college brought in a trainer and held an off-site meeting for everybody in IT, which turned out to be "worth the money," recalled Claffey. Not only was it a great team- and skill-building experience, he said, "but it also created a common vocabulary among the staff. We were all able to talk about service delivery and expectations in the unit, all having had that same experience."

The shift occurred in the context of an earlier institutional initiative. In anticipation of becoming a "change organization," Charter Oak's institutional leadership embraced the study of John Kotter's book, Our Iceberg Is Melting, which promises to "motivate people to face the future and take action." As Claffey noted, adoption of a change mindset is great for the culture of the college and for his retention efforts. "People want to stick around, because their jobs are meaningful. There is some level of personal reward and accomplishment at the end of the day."

Nor does it hurt that that Claffey has been able to maintain a healthy training budget for IT. He said that his department tries to develop a career path for every staff member. The training is intended to help staffers achieve their goals while serving the needs of the college. For example, a director of enterprise systems wanted to get into information security about the same time the institution required a chief information security officer. Though it was a "lateral" move, it suited his growing interest. So he was sent to SANS for security training. That shift created an opening to promote another staff member who needed "new manager" training; she was sent to an Educause event for that.

As a service orientation infiltrates every hallway of the school, one challenge remains: helping people learn to get comfortable moving "front and center." It's easier for people like Claffey to do that because "we've always done it." But now, those on the help desk or in the data center are also expected to provide client and service updates. "For years, we've promoted and rewarded people for being the smartest geek in the room — for lack of a better term. Now it's not enough today to be the smartest person in the room. You've got to be able to explain that in laymen's terms to business owners. And you have to understand their business. So that's our struggle now — to create a higher ed business acumen across all levels of the organization, not just at the top level."

3 Ways to Fine-Tune an IT Team

Focus on their happy place. George Claffey Jr., CIO at Charter Oak State College (CT), and Lori Sundal, deputy CIO for IT Service Delivery at Georgia Institute of Technology, both acknowledge that higher ed can't always meet the salaries dangled by the corporate world. So they make sure their people stay hooked in other ways. For Sundal that means includes keeping staff "happy," "growing" them, and giving them "challenging opportunities to keep them interested." Claffey said he finds the college atmosphere and an online school in particular a "fun and interesting place to work," adding, "We've only been around since the 1970s, and we've consistently changed and evolved."

Tap the education your own school delivers. When an "operations and communications director" position was added to the staff at Charter Oak, the final candidate had a lot of communication experience, so he was enrolled in the college's own credit-bearing certificate program for project management. "We're eating our own dog food," Claffey crowed. "We're able to say this isn't just good for everybody else; this is good for our people too. It has been a valuable product to him. And it's also a valuable skill to us."

Keep your own skills sharp too. Sundal expects to put a lot of personal attention on the area of accessibility over the next year. "It's a hard nut to crack," she noted. "I'm on several committees here, and we are making really good strides. But it's a huge issue. You have to educate the campus. We have to have subject-matter experts (SMEs) who really understand it. We have to test our [services] via screen readers and other things of that nature. And the harder part is probably our procurement side of things, making sure that as we procure, it's successful. There's a long way to go overall."

comments powered by Disqus