Open Menu Close Menu

C-Level View | Feature

Higher Education IT Consultancy: A View from Both Sides of the Desk

A Q&A with Ellen Wagner

Today, institutions may find themselves exploring new ground — some have been rushed to establish or update online delivery systems in response to the pandemic; others have been struggling for some time to keep up with students' changing technology expectations and the prevalence of social media; still others are ushering in bold changes in their business models. Many institutions have turned to outside consultants to help them navigate uncharted waters.

As a seasoned higher education professional and consultant, Ellen Wagner has served on both sides of the higher education IT consultancy desk. We asked her to join us for a conversation about the role of consultants in higher education today — how they can help, how to set expectations, and why you should be sure your consultant is a good fit for your institution's culture, before you get them on contract.

desk in an office

"Universities have always looked for outside people to come in and provide insight." —Ellen Wagner

Mary Grush: There's always been change in higher education. And there have always been education consultants to help with that. Is anything different now?

Ellen Wagner: This is such a broad question. It's not as if institutions haven't been hiring consultants seemingly forever. Universities have always looked for outside people to come in and provide insight.

It's been a bit different recently, though, as remote learning has been suddenly thrust upon all of us. Too many institutions have been caught underprepared, despite having been involved, to varying degrees, in distance learning over the years. So now, there is a greater demand for outside people to come in and provide more support for institutions as they tackle these challenges.

Grush: Are academics who have consulting practices interested in filling some of these consulting roles, working in institutions other than their own?

Yes, I think they are. Consulting is not new to academics — practically every faculty member I know has their own consulting practice. In fact, it appears sometimes that this is almost as important as their teaching role.

Grush: Given that many academics have consulting practices of their own, are they more savvy about expectations for outside consultants? Are these academics in an advantageous position to guide their institutions in how to work with outside consultants?

Wagner: I'll give you a qualified "maybe" on that question. Consulting has a mixed reputation in higher education, even though we all end up acting as consultants eventually. Along with that, I think, comes a trust issue that higher education professionals will have with people they perceive to be outside of the immediate higher education practice.

Grush: Still, would higher education institutions be better off hiring consultants from higher education?

Wagner: This is a question for institutions to consider, but I think that it gets ahead of the fundamental, more important question, which is: In what ways would it be better for us to engage with an individual or an organization outside of our own, to help us solve problems or recognize new opportunities? This question should be high on the list of things to consider.

Our best consultants may be people who either have encountered a particular situation before we did, or have worked in a given area enough that they are known for their expertise in that area.

Grush: By hiring someone specifically for their recognized expertise in a given area, do you risk engaging a one-trick pony? Could you end up missing the opportunity for colleagues in your own institution to innovate?

Wagner: I suppose anything is possible, but I would have to preface this by remembering that as always, it depends. I don't offer that as a disclaimer, but in some respects, hiring a consultant might simply mean, in some cases, finding a service provider who knows how to do something better than you do. In that context, it's a fairly straight forward transaction, right?

And if you are able to break your needs down to signing on the right service provider, the consultancy experience doesn't have to be approached with suspicion or a concern that you've just shot yourself in the foot.

Grush: Can a consultant help with not only expert advice, but also by giving your staff some healthy distance from problems of process or other hangups?

Wagner: Sure. Sometimes by bringing in someone who is miles away from your own organization — and isn't in the midst of your own stew — you can unburden your colleagues, and maybe even unleash that innovation you were just mentioning and guarding so jealously.

Grush: As you approach hiring a consultant, what would you say should be the most basic and central question to ask yourself first?

Wagner: I'd ask myself: "What exactly is the problem we need to solve?" Again, it depends a lot on the particular institution. But defining the problem clearly is probably the most fruitful thing you can do.

Grush: I understand that it depends. But are there any types of issues that are somewhat timely, or current right now, that we could look to as typical examples?

Wagner: Definitely. Today, we will find lots of opportunities around remote learning — this should not surprise you. And we'll find a range of IT issues, especially related to platforms that might help with tasks associated with remote learning activity, such as remote proctoring systems.

Of course, almost any category of problem you'll run into will have multiple layers, and potentially a finite consulting task might roll into a much bigger type of activity — just another reason to define the problem carefully before the consultant starts putting in hours.

Grush: Is there a significant difference between consultants who come from higher education or have focused primarily on the higher education sector and those who come straight from the business world? What happens when consultants from the business world focus on ROI and budgets more than on the type of cost-benefit analyses that might be more indicative of higher education values?

Wagner: Yes, there is a difference between those who are experienced in the higher education culture and those who are not. Moreover, the true business consultant is specifically focused on, and trained to help organizations figure out, their financial bottom line. So the real question may be: Is it your objective to get educators to think more like business people? Is that your expectation for the consultant? And are you really thinking that educators don't know their own practice, and don't know enough to do effective cost-benefit analyses?

This all just goes back to what we've already mentioned here, about defining the problem you want to solve and specifying your consulting needs carefully. Where it gets dangerous is when people get sloppy and believe that one size fits all, and that the consulting proposition will somehow take care of itself.

We can focus on ROI and budgets where it makes sense to. There definitely are ways that business consultants can bring insights to .edu so that .edu can modify current practices with new perspectives, and look for opportunities to grow, change, and improve. Still, I would like to think that we're going to get back to the idea that the cost-benefit analyses and how educators talk about their work will be laid out more carefully and consistently, and in a useful, beneficial way.

Grush: Finally, can consultants help by keeping institutions and academics from putting unsupported ideas about their programs and initiatives "out there"?

Wagner: Ideas need to have evidence of impact or potential impact, or they are just little puffs of air. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement for a new program, to the point of just throwing ideas around in a really undisciplined manner. So, that's where hiring the right consultant — complete with clarity in contracting them — can help institutions sort out strategic thinking from vapor, and better ensure the future of programs — and of the ideas they love so much.

[Editor's note: Ellen D. Wagner is currently a senior scientist with the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Laboratory, Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida.]

comments powered by Disqus