5 things presidents need to know about IT

Expert Insight

5 things presidents need to know about IT

by Danielle Yardy, senior analyst with the IT Forum, and Jim Adams, executive director of Advisory Board’s Healthcare IT Advisor


For CIOs, toeing the “strategic partner” line is getting old—but not all academic and institutional leaders see the value in IT beyond its cost-center relationship to basic administrative functions. In this expert perspective, the IT Forum delineates some of the ways that IT adds value across campus, and the initiatives and capabilities that the President’s Cabinet need to be aware of.

1. IT is increasingly essential to implementing and executing your mission

At the dawn of the digital age, when computers were both expensive and functionally limited, IT was simply a cost to be minimized. As prices came down and capabilities increased, we started seeing IT as an efficiency tool to reduce costs or improve quality—particularly in administrative units.

Now, IT is an essential part of enabling strategies across campus. Paper-based administrative and student engagement processes (e.g., registration, scheduling, advising interactions, or bill and fee payments) are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The broad reach of IT means that it is not necessary just to spend more in IT; you need to spend smarter. IT spending that isn’t backed by a clear strategy, strong governance, and a common vision and vocabulary may hurt more than help.

We’re also in the early stages of IT-driven industry transformation. Higher education can’t focus on just automating what we’ve always done; we’re using technology to help fundamentally change the rules of education—both what we do and how we do it.

2. IT is outpacing higher education’s ability—and willingness—to adapt

In the mid-1960s, Gordon Moore of Intel noted that the number of integrated circuits on a transistor had been doubling every 12 to 24 months. His observation eventually became Moore’s Law, which states that technology capacity grows exponentially, rather than linearly, and has done so for several decades.

We’re seeing Moore’s Law-like rates of advances in computing speed, storage capacity, and, significantly, in the sheer number of devices and technology domains (e.g. 3-D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence [AI], the Internet of Things [IoT], etc.) that are useful in education. But while a generalized Moore’s Law can offer vague predictions of the rate at which the capacity of a given technology domain will advance, it’s not so easy to predict how multiple domains will interact in the future or what capabilities they will enable.

For example, only a few years ago, most experts thought that self-driving or autonomous cars were a distant goal. But by combining robotics (i.e., the car), IoT (sensors and networks), AI (machine learning), and cloud-based computing and storage, we’ve seen remarkable progress.

In the same vein, no one could have guessed that the introduction of smartphones would lead to suicide prevention technologies. But artificially intelligent applications are learning to read user emotions and push notifications to flag at-risk users based on their expressions while interacting with technology. The smartphone is no longer simply a communication device: It is a portal to an intelligent digital world. These advances have the potential to radically alter the health and safety of students, but higher education is only just beginning to experiment with predictive analytics.

Yet as much as IT has improved since the 1960s, our greatest period of IT growth could still be ahead of us. That growth will apply not just to capability, but to complexity. Therefore …

3. Expect the digital world to disrupt education

Digital disruption has already occurred in a number of industries. Amazon disrupted books and retail, Apple disrupted music sales, Uber disrupted transportation, 3-D printing disrupted manufacturing, and so on.

We can’t assume education will be immune to this type of disruption. In fact, disruption is already happening in a series of small steps:

  • Business models: Even traditional institutions are building robust online education models, from MOOCs to online sections and entirely online courses and degrees. New delivery models and pipeline expansion are big business in a non-traditional student marketplace.
  • Research and innovation: Institutions that rely on collaborative research—nationwide and across the globe—are facilitating productive interactions through virtual computing and cloud-based data sharing.
  • Relationships with students: Students are moving from being passive recipients of courses to active participants in their own education and campus life. Thanks to social media, student activists now have a direct pipeline to global audiences and their voices matter more now than ever before.

These types of disruptions are not driven entirely by technology, but they couldn’t happen without it.

Incumbents must do more than just “weather the storm” and refocus on traditional or core lines of business. They also must be able to innovate new processes, new relationships with students and faculty, and new value propositions. Given IT’s wide availability, flexibility, relatively low incremental investment, and potentially short time-to-value, IT-enabled innovation will be key to ongoing success for many institutions.

4. It is difficult to establish comparative IT benchmarks

Gathering detailed benchmarking data to assess the costs and efficiency of your IT department or to help determine if you are spending the right amount is complicated by several factors:

  • Campuses define and classify IT-related costs differently. For example, do you include online learning infrastructure and faculty training as IT-related costs? What costs for departmental systems are included?
  • Even if two institutions classify expenses similarly, they may differ in sourcing strategy (e.g. hosted on premises, in a public cloud or by an outsourcer) or application portfolio (e.g., best-of-breed patchworks versus CRM-hugging or homegrown applications), making comparisons less relevant.
  • Even if you can verify that costs for similar application portfolios are classified the same way, institutions could differ in size, complexity, strategy, stage of strategy implementation, or even how successfully the applications and technologies are being used.

High-level numbers, such as IT-related operating costs as a percent of overall operating costs, are more easily attainable, but less revealing: According to EDUCAUSE’s 2015 Core Data Survey, institutions spent a median of 4.2% of central budget on central IT, corresponding to a median of $917 per FTE (students, faculty, and staff). It still takes a lot of work to determine whether you compare favorably or unfavorably with other institutions, even within your Carnegie Classification®.

5. IT is a team sport

Success with IT-related matters is not just about the latest technology, the skill level of your IT department, or the size of the IT-related budget. It’s also about having a shared vision regarding the future of higher education and IT, aligned business and IT strategies, strong governance, and a collaborative, accountable culture.

Across industries, digital transformation and disruption have become board-level topics, just as globalization was several years ago. In higher education, many CIOs are left out of the equation. But at campuses where senior leadership engages with the CIO and holds the CIO jointly accountable for digitizing outcomes alongside other strategic partners, progress is faster and more sustainable.

Moving forward, successful campuses will need to implement similar, team-based strategies to ensure they are evaluating, investing in, implementing, and operating the right technologies in the right ways.

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