IT’s next move: From fire-fighting to bridge building

Expert Insight

IT’s next move: From fire-fighting to bridge building

They’re too busy at the moment, but higher education IT organizations deserve to take a bow. In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, IT gave colleges and universities their only credible alternative to suspending operations. Thanks to that option, millions of students are continuing to learn, and legions of faculty and staff are fulfilling the institutional mission, staying healthy, and remaining employed.

If the COVID-19 crisis ends with this semester, that will be enough, and IT can take its well-deserved curtain call. But the possibility of an extended crisis is real. Institutions needn’t think just yet about what the post-pandemic “new normal” will be, but they do need to shore up current improvisations for potentially extended use.

IT’s short-term success is impressive but fragile

There’s no shame in IT leaders admitting  that the current environment is unsustainable. Scaling up tools that were intended to support a few people at a time into a parallel IT universe supporting everyone is a messy job that overstretches resources and leaves best practices in temporary abeyance.

Nor have we addressed all of the change that the situation may demand. If social distancing remains in place, institutions will have to redesign courses for online delivery, re-tune security practices, recover a safety margin of systems capacity, and instill constituents with more effective digital work habits. All this will have to be grafted onto significantly altered business and academic practices.

Stabilizing IT for the medium term

How can IT leaders prepare for and support a pro tem operations model that might have to see us through the rest of the calendar year? We advise that as soon as a stable conclusion to the current term is in sight, CIOs and their leadership teams should take the following actions:

Conduct a post-incident response review
Identify what went right and what went wrong. Look for short-term compromises that need to be rectified, stopgap processes showing signs of fragility, and security and privacy vulnerabilities.
Realign IT support
Maxed-out client services teams can probably ease back a notch as summer begins but need to retain elasticity in case of another surge in user need. Implement cross-training and role shadowing wherever feasible. Revisit pinch-hitter staff reassignments for longer-term sustainability. Reach out to contractors, former employees, and retirees for backup support. Confirm with HR that short-term reassignments may be extended or revised as needed.
Train, train, train
Refocus user training efforts to help the newly online move from minimal to intermediate proficiency with teaching and collaboration tools. Revitalize security awareness outreach that may have been neglected in the rush to move online.
Scrutinize processes
Senior IT leaders and the enterprise solutions team should meet intensively with customers to identify business process changes necessitated by calendar revisions, academic policy changes, deadline extensions, and other aspects of institutional crisis response.
Revisit contracts and vendor relations
Many institutions have been forced to reset terms of service under duress. While some vendors have made generous concessions, these have been informal and limited in scope, and there’s no escaping the fact that the surge in demand empowers vendors. By early June it will be time to regularize longer-term and more sustainable service agreements.
Streamline communications
Too often neglected as a luxury, IT communications has proved its value in this time of radical and fast-paced change. Ensure that you have the staff and communications channels to deliver timely, accurate information direct to users. Relying on an external communications department runs the risk of delay and message dilution.

Just as IT has been essential for meeting the immediate COVID-19 threat, it will be crucial for building a safe bridge to the future. In the coming weeks, EAB’s IT Forum will organize opportunities for IT leaders to share experiences and learn from one another. We’ll also develop toolkits for pivoting from short-term to medium-term response. And in the long run, we’ll also help you ensure that IT’s shining moment of service is remembered as leadership starts preparing for that still-to-be-determined new normal.

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