How Intentionality Can Help Drive Strategic Wins and Institutional Success

Thomas Skill, Associate Provost and CIO, University of Dayton
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I frequently wince when I’m offered yet another opportunity for our enterprise IT operation to collaborate with a new campus partner. It’s not that I don’t value these relationships, but far too often, poorly conceived partnerships end up being a huge drain on our already overextended professional staff resulting in a very limited return on the investment. However, I’m also very sensitive to higher education’s new realities being shaped by intense competitive battles to demonstrate our long term value to an array of constituents and critics. 

With this in mind, it’s clear that IT, as a sizeable institutional cost center, needs to do a better job of aligning itself with our core businesses of education, research, and service. If we only aspire to become a highly reliable utility, we should be prepared to be outsourced to a more efficient and disinterested third party. Our value proposition must embrace the institutional mission in observable and sustainable ways. Selecting the right partners and successfully executing on worthy initiatives are two approaches that help us demonstrate IT’s strategic value to the larger institution.  

At the University of Dayton, we’ve discovered that waiting for collaborations to seek us out has been neither strategic nor particularly effective. Rather, we’ve decided to be very intentional and careful in identifying and cultivating our potential partners. We approached this challenge by asking ourselves “Which collaborations can we develop that will substantially elevate our value to the university and help strengthen our work in enterprise IT?”

  Successful partnerships are built on intentional strategic decisions 

From the IT side, recruiting and retaining great talent is an endless task. The extent to which collaborations can enhance the “quality of life” for our staff will certainly strengthen our operations. As we assess potential partnerships and projects, we internally filter them as follows:   

• By doing this, can we elevate staff engagement around innovation and workplace vitality?
• Will this effort more deeply connect IT staff with faculty and students around interesting and challenging work?
• Are we creating greater opportunities for staff recognition and celebration on projects of significance?
• Does this initiative enhance staff opportunities to directly support teaching, research, and service?
• Will this opportunity help us build new staff expertise in emerging areas of IT that link closely to institutional priorities?

Armed with responses to our self-interested objectives, we were able to rather quickly identify a short list of opportunities that intersected well with our institutional mission and academic priorities:  

• Cybersecurity
• High Performance Computing and Networking
• Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity
• Project Management and Customer Communications
• Staff Augmentation via Student Interns, Co-Ops and Graduate Assistants

As we began talking with campus colleagues about these projects, we quickly realized that a few of these topics were already percolating among the academic community. Cybersecurity and High Performance Computing were being discussed in several units—and our willingness to join in as a “neutral party” was welcomed with great enthusiasm by our campus colleagues. We learned that collaboration across academic units can sometimes become a bit competitive. For several of these areas, our enterprise IT operation was viewed as an institutional broker that could keep everyone at the table by offering to provide strategic coordination and ongoing operational oversight.

Of the five initiatives we identified, our partnerships in the area of cybersecurity have been the most productive collaborations we’ve ever encountered. As with most universities, cybersecurity has emerged as a critical institutional concern among our board and senior leadership. Additionally, academic units are moving quickly to launch new programs, establish research efforts and to find effective ways to bring together cybersecurity capabilities across complex multidisciplinary fields. The new reality is that cyber security spans the traditional technical areas of engineering and computer science while also encompassing programs in business, law, and the social sciences. This convergence of interest and needs presented an ideal collaboration opportunity for our enterprise IT organization. We were able to bring to the table the following capabilities:

• Enterprise expertise in cybersecurity that addresses academic needs and institutional priorities
• Technical teams to configure and support systems for experiential learning
• Campus training initiatives in social engineering and “cyber-mindfulness” that translates very effectively into academic content and community outreach programs
• Collaboration opportunities for participation in sponsored research proposals for both campus and regional initiatives—including successful NSF and NIST/NICE applications
• Data center space and equipment hosting resources that facilitated ease of access and cross-unit sharing

In considering the benefits of enterprise IT engaging in proactive and intentional partnership building, the following guidelines have emerged as our best practices:

1. Sitting back and waiting for potential partners to seek out the assistance of enterprise IT may not produce the greatest return on investment. Successful partnerships are built on intentional strategic decisions.
2. Enterprise IT operations need to engage in self-assessments that identify collaborations that are most closely aligned with the priorities of the institutional mission. Highly-integrated mission-centric collaborations will create the most powerful and sustainable benefits.
3. Emerging technologies, high performance systems and a willingness to partner with academic colleagues in building curriculum and research programs are core elements of disruptive innovation. Enterprise IT needs to be at the table as an eager contributor if we are to remain relevant.
4. Enterprise IT needs to build its credibility as practicing experts by engaging in externally-validated professional presentations and publications.  Celebrating these successes are key to building and sustaining these reputation-enhancing behaviors.

While our specific experiences with partnerships and collaborations may be somewhat different from other campuses, the common elements across all our institutions are that we have identifiable educational, research, and service missions that may not be well-integrated into our enterprise IT culture or practices. In addition, we all are facing substantial resource constraints that frequently force us into “survival mode” as we attempt to deliver our services. The high-risk consequence around these two factors is our willingness to simply become a reliable IT utility with limited engagement in our institutional mission. This outcome reinforces the argument that enterprise IT is little more than a commodity service best provided by the lowest cost external provider. 

In this hyper-competitive higher education environment, enterprise IT needs to be viewed as an indispensable collaborator on institutional priorities that touches the very heart of our campus missions.   Bringing an enhanced level of intentionality to the selection and cultivation of collaborative partnerships is one of the most effective ways to respond to these new performance expectations.

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