Higher Education IT Departments are Living Laboratories
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Higher Education IT Departments are Living Laboratories

Joanna Young, VP & CIO, Michigan State University
Joanna Young, VP & CIO, Michigan State University

Joanna Young, VP & CIO, Michigan State University

In the education sector, as in any industry, CIOs concern themselves with the implications and implementation of Cloud, Big Data, Mobile—and so on. However, in order to effectively address this modern technology landscape and what it offers to the new customer (more on that shortly), the education sector, especially public education (from K-16+), needs to address technical debt.

What is technical debt? Quite simply, it is the deleterious effect of insufficient or poor investment over years or even decades. Educational institutions may pride themselves on the frugality and “do it yourself” nature of their technology enterprise, pointing to “low” cost of IT; however, they do themselves and their customers no favors.

Examples of technical debt include:

- Legacy, oft-decades old, highly customized enterprise systems (i.e., human resources, finance, student) requiring onerous change and lifecycle management.

- Fragmented and aging basic services—creaky data centers, haphazardly managed servers scattered throughout, multiple and diverse instances of commodity technology such as e-mail and storage services.

- High ratio of operational expense to investment in new technology due to the time and resources required to maintain the “debt.”

- Higher-than-average incidents and problem management.

- Slow-to-market modern technology such as engaging and integrated mobile applications.

- Difficulty attracting and retaining quality technology expertise.

Most industries and organizations have a degree of technical debt, and arguably a degree of “debt” is okay or even advisable— we don’t all need to be on the leading edge. But inordinate amounts of debt, whether on credit cards or in our technology portfolio, is sub-optimal.

How can one plot a path to Cloud, Big Data and Mobile without being derailed by technical debt?

- Leapfrog strategies. Look to “skip over” large parts of a technology lifecycle and focus on a bold jump. Aging student system? Jump right over to modern, cloud-based, mobile-ready solutions.

- Leverage the eagerness of the higher education community to share. There are many formal and informal consortia. Learn from others’ successes and failures.

- Limit or eliminate do-it-yourself, customized solutions, especially in enterprise systems. What you think you are saving in avoiding paying for vended solutions you are likely exceeding in high internal costs, wearying change management, and compounded customized integration .

- Turn your vendors into partners. Need to accelerate a wireless rollout or figure out a pathway to the cloud? There is plenty of expertise to gain from the senior technical staff of brand-name vendors. Spending a day at a vendor briefing center is often a good way to get a lot of information in a short time. And remember, vendors are dependent on the workforce that higher education provides, so they are often eager to have strong relationships.

- Leverage students. From mobile applications to IPv6, students are eager to participate and learn. It’s also a great way to engage them in ways that are resume-builders for them and will persist after they graduate and go out into the wider world. Higher education IT departments are living laboratories. Work with faculty in computer science departments or similar programs to see if students are a fit with projects. Business majors are often a great resource; skills like analytics and business process reengineering are helpful to IT organizations.

- Learn from commercial enterprise. There are standards and best practices in industry that are applicable to higher education—which is different, but no more than retail, auto, financial services, and so on are different from each other. Standards and best practices like the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), IT Service Management (ITSM) and Six Sigma are just as useful in higher education as they are anywhere else.

So let’s talk about the “new customer” and why Big Data, Cloud, Mobile, etc. are necessary to attract and retain them. The higher education market is being disrupted. Changing demographics, new entrants in the marketplace, combined with shrinking state and federal funds squeeze traditional higher education models. Add to that the service and engagement expectations of the customer of 2014 and technical debt can prevent meeting and beating expectations.

“Customers expect you to know who they are no matter how they engage with you—through online portals, via social media, or in person”

Customers are looking for an experience that is offered their way. They expect you to know who they are no matter how they engage with you—through online portals, via social media, or in person. Your organization needs to be where the existing and potential customers are: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, online gaming, Huffington Post, at your door, on the other end of the phone.

To remain relevant, you’ve got to give before you get, offering content and services as a way to engage. An example where higher education engages and adds value at no cost to the customer isMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Last but not least: Keep customer information secure. Keep customer information secure. Keep customer information secure (Repetition intentional). Listen to your IT security organization; do what they advise. Make sure you thoroughly vet the security of vendors. We all know the organizations that didn’t invest in security and paid a high price.

Bring down your technical debt. Know the new customer. Your path to Cloud, Big Data—et al., will be clearer if you do these things.

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