Higher Education IT Success: It's All About Scale and Collaboration

Mark Askren, CIO, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
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Mark Askren, CIO, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Mark Askren, CIO, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

It’s a new day for IT services on campus. In addition to ubiquitous connectivity, our students and an increasing number of faculty and staff are expecting mobile first, mobile everything. They’re bringing their personally owned technology (Bring Your Own Everything) with the expectation that their devices will easily connect, fully interact, and remain secure. There is no turning back to the days of well intended but often heavy-handed centralized IT control, nor should there be. The benefits of these innovations outweigh the costs of disruption. As CIOs we are well positioned in terms of infrastructure and services to drive significant and positive change.

In an increasingly competitive environment, we need strategic differentiation, organizational effectiveness, and cost efficiency to be at the forefront. Student success, career preparation, community support, and the creation of leading edge research and economic development are common goals. These goals are tightly integrated with technology and campus data. Given this connection, CIOs have an opportunity to play a key role in driving our important initiatives.

So how can we best work with senior campus executives to help our institutions compete, optimize, and transform? Our challenge is familiar: IT demand outweighs available resources by a great margin, and the gap continues to grow. We need to change our roles in addition to developing new delivery models. We can’t afford to provide institutions with the necessary level of IT services without an exponential increase in our own internal productivity through leveraging both scale and collaboration.

Higher education IT leaders have a history of working together as a community. But the sharing has not often led to the type of significant collaborations that have driven significant cost out of common core processes in academic and administrative areas. There are over 4,000 institutions of higher education within the United States made up of different classifications, curriculums and structures. Even with the wide spectrum of institutions, our operations are more similar than dissimilar, especially within common classifications. We tend to use a relatively small number of the common vendors for example for hardware and software services. Yet for expensive areas like ERP systems we’ve tended to negotiate purchases of common products individually, and modified them extensively to do common tasks in unique ways. This uniqueness often adds significant cost and complexity. Institutions working together on processes that they don’t compete, has the potential to reshape and improve our resource challenges.

“Our brightest leaders are building a next generation collaboration culture that will provide an improved understanding of foundation level best practices in technology leadership”

So why don’t we do it more effectively? Our common but distinct culture is highly resistant to change, and it is challenging to work together on a large campus let alone with dozens or more campuses across the country. However, CIOs working more effectively with Our brightest leaders are building a next generation collaboration culture that will provide an improved understanding of foundation level best practices in technology leadership. executive campus leaders can drive collaboration so that common solutions become a default norm in more cases. Recent conversations in our important communities such as EDUCAUSE show promise that changes are beginning to take place. And the Internet2 NET+ model for Cloud services is an example of CIOs working together to leverage services at scale. Our best and brightest leaders are beginning to build a next generation collaboration culture that will provide us with an improved understanding of foundation level best practices in technology leadership.

An example of future collaboration may involve sharing staff with highly specialized technical skills in areas such as security forensics and large scale data analytics. Many of our institutions struggle to staff IT organizations that have all of the expertise areas covered at sufficient depth. Working together to share staff who are highly skilled, highly paid, and in short supply will help us begin to rationalize expert staffing.

Another CIO success factor going forward is learning how to better leverage scale. Specifically we need to demonstrate the ability to find the right balance between locally sourced solutions versus leveraging the Cloud or other off-campus services. Regardless of technology trends, our responsibilities center on providing value and innovation with zero tolerance for security breaches, down time, or delays on important projects. Finding the right balance begins with categorizing which services are commodities versus strategic differentiators. Determining which services are commodities can be challenging at times, and then defining the level of a ‘good enough’ service so that we don’t overpay for a ‘great’ commodity service when it isn’t required are two important ongoing decisions. And commodities don’t need to be locally sourced if they are highly available and secure.

Examples of commodity services are storage and processing cycles for the majority of institutional needs (not involving sensitive data or some forms of specialized computing). Additional commodity services can often include email and calendaring, data center operations, and some forms of network access. The category definition is less clear when evaluating services such as the call center, classroom design, security, equipment repair, communications and financial services. These tend to be hybrid services where local knowledge is important for quality yet solutions at scale are available.

Those services that leverage local knowledge and benefit from face-to-face communication in establishing strong partnerships make the most sense to retain on campus. IT services well suited for local sourcing include business process analysis, teaching and learning support, and IT leadership positions. And student employees are always a great local value for campus IT organizations.

Another key success factor involves selecting partners for off campus services. Who can we trust, and how do we assess whether these relationships are in our institutions’ best interests? In higher education we’ve been fortunate not to experience a large scale ‘epic fail’ involving a Cloud service provider. But it is bound to happen. And when it does, will it be seen either in the context of a bad implementation of a sound strategy, or instead characterized as vindication for the belief that we’ve moved too far and too fast in leveraging off campus solutions.

There is risk in changing our sourcing mix, but perhaps even greater risk in trying to hold on to all services locally. It is unclear how we can create breakthroughs in IT productivity to meet the ever increasing campus demands if we hold onto the current mix of the overwhelming majority of services and infrastructure being housed and managed locally. We’ll need to take calculated risks to move forward, and this is our opportunity, as CIOs, to add value and demonstrate leadership within higher education.

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