Revamping the State of Higher Education with Technology

Bob Lim, CIO, University of Kansas
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Bob Lim, CIO, University of Kansas

There’s no shortage of challenges for CIOs in any industry, and just keeping pace with emerging technology can feel like an endless sprint. It’s difficult not to lose sleep over the day-to-day decisions of budgets, infrastructure, vendors, solutions and myriad other choices. However, CIOs must continue to hire exceptional staff to address our issues today and tomorrow, address the bits and bytes of what we can solve today, and always have our eyes set on “How do we make sure that technology meets the present and future needs of our customers?” and “How do we align our technology with the institution’s mission and strategic goals?”

“Being a CIO is more challenging than ever before—but also more rewarding.”

Competitive Advantage

Information Technology today must transcend the utilitarian focus on cables, computers and software. We can’t be satisfied with providing computers, Internet connectivity and software—those things are now basic expectations, like electricity or running water.

So rather than just focusing on maintaining systems and “keeping the lights on,” we must work more closely with customers and clients to understand their goals and provide innovative solutions to accelerate their success. To add competitive value for our customers and our institution, we have to work and have agreement at a higher level and help students, faculty, staff and the entire university community to improve their processes and their business models to maximize their efforts.

Technology is a force multiplier for maximizing effectiveness, leveraging resources and helping customers achieve success, but our capabilities and ability as IT professionals add value beyond technology. Our skills in diagnosing problems and finding solutions, our experience in managing complexity and our focus on innovation all add value in helping to improve business processes for our customers and our organizations. By examining business processes in our organizations, we drive innovation that separates us from our competitors.  Although we partner and share in higher education, we also must realize that we compete. Sometimes this work results in adoption of new technologies, but sometimes new technology isn’t needed for process improvements or to revolutionize the work environment.

By expanding focus beyond technology and driving more efficient, effective and innovative ways of working through business process improvements, IT organizations can add value and provide their centers or institutions with a competitive advantage.

Focus on the Right Technologies

Even as we expand our role to be strategic partners and drive innovative business processes within our organizations, IT must continue to implement, maintain and upgrade the technology services and solutions our stakeholders depend on.

While there are core technologies—computers, connectivity, email—that are common to most organizations, needs and challenges aren’t the same across all types of entities and industries. IT leaders must assess and invest in the right services and solutions to meet the unique needs of their organization and industry. To do that, CIOs and their leadership teams must identify the trends that are most influencing technology utilization within their organization, and understand how these trends may, may not or may partly play a role in making key decisions.

In higher education, for example, BYOD and mobility are the strongest trends across all customer groups (faculty, staff and students). While the private sector may have an option whether to support BYOD, higher education institutions really have no choice. We must architect our systems and services to support hundreds of different devices with all flavors of operating systems, and make those systems and services easy to use and transparent for customers.

Another big challenge in higher education is providing mobility and flexibility to our students, faculty and staff, especially in top-tier research institutions. The University of Kansas,for example, has five campuses totaling 1,058 acres and more than 125 buildings with about five million square feet total. In addition, KU students, faculty and staff are working, studying and conducting research around the world.

To meet the needs of our customers, we must invest in technologies that allow them to work whenever, however and wherever they want. That means expanding our wireless network on campus, including outdoors, and implementing solutions that extend access and capability beyond our physical campus and even beyond the city and state we reside in.

Myth of the Cloud

Cloud services can be helpful in providing mobility and flexibility by making it easier for customers to manage information and collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world they have an Internet connection. However, despite the current hype, “the cloud” is not the end-all and be-all solution in every case. IT organizations must carefully evaluate the options and choose the right solution based on strategy, cost, security, usability, mobility and other factors.

One advantage of the cloud is that it can help you get up and running quickly. But if you want solutions for long term, the cloud may not be the most cost-effective choice. The analogy I use is that the cloud is like a hotel room—it’s good for a short-term stay, but you may not want to live there.

As an example, in looking at our storage options, we think it makes sense to keep enterprise storage in our data center, because it can be more easily leveraged across all applications. But for personal storage, we offer customers 1TB of cloud storage that they can access anywhere through OneDrive for Business. And, we also are looking at other cloud storage solutions to meet other customer needs.

Cloud may or may not be the best way in each particular case, so you have to look at what you are trying to achieve. Your business goals and objectives should drive the cloud decision in every case. Before moving to the cloud, understand your short-term and long-term goals, and make sure it’s the right strategic decision for your organization.

Advice for the Budding CIOs

Decisions about the cloud are one example of why CIOs must have a long-term vision and strategic roadmap for their organizations. The job is no longer just about being a technical leader. Today’s CIOs must be a business leader within the larger organization, helping to drive overall strategy and success through innovation and business process improvements.

When young IT professionals who aspire to be CIOs ask me for advice, I encourage them to expand their education and experiences whenever possible. A technical background will help a CIO understand the complexities of technologies and solutions, while a broader business background will help the CIO understand and navigate the organizational complexities and build strong relationships with business partners.

Just as IT should be a partner in an organization’s business processes and decisions, conversely we should also invite non-technical partners to help guide our technology decisions. I often find that the best idea or solution comes from someone who simply asks basic questions and forces us to think “outside of technology,” regardless of their background or experience.

Being a CIO is more challenging than ever before—but also more rewarding. As with the best leaders in any role, the best CIOs look beyond the short-term view of what’s best for them or their career, and focus first on driving organizational success and the success of their staff.  By doing what’s best for the greater good, in the end, that’s a winning strategy.

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