Across the higher education sector, university leadership is demanding more of IT leaders: more strategic contribution, more active participation in shaping the future of their institutions, and more innovative exploitation of the cloud, BYOD, and the next IT sweet spot. But how well equipped are our IT leaders to step up to being more than order-taking service providers?
Increasingly, university leaders realize that intelligent use of information technology in their institutions depends on them -- on administrative and academic leaders being engaged in choices about IT use. And they are getting engaged: in prioritizing IT investments, in leading successful change enabled by technology, and in overseeing effective use of systems supporting the core activities of their university. IT has become a key enabler for them, and they are teased by the wider potential of the new consumer technologies in their hands and homes. As more leaders recognize that IT is as important as money, staff, and facilities, university leadership renewal is also trimming the fat of those who can't or won't.
What is the IT group's response to this surging interest from leadership? At best, IT has an effective leader who has garnered respect from the university leadership community. At best, the IT group is respected for the set of services -- usually core infrastructure and several major admin systems -- it provides with some reliability. At worst, IT is seen as a blockage to avoid -- full of Dilbert's cliché, "Mordak the Preventer of IT Services." Often, to add to the confusion, IT is seen both ways, by different parts of their university. This is the harsh reality for how university IT is really seen by the rest of the organization: IT is at best operationally useful but is not pulling its weight strategically, for the future of the organization.
Not involved in higher education? Do you really think it's much different in the hallowed halls of industry? Government?
Apart from the CIO and IT director, few in the IT group typically have positive, strategic visibility across university leadership. There is a potential gold rush of strategic IT engagement if IT staff was ready, willing, and able, however. This potential comes from all domains of university activity; the familiar administration, but also by getting involved in areas such as teaching, learning, and research. The potential is beyond the ability of one or two individuals to handle because of the volume and range of engagements that are necessary.
Listening to and working with these user groups gives individual and IT groups more chances to shine and more opportunities to integrate technology throughout the university (or business or government agency).
IT groups need diverse and skilled individuals to offer the right chemistry, domain knowledge, and skill sets, especially in active strategic listening, akin to high-end consulting or business analysis. Many current IT leaders have been elevated for their articulateness in promoting IT, but even this can become a deficit if overused. Those few who have found their voice often need next to find their ears.
— Neil Thelander spent more than 30 years as an IT executive in the government, technology, healthcare, and university sectors. He consults with and coaches IT leaders.