In a recent blog post (Elmore Alexander, “Making IT Departments Part of the Overall University Strategy: CIO-CFO Partnerships and Beyond”), we explored the idea that college and university IT units have the opportunity to move beyond being cost centers to being strategic business units. That is, IT need not be just a necessary, but expensive, unit with no substantial business impact it can instead become a unit with real impact on the school – how it does business and what business it does. At a recent Higher Ed Tech Pros MeetUp hosted by Showa Boston Institute for Language and Culture, several college CIOs and CFOs helped explore this idea and provided some examples.
The panel, moderated by Elmore Alexander, Dean Emeritus of the Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University, included:
- Deborah Gelch, Chief Information Officer at Curry College and a long-time CIO in the Higher Ed sector;
- Doug Shropshire, Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer at Bridgewater State University; and
- Ray Lefebvre, Chief Information Officer and Vice President of IT at Bridgewater State University.
Each of the panelists provided examples of how IT in a college or university can be a driver of strategic business activities. Deborah discussed a focus on cost reduction as a strategy for building a relationship with the CFO. One way was by building a collaborative IT infrastructure among several small colleges, using her school’s well-developed IT infrastructure as the backbone and, in the process, reducing the overall IT costs for each institution.
Ray and Doug talked about developing their personal relationship and a shared global view of the institution. They discussed establishing a formal project management methodology and a project management office within the IT organization that served needs across the university. The PM Office led to a reduction in the use of external consultants for project management and, hence, to a decrease in overall costs to the university. Ray also discussed entrepreneurial activities that enabled IT to generate revenue, including leasing rooftop space and existing, unused conduit space to cellular service providers. This generated revenue as well as improved mobile phone service on the campus.
In describing the IT division’s entrepreneurial activities, Deborah also talked about supporting a new IT academic program that included involving students in IT’s operational activities. There were issues and concerns, but in the end, IT was able to become a partner with the academic program.
The panel mentioned a number of other areas where IT was able to partner with and support the university, including supporting online delivery of academic programs and incorporating emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and augmented reality in both academic and administrative processes.
We can immediately observe two themes that emerge from the panel’s conversation. First, IT can contribute to the university in many ways – transforming the education process, changing the student experience for the better, reaching new student audiences, substantially improving administrative processes, and generating new revenue streams. Second is the importance of building relationships between IT, the CIO, and key clients, including the CFO. Deborah highlighted this when she said it is critical that the CFO not see dollar signs each time the CIO enters the room – they need to have a real relationship.
The message from the panel is quite consistent with my own research findings (“Achieving Business Value Through Information Technology: The nature of high business value IT organizations,” A Report Commissioned by The Society for Information Management, Advanced Practices Council, November 2001). This study asked how some IT organizations are able consistently to create real value for the organization, while others just create expenses. Two themes emerged as most important – IT taking ownership of business problems and mutual trust between IT and the line organization. IT ownership of business problems requires that the IT organization has a deep understanding of the “business.” IT must not just take orders from the line organization and blindly develop systems that respond to the requirements as described. Rather, IT must develop a true understanding of the “business situation” and develop a solution jointly with the user/client. Mutual trust between IT and the line is something that develops over time and results from many trust-building activities and incidents. Open communication and a history of successful delivery and IT successfully meeting commitments help build this trust. In the end, it requires that IT become a trusted business partner of the line organization, both academic and administrative.
In summary, the opportunities for IT to become a strategic partner within the university, and not just a cost center, are numerous. CIOs who work to develop the relationships that lead to partnerships across the university and who have the vision to see their units as developing “line” products/programs/services for the university will experience a new level of success and importance for their IT units.
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