Like many technology leaders, our past eight months have been consumed with a combination of “COVID crisis” institutional meetings followed by Information Technology (IT) meetings where we tried to determine what the “new normal” would look like. For my institution, Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), that normal was a combination of HyFlex learning, fully online instruction, in addition to traditional on-ground courses. Everything needed a “plan to pivot” based on COVID rates, changes in rules or regulations, and local health conditions. While COVID represents an unprecedented crisis, it has given IT a chance to demonstrate its value and the value of technology investments to campus leadership and the community at large. I have often thought that IT leaders have a broad purview of the entire organization at 40,000 feet, its interconnections, dependencies, and needs. We are also one of the few organizations in the university that have fluency with terms such as “disaster recovery” and “business continuity.”
Few of us envisioned a future where we would have a “disaster” that would last this long. To be successful, our planning, operation, and optimization hinged on our ability to pivot from an in-person and primarily on-ground facility to a fully online experience. Our everyday tools of hallway conversations, office pop-ins, and whiteboards (my favorite) were nowhere to be found. Pressures from the pandemic created uncertainty in enrollment and created downstream budget pressure on the organization. Not only did the budget for FY21 need to be re-cast, but we would see an unprecedented spike in spending as we rationalized emergency plans in March to move online. Issues abounded, from increased spending to supply chain issues with the outlook for FY22 being similarly bleak.
A newfound reliance on technology, diminishing budgets, and a global disaster impacting our workforce and supply chain created a perfect storm for IT professionals. What markers will we use to help guide us through the next year? How do we chart a course out of this storm? Below are the buoy-markers that my division will use to help guide itself from this crisis.
In the dehumanizing world of web-meeting-roulette where we bounce from Teams meeting to Zoom meeting, to a WebEx, we need to take time to focus on the relationships with our peers and hear their needs. As much as we need to solve the problem, we must recognize that, for many students, the equation has changed, perhaps permanently. We need to meet students and staff where they are. We’ve looked at higher education access and accessibility and have added loaner pools of laptops, webcams, wifi hotspots, mice, etc. We’ve increased connectivity services such as Eduroam and worked with our public institution peers. We’re working specifically on adding student and faculty listening sessions and started an approach of using “user journeys” to help create a more customer-focused experience so we can hear what’s right and what needs improvement.
Agility is important
Our university set up some temporary organization structures to assist with shifts in where the work was. Our helpdesk, on-site, classroom, training, and inventory group are more of a single cohesive unit right now. Many of our computer labs are closed, which allowed us to cross-train and shift managers and workforce into areas of greater need such as the helpdesk, classroom support, and academic technology. Redeploying, redirecting, and rebuilding matrix-based teams has allowed us to be as agile as we can be. This interdisciplinary approach is proving that it may have long-term value. The proof of this success is evidenced by rapid application development, data management, and deployment of mobile apps, chatbots, call centers, workforce mobility services to support pandemic operations.
Perfection is the enemy
If we get to the 100% answer, we’ve spent too long on the problem. IT is now in the triage business each day. I suspect that our meetings are closer to resembling an emergency room these days, with the rapid shuffle of information, priorities, and recovery efforts. We’ve scheduled specific strategic planning meetings to make sure we’re remaining focused on the big picture, but the project management cycle cadence has been abandoned for more of a “sprint” approach right now.
“Not my job” is not in our vocabulary and it starts with IT leadership
I don’t know that anyone has “service in a global pandemic” in their job description. Our teams, our entire institution, will be asked to do activities and functions that aren’t normal. From virtual graduation to daily symptom surveys or contact tracing, there are lots of new tasks to be done and IT members can be regular “utility infielders” for various projects.
Look for the Unicorn
A colleague of mine refers to zero-based-budgeting as “looking for a unicorn.” I have to agree. That said, we’re using a zero-based strategy to help us start re-thinking and reimagining our future. We’re asking questions like, “do we really need this just because we always did it that way?” As we begin looking past spring and on to summer and fall ’21, we’re guided by the concept of being transformative and not restorative in our return to campus and operations.
Keep looking at the horizon, be it short-term or long-term
With many forward-thinking organizations, IT often looks at where it is now and what the future horizon will be. At CCSU we are already evaluating what changes we will make over the summer semester to improve the functionality of our HyFlex tools, and we’re evaluating what additional training will be needed. The pandemic has been a catalyst for digital transformation, for improved project and process management, and for creating awesome technical support.
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