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The Value Equation: What IT Leaders Need to Articulate

With lockdown orders mostly in the rearview mirror and recovery funds pouring in from federal legislation, now is the time for college and university IT leaders to make their cases for spending on tech initiatives.

 A piggy bank on top of books in front of a chalkboard.
Higher education’s transition to online learning at the start of the pandemic was remarkable, a shining accomplishment led in large part by IT organizations working with academic leaders and faculty to support continued student learning during the crisis. IT was truly at the table to help provide strategic and operational leadership.

The past 15 months were often the worst of times for our learning communities, including those that provided technology support. The dramatically increased workload, related uncertainties, and in some cases personal tragedies resulted in high levels of stress in all areas of the university, including our student population. Many staff are exhausted. And yet this is another important time for IT leaders to step up.

Now we begin again on a major initiative, this time the post-pandemic transition. This transition is a significant opportunity and challenge that involves working closely with senior university leaders to envision and implement changes in many areas. Fortunately, the collective outlook is much brighter than last year, yet the risk profile is still highly elevated due to continuing uncertainties.

An important, ongoing aspect of leadership is to remain focused on understanding and being able to communicate your value equation. This involves being able to explain at a high level what you produce, given what you cost.

IT organizations are often resource-constrained due to the ever-increasing demand for technology and data-related services. Yet the budgets and staffing levels for central IT organizations are often among the largest areas of university administration. Given the perception that these departments have a great deal of resources, it’s important for IT leaders to be able to describe what they’re providing to faculty, staff and students, and why it matters. This involves doing more than providing a list of services on their departmental website alongside a status report of major initiatives.

It’s important not to assume that leaders outside (or even inside) an organization understand the big picture of that department’s capabilities. This is a time for IT leaders to sharpen their message, to listen effectively to what their senior leaders, colleagues and clients need, and to ensure that their staff are ready, even if they’re still recovering from the pandemic era. Those who are ready, willing and able to communicate their value, in terms of what they’re doing and why, are likely to find new ideas are more well-received. And providing these talking points to their own team members may help with consistency.

A suggestion for developing value-equation content is to consider using a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), which can be done as a group exercise to solicit ideas from others and increase their sense of collective ownership.

The messaging itself is often most effective when aligned with campus initiatives and language used by university leaders. Focusing on the “why” of an initiative, rather than the technology involved, is what will matter most often to those outside of an IT organization.

Being direct and to the point will also be received well and increase the likelihood of an audience taking the time to listen. Given all that’s going on, this is not the time to produce a detailed white paper unless it’s asked for.

In summary, being able to effectively describe your IT organization’s value to the university in the context of the current changing and highly stressful times is not a new concept. The point is that it matters now more than ever.
Mark Askren is an IT executive and leadership coach with 35 years of higher education experience. He most recently served as Vice President and CIO for the University of Nebraska. During this period he was elected to the EDUCAUSE Board of Directors, served as chair of the Internet2 Community Engagement Program Advisory Group, and was a member of the Big Ten Academic Alliance for IT. Prior to that he served as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Administrative Computing Services at the University of California, Irvine, where he was also a member of the University of California’s Information Technology Leadership Council. Mark also held the positions of Assistant Vice President for Application Development and Data Management at the University of Illinois, and Assistant Dean for Information Technology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.