IT Leadership Must Chart the Course

Matt Etchison, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President, Ivy Tech Community College

Matt Etchison, Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President, Ivy Tech Community College

Having spent two decades in private industry before coming to HigherEd, I was shocked when I arrived to find the pace at which HigherEd moves. (I am referring generally to all of HigherEd as an industry and not specific institutions). Why does HigherEd move so slow I would ask?  Why the reticence to embrace the absolute latest technology and innovation?  Because “that’s just the way it is” was a common response I heard when talking to my IT leadership peers across the country. 

Well, that really is unfortunate. And it is also nonsense. Technology leaders have an obligation to drive the strategic direction of information technology at their institutions.They should also have a seat “at the leadership table” to demonstrate just where technology can take the college or university.  A “charting of the course forward”.  Any institution that thinks it is going to survive, not alone thrive, by having a primitive and tedious IT and digital footprint is sadly mistaken.  Remember there were those who also thought “e-commerce is a fad” twenty-five years ago. Bricks and mortar retail hasn’t been the same since.

Consumer-grade digital experience

Why is applying and attending college not as easy as perusing Netflix or shopping on Amazon?  Why are so many college web pages, applications, and systems clunky and outdated with disparate fonts and a lousy user experience?  Why are EdTech companies still putting out software that looks like it belongs back in the dial-up days?  Students, faculty, and staff deserve a consumer-grade digital experience. Why? How about because they have it everywhere else where they engage with technology?  How about because it’s the right thing to do?  How about because students are paying good money (and so many times borrowing that money) and deserve the best experience for their dollar?

“Technology Leaders Should also have a seat “at the Leadership Table” to Demonstrate just Where Technology can take the College or University”

Students, faculty, and staff are used to apps and systems in their personal lives that are continually updated and ever-evolving. Our smartphone-centric world is how people listen to music, shop for nearly everything, watch movies, order food, hail a cab, book a hotel or a flight, etc.  Why isn’t this seamless experience being fully integrated into Higher Education?  At some schools it is and kudos to those who want their institutions to be as modern and intuitive of an experience as the mobile apps all of us use in our everyday lives.

Antiquated and insecure legacy systems

I often hear that colleges and universities do not want to migrate and upgrade their systems because “it’s a lot of work”. Yes. Of course it is.  So is exercise. So is home remodeling. And so is cooking a great meal at home. But that’s kind of the point.  Great things take effort. The reward is not only the outcome of being at the forefront, but the intrinsic value of knowing that an institution has a growth mindset where it is able to constantly iterate and evolve.  That agility bodes really well when something comes along like say….a pandemic!  Covid was the ultimate exercise in agility and some schools were able to pivot on a dime and went fully virtual over a weekend (Ivy Tech Community College was one of them). Other colleges and universities floundered and were ill-prepared for a fully virtual and remote work and learning experience.

A common response I hear is “new systems and applications cost money”.  Well sure. Of course they do. But what is the cost of maintaining antiquated, complicated, legacy systems?  How much will it cost when the institution has dug a hole of complacency so deep with their IT infrastructure that they can’t dig their way out? What happens then?  What happens when those legacy systems are no longer supported or declared end-of-life? Worse yet, what happens when the cyber insurance companies find those legacy systems are a liability to the college or university and refuse to insure the institution?  It is already happening.

The future Is now

CIOs, CTOs, and IT leaders of all kinds have an obligation to ensure their institutions are at the forefront of technology and innovation.  They must not only position their institutions for success through technology tools, applications, and systems but they also must lead the charge and initiate the conversation with HigherEd leaders in all roles and all departments.  IT is the ultimate value-add in a technology dominated world. Leaders in IT are responsible for so much more than WiFi, laptops, and email.  They are responsible for the strategic direction of their institutions in a rapidly changing digital world where everything is in flight.  IT leaders cannot wait for someone else at the college to initiate change.  Innovation starts in the IT department.

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