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How IT's priorities and role will shift post COVID-19

June 9, 2020

In a recent Kuali webinar, we discussed how the role and priorities for IT will change in the aftermath of COVID-19. Three IT leaders shared their perspective on where IT can shine today, and where it is headed tomorrow. Read the summary below of our conversation, or access the full recording here.

Webinar Guests, Moderated by Katie Gaston, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Kuali


Prior to COVID-19, what were your priorities and how have those changed?

At the University of Hawaii, priorities were centered around enterprise systems. The existing focus centered around incremental improvements to make systems more functional and easier to use. At the same time, there was a parallel movement to implement online courses. When the pandemic hit, institutions everywhere including Hawaii made “a survival pivot,” according to Garret Yoshimi. 

Hawaii weathered the first wave of the pandemic shift very well. Students finished courses and graduated.

Looking forward, there are plenty of opportunities for the institution to improve. Important changes need to happen across the institution. CIOs have the opportunity to “sit front and center in your organization and make that happen,” said Yoshimi. 

For Rui Guo at the University of Alabama Huntsville, facilitating remote work became the immediate priority. And Guo’s team has their work cut out for them—million-dollar research equipment and hazardous chemicals cannot go home with research folks. 

From a consulting perspective, Matthew Fern of Harvard Partners shared that there were two main themes in higher ed IT before COVID-19: digital transformation (with an emphasis on the cloud), and cybersecurity. Since the onset of COVID-19, digital transformation has all but monopolized the focus of IT leaders.

“What you did is a true miracle. [The technology that you implemented] was the solution to a very big business problem.” - Michael Fern, CIO, Harvard Partners

Fern added that some of the peskiest problems for higher ed, in the move to remote work and remote learning, were answering phones and faxing. Those processes didn’t come up in continuity planning or disaster recovery conversations because most continuity exercises focus on a one-day event. 

Now that those processes are exposed, departments are focusing on how to automate them in preparation for fall. The biggest question on everyone’s mind is, “How can faculty, staff, and students collaborate and get their work done no matter where they are?”

Budgets will be affected by COVID-19. How are you taking that into account as you look toward the fall semester?

Public institutions have two opportunities, Yoshimi said. First, prepare for a very different financial environment than what you see today, and second, academic research is a huge funding opportunity. 

Guo, who works primarily on research IT projects, noted that research continues, but not without hiccups. The remote work requirement caused a long pause in research, and the facilities that house expensive equipment and materials are just beginning to open up again. 

As for private institutions, much depends on their endowment. 

Public or private, all institutions can limit spending and look at this situation as an opportunity. Now is the time to show how valuable IT investments are.  

Is remote work temporary or here to stay? And what impacts will that have on the IT structure?

While it’s too early to definitively say, Yoshimi suspects that much of the Hawaii system will continue with remote work. A large part of the organization is running just as well as it was from the office. If institutions opt to stay remote and offer more remote instruction, the IT structure may shift to respond to new demands. 

It’s important to note that centralized versus non-centralized IT is a long-standing question in IT structure. Fern believes it will stay centralized in the short term, but institutions should plan for a hybrid environment. Faculty, staff, and students will come back to campus in waves and IT should position itself now to respond to those upcoming shifts.  

“How do we [IT] position ourselves for what comes next? I think it will all be about getting ahead of business problems.” Michael Fern, CIO, Harvard Partners

Might this event set the precedent for IT to have a stronger voice?

At some institutions, like the University of Hawaii, IT already sits at the executive level. Now is the time to reinforce the value of IT by demonstrating its ability to respond. 

At other institutions, like the University of Alabama, IT has been given a stronger voice since the pandemic’s onset. Pre-COVID, top-level management gave IT directions. Now, those individuals are turning to IT asking, “What do you think we should do?” 

If IT wants a stronger voice in the future, they must have the right mindset today as they wade through the crisis. 

“This is a business event [and] IT was ahead of it,” Fern said. “IT has to learn that we are business people. We aren’t just technologists.” 

What advice would you give to teams who have had to significantly shift their approach to working with business?

From Fern’s point of view, COVID-19 is both providing the opportunity and the push to be more involved in the business of higher ed. IT staff should think, “What can I do,” rather than “What can we do.” Think about how you as an individual can make a difference. 

And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. As a leader, allow your people to make mistakes. “If you don’t take action,” Yoshimi said, “you’ll never affect change.”

Encourage business units to help IT help business units. Many IT departments are facing a hiring freeze as their workload doubles. Work smarter by encouraging collaboration and connection with business units and you might be surprised at how much can be accomplished. 

“The business units are absolutely willing to engage and collaborate with us in this process.” Garret Yoshimi, VP of IT and CIO, University of Hawaii

What recommendations would you give to junior IT personnel with longterm career aspirations of becoming a CIO or Director of IT?

Yoshimi encourages engaging with the business side earlier instead of “hiding behind a computer terminal.” Collaborating with business users is a must-have skill at the CIO level. And collaborations is more than creating training documents. It looks like not waiting for the user to get project requirements right before you work on something for them. Instead, engage.

Fern suggests junior IT staff stop worrying about the technology and start connecting with those around you. Actively work toward thinking about how you can make people’s lives better and increase efficiency. 

Guo gives two recommendations: look for learning opportunities and when you see a problem, keep following up until it is solved. Looking back, he thinks IT could’ve been in a better position in the crisis if he had been persistent in getting upper-level management support to resolve minor problems. 

What is one resource tool or recommendation that you want people to consider?

Consider using Kuali Build. “Build or a tool like it is very empowering for an organization,” said Yoshimi. “Not just the technical side, but also the business side of the organization.”

Use forums to learn from others. Things like this webinar, or forums hosted through EDUCAUSE are rich with information. Harvard Partners regularly uses forums to understand what’s next for higher ed.

And finally, use search engines. They can help you find forums, answer technical questions, and more.

We hope you enjoyed this webinar as much as we did! You can view the webinar in full here.


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