On any given day, higher-ed IT leaders are faced with myriad challenges, urgent needs, and new projects.

IT leaders also are faced with how to best staff their departments and how to ensure they are meeting their institutions’ vast needs.

During a client summit from TeamDynamix, a panel of higher-education IT leaders, moderated by futurist Ian Khan, came together during to talk about some of the biggest issues and challenges facing IT departments on today’s college and university campuses.

Following are some of the topics they tackled during their discussion:

1. Resource optimization and talent management are often cited as top issues facing higher-ed IT teams. How do IT leaders build a high-performance team–are there metrics you use, traits you look for, and how is technology helping you optimize this?

“When we look to fill positions or create new areas, what are some of the institutional qualities we’re trying to meet?” asked Param Bedi, CIO at Bucknell University. “In the last 14 months I’ve hired several higher-level positions and none have higher education experience. That’s been helpful to us, thinking differently. The staff that have come are bringing unique perspectives to the team, that are challenging how we do things. They’re helping us grow–they’re learning from us and we’re learning from them. We also look at institutional priorities we try to meet, and how we as a team move those initiatives forward.”

(Next page: Four more must-know IT leader priorities)

Putting people with higher education experience with those from different backgrounds “gives good perspective,” said Kenneth Libutti, CIO at Palm Beach State College. “We’re just beginning to build our team, and we’re refocusing our department by focusing on service catalog areas, and now we’re fitting our talent into those areas.”

“Resource optimization is about creating cross-functional teams and allowing our teams to work with others to expand our capacity,” said Rhonda Spells-Fentry, vice president of enterprise technology/CIO at Prince George’s Community College.

“Optimization is like an art and a science,” said Tom Pagano, CIO at Johnson County Community College. “You have to come at it from the top and the bottom. Until you achieve a level of trust between the group and others in the organization, it’s difficult to show optimization in general. We’ve created a monthly operating report that looks across the board and tunnels down into details–it’s a way to show our folks through team dynamics what the outcomes look like and what we’re producing.”

2. What traits are IT leaders looking for in talent management?

“Being able to interact with people and solve problems, especially with the consumerization of IT today,” said Ray Lefebvre, vice president of IT and CIO at Bridgewater State University. “We look for positivity–can we find someone who has a positive outlook and wants to do good.”

Collaboration and how well a person collaborates with others, both in their department and outside, is key, Bedi said.

Culture is important, too, said Pagano, along with making sure someone is a good fit and has good growth potential within the team.

3. When it comes to communicating the value of IT and moving from the order-taker to a strategic guidepost, how can IT leaders better position their organization?

“The first thing is NOT leading with the technology,” Spells-Fentry said. “Most of our functional users really could care less what technology we deploy as long as the needs are met in the business unit. If we can talk about what’s important and necessary for the institution, students, and faculty, that helps increase the perceived value of technology on our campuses. In terms of channels, we have to communicate broad and wide. How can we, at each of the levels, make sure we’re having similar conversations? [We have to] own the responsibility of the communication and how the work we do makes a difference.”

“Through passion, value and outcomes,” Lefebvre said. “We’re here to product positive outcomes and value for our organizations. We used team dynamics to summarize all the value-adds.”

“Visibility, buy-in and trust,” Libutti said. “For us as an organization, visibility shows what we’re doing for the business and the things that produce value for the business. No project will more forward without executive buy-in. They have to be actively involved. Also trust–too many times the businesses come to us with a solution they’ve looked up and have already gotten funded, and they say, ‘Hey we need this next week.’ A lot of that is our own fault–we’ve become a department of ‘no.’ We’re a department of KNOW. We’re the subject-matter experts–allow us to not say no, but to suggest the best possible solution.”

4. What are the key building blocks of a stellar project management office?

“If you haven’t established a project management office, please do so,” said Lefebvre. “As a CIO, I sleep better at night. It’s worth it. Start slowly. Started by showing the value of project management and bringing the value of it to bear, one project at a time. Invest in training. Have a solid platform to use, because that’s where you keep your project artifacts and project charters. And have a passion–be a champion of project management.”

“One of the first things I did was hire a director. It was hiring somebody who had the talent to have that enterprise project management view but be able to start small and develop it internally,” Libutti said. “The No. 1 thing we decided on was education–both of the institution and of our own people. We educated the institution, first of all, on how to scope a project [relative to] their business requirements. Project creep and scope creep is our biggest issue. Even with the staff we can have and afford, we still can’t supply all the project management needs for an organization. There are certain champions within the organization you can bring to that level. We also put processes in place around governance. It helped us make sure we’re only working on the things we’re supposed to be working on in our department.”

“The most important thing is process and how the decisions are made,” Bedi said. “PMO really has helped us to make sure we’re following the decision process. And second, it’s made our governance extremely strong. Now that we have visibility into everything we’re working on, at the institutional level, that also helps.”

“PMO is such a big deal,” Pagano said. “Every place I’ve been, no matter if it’s higher ed or another industry, I’ve tried to look at all those different experiences and draw similarities between them. The key areas are: 1. You have to have some kind of a process, a tool. Without that you can’t track what you need to track. 2. Have a tie-in between the PMO and the governance process. 3. Have a good feel for the culture and the levels of education and how you teach or tutor people along the way. I look for skill sets, collaboration, tie-in to the culture.”

“By default, IT pros are project managers because we are often implementing some software or some solution,” Spells-Fentry said. “One of the initiatives we’re working on is formalizing the project management function that’s been happening within IT for years. We’re trying to take a pretty methodical approach to that. We need a strong tool [and] training.”

5. How do you prevent atrophy within the PMO?

“Hold project success celebrations,” Lefebvre said. “Establish a culture of project management–you have to cultivate it.”

“I’ve started attending events, I have a number of really tenured staff and I asked what they do, I got on mailing lists, and I started to seek things out,” Pagano said. “I’m a big Twitter guy so I’m always out there checking what I need to join. It’s really important for us because a large part of our funding comes from the property tax base, so I view my position as outward-facing. We built a collaboration center–a major investment by our college to put in place a large multi-use space, not simply an active learning classroom; it has resources to help and assist everybody from students, the community, etc. The primary driver was to bring community events in.”

“Higher ed is probably the only industry where everyone wants to talk to each other and help each other,” Bedi said. “As we start to tour other colleges, instead of doing everything on our own, how can we think about pooling our resources?”

“Networking is critical,” Spells-Fentry said. “It really is an important part of PD and career development. As we get to a CIO level, even deans/director levels, there are natural collaboration and networking groups that exist. In your state, establish an organization or a group and start meeting, start talking. We never would have enough resources individually to meet all the needs we have.”

“Collaboration is a golden opportunity,” Lefebvre said. “As leaders, we can engage people to get out and volunteer in the community, too.”

“Change the culture around going and asking for help,” Libutti said. “It doesn’t reflect poorly on your ability to lead or show that you’re capable of doing your job. Also, subscribe to a mentor/mentee program.”

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura

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