8 strategies for successful tech initiatives

Great tech products are a reflection of the needs and values of the community they serve. These eight strategies can help ensure that new IT tech initiatives get real traction on campus.

For university IT leaders, unveiling major tech initiatives can be a bit like handing out Halloween candy: The customers run the gamut from quiet pixies to absolute ghouls, some complain about the quality of the treats, and others have a nagging suspicion that you’ve put razor blades in their apples. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Handled well, the rollout of a big IT project should unfold more like an adult Christmas, with customers receiving presents they’ve wanted and thought about for a long time. In interviews with IT leaders at a range of institutions and companies, eCampus News identified eight strategies to help colleges ensure that constituents see their next big IT project coming with a bow on top.


1.Secure Support from the Top

This is an old chestnut, but it’s no less important for that. The blessing of the top dog can give a project a sense of value and urgency that is hard to achieve otherwise. “Having key buy-in and support at the senior leadership level is critical,” said Pete Young, senior vice president for analytics, planning, and technology at the University of Maryland University College, which launched an Office of Analytics several years ago that was recently spun off as a separate company, HelioCampus. “The full engagement of the president was fundamentally important to our success, and it’s something we’ve heard echoed by many other institutions.”

While diktats from above can sometimes bulldoze a new IT initiative into place, meaningful change occurs only when leadership embraces—and steers—the cultural shifts that often accompany major IT initiatives. “You can’t underestimate the culture change involved,” said Young, explaining that President Javier Miyares led the analytics charge at UMUC by constantly asking to see all the relevant data when considering new issues. “This is where strong support from the top comes into place.”

(Next page: IT tech rollout tips 2-4)


2.Create a Sense of Ownership

The most fervid support from the top can accomplish only so much if the end users feel as if they have no stake in a project’s success. “Whatever you’re trying to do, you need to get your faculty members and all of your stakeholders to understand the problem and take some ownership of it,” said Jarrod Morgan, chief operating officer at ProctorU, an online proctoring company that he cofounded while working as director of technology at Andrew Jackson University. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen initiatives that are really well thought-out struggle because the communication from the administrator—the one who understood the problem they were trying to solve—didn’t get all the way down to the implementers.”

In Morgan’s view, faculty and staff must have an opportunity to talk about the issues and grapple with the implications, either in face-to-face meetings or web conferences—it’s not enough to send out an e-mail blast. It’s a message echoed by UMUC’s Young, who encourages schools to undertake a consultative phase with faculty and staff. “You need to understand their operations, understand their challenges, and then figure out a way to help them solve those problems,” he said.

At the same time, Young cautioned against giving faculty a chance to blue-sky their desires. “You never want to start from a blank sheet when you’re trying to build a new capability,” he said. “You’re better off asking, ‘Would you find this useful? Could you use this?’ Then they’re more likely to say, ‘Wow, that’s excellent, but what if we did it this way?'”


3.Focus on the Problem, Not the Technology

For all but a few faculty members, the technology angle is probably uninteresting or, worse, intimidating. To build a sense of ownership among faculty or staff, keep the focus on the problem that needs to be solved rather than on technical nuts and bolts. “If you can get faculty members to understand the problem, then you’ve opened the door to conversations that would have been a little more difficult otherwise,” said Morgan.

It’s an issue with which Otto Benavides is all too familiar. The director of the Instructional Technology and Resource Center for the School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno, Benavides has plenty of experience introducing faculty to technology as part of the Collaborative Classrooms program, which is designed to put students at the center of the learning experience.

“For faculty who are technophobic, if you begin talking about this button and that button, or how you connect Apple TV to the Wi-Fi, you’ve lost them right there,” he said. “I try to emphasize the pedagogical use of the classroom rather than how the technology works.”

During training sessions, for example, Benavides broke faculty members into groups and gave them a team task to complete. One exercise involved collaboratively researching various South American countries online and then creating a presentation, while Benavides monitored their progress and provided assistance as needed. “At the end of the session, everybody knew how many buttons there were, they knew how to get into the Mac, and they could select the Wi-Fi for this or that,” he recalled. “We never talked about Wi-Fi. We never talked about Apple TV. We just talked about the way to share what they were doing.”


4.Be Prepared to Change the Organization

At Fresno State, technology is aiding the transition from the old sage-on-the-stage pedagogy to the concept of the guide on the side. Changes like these are fundamentally altering how faculty and staff work in higher education, and it’s important for institutions to adapt to these evolving roles. Otherwise, schools run the risk of simply layering new responsibilities and duties onto old job descriptions.

“Everybody defaults to the work trickling down to the faculty member,” said Morgan. “With education technology changing as fast as it is, you can have a ‘drip, drip, drip’ effect, where in a few years you’ve got faculty doing all sorts of things that were never really intended at the beginning.”

To avoid this scenario, study the possible impacts of any technology initiative on individual positions, departments, and the organization as a whole. “A lot of schools are asking the questions, ‘What exactly is the role of the faculty member here? What do we take off their plate and entrust to other staff and faculty?'” said Morgan. “As a result, we’ve seen new job titles pop up in the last few decades, such as education technology specialist or curriculum developer.”

If new technology can inspire dread in faculty and staff, it’s nothing compared with the fear that often comes with organizational shuffles. That’s why it’s vital that everyone understands in concrete terms what any new technology initiative means and why it’s needed. The more open the communication, the better. Like employees at any organization, campus faculty and staff don’t like surprises.

“Any rollout has to be done very carefully, with a lot of user education and conversations with folks who may have significant concerns about the process, so it’s not perceived to be top-down,” said Kenneth Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, which studies the role of technology in higher education. “There needs to be a clear statement about why the school is doing this and how it benefits the institution in aggregate, as well as academic units, departments, and individuals.”

(Next page: IT tech rollout tips 5-8)


5.Take Small Steps

While everyone loves the idea of hitting one out of the park, tech wins are best notched up through a steady stream of singles. “Big-bang projects are a thing of the past,” said Young. “You can’t spend two years building something and then pop it out of the closet at the end. You want to attack small problems, show some success, demonstrate capability, and then continuously innovate and iterate.”

By taking small steps, organizations can also ensure that they don’t expend resources on a solution that may ultimately not pan out. “In a lot of cases, you don’t know you’re going to get it right the first time,” added Young. “Spending a huge amount of effort and time to come out with some monstrous reveal, only to realize that you’ve missed the mark, is really disappointing.”

Pilot programs are probably a good first step for avoiding this fate. Plus, they provide a controlled space in which to study the impact of new tech solutions on the campus community. “When you introduce a new piece of technology, you don’t understand the full ripple effect that’s going to happen,” said Morgan. “Obviously, if you dive in deep, you’re going to have a pretty large ripple effect and a lot more chance for big problems.”


6.Perform Due Diligence

Given the speed at which educational technology is changing, it’s unrealistic to believe that any institution can—or should—develop all its solutions in-house. In today’s environment, working with vendors is almost unavoidable. Choosing the right vendor is another question entirely, however.

“If I had to pick one mistake that colleges make when they undertake a major IT project, it’s not fully vetting vendors to figure out whether or not they are in line with them philosophically,” said Morgan. “They don’t take that extra step to understand who the vendor is, where they come from, and whether it’s someone who can be trusted with their data.”

The task of mapping vendors’ offerings to the needs of a specific campus can be a painstaking process, further complicated by the budget squeeze felt by many colleges. For his part, Green believes most institutions do a good job of kicking the tires of prospective vendors, but he urges vendors and colleges to hash out the scope of any project to the fullest extent possible. According to his 2015 Campus Computing Project survey, more than 25 percent of public universities experienced major cost overruns or unexpected costs during the deployment of a major ERP.

In Green’s view, a case that ended up in court nearly 20 years ago is emblematic of how these overruns occur: “The client said, ‘Well, the provider over-promised and was not clear about a lot of the implementation issues.’ The provider said, ‘The client kept changing the work orders and wanted a lot of customization on top of the base application.'”

Detailed conversations with vendors can go a long way toward eliminating such misunderstandings, but another invaluable resource for vetting vendors is peer institutions. Unlike corporate America where trade secrets are jealously guarded, higher education tends to be far more cooperative. “Campuses do a lot of consulting with one another,” said Green. “They’re very willing to talk with their peer institutions about their relationships with various technology providers.”


7.Avoid Excessive Customization

Too much customization of a vendor’s product can delay and even derail an IT project. Not only are the upfront costs higher, but subsequent upgrades and improvements also come with higher price tags—not to mention the compatibility headaches that often arise when customized systems need to talk with one another. In many cases, too the customization is simply not necessary.

“There is a tendency for universities to emphasize how they are different rather than how they are the same—we all want to be our own snowflake,” said Ted Dodds, CIO and vice president for information technologies at Cornell University. “But, underneath it all, a lot more is the same from university to university than really is a differentiator.”


8.Maintain Support After Launch

When a team has been working on a project for months on end, the natural inclination is to move on after it launches. Big mistake. The most critical phases still lie ahead as end users start to employ the technology in their everyday work. “You have to make sure that you set up a structure that supports the stakeholders who are going to use the solution, and maintain that support structure going forward,” said Morgan.

Initial staff training can go a long way but, like a plant, any technology initiative will wither if it’s only watered as a seedling. “You need to have periodic check-ins and a way to support people if they forget their training two semesters from now,” said Morgan.

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