IT leaders from different institutions discuss how the pandemic has influenced their digital transformation

What’s next for higher ed’s digital transformation?


IT leaders from different institutions discuss how the pandemic has influenced their digital transformation

COVID-19 forced higher education to pivot, transition, adapt, and then some. So, what’s next? Where will digital transformation take institutions and how will that transformation meet the needs of faculty, students, and staff?

During an EDUCAUSE 2021 panel, IT leaders discussed just that.

What did higher-ed IT leaders realize about digital transformation?

Digital transformation “requires us as leaders to change as well–not forcing our comfort levels on others, but making sure we embrace tools to serve them the best we can,” said Sharon Pitt, Vice President for Information Technologies & CIO at the University of Delaware. “[We are] celebrating accomplishments, making sure we show gratitude, [and] having flexible policies and high levels of communication,” she said.

“I think our responses changed over time. At the beginning it was, ‘Get everyone remote, get settled, get the tools.’ I think it evolved over time as we observed and started hearing back from our folks, over that long haul, what they were actually grappling with. and we did have to flex a lot – every organization had to go through that. So every moment in time we’d try to observe: where are we, what information do we have, and what support services do we have in place?” said Michele Norin, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

How can institutions manage changes in staffing that come with digital transformation, especially after employees have become accustomed to remote work and may pursue careers that allow remote work to continue?

“We also know we’re facing a major change in our staffing, whether you call it the great resignation, or call it a career change. We know we have to staff differently, somehow, to make it through the next few years,” said David Seidl, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at Miami University.

“We can see it. We have The Future of Work Initiative, institution-wide, and in those conversations and in that planning work, it’s starting to bubble up in other places, not just in IT. It’s enough to where it’s motivating people to speak up,” Norin said. “We are not positioned well enough to respond quickly enough to the countermeasures to try and keep them. … A lot of times it’s salary, and they can work remotely, and that’s an opportunity for them.”

“People are rethinking what it is being in a pandemic, what it is they want to do, how they want to live,” Pitt said. “Being able to work remotely and have flexibility is very important, and some are making decisions based on that. We have to be incredibly thoughtful about what the future of work is going to be.”

“I want to remember that every team member is different, with different obligations,” Pitt added. “We need to have intentionality around how it is we ensure communication. How do we support them? the key will be intentionality and flexibility.”

How can IT leaders maintain community no matter how digital transformation changes institutional norms?

Once a month, the University of Delaware’s IT team has a day without internal meetings dedicated to creating community by bringing groups together to do something creative or reconnect, Pitt said.

In addition to monthly all-staff Zoom meetings, Michele meets with each IT leader individually to check in, discuss important issues, or give them a chance to express concerns or ask questions in a more intentional setting.

Teaching managers how to manage remote employees will become a critical skill moving forward.

“I’ve asked that we offer training for this,” Pitt said. “I don’t think all our supervisors are prepared for how we manage remote work. We need more training around how we do this effectively.”

When a new virtual employee becomes part of the Miami University community, they’re sent to community Slack channels aligned with their personal interests. When a new team member comes on in person, their responses to a survey about their personal interests are used to match them up with a coworker who “adopts” the new employee for 3-6 months. The adoptive coworker works in a different apartment to give the new employee a chance to know someone outside of their immediate team.

“You have an automatic friend and ally on your side,” Seidl said. ” I think we have to do that even more for our new employees.”

How are institutions transforming?

“We’re definitely going to be shaped differently, physically,” Seidl said. “We’re giving up chunks of our building because employees are working remotely. Teams are changing because of that remote work.” Some teams take on more coverage, others work face-to-face just once a week, and others align their in-person days to collaborate with other departments. This leads to what Seidl says is a “work space, place, and time transformation,” in addition to technology transformations that occur as faculty and staff become more comfortable using new technologies and tools.

The pandemic’s forced pivot has impacted forward-looking strategic plans for digital transformation.

“We’re reevaluating our plan,” Pitt said, noting that her institution was in the middle of a 5-year strategic plan when Covid hit. “We’ve taken every single goal and all objectives with each goal and said, ‘Do these still resonate? Did we make faster progress, or slower progress because of the challenges we faced?” What are the gaps that we did not articulate, as a result of moving forward, which we know we have to fill in the near-term?'”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are key parts of digital transformation, too.

“We’ve talked about DEI and we now realize that has to be even more amped than it was before,” Pitt said. “We made enormous progress in research, networking, and online learning in ways we thought were going ot take longer. We’ve been, as a team, looking at that strategic plan and trying to make sure we’re continuing that transformation journey.”

Balancing existing tools and infrastucture with infrastructure put in place to address the pandemic is another aspect of digital transformation.

“We talked about business continuity and disaster recovery, but a lot of what allowed us to do that was the infrastrue we already had in place. And there’s a lot of infrasture we don’t have in place that will allow us to steramline that,” Pitt said. “Our leadership is open to that–they’re beginning to see what technology can do in ways they didn’t before. Faculty are more willing to enbrace online learning in ways they hadn’t before. In terms of the explosion of work, the community we serve wants a lot of the stuff we had before and they want the new stuff. The sheer number of services has expanded as well, and we need to think about how we continue to support that.”

“I think the expectations are going to increase, in terms of our community, tools, and services,” said Norin. “I think the bar was just raised on our non-IT members expecting more from the tools they’re using. They’re far more comfortable with them now; they made things work in ways that were creative. It’s a good shift–if will pressure central IT divisions to respond more quickly. There’s more pressure for responding faster. I think we’re in a pivoting moment, a delineating moment, to really further define digital transformation.”

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Laura Ascione

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