Steps to foster innovation
Higher Education has taken its lumps over the past decade. Especially as higher education institutions have been portrayed by breathless and over-heated media reports, it would be easy to be left with the notion that, because of an inability or unwillingness for faculty and administrators to evolve what we do and how we do it, institutions of higher learning in the United States face an imminent demise. And while there are certainly kernels of truth in these characterizations, the gap between this narrative and the reality of my experience as a seven-year-tenured CIO at a comprehensive university is enormous. Innovation is occurring on our campuses, and though it might not look the same as it looks at Google, Amazon, or Apple, if one knows where to look and what to look for, pleasant surprises abound. What follows is an exploration of a few of the steps that IT departments can take to create an environment conducive to innovation.
“Our campus recently successfully moved from a SAN-based shared storage solution to a web-based file storage solution”
Meaningful innovation in teaching, research, scholarship, creative works, and the administration of higher education requires on-demand utility services – this discussion focuses on technology services but this concept should not be constrained to the technology realm on campuses – be provided reliably, consistently, and easily. There are practical steps in this for all technology disciplines and across the management to individual contributor spectrum. First and foremost, investment in the network has never been more critical. Especially as services move to the cloud, the success of bold initiatives can hinge on the resiliency and strength of a college network. Our campus recently successfully moved from a SAN-based shared storage solution to a web-based file storage solution. The second practical step would be to keep evolving your broader IT service catalog. You probably already have help desk and desktop support in your service catalog, but consider including security services, software and hardware asset management, procurement, and many more.
Another step that IT leaders can take to promote innovation is to take an encompassing perspective on the value of investment in people. Narrowly interpreted, this translates into developing a training budget and ensuring that IT employees are able to attend training for technologies or methodologies germane to their jobs. In reality, though, this “investment in people” is far more encompassing. For hiring processes for my department, I insist on being part of the interview process for every candidate who reaches an advanced stage in our recruitment efforts. During these conversations, my goal is to assess whether the candidate will be a strong contributor to a department which places a high emphasis on continuous development and innovation. There are many other ways, within the Information Technology Services department, where we have implemented structures to reward and acknowledge people whose efforts are consistent with the values of continuous development and innovation. The concept of “investing in people” extends beyond the IT department, though. In my endeavors, one of the biggest predictors of project success has been the active involvement of strong project champions. When there is a need on your campus to innovate and the champions of the responsible areas do not fully appreciate how technology might enable this innovation, then there is a significant opportunity for IT leaders to help develop fertile ground by partnering closely (and with humility and empathy) to help develop the appreciation for what a technology-enabled innovation might bring. These can be simultaneously difficult and rewarding and require vision and passion. Whether it is through the hiring of an IT staff member or the more strategic partnership with leaders across campus, this investment in people is crucial to effective innovation.
Thirdly, in order for innovation to take root, technology leaders on campus should do everything in their power to understand and internalize spoken and unspoken institutional strategies. One of the most rewarding technologies that we have implemented at my institution is a CRM-based system that allows for the Dean of Students Office to more effectively provide support to students. This outcome was in no small part made possible by the early involvement of my department. Even before solutions were being imagined, ITS was invited in to help articulate the problem statement and then meet with participants in student support processes to thoroughly document existing processes and interactions. This early partnership between ITS, Student Affairs, and Academic Affairs occurred at least partially because my team had fully internalized, and could articulate, that the care of the student was a core part of our institutional DNA and mission. Only as IT is able to fully empathize with administrative and academic stakeholders on campus can it truly add strategic value.
Finally, since the most successful innovations on our campus have occurred when people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives have exchanged ideas in an environment of honesty and respect, it is vital to promote inclusiveness and understanding on project teams. Fairly recently, the Provost at our university published a vision statement around technology-enhanced learning and education. This vision and the subsequent implementation plan, which is in full execution now and covers topics such as course and program definitions, professional development for faculty, and our institution’s intellectual property policy, would not have been nearly as bold and well-thought out without the collective contributions of a very diverse task force. The task force included faculty from each school and college, administrators from Information Technology Services (ITS) and Academic Affairs, a Dean, and the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. There was no shortage of heated debates about core elements of our institution’s mission. There was also an abundance of respect and an authentic desire to understand opposing viewpoints. This dynamic ultimately played a large part in fostering an entrepreneurial and creative collaboration whose outcomes will enable the attainment of strategic goals related to online and hybrid education.