For the last decade, and perhaps more, technology leaders in higher education have been engaged in a debate about the CIO as “strategist” or “plumber” and whether the CIO should have a seat at the senior leadership table. Some have gotten there, only to realize that not all seats are created equally.
And then the novel coronavirus hit. Institutions and their leaders suddenly began to recognize the significance of technology in their organizations and the immensely important role it would play in addressing the new realities that institutions are facing. Those institutions that were already in the “strategist” camp fared better than those who were not—they had more collaboration and cloud solutions in place that enabled them to respond more quickly and agilely to the situation at hand.
With COVID-19, the CIO has finally gotten her due—an acknowledgement that IT leadership is an important role and deserves a seat at the table. So now what?
Even before the pandemic, a new debate was emerging: Should IT organizations really be leading or driving anything, or is their purpose primarily to enable and empower, to support and serve? COVID-19 highlighted the importance of technology in supporting and enabling institutional operations in new ways, from working remotely to teaching and learning entirely online.
What’s important to recognize, however, is that while the pandemic itself is a new experience and presents a new and unique set of challenges for institutions, in many ways it really only serves to exacerbate or accelerate higher education trends that were already in motion. These trends can be grouped into four categories.
Societal and Technological Shifts: New technological capabilities, like artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, have accelerated the pace of change. The use of robots in the workforce has doubled in the last decade, and six times more devices than people are connected to the Internet (i.e., IoT). These shifts may forever change how we learn and work.
Changing Needs and Expectations: Demographic shifts, different generational preferences, and evolving workforce requirements have all contributed to changes in the public’s expectations and needs from higher education. With the cost of college and student loan debt at an all-time high, many Americans are asking themselves if higher education is even worth it.
New Competition and Models: The rising cost of college, reduced half-life of professional skills, and emerging technologies are all creating an opening for new educational models, and higher education institutions are now starting to face fierce competition from all sides—other institutions, alternative educational providers, and employers.
Financial and Regulatory Pressures: A global recession and growing emphasis on accountability and compliance could further constrain institutions financially and regulatorily. By some accounts, several hundred colleges and universities are at risk of going out of business in the next couple of years.
Many of these trends are being shaped or even driven by technology. Or they may be able to be addressed through the use of technology. With these realities bearing down on higher education, IT strategy and institutional strategy are becoming intrinsically linked. It could even be said that technology strategy is becoming institutional strategy.
IT leaders can no longer be content to simply have a seat at the table or to view their role as that of only a service provider. They must look beyond planning technology-specific strategies and solutions to helping lead institutional thinking around the ways that technology can and will enable new models, new ways of thinking and doing, and new opportunities for addressing the increasingly urgent trends that are still very much on the horizon for higher education, regardless of what happens with COVID-19 over the next year or two.
This institutional planning should consider and address not just the technological components of what it means to be a modern university in a technology-driven world; it should also address the implications for a digital workforce. IT leaders can take the lead in asking:
Technology will play a key role in the future of higher education—not just the systems themselves, but the skills, the ways of thinking, the possibilities that technology enables. This is your time, IT leaders, the moment you’ve been waiting for. You’ve got the seat and you’ve got the attention of the academy. Are you ready to lead the way?
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