One of the most potent obstacles to innovation of any kind is cultural or historical inertia. In the realm of education technology, as innovation increasingly promises new approaches to education, institutions are eyeing new solutions to solve the most pressing problems in their enterprises.
But is that the right approach? Institutions undergoing digital transformation may find that their distributed IT departments eventually become organically isolated over time, leading to a network of silos that are inefficient at problem-solving. Overcoming inertia is a daunting, albeit worthwhile challenge to undertake.
At EDUCAUSE 2017, as we do every year, our entire VMware contingent benefitted immensely from observing and participating in the conversations about how to help advance higher education through the use of information technology. While our teams certainly hope to bring some level of expertise to the table, we value the perspective that we can inherit from those who live where the rubber meets the road in higher education.
This is how it felt when we met with Stephen Herzig and Jon Kelley from the University of Arkansas at EDUCAUSE 2017. Amid the week’s process-focused discussions, we grew to realize just how much their innovative and rapid move from traditional IT practices to those of modern, identity-based, cloud-mobile computing had impacted the university more deeply and broadly than any traditional IT project ever could.
In particular, the democratization of this journey – and the involvement of stakeholders across the University of Arkansas community in its progress – served as a unifying force in advancing the needed transformation. It is a testament to the strength of the University’s leadership and will surely root the University in growth and success moving forward.
Stephen and Jon share their story below on how this transformation has unified the University of Arkansas. We at VMware are grateful to have the opportunity to support them on their IT transformation journey and encourage you to give their engaging perspective a read.
A Technology-Agnostic Unified Approach is Key
Situated in Fayetteville, Arkansas – labeled the No. 5 best place to live in the United States by U.S. News & World Report – the University of Arkansas is the state’s flagship research university and is undergoing rapid growth, with an influx of 10,000 net new students in less than a decade.
The position of a flagship University should be to lead, not to follow. To keep its commitment to the citizens of Arkansas, and to continue attracting top talent from across the country and neighboring states like Texas, the University recognized a need to transform the technology of the learning and teaching environments on campus.
We have taken great strides to institute new tools and systems to empower our educators and students. We modernized our learning labs with virtual desktops to provide an enhanced learning experience while cutting costs, saving maintenance resources and reducing our carbon footprint. We upgraded our graphics processing capabilities for our engineering and architecture students. We streamlined and improved security on University networks through virtualization. And we launched a pilot digital workspace program to allow for access to critical learning information and applications anytime, from anywhere on any device.
This is the bleeding-edge technology befitting a flagship University, but technology will only get you so far. To truly institute change, universities must change the way they think about how they deliver products and services – not just the actual products or services being delivered. The best way to do this is democratically, by investing internal customers directly in the transformation process. By instituting best customer service practices, universities can build widespread trust and multiply the effectiveness of technology.
“We did not set out to build a table and ask University stakeholders to come sit down while we told them how innovative or transformative it was. Our approach was to reach out to our customers and offer to build a table together to see what kind of powerful tools could be brought to bear for the University.”
Does IT Fragmentation = Enterprise Inefficiency?
At Arkansas, we make a concerted effort to maintain separate teams while leveraging common, centrally available enterprise IT services. This frees up precious time and resources for departmental IT groups to innovate alongside our most important end customers – our faculty and our students.
Our enterprise IT services have been innovation in action – a movement away from traditional, client-server computing and the way things have been done for more than two decades. Instead of aiming to continue doing the same things more vigorously or efficiently, we sought to work with a whole new IT construct, tool sets, and capabilities that fundamentally changed the relationship our central IT department had with our customers.
Undeniably, IT can sometimes serve less as a tool and more as a road block. Many factors can lead a university toward isolated IT environments where separate IT silos pull in different directions. This may be due to University politics, resistance to change, poor communication or budget limitations. The silos of IT fragmentation are a common challenge for universities.
Over the course of the digital transformation process, our team pondered just how much the legacy of fragmented IT departments in higher education generally causes or contributes to inefficiencies rooted in silos of money, effort, people, communication, or other University resources or business workflows. At EDUCAUSE 2017, we were asked a variant of this question: is there a connection between fragmented IT and inefficiencies in the business of higher education?
While the numbers may differ from institution to institution, this was a simple question with a simple answer and profound implications: if the members of a university’s IT team are pulling in different directions, progress is stunted and efficiency cannot be gained. It takes a unified, concerted approach for university IT to achieve ambitious digital transformation.
The Healing Power of Democratized IT Modernization
While that is a general consideration, something that is directly quantifiable is the impact a successfully centralized IT effort has on a university. Through an enterprise-level transformation effort, the University of Arkansas is breaking down inertia-constructed silos of work, resources, and communication.
We can speak about overcoming the challenges of IT fragmentation because we have lived through it. There has been an institutional “healing” of sorts, and it is enlightening to see such healing occur when technology is only one part of the solution and not the primary focus.
Our primary focus has been the democratization of our IT modernization journey. We did not set out to build a table and ask University stakeholders to come sit down while we told them how innovative or transformative it was. Our approach was to reach out to our customers and offer to build a table together to see what kind of powerful tools could be brought to bear for the University. Other universities can similarly benefit from being more thoughtful about their relationship to the business and how IT can, when led appropriately, enhance and drive the business mission of the institution.