Why Higher Education CIOs have to manage exceptional expectations through adaptable investments.
Imagine being an IT Leader working for a firm that replaced 25% of its workforce every year with new employees who were paying you to come to work and who were of a demographic that demanded the very best in technology services, then being surveyed constantly with the results published to the world about how well you met their expectations. Not a job you would imagine a queue around the corner for.
Of course, that isn’t the description most Universities publish when looking for a CIO, but, that is the challenge of expectation that comes with this unique role in IT.
It is difficult to think of a more demanding role.
Now factor in that you are helping run a large complex campus that serves tens of thousands of students, hundreds of academics, research environments and in many cases private sector business users doing cutting edge research projects. An environment that comprises tens if not hundreds of buildings. A transport hub. Retailers. A place of learning, life and entertainment. Where people expect to be kept safe and secure. Sounds exciting. Tempted?
Well, what if you had to do all of that for the price of a latte per user per day?
CV in the post is it?
Getting more from less – theory v reality
In an age of growing transparency, Universities are ever more encouraged and regulated to publish a breakdown of how the £9600 per year student fee is spent. How much on teaching, buildings, admin, research, and, of course IT. The Office for Students, the sectors new financial regulator, and others, including the Minster of State, are creating a reporting environment that is giving students ever more detailed access to how their fees are spent, linked to the concept of value for money.
In a report published in November 2018 by the Higher Education Policy Institute, and one that garnered many negative headlines in national news media, this independent policy think tank published analysis of several leading institutions spending habits of their students hard found fees.
Any prospective CIO would likely look at the reality of their budget prospects and run a mile.
Investments in IT services varied across the report, but spending ranged from a low of £520 and averaged at around £580 per share of student annual fees. Now in percentage terms that’s 5% at the lowest spend with some institutions investing up to 9% in technology services. Sounds generous.
But, if you break that down by the number of days a student spends on campus you have the grand total of around £2.36 per day, per student, to run IT services. We aren’t even in large latte territory. CIOs are delivering IT services for the price of a flat white.
When you break the numbers down, the reality of running one of the world’s toughest IT gigs on a budget that expects you to deliver not just world-class services but exceptional experiences that differentiate your institution against your competitors is daunting to say the least.
The CIO wishlist
So, is it any wonder why this year’s UCISA* conference was a hot bed of discussion on topics such as automation, adaptable digital platforms, data driven decision making and the priority of demonstrating that IT investments can benefit every aspect of campus life such as student safety and security?
CIOs came with an appetite to discuss and drive change in how what they and their team do can better impact a range of outcomes; so, what was on their hot list of topics?
- Automation of major IT platforms to reduce the cost of operations, shifting resources to experiential roles rather than traditional IT service admin.
- IT platform investments adapting to longer term requirements; using the latest in software defined automation and innovations such API platform development to better integrate investments.
- Building better strategic platform roadmaps so investments shift from being depreciating assets to ones that demonstrate increasing value over time.
- Platforms such as the digital network becoming multifunction investments; not just supporting students and their devices, but playing a role in the connected campus, IoT and student safety.
- Data as a key decision-making tool for the CIO and the right data being made available to all stakeholders across their institution; but not in backward looking reports, for real-time decision making.
- Governance and control of resources is now key; the rush to the cloud for desktops has been followed by major application workloads, but the CIO is now looking to put controls and governance in place to ensure the cloud doesn’t become a cost or a risk.
Lessons to be learnt
The key to this major feat of investment sleight of hand must be adaptability. No longer can a network, or data centre, security investment or data source become an asset that stays stagnant to only perform the job it was initially designed for. Nothing can be left to depreciate – because the network bought this year is serving a new cohort of students next year. And it is expected to support IoT campus security in three years. A data centre platform this year must extend to the cloud next year as applications and data can be shifted to the most cost-effective location.
IT operations cannot stand still either; automation that is impacting every industry must be embraced in full to prove that human resources are being used as the truly valuable resources they are in delivering high-value experiences, and software and automation takes the strain of repetition.
And of course, at UCISA whilst the CIO was looking for ‘technology life hacks’ to show that the money they are being trusted with delivers increasing value, they are also looking for partners who are able to shift their focus to more value-driven relationships.
They don’t want partners who just look at how much budget there is to spend on a major tech re-fresh, but a partner who demonstrates that an in investment can deliver accentuated value over time.
The world of the CIO in Higher Education must be one of the most exciting roles in the industry; and by partnering in a different way we can shift the focus on how much money is being spent on IT services – stop the headlines castigating institutions for investing in anything but teaching – and show that the CIO and their partners are focused on turning the money we are entrusted with is continually delivering differentiated experiences for every University stakeholder.
If we can do all of that for the price of a flat white, then the drinks are definitely on us.
* UCISA is the member-led professional body for digital practitioners within education.
 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/nov/22/less-than-half of-tuition-fees-spent-on-teaching-at-english-universities