Universities as Trampoline and Playground for New Technologies
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Universities as Trampoline and Playground for New Technologies

Andrea Di Fabio, CIO , Norfolk State University
Andrea Di Fabio, CIO , Norfolk State University

Andrea Di Fabio, CIO , Norfolk State University

Need for a Holistic Technology 

The technology that drives the core business of universities today is a hodgepodge of software packages loosely held together through costly and fragile integration with the university main enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Universities need a holistic technology solution to run their complex business. This solution must address all aspects of a university’s business, starting with student recruitment. Next, universities must be empowered with a smart retention system to provide automated advising and counseling road-maps tailored for each student. Lastly, an alumni and donor system should allow students to remain connected with, and give back to their institution. The reality is that a handful of software vendors have a monopoly on student information and financial system packages that are specifically developed and geared toward universities. These solutions work well to address a student educational lifecycle; however, they do not account for many other services that the university must provide such as housing, campus life, classroom and event management, or distance learning. Most importantly, they lack the fundamental capability of an integrated data analysis tool to drive recruitment and a retention. Without visibility into university business data, it is hard to plan for new business drivers and opportunities.

Colleges and universities are a challenging ecosystem, both from an information security and a business strategy standpoint"

Technologies Churning Enterprise Business Environment

Containerization is a relatively new technology trend first embraced by Linux, now becoming available in Microsoft server as well. Containers are portable, isolated, virtual environments that allow organizations to automate and standardize the deployment of applications and services, with the added benefit of security through sandboxing. Coupled with orchestration, the two technologies can immediately provide an organization with a competitive advantage, a faster time to market, as well as consistent and repeatable processes. When married to a reputable cloud solution, orchestration takes containerization to the next level, allowing for faster disaster recovery. In the future, this technology may allow for standardized solutions and integration of the many software packages running the core business of universities. 


Strategic Role of a CIO

Universities are much like small cities within cities. Unit leaders, VP's, and deans are the district representatives. They all have unique technology needs and agendas. The president is the city’s mayor. A CIO must be able to provide a global technology strategy and direction for the organization, but also connect the various districts in a way that brings together the unique technology needs and agendas under a common goal. This task is simpler when the CIO is empowered by a mayor who understands the positive impact of technology, supports technology as a business driver, and enables the CIO with early-on visibility and input into strategic planning and budgeting. Furthermore, a CIO must work to connect technology with its users by developing a sound IT strategic plan and IT governance structure. Developing a sustainable IT governance structure, which involves all technology consumers and stakeholders, is central to aligning business needs with IT solutions. 

CIO as an Ombudsman between IT and Business

Colleges and universities are a challenging ecosystem, both from an information security and a business strategy standpoint. Ideals, ways of thinking, and processes are often deeply rooted in such highly decentralized, but well-oiled, machines that it becomes difficult to bring change upon them. To a Chief Security Officer, IT security challenges emerge that are both compelled by the need for freedom of information, and the requirement to keep the critical business functions, its practices, and its data safe. Before becoming a CIO, I spent 11 years wearing the CSO hat and enjoying strong support from my senior leadership. I quickly learned that governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) are best addressed by a dedicated unit. Information security at a university is not quite like any other organization. While the academic side of a university needs to expose and access data for learning and research purposes, the business side of a university is much like any other private organization. A CSO working at a university understands the perfect balance between academia and business. He or she must carefully adjust the weights of a balance scale which holds academic needs on one plate, and the business needs on the other. I believe that most universities’ CSOs understand this particular challenge. They have embraced security as an integral part of the business, and they have developed appropriate security programs based on their resources. 


For the fellow CIOs Keeping up with new technology, embracing and often driving change is a must for a new CIO in this industry. More often than not, users are reluctant to embrace change. The CIO must therefore transfer his or her passion for technology to the IT staff and users throughout the organization in a way that transforms the fear for new technology into healthy curiosity. Educause is a great organization that focuses on technology in the education space. I would strongly advise a new CIO to join us in our CIO listserv so that we can collectively discuss the challenges we face and the solutions that work in our industry. Your campus is your home away from home. Embrace those that live and work there as your extended family. Build strong relationships. Walk across campus and ask questions to students, faculty and staff about technology. Doing so shows that you are engaged, and that you care about your family. It allows you to learn about your family needs. Encourage your staff to do the same. Your team will learn about technology needs, gaps, and you will be able to provide technology solutions that better integrate and automate workflows while bringing your family together.


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