Selling Technology Change in Higher Education: Tips for IT Leaders and Staff
July 2012, Volume 25, Number 7
By Paige Francis
Selling technology change in higher education can be a challenge, but excitement and ownership can easily replace fear and panic if the change is handled carefully from the start. At NorthWest Arkansas Community College, cross-campus collaboration and communication proved vital when migrating to a new online portal for students, faculty, and staff.
The Information Technology Department in Higher Education
The role of the Information Technology (IT) department at a community college is to serve everyone on campus. Administrators, faculty, staff, and students are your customers, and IT staff must be cognizant of and appreciate fully the needs and goals of these customers, making themselves available to individuals with varying technological comfort levels. Rather than defining the needs of your customers for them or attempting to force the acceptance and use of technology, you are there to guide, educate, and assist in the evolution of technology use. IT goals are security, stability, and service. Throw in some strategic planning, forecasting, and knowledge of cutting edge technology, and you become invaluable. Very little speaks to how a campus perceives its IT department than large-scale technology projects. Ask yourself if you, as an IT leader, can squelch fears and engage the masses.
Technology Project Implementation Steps
Investigate. Examine the IT department’s current process and explore steps that may lead to a more beneficial process. Investigation can occur anytime and should be ad hoc, event-driven, and solutions-based. Envision the current situation and the IT department’s overall goals. List pros and cons, run cost-analysis scenarios, and anticipate every question and conflict. Become the expert on current solutions and possible future solutions. Communicate openly with, and not simply to, your customers, and involve administrators, decision-makers, and faculty members in the conversation.
Engage Others. When you have found an improvement or solution for your college, resist the temptation to simply run with it. Although vetting this solution with your peers may be challenging and time consuming, it will be more beneficial in the long term. Partner with your colleagues to come up with technology solutions that work best for your institution.
Select an Initial Audience. Carefully select the initial group to vet your solution, and ensure that the first meeting with this group is reasonably and seasonably timed. Let the group see exactly what sparked your interest in an improvement or solution. Present the pros and cons, such as return on investment, current restrictions, and benefits for students, faculty, and staff. Long gone are the days when geek-speak and techno-babble dazzled the typical nontechnical audience. People care about what you’re saying—close to 90 percent have their own technology, probably in their pocket—so use layman’s terms, be clear, and ensure that your message is fully understood. Invite and use the group’s input, affirming that their time and feedback are valued. Set clear expectations for the meeting and stick to the timeline. If they are sold on the solution, move to the next step; if there is viable pushback, re-evaluate.
Expand Your Audience. Visit with various groups several times if necessary, inviting other partners to the conversation and listening to their ideas. Welcome everyone. By this time, your communication will be snowballing. Within a week or so, your hand-picked collaborators will have told their colleagues and your communication circle will be expanding to include representatives from all areas of the college. Engage allies and supporters from all areas and organizational levels of the college, but don’t let their enthusiasm cause you to lose sight of the importance of continued communication and collaboration. Everyone who is involved needs to understand what you are proposing.
Rally Support. Present the solution or change to your college community. Speak with leaders, such as the faculty senate president and student leaders, to schedule individual meetings for faculty, staff, and students, and understand that each group may have different goals, ideas, and views. Scheduling a series of meetings may be time-intensive, but spending sufficient time in this phase directly affects project success. Use websites, email, announcements, alerts, Twitter, Facebook, press releases, flyers, meetings, and other methods of communication, and document dates, times, messages, and feedback resulting from their use. In every communication format, be clear about improvements and potential losses, and be clear about factors indicating that the benefits outweigh the losses. Use positive comments from colleagues to emphasize your point, but also include the negative impact in the conversation and request open feedback.
Seek Input. Throughout the process, respect your audience, value the opinions and ideas you seek, and use layman’s language in your communication. Bounce ideas off the groups you convene. Seek questions and deliver answers, admitting when you don’t know and assuring group members that you will find out. Follow up in a timely fashion, communicating the answer back to all who were present.
Create Ownership. Use this implementation time to educate others about the reality of a major technology implementation project. Avoid assuming that everyone knows technology can break with little or no advance notice and for no apparent reason. Now is the time to inform your customers, especially since “seamless implementation” is rarely, if ever, the reality. Everyone needs to understand that when technology breaks, success is measured in the response to that break. Speedy response and recovery time builds confidence among others in your leadership of the project.
Solicit Feedback. Open, honest feedback is the single most important gift you can receive at the close of a project. Whether positive or negative, feedback provides a natural starting point for continuous improvement. It gives you the ability to identify and accomplish goals and exceed expectations. It also gives you opportunities for more communication about the project, the IT staff’s role in it, and possible improvements to make in future endeavors.
Express Gratitude. Thank everyone who helps you achieve a goal. Use every opportunity to express appreciation and gratitude for service and assistance received in every step of implementation.
It’s All About Improvement
The decision to take on a large-scale campus or system technology project is all about improvement. Advancing processes, streamlining effectiveness, and increasing efficiency are your ultimate goals. Sometimes to accomplish those goals major decisions and changes need to be made. A solid IT leader should not even squint at the prospect of a high-profile campus project. If you follow the steps and keep your servant-leadership hat on every step of the way, confidence and collaboration can become the norm in technology projects.
Paige Francis is Associate Vice President, Information Technology, at NorthWest Arkansas Community College.