Driving change through COVID-19 and facing the challenges ahead

Posted on May 22, 2020 by

People frequently ask me: “How it is going?” and I tentatively say: “good.” By this, I mean my family and friends are healthy, as are my colleagues and team members at ITS. It is the new challenges and increased workload that are off of the charts, and make me take pause. I am committed to spending time away from the screen outside in the fresh air – walking or gardening, but mentally it seems that now we are never able to turn off and clearly separate work and life. As a good friend told me a few weeks ago: “because of the work arrangements now, every day feels like Blendsday.”

Lately, I have seen inspirational social media posts from leaders that I admire and people post some really fantastic insights and articles that help me through my days. One of these articles is: After the remote working rush, here comes the CIO’s next challenge. I value this article, because it focuses on the future and the opportunities that are arising all around us.

The article’s initial focus is on the challenges the chief information officer (CIO) has faced and overcome, but CIOs really are just the orchestrator, and we depend on our amazing teams to deliver. The whole ITS team needs to stand up and take a bow. As the article notes, you have collectively faced what is likely the biggest challenges of your careers,’ and you have risen to those challenges to prove your worth to the organization in ways you could never have imagined.

These challenges are broken down into the three stages around the coping strategy for a crisis:

“The first is ensuring stability and business continuity; second, institutionalising new ways of working; and third, using best-practice lessons from the crisis to create lasting technology-led change.”

In higher education we are likely bridging all three of these situations depending on where you sit. We managed to power through the winter term, helping students work online as well as moving most staff and faculty towards a work from home (WFH) culture. Both of these represent massive transformations. Now we are starting to talk about what those environments look like, and finding out how to make them sustainable and secure. A lot of the dialogue is now focused on ensuring that our WFH environments have secure connections and that our end points are appropriately protected. This is not an easy piece, given the huge diversity we have in higher education, but we must do this.

On the students side, there are many facets to tighten up. We need to ensure we address the digital divide when students are working remotely. Do they have access to adequate internet and technology? Do we have students who are located in challenging situations, where the internet is controlled, and surveillance is a significant threat? If I were a student again, I would work from a location that would mitigate these situations, and that may mean living close to my campus, as I would if this were a normal semester.

The third stage is the most interesting to me. As a CIO, we are always pushing for a digital transformation. We see the opportunity for increased efficiency and effectiveness all around us, but none of that transformation comes without a cost. Constantly pushing for change in higher education can be a draining activity, fraught with challenges. Our organizations value independence and autonomy in discovering new solutions and in decision making. There is no doubt this serves us well in normal situations, but the question may well be, is post-COVID-19 a normal situation?

We have pushed the needle so far in the last couple of months, how do we ensure we don’t slip back and how do we actually keep moving forward? Through the initial stages people just rolled up their sleeves and accepted the changes and freed themselves of the constraints of the status quo. In the end I think they realized that it wasn’t that bad. In fact, a lot of good has come out of these changes.

So, what has changed and what is going to change post-COVID-19? I think we are going to be always on for some time to come, and I think the opportunity has emboldened the CIO to push even harder on the digital transformation. We must show value from the transformation at each step in the journey and I hope that the community has seen enough that they will pull us forward and lead from where they stand. Caveat: not too quickly, because I am not sure higher education institutions are always ready to dedicate more of our limited resources to driving the digital transformation. Time will tell.