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Tips from the top: CUCCIO sits 1-on-1 with the President of the University of Manitoba, David Barnard

There are two truths that all higher ed CIOs in Canada and beyond live with every day.

  • The demand for IT products and services is on the rise – alongside users’ aptitudes and expectations – and is showing no signs of slowing.
  • CIOs should not expect any major influx in financial resources to help them manage surges in demand.

But these trends aren’t new, and for many CIOs at the helm of higher ed IT shops across the country, they’re not necessarily discouraging either.

Today’s leading institutions are focused on how best to plan for the future, acknowledging and accepting new realities. And this type of planning does not happen in a vacuum.

For a discussion of how the various levels of university leadership can be engaged in long-term IT planning, we spoke to the President of the University of Manitoba, David Barnard.

“The expectations of pedagogy and service to students are increasing dramatically, because we’re dealing with students with high expectations of what technology can and should do for them,” Dr. Barnard says. “It means continuing pressure, as well as the need to choose carefully what we invest in and a disciplined approach to implementation.”

A computer science graduate and former CIO, Dr. Barnard brings a unique perspective to his current role as President. Through our conversation, we established three tips for managing higher ed IT over the next decade.

Tip #1: Ensure your expert advisors have the best information possible – on IT and otherwise.

“Institutions like universities work best when ideas flow toward the centre from people who are experts in their respective areas,” Dr. Barnard said. “Macroscopic choices will need to be made, but we need to know what the possibilities are. These possibilities must be informed by the educated ideas of our experts, and then aligned with our overarching strategies around research, teaching and learning, and the administration of the institution.”

This leads to the need for university CIOs to play a dual role of part IT expert, part business strategist, supported by the skills to gather and assess accurate information – from high-level industry trends to more detailed data and analytics – upon which to base their recommendations.

“The IT sector has been notorious – alongside other sectors like construction and transportation – for its failure to meet project deadlines and budgets. We need to be better than that,” Dr. Barnard says. “We need better information, so that decision makers can make wiser decisions. We need to do better analysis, so that we can run our institutions in a more intelligent way.”

Tip #2: Consult, and be aware of different parties’ biases.

We’ve heard from a variety of member CIOs that effective stakeholder consultation can be fundamental to the successful rollout of any new IT project. But while this type of engagement is crucial to finding solutions that will benefit the institution in as far-reaching a manner as possible, Dr. Barnard reminds us that it is important to consider stakeholder biases.

“It’s important to consider user perspectives, and it’s also important to have your experts recognized as experts,” Dr. Barnard says. “Most of us recognize that there is no simple function that can be applied locally, and which will also give you an optimal situation globally. It often takes someone standing a step above all the particulars to determine the best way to blend the local and global requirements.”

Dr. Barnard acknowledges that this tip applies to oneself, as well.

“In some ways, my background in IT is helpful. In other ways, it would be unfortunate if I thought my experience trumped the current realities. I need to be observant and critical of my own thinking on these matters, ensuring I’m truly listening to what I’m being told.”

Tip #3: When evaluating solutions, recognize what sets IT apart from other facets of the institution.

Finally, it’s important that academic and administrative leaders acknowledge that in many ways, managing higher ed IT brings its own set of unique challenges.

“One obvious trait is the pace of change,” Dr. Barnard says. “With the rapid advancement in both hardware and software and the raw power of computers increasing, we see new products all the time. The number of innovations you encounter each year is very large, and each could potentially bring the university significant value. Meanwhile, accounting standards, for example, change very slowly, and we build buildings that last years if not decades.”

Dr. Barnard says the key is to ensure that you’re not just being driven by advancements in technology for its own sake, and that instead, proponents are able to foster a dialogue around new solutions and assure stakeholders that their perspectives and concerns about teaching students, doing research and administering the institution have been taken into account.

“Both sides need to listen to one another, so that the final call isn’t left with people like me, who don’t necessarily know all the merits and challenges.”