What Private Sector IT Can Learn From Education IT

Private-sector IT organizations are often known more for pushing back, wearing people down, and never quite achieving alignment with business needs; they’d do well to look to education IT for lessons in how to do it better.



From a Box customer (who chose to remain anonymous) comes this thought:

If anyone in the business wants to do something and if I.T. needs to help, that’s a red flag.

Ouch. I’ve felt this person’s pain many times.

All too often in the private sector (where I’ve spent my professional life), working with I.T. can be challenging. I.T. is often known more for pushing back, wearing people down, and never quite achieving and aligning business needs with I.T. priorities and budgets. I wondered if the same cultural and behavioral issues exist in the education sector. Why?

Educational organizations support thousands and thousands of stakeholders in distributed environments. And, while education I.T. needs may seem more predictable than Fortune 500 corporations, there are certainly application, scalability, budget, and performance issues that must be addressed.


Education CIOs support very large enterprises that have all the complexity and uptime requirements required in the private sector. Instinctively, public educational institutions must also be feeling budget pressures due to lower tax revenues and the pressure to “do more with less.” I wanted to understand the strategies of education CIOs, what they are doing in terms of professional development for their teams and stakeholders, and understand their biggest challenges.

Refreshingly, I uncovered no evidence that the education CIOs foster or tolerate an adversarial environment with their stakeholders. They see their mission as business enablement for school administration, teachers and students. Let’s take a closer look.

Education CIO Strategies

David Dodd, CIO of Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio, discussed his commitment to 21st century learning and being user-centric–doing what is in the best interests of the students. He is concerned about what students will experience once they leave Xavier and believes that the real world should drive the student information technology experiences while at Xavier. His model for making decisions is (1) operational integrity, (2) strategic preparedness (how is change occurring), and (3) agility and adaptability (constantly reassessing and realigning).

One of the key areas where Dodd’s team adds value is in strategic information resources–creating a culture of evidence. As David expressed, “There’s nothing quite like having fact-based discussion.” His team does this through analytics, business intelligence, dashboards, and key performance indicators. In terms of the moving applications and data to the cloud, he believes this is financially-driven and he is thinking about it carefully before leaping into it.


Aaron Turpin, CIO of Hall County Schools (K-12) in Atlanta, indicated that central administration costs were reduced by 25% due to I.T. business enablement. For each school, the I.T. spend is based on instructional goals for each of his 33 schools. The school leadership is able to make investment choices within a budget profile provided. He is aided by a 1-penny sales tax allocated for new schools and infrastructure.

Turpin doesn’t see his mission changing much over the next three years. He will have to spend more on storage, more personalized learning will require more interoperability with different applications, and he will see more initiatives for remote learning built into HallConnect, the school’s intranet. For example, Mandarin Chinese teachers are often remote.

Vince Kellen, CIO of University of Kentucky in Lexington, sees his role is “information, logistics and value creation in information.” He sees himself as an I.T. horse whisperer whose mission is to tame I.T. and to be an I.T. coach and evangelist for the university. He has business analysts and support people whose role includes helping with the development and deployment of new applications.

He believes his role is to be in charge of the logistics of data and management, not the I.T. infrastructure. I.T. is part of the university’s strategic plan including for reporting and status. The notion of the platform as infrastructure is new and will provide the flexibility for just-in-time contracting to support infrastructure needs. He is looking to move 100% of applications and data to the cloud. This model will allow risk to be clearly spelled-out contractually. The enablers are network bandwidth and the advantages available today in memory and CPU. The impediments are that I.T. slows things down due to a fear of loss of control, both due to intentional sabotage and benign neglect.

Kellen sees technology as only about 20% of the solution; people and process are much more dominant in terms of successful deployment. He employs experience analysis and design in looking for root causes in a particular use case to identify what’s really broken: technology, process and/or people issues.


Joe Griffin, CIO of Keller Independent School District in Keller, Tex., supports 33,000 students in 40 schools. 95% of his students have access to technology 24/7/365. His strategy is to use I.T. to cut costs and make things more efficient. He has shifted many of his support resources to a U.S.-based outsource firm enabling the remaining members of his team to focus on mission-critical areas, not infrastructure, a focus that Griffin characterizes as “liberating.”

Griffin is supporting eLearning and distance learning initiatives. His strategy is to understand total cost (not merely reducing costs) and to realize best value for his budget. For example, his district has implemented student RFID technology so they can better account for students in classrooms and on buses yielding about $500,000 in additional cost off-sets from education reimbursements. This technology also eliminates the need to take attendance in every class, one of the great education time wasters of all time.

Professional Development

For education CIOs, professional development falls into two distinct areas: developing their own teams and the improving teaching staff technology skills. Not surprisingly, students seem to have few challenges embracing and adopting technology.

Dodd (Xavier University) indicated that hiring the right people is the single-most important aspect for him and this puts him ahead of the curve in terms of the need for staff professional development. Mindset is more important than skill set. He looks at fit, culture and ability to collaborate with others. Project managers and analysts must be able to clearly articulate what problem they are trying to solve. Dodd has created his own professional development program for his team.


Turpin (Hall County Schools K-12) is focused on improving teaching staff technology skills. He relies on a balanced scorecard to measure progress. He has nearly 2000 teachers to train. 600 were trained this past summer; he also offered 2-week sessions on blended learning. Surprisingly, only 10% of his faculty is in the final 10 years of their careers.

Kellen (University of Kentucky) asks each member of his team what they are passionate about and how he can support them in their individual growth. He also captures “passion inventories” about his team. He also supports teachers to embrace new technologies and applications. He has put about 60 people on this team through leadership development so they can become better leaders of people and ideas. He believes that I.T. professionals are quite under-developed in terms of people skills.

Griffin (Keller Independent School District K-12) has migrated most of his team to an outsource vendor who is responsible for their training and development of the I.T. staff. He supports the teachers in their technical professional development.

Education CIO Challenges

Excluding budget, the biggest challenges education CIOs face include cyber security, making sure they do things that make a difference and bring demonstrable value, continually trying to be part of the solution (not becoming part of the problem), providing professional development to teachers around technology, and using technology to give time back for classroom instruction.


But, they also face challenges commonly seen in the private sector: education no longer happens from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a cinderblock room; it’s 24/7/365; shaping the future fast enough with their teams, vendors and business units; explaining the vision: people, motivations, messaging; getting I.T. on board for preparation of changes; interoperability between legacy and newer applications; providing secure remote access for eLearning.


I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing the education CIOs and appreciate their insights and perspectives. While I’ve not interviewed the stakeholders they support, the education CIOs are very pragmatic and see I.T. as the key to enabling their stakeholders to more efficiently address their missions.

Are there lessons here?

In the private sector, business process owners would appreciate I.T. collaborating with them and not being so adversarial. Business teams want I.T. to be on the same team, not merely blocking and tackling the people who are responsible for day-to-day execution of a critical process. The business process owners want I.T. to get excited about solving real problems and spend a lot less energy pushing back on the business requirements. Finally, business process owners want I.T. and their teams to win together. These values seem to be second nature for education CIOs.



Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker and blogger who resides in Silicon Valley. His firm helps clients eliminate business execution issues that threaten profitable and sustainable growth. He can be reached through his website at or via Twitter @Gardner_Dave

[Image: Flickr user Djuliet]

About the author

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, blogger and author based in Silicon Valley. He's been in the front row for the birth and evolution of Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world