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Remaining Relevant in Higher Education Depends on a Digital Strategy

A primary business goal is to “Remain relevant, to stay in business.” Over the past decade, technology use in postsecondary education has increased significantly, driven by factors such as the growth of online and blended learning, the adoption of understanding management systems (LMS), the use of mobile devices and apps, and the integration of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) tools.  

According to Education Data Initiative, college enrollment peaked in 2010, and the statistics indicate enrollment has declined nationally by 9.6% by 2020. (Source: Education Data Initiative -

Digital Technology is a fundamental pathway for Higher Education organizations to remain relevant, make informed decisions about programs, bring about strategic decisions, and allocate resources effectively. However, pre-pandemic strategies and tactics still suffocate many institutional structures and governance models.

For several years, Educause has listed IT strategy, governance, and funding in its top 10 issues. Educause stated “Ensuring IT leadership is a full partner in institutional strategic planning” as its top issue for 2023 (Educause Top 10 IT Issues, 2023: Foundation Models). Further, “Digital capabilities have become a key success factor for colleges and universities.”

The recent pandemic heightened the importance of remote/online learning, prompting many institutions to scramble to enhance their supporting technology. (Source: Inside Higher Ed -


As a technology leader, I consistently review business strategy plans within the Higher Education sector. A common thread among these strategies is the emphasis on growing student enrollment. However, I’ve noticed that many of these plans do not explicitly include a robust digital technology infrastructure to support these ambitious objectives. This oversight presents a significant challenge, especially when institutions face constraints such as limited or declining student populations, regional boundaries, or cost barriers.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the number of postsecondary eligible 18-year-olds will decrease starting in 2025, increasing competition for enrollment. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau -

The future of higher education will need to look at technology as an enabler, as a “full partner in institutional strategic planning,” rather than a black hole for expenses. Transforming the organization requires a fundamental shift in Digital Governance from the top down. 

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Shadow technology groups outside of IT abound in Higher Education. Spending on new technologies outside of IT without cost rationalization or metrics on benefits erodes the available budget. Often these expenditures, whether impactful or not, continue. Budgets come under increasing pressure without a regular cross-department spending analysis.

Higher Education IT Departments tend to be highly reactive (justify improvements per incident), change only when an audit is failed, have just enough funding to keep the lights on, and can’t say “NO” to technology requests. CapEx spending by projects often contributes to the bloating year-over-year OpEX expenditures. Every CapEx expenditure has associated, ongoing OpEx costs to support the IT Services Portfolio. IT is tactically fighting the battles as best they can, without a clear strategy to guide them or prioritize.  

Chaos does not scale…well.

Can your organization, not just IT, explain its digital strategy clearly, and provide evidence of investments toward modernizing its digital ecosystem to match the 5-10 strategic plans?

A good (not perfect) digital strategic plan is needed. Oversimplified, a good plan needs three things:

    • Unwavering Executive support and alignment across the senior executive leadership.
    • An achievable timeline.
    • Dedicated, rationalized funding and associated benefits.

Missing any one of these and it’s considered a poor plan. A good strategic plan coupled with an excellent tactical plan is the key to winning the battle. Simply put, if your organization does not have a digital strategy created by a technology governance function aligned with the organization’s strategy, your ability to remain relevant will reach a tipping point. In The Art of War”, military strategist Sun Tzu stated, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

What Can We Do?

There isn’t a single solution, but there is a path to position the organization for a higher opportunity of success.

  • Make the senior IT person (CIO, CTO, etc.) a full partner in strategic planning, not just a subordinate capability.
  • Leverage ISO38500 “Information technology (IT) — Governance of IT for the organization.”
    This standard provides guiding principles for members of governing bodies of organizations on the effective, efficient, and acceptable use of information technology within their organizations. This international standard is intended to facilitate an organization’s digital strategy governance.
  • Establish at the highest level an IT Steering committee or Technology Advisory board.
    A steering committee with broad representation with a charter to serve the organization, not just independent interests, which address:
    • Technology Service Portfolio management
    • Financial management
    • Demand Management
    • Risk Management
  • Conduct an Executive Business Technology Agenda Workshop.
    Understand IT delivery models and establish guiding principles and drivers that are the rationale for the Business, Functional, Technical, and Implementation goals and plans.
  • Create a service-centric IT organization.
    Everything IT does is a Service. This doesn’t mean any request but an intentional, strategic set of services and processes. Retire digital offerings that don’t provide a critical or strategic advantage or value proposition.

When is the best time to plant a tree?

This has the same answer as “When should we start?

10 years ago. 

When ITs customers complain about IT, it’s usually not about the technology but the organization’s governance and processes. Good leadership, strategy, processes, and people enable an organization to:

  • Exhibit management control of your environment as you move forward; and
  • Doing the correct things and doing those things correctly

When an institution can manage IT services effectively, it can sharpen its focus, increase its value while reducing cost and increasing margins, and thus remain relevant.

Tim Taylor

Tim Taylor has worked in technology for over 35 years. He has recently focused on the Higher Education vertical. Tim has helped over 60 organizations in multiple industries (Oil/gas, Financial, government, transportation, hospitality, healthcare, etc.) with their IT business challenges, leading numerous IT Service Management assessments, executive workshops, and implementations. He has trained over 2,000 consultants.

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