In the 11 case studies that Albert Sangra and I examined for our book on the integration of technology in universities and colleges, one of our conclusions is as follows:

‘Too often, key decisions about technology were made by senior administrators without the necessary knowledge and skills to make an informed decision, or committee recommendations were overturned by other factors (such as competing priorities) that were not well explained or communicated to the committees that had done the work.

Now that technology is permeating all aspects of administration, teaching and research in universities and colleges, all senior administrators and managers will increasingly be required to participate in decisions about technology choice, investment, maintenance, management, policies and above all security. However, Albert Sangra and I found that program directors, heads of departments, deans, and vice-presidents/vice-rectors were often ill prepared for decision making regarding technology. At the same time, we don’t agree with just delegating all technology decisions to the IT professionals. (This is another major topic for a blog!).

Although technology specialists, such as CIOs and learning technology managers, can and should provide valuable input to decision-making, vice-presidents, deans, heads of department and program directors all need to know what questions to ask, have a basic understanding of technology issues, and how these are managed within the institution, and need to understand the implications of their decision-making regarding technology.

In a previous blog, I drew attention to the study by Higgins, Prebble and Suddaby (2008) that identified a series of questions that senior administrators should ask before making technology decisions. Although this is a good set of questions, I feel they are necessary but not sufficient. If senior and mid-level administrators are to answer these questions effectively, they must have the information needed to answer the questions, or know where to get it, or have in place a process whereby all the stakeholders are involved and can agree a decision. Furthermore, administrators need to have some criteria or framework for assessing the information collected.

For instance, if an academic department insists that a new learning management system is required, but the IT department says that this merely duplicates existing technology and adds extra costs, how can this conflict be resolved? Administrators need to have means by which to bring all the interested parties to the table, and know enough about the technology (and teaching and research requirements) to be able to assess competing views if agreement between the parties cannot be reached.

I believe then that every institution should have a process by which newly appointed senior and middle level administrators can be properly briefed about technology. This would include the following:

  • a briefing on the institution’s overall goals and strategies, and particularly its vision for the future, and where technology fits with this (if such a strategy exists)
  • a briefing by the directors of the roles and operation of the various units that support learning and administrative technologies throughout the organization, in particular, the IT department(s), the learning technology unit(s), and the faculty development office,
  • a briefing by unit directors and selected faculty on key technologies currently in use, and possible future developments in technology and their implications for the institution
  • a briefing on major technology strategies and projects that are already underway (essential to avoid reinventing the wheel, or canceling successful projects initiated by the previous administration), preferably with presentations or demonstrations by faculty and staff about their technology projects
  • a briefing on intellectual property, privacy and security issues
  • an  online social network focused on technology policies, using forums and wikis, where discussion about key technology issues/decisions are open to the whole community, with senior administrators taking an active role in moderating and participating in the discussion
  • a set of readings on the management of information and communications technologies in post-secondary educational institutions
  • enrolment in an online course on planning and managing technology in post-secondary education
  • a visit to at least one other organization of similar nature that has a high reputation for technology integration, to see how they do things.

Some of the institutions in the study had annual open houses on learning technology and/or IT strategies/issues. These were useful for all faculty, students and administrative staff, as well as administrators. However, the open houses in our case study institutions were not so focused or comprehensive in their treatment of the specific issues listed above, mostly focusing on just the demonstration of technology projects, and new or possible IT strategic directions, and unfortunately we found that many newly appointed managers did not bother to attend, although the VP Academic was usually there, if only briefly.

What is needed is a comprehensive strategy for preparing new administrators for making technology decisions, and it should be a responsibility of the executive team, with assistance from the various stakeholders, to ensure that such a strategy is in place. This could be combined with strategies for preparing administrators in other key areas of management, such as financial management and human relations.

However, as with my suggestions in another blog about the need for systematic training and qualifications for instructors in teaching, this proposal goes against the grain of the typical organizational culture in a university or college – faculty would say it smacks too much of managerialism and is too influenced by business practice. ‘We promote bright people to these positions and they will work it out for themselves, ‘ to quote one senior administrator in our study when asked about training for the job.

So: some questions for readers:

  • does your institution have a systematic program that prepares new administrators and middle managers for their new management responsibilities around technology issues? If so, would you be willing to share details of how this works?
  • if your institution has no specific training on technology issues for new administrators/managers, why not?
  • if you think that some form of training is a good idea, does what I am suggesting above make sense? What would you add or change to that list?
  • I did not include in my list a basic understanding of information and communications technologies, as I would have difficulty in defining the minimum they need to know – but is it really necessary to know how a computer or network works for the kind of decisions they have to make? If you think they do need to have a basic set of IT skills and knowledge, what would they be? Should we give a VP Academic an IT test before he/she is appointed?! (I did say IT not IQ).


Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (in press) The integration of technology in universities and colleges San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Higgins, A., Prebble, T. and Suddaby, S. (2008) Taking the Lead: Strategic Management for e-Learning Wellington NZ: Ministry of Education/Aotearoa, National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence


  1. I think there will need to be some clarity on what constitutes a ‘good technology decision’.

    To put the issue graphically, the technology decision that might most further an administrator’s career (or personal income, even legally) might be one that is disastrous for an institution.

    From the perspective of the administrator, what constitutes ‘good’?

  2. Great post, Tony. I’ve seen this lack of knowledge in action within the university setting more than once. My only contribution is to suggest that this lack of knowledge among decision-makers in university extends beyond IT. Due to the way in which universities are organized, and particularly the role of faculty governance, academics (including those that have moved into upper management) are often placed in situations in which they are asked to make decisions on topics about which they know little to nothing. It’s not just true in terms of IT, then, but in a whole host of areas like facility management, marketing, fund-raising, and instruction. While universities have become more complex organizations, we are still working our way through the residue of management by faculty. Better decisions requires bringing the right people to the table. We’re not there yet.

  3. Tony, another very interesting post and one close to me heart.

    I agree with Keith regarding the challenges that organisational structures impose.

    With regard to your questions:

    In my experience at several universities none would have a systematic program for new administrators. It’s probably not a bad idea although I often find that senior academic managers think that they know all that they need to know and even when their errors are tactfully pointed out they shrug it off as administrivia that is beneath them.

    Incidentally, I am reminded about the time I was asked by a Deputy Vice Chancellor why it would take several months and several hundreds of thousands of dollars to update a learning management system. Couldn’t we ‘just put a CD in the server’?

    I am also reminded about a story told to me by a colleague at another university about their Vice President who, on being frustrated at the length of time being proposed for a data centre move suggested that they just hire a van and put all of the servers in the back of it and drive them down the road to the new data center. This was the same person who thought that IT could move into a building before any networking was installed.

    More seriously, I think that it would be very useful for senior managers around universities to have an idea about what it takes to get things done in IT and some of the questions that need answering for an enterprise wide solution. Things like security, privacy, disaster recovery, back up and restore processes, archiving. And those are just for internally hosted solutions. Don’t get me started on externally hosted solutions.

    Whether the very top tier of university management really needs that level of understanding, whilst desirable, is debatable. What they really need is visionary, knowledgeable advisors around them. And here I mean people with a very good understanding of IT architecture not just processes. An example for me in educational technology would appear to be someone like Jon Mott at Brigham Young University. Jon advises the BYU DVC Academic. Here is someone that understands the changing nature of educational technology and can articulate it in strategic terms but also provide detailed advice and leadership on architectural approaches to solving problems such as the way in which web services might be used at BYU to facilitate solutions. This is why BYU can develop something like the Loosely Coupled Gradebook while other universities are scrabbling around trying to get their LMS gradebook to do what they want without a really holistic, considered vision about what it is they exactly want it to do.

    And this brings us to strategy. You talk about a strategy for preparing new administrators but it is dependent upon having medium to long term IT strategy for the university. This might be fine for administrative systems but I know of few that have a comprehensive edtech strategies. It is a difficult task, I know, I’ve tried to develop them and it is dependent upon the strategic direction of the university as a whole which ofetn doesn’t know whether it wants to be traditional or online or somewhere in between (and if so, then how much). In the strategy vacuum that is left we often get the smorgasbord strategy by default. That is to say we’ll have a bit of everything. A strategy fraught with wastage, confusion and missed opportunities.

    I’m feeling myself stray off topic so I’ll leave it there. Hope my comments are useful.


  4. “Too often, key decisions about technology were made by senior administrators without the necessary knowledge and skills” This is a significant problem in the academia !, especially in the UK with the post 1992 universities, it’s extremely difficult to make decisions because they are overridden by people without knowledge and the experience.
    Great informative article.


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