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  • Writer's pictureTony Pagliarulo

Activating IT Transformation in Higher Ed

It’s no secret that higher education institutions are under attack in an increasingly competitive environment with mounting pressure to find new sources of revenue. Like any business, when revenues are strained, there is a greater need to operate more efficiently while continuing to deliver high quality services which enhance the reputation of the institution. More often of late, senior administrators are turning to the CIO for answers.

In our white paper entitled Higher Education: CIOs Are Driving Transformation to Accelerate Value, we highlighted the key IT challenges facing universities and colleges and outlined the ways that CIOs can add value for their respective institutions – focusing on the “why” and the “what.”

In this post, we turn our attention to execution – the how – and highlight how CIO Sensei recently partnered with a private, Midwestern university to activate its bold agenda to transform IT.


Our client, the CIO, had recently decided to "lean-in" to the institution’s transformation program. He engaged CIO Sensei to help activate his vision to transition from a “keep the lights on” operation to a strategic unit focused on innovation and differentiation. While we have seen similar transformations in corporate America over the last decade, the magnitude (and pace) of change being driven by this CIO was unprecedented in Higher Education.

This university was facing many of the same challenges being felt across Higher Ed IT, including complex legacy infrastructure, skillset gaps, operational inefficiencies, inconsistent stakeholder engagement, lagging innovation – and this CIO was committed to driving an “end to end” transformation.

Areas of Focus

Activation of this IT transformation spanned the following foundational elements: Effectiveness, Operating Model, Technology Portfolio Simplification, and Efficiency. Using a proven methodology and approach, each of these areas was transformed over a nine-month period. If this timeline sounds aggressive – it was! The CIO defined an ambitious vision and even a more aggressive time-line. Sometimes, we had to push his team, other times we had to pull, but the “buy in” from senior leadership was strong and the goals were clear allowing the team to stay focused on the end results.


A critical outcome for our client was improving the quality of service delivery to its user community of over 20,000 students, faculty, and staff. A foundational element was the establishment of a new IT governance framework, with a strong portfolio management and prioritization process. A new proactive engagement model was implemented to bring users and IT closer together to facilitate a strong partnership, better decisions and ensure value-based outcomes.

Operating Model

The client’s prior organization and operating model was centered on technologies, not core capabilities. It was unbalanced, inconsistent, and lacked an effective structure and span of control with complacency taking root in many parts of the IT team. A re-imagined operating model based on “end to end” capabilities of the university and the corresponding enabling IT services and was established. This model included the creation of an interactive governance model and the introduction of relationship managers to partner with the major functions and stakeholders.

Portfolio Simplification

An essential component of any IT transformation is to take a serious look at the current technology portfolio and identify ways to simplify it – to reduce cost and complexity. A full inventory of applications, infrastructure and services was created and stratified based on criticality and cost. We identified a large number of redundant and underutilized legacy systems and targeted a reduction of ~20% resulting in cost savings of over 30%.


The modern Higher Ed CIO must run IT “as a business.” This approach means making difficult choices to achieve long-term objectives. This was the case for our client, who made tough but essential decisions in the name of the university’s future success.

In order to build a scalable, strategic IT organization, key areas including program management and infrastructure operations were assessed to identify areas for optimization. After conducting rigorous RFP processes, outsource partners were engaged for both of these critical areas and commodity activities and tasks were transitioned to a managed services model. These changes allowed the CIO to invest in new technologies and roles such as Business Relationship Managers and Enterprise Architects.

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