Skills Needed and How to Get Them

Professionals in higher education IT cannot rely on technical skills alone. We identified the skills they need for success, as well as the professional development activities respondents identified as contributing most to their growth in their current position. While technical skills are certainly crucial for employment, respondents told us that a host of other skills are necessary to be successful CIOs, managers, or staff in higher education IT. Respondents indicated that being able to communicate effectively and to collaborate with others beyond their supervisors and/or staff—from peers with equal positions to faculty and students—are essential components of successful job performance. Sustaining job performance and employee passion for the work is also dependent on strengthening an employee's current skills, facilitating the acquisition of new skills, and identifying areas of professional development.

Important Skills

Business skills were at the top of the list, as they were in 2016 when we asked participants to rate how important different kinds of technical, management, and business skills were to their job success (see figure 9). Effective communication was ranked the highest (very or extremely important among 97% of respondents) for all organizational levels, and this was consistent across Carnegie class, enrollment size, and ethnicity. The ability to manage other relationships within the institution—other than those between boss and staff—was also rated highly. Although more managers and CIOs than staff said this skill was important, likely due to their supervisory duties, over three-quarters of staff also rated managing inside relationships as key to their professional success. These results align with previous ECAR data about the growing need for managing relationships, communication, and soft skills for successful IT service delivery in higher education,1 as well as with broader private sector research on the importance and value of soft skills over technical expertise.2

Bar graph showing the importance of various professional skills for success, by approximate percentage of respondents rating skill very or extremely important. Ability to communicate effectively: Business skills = 95% Ability to manage other relationships within my institution (not boss or staff): Business skills = 85% Ability to comfortably communicate with diverse populations: Business skills = 85% Strategic thinking and planning: Business skills = 80% Ability to manage complex projects: Technical skills = 80% Ability to influence others: Business skills = 80% Ability to analyze data for planning and decision-making: Business skills = 80% Ability to manage processes: Technical skills = 80% Understanding non-IT business processes and operations: Business skills = 80% Ability to manage my staff: Management skills = 77% Ability to engage in design thinking: Technical skills = 75% Ability to manage services: Technical skills = 75% Ability to negotiate: Management skills = 73% Ability to manage my boss: Management skills = 65% Technical proficiency: Technical skills = 65% Ability to address cultural biases and stereotypes in the workplace: Business skills = 60% Ability to manage vendors: Management skills = 60% Ability to manage products: Technical skills = 55% Ability to manage relationships outside my institution: Management skills = 55% Facilitating institutional feedback on IT services and products: Business skills = 50% Ability to manage complex budgets: Management skills = 50%
Figure 9. Importance of various professional skills for success

This year we also asked respondents about the importance of being able to comfortably communicate with diverse populations. CIOs (92%), managers (89%), and staff (82%) all ranked this near the top as important to performing their jobs well. This suggests IT professionals at all levels are recognizing that working with individuals from various backgrounds and cultures is a valuable skill; it may also be a result of shifting student demographics3  and increases over the past decade in international student enrollments.4  (This is especially salient when we consider that the higher education IT workforce is predominantly male and white.) This year we also asked for the first time about the technical skill of engaging in design thinking, and three-quarters of respondents said this was, in fact, valuable, which signals that IT professionals are acknowledging that human-centered design practices5  are important to their success. As we would anticipate, strategic thinking and planning skills were also highly rated, with almost all managers (92%) and CIOs (96%) and three-quarters of staff ranking it as very or extremely important. As with our 2016 results, abilities assessed as important also aligned with job-level responsibilities. For example, CIOs and managers ranked the ability to manage staff toward the top, while technical proficiency was more important to staff than it was to managers and CIOs.

Professional Development

Professional development opportunities contribute to individual growth and also to a stable IT workforce. Higher education IT staff who have professional development opportunities are more likely to report they are satisfied with their jobs and intend to stay at their current position.6 Higher education IT employees also perceive a positive return on investment once they've engaged in development opportunities. These findings can ideally be used to help CIOs, managers, and staff identify what may contribute most to their professional development and prioritize opportunities that may be offered through their institution or professional associations.

We asked CIOs, managers, and staff to rate the contribution of various activities to their professional growth, regardless of whether they had completed them (see table 2).7 This year, we added an item about analyzing data to inform strategic decisions, and all organizational levels told us that this activity had the highest contribution to their professional growth. These trends are promising, given the need for CIOs to leverage analytics in their institutions to assess and implement strategies that foster growth, operations, outcomes, and innovation.8 This also suggests that managers and staff have buy-in to an institutional culture that prioritizes data-driven decision-making.

Table 2. Importance of development activities for professional growth, by organizational level (more important activities listed first)

CIOs Managers Staff
  • Analyzing data to help inform strategic decisions
  • Attending a conference focused on higher education IT
  • Engaging in informal peer networking
  • Serving on a professional working group, task force, committee, or board
  • Obtaining advice from a mentor
  • Engaging in formal peer networking (as part of an organized group, consortium, etc.)
  • Participating in formal management/leadership development programs
  • Reading about current higher education news/developments
  • Analyzing data to help inform strategic decisions
  • Attending a conference focused on higher education IT
  • Participating in formal management/leadership development programs
  • Obtaining advice from a mentor
  • Serving on a professional working group, task force, committee, or board
  • Completing a “stretch” assignment outside my role or outside my annual goals
  • Engaging in informal peer networking
  • Reading about current IT news/developments reports
  • Reading about current higher education news/developments
  • Attending a conference focused on higher education IT
  • Analyzing data to help inform strategic decisions
  • Taking formal technical training classes
  • Obtaining advice from a mentor
  • Engaging in informal peer networking
  • Serving on a professional working group, task force, committee, or board
  • Reading about current IT news/developments reports
  • Completing a “stretch” assignment outside my role or outside my annual goals
  • Reading about current higher education news/developments
  • Participating in formal management/leadership development programs
  • Delivering a presentation at my institution

Among respondents who told us that they had engaged in data analysis to inform strategic decisions in the past two years, 88% of CIOs, 84% of managers, and 73% of staff reported that it made a moderate or great contribution to professional growth in their current position. This return on investment in data analysis may also reflect the needs of CIOs and managers to make more data-informed arguments to institutional stakeholders and demonstrate positive results from leveraging institutional data to make decisions. Because staff also rated data analysis as important, managers should be cognizant that their staff need not just the experience but a meaningful experience in data analysis that significantly contributes to the larger IT department and institution and helps build the skills necessary for career advancement. This type of mentoring is needed if IT departments seek to build staff capacity to take on more responsibilities or lead projects on their own.9

This assessment of data analysis is also good news. Ideally, data analysis should be an activity within the context of data analytics, which seeks to increase the value of institutional data by leveraging it to identify trends, optimize processes, or take corrective measures within IT departments' strategic activities. Although process data are important (e.g., how many help desk calls were fielded), analytics seeks to predict the when and why of trends.10

After attending a conference focused on higher education IT in the past two years, 85% of CIOs, 83% of managers, and 76% of staff told us this activity moderately or greatly contributed to their professional development. Conferences are certainly about gathering information on the latest developments in the field, but networking and attending workshops are also objectives that could increase career development opportunities for all organizational levels.

These findings broadly tell us about professional development for CIOs, managers, and staff:

  • Analyzing data for strategic decisions should be a priority development activity for CIOs, managers, and staff. Managers should ensure that any data analysis tasks for staff have high impact and should offer opportunities for growth in their current position and not simply serve to "check a box" in a yearly performance review.
  • Attending higher education IT conferences should be a priority for all three organizational levels. Managers should mentor staff in identifying relevant conferences to attend and help them determine how best to maximize their time to ensure that attendance and participation contribute to professional growth.

By prioritizing these professional development activities while taking into account individual needs, higher education IT CIOs, managers, and staff can engage in activities that will likely result in increased professional growth and, we hope, satisfaction within their current positions.

Notes

  1. Jacqueline Bichsel, IT Service Delivery in Higher Education: Current Methods and Future Directions, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, April 2015).

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  2. Charles Duhigg, "What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team," New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2016; "The Key Attributes Employers Seek on Students' Resumes," National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 17, 2017; and Pew Research Center, The State of American Jobs, October 6, 2016.

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  3. National Center for Educational Statistics, Fast Facts: Enrollment; and J. Williams, "College of Tomorrow: The Changing Demographics of the Student Body," U.S. News and World Report, September 22, 2014.

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  4. Neil G. Ruiz and Jynnah Radford, "New Foreign Student Enrollment at U.S. Colleges and Universities Doubled Since Great Recession," Pew Research Center, November 20, 2017.

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  5. Holly Morris and Greg Warman, "Using Design Thinking in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review, January 12, 2015.

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  6. Jeffrey Pomerantz, Retaining the Higher Education IT Workforce, June 13, 2016.

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  7. Means of ratings were created for CIO, manager, and staff assessments of the contribution of professional development activities to professional growth in their current position. Means were derived from a scale of 1 (no contribution to your professional growth in your current position) to 5 (great contribution). "Don't Know" responses have been omitted. The top five activities for each managerial level were based on mean ratings closer to 5 or closest to "great contribution."

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  8. Jerrold M. Grochow, Enterprise Analytics and the CIO, EDUCAUSE webinar presentation, May 10, 2012.

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  9. For more regarding the importance and types of mentoring, see Mentoring.

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  10. Grochow, Enterprise Analytics and the CIO.

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