Three key lessons K-12 can learn from higher ed IT leaders

Commentary: From problem management to self-service, K-12 technology leaders would do well to adopt some of the IT strategies of colleges and universities.

K-12 technology staff are some of the most heroic employees I know. Very rarely have I seen teams that are asked to do more with fewer resources. As a group, they tend to be extremely talented and proficient. They have to be, in order to survive.

But in many K-12 school systems, especially smaller-sized districts with limited funding, IT staff spend the majority of their time reacting to technical problems: A teacher has a projector bulb that needs to be replaced, or a piece of technology isn’t working correctly. Much of this time spent putting out fires could be reduced if K-12 IT departments took a more mature and proactive approach to IT management.

Of course, I am generalizing here. But as K-12 is increasingly focused on “future ready” initiatives and preparation for higher ed learning, there are IT lessons to be learned from higher education. Many of these institutions have already gone through a maturation process with respect to their IT departments as spending on edtech has sharply increased over the past few years.

Here are three important insights that K-12 technology teams can extract from the experience of colleges and universities:


Move from incident to problem management

Most colleges and universities have moved beyond simply managing IT service requests and instead they focus on solving problems . In other words, they analyze the root cause of an issue and try to fix it, so they don’t have the same kind of incidents occurring again and again.

On the whole, I think higher education is more advanced with regard to problem management than many K-12 technology departments. Making this shift requires more of an investment of time and resources up front, but it certainly pays dividends down the road. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of K-12 organizations, especially larger districts, that already do this well. But smaller, more cash-strapped school systems ought to think about adopting this approach, too.

It can be hard to think long-term when you feel like you’re buried in immediate service requests, but there is training available to help IT leaders in making this shift. For instance, I would highly recommend ITIL certification. The Help Desk Institute ( HDI ) has some tremendous resources to assist with problem management as well.

Focus on change management


Change management involves thinking through the potential impact of making a change, such as a system upgrade or reconfiguration, and then developing an effective process that causes the least amount of disruption. Like problem management, change management can help prevent future outages, so your IT team spends less time resolving issues.

About 80 percent of unplanned downtime is accidentally caused by IT staff themselves, according to research from the IT Process Institute . That’s a pretty staggering number. For instance, a technician might be trying to update a switch, but it accidentally brings the entire network down. The ensuing process of finding a remedy consumes valuable time and could have been avoided through better change management. When you remove the incidents and outages caused by IT employees themselves, that lifts much of the burden from IT organizations.

Another benefit of change management is faster resolution of problems that might result from the change. When you have thought through the implications of making a change in advance, it’s much easier to identify what caused a problem if one should occur. That’s very valuable as well.

Adopt self-service

Yet another area where higher education excels is in generating knowledge-based content so that instructors, staff and students can answer their own questions and resolve their own issues without someone from IT having to get involved.


Many IT departments end up answering the same kinds of questions over and over again. This is very time-consuming, and it’s a waste of staff labor. Data suggests that having users consult a self-service portal before contacting IT with their questions can reduce the number of inbound service requests by up to 70 percent.

Here’s a summary of how this works: Every time you have an incident, document what the problem was, what the person was doing when the problem occurred, what technology they were using, and how the problem was resolved. This information forms a draft knowledge article. Draft articles are reviewed by a group or individual to ensure clarity and consistency. Then, the article is posted online where it is easy to search. The next time the same problem arises, clients can find the solution for themselves. It takes time to build a self-service knowledge base, but again, this upfront investment pays off later on.

This is the essence of knowledge-centered service (KCS). K-12 IT leaders can be trained in KCS principles, so that they follow a uniform set of standards for documenting incidents and building a knowledge base of articles. KCS standards are maintained by the Consortium for Service Innovation. We have seen schools go from a handful of articles to thousands in just three or four months. Imagine the power of that.

Because higher education tends to be further ahead than K-12 in applying these strategies, the higher education technology group EDUCAUSE is a valuable resource for K-12 leaders to consult. EDUCAUSE has an active constituency group around IT service management, and K-12 technology leaders might benefit from attending their meetings and webinars.

Applying these three strategies can help K-12 IT departments improve their processes. By shifting their focus to become more proactive than reactive, K-12 IT departments can optimize their resources and achieve even more with less.


Andrew Graf is the chief product strategist for TeamDynamix , a provider of IT service management and project portfolio management software for education and government enterprises.

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