In higher education, technology is a fundamental enabler of everything from reinventing the student experience to modernizing university operations. But what are the standout issues in technology? Where are CIOs placing their bets? What technology trends are they tracking?

These CIOs are in a very challenging position. As technology-dependent as day-to-day university operations are, CIOs have a mission-critical role to “keep the lights on.” At the same time, with educational missions evolving, technologies advancing, and stakeholders’ needs in flux, higher ed CIOs must also be future focused. They must prepare for what’s next and its impact on their institution. The needs and expectations of both students and employees are rapidly changing and meeting these expectations are increasingly challenging given staff and financial headwinds.

I think of this dynamic as striking the right balance between the operational and the visionary. Higher education CIOs navigate this balance in different ways. My recent conversation with Matt Hall—vice president for information technology and the CIO at the University of Central Florida (UCF)—offers great insight into how they do it, and what it’s like to sit in that CIO seat today.

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Caption: Matthew Hall— vice president for information technology and the CIO at the University of Central Florida (UCF)

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Matt has extensive experience building, orchestrating and operating large scale, mission-focused technology teams. He’d be the first to tell you (like he told me) that he’s an operations guy. But you’ll see how this trained pilot, avid gamer and former police officer is laser-focused on reducing the complexity of the technology footprint to support the academic mission. Yes, he’s an operations guy. But he does it with incredible vision. Here’s a part of our conversation.

You’ve certainly had a front-row seat to technology change in higher education, how do you think about your mandate or responsibility as a CIO?

Matt: Higher education CIOs are part of every educational transaction that happens in the institution. By running the network, email, platforms and more, they’re enabling the success of hundreds of thousands of people during their careers. Very few industries get to say that.

But I get concerned that CIOs are so optimistic that they don’t think of the social ramifications of the technologies they are deploying. My focus as a CIO has always been about running an organization that intersects with the mission but doesn’t crowd out the expense of mission-focused investments.

Run a good operation. Run a secure operation. Meet the basic needs. And where you can, contribute to the actual mission of the institution. Our part in that story is to run a very good technical enterprise. It’s so important that we do it quietly and within the institution’s budget tolerance.

You’ve summarized that operational mindset that’s so important for CIOs in higher education, and frankly, across public service. But I’d have to think that you’re also trying to stay steps ahead of technology change, which isn’t easy for anyone. What technology trends are you watching from the CIO suite—particularly in relation to the advancement of higher education over the next decade?

Matt: Right now, I have 1,100 applications in an application inventory that didn’t exist before I got here. As technology has sprawled and units have adopted technology outside of central oversight, we must reduce the surface area of the things we manage.

If we’re facing an economic reality where funding is going to be diminished for higher education, we certainly don’t need technology duplication. We need to narrow the scope of what we support and focus on big bets that enable the student and research mission.

When it comes to emerging technology trends, higher education—with a few exceptions—can’t ingest technology at the rate that large private companies can.

That’s exactly the sentiment that I hear from other CIOs working in higher education. They are grappling with a “systems of systems” environment where technology duplication is slowing their responsiveness and their ability to serve students and other stakeholders. Given that, how are you approaching investments in digital transformation?

Matt: I’m working to carve out a small groove for digital innovation and digital transformation, primarily centered on Salesforce and ServiceNow. We’re also focusing on Lean Six Sigma techniques to build process-centric views of evolving business processes. My approach is business and capability driven, not technology driven.

That’s the mantra, isn’t it? That digital transformation shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Meaningful change depends on how administration, student, faculty and technology stakeholders come together. When CIOs like you know what the institution objectives are, you have a strategic roadmap for setting your investment strategy. With security such a paramount and front-and-center issue, I’d assume the topic of security comes up in your conversations. What’s your perspective on data security in higher education at UCF and more broadly?

Matt: We’re experiencing massive growth in cybercrime. The FBI just released its IC3 report for 2021. In the United States, economic losses are at $6.9 billion dollars from cybercrime. They were $4.2 billion in 2020.

At the same time, the surface area of exposure is more complex and is expanding exponentially. When you look at our network, at peak times, we could have 60,000 devices attached to it. Plus, there’s the fact that we all have multiple devices, which creates more avenues for threat actors to attack us.

To cover this kind of surface area, we have protected controls and monitoring. I also measure our internal success to understand my composite risk index. And you can’t secure an institution without automation. It’s a world of infinite risks, and we must determine the risks we’re going to try to mitigate, transfer or control.

With threat actors getting more sophisticated all the time, securing the technology estate never ends. I think you’re so smart to have that measurement component in your strategy. Too many institutions underestimate its value, and they miss the benefit of continual learning and improvement. As we close out our talk, let me switch gears. You have such deep experience and an impressive résumé in this space. But what would you be doing if you weren’t a CIO?

Matt: I was involved in many arrests over the years as a police officer. It would be great to help those who've gotten caught up in the system. I would do Christian ministry in the prison system. I’d like to spend my time reaching people and helping them to turn their lives around.

Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and stay tuned for upcoming blogs.

Other blogs from Ryan:

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Ryan R. Gaetz

Managing Director – Consulting, Accenture Workday Education & Government​ Lead

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