A Harsh Reality About IT and School Leaders

Information technology. All schools need it. All schools have it. All schools hire individuals with expertise in managing it to… well… manage it. In this post, I describe a reality that many recognize in their schools, but they are reluctant to admit it. 

This post calls out the inability of school leaders to provide effective supervision and evaluation of the IT professionals they hire. I do believe this is a very prevalent problem. I have seen it over and over in my career. I am not blaming anyone. It is the result of various factors related to school organization. 

Just because we can explain its origin, however, does not mean we can do nothing about it. In this post I describe how it happens and suggest a few strategies for minimizing the adverse effects it can have on school operations. 

Let me begin by describing it. Schools have leaders. Ultimately, there is a single person responsible to the board of directors for running the school. This is the school’s chief executive officer. Their title varies depending on the nature of the school, but if you are a superintendent or president, then you are that person. 

These leaders hire others to manage departments that have specific functions. For example, there are academic leaders, financial leaders, operational leaders, and—of interest here—technology leaders. Some of these leaders come from education, some come from other fields. Almost all share some common understandings. While a school CEO may not know the details of financial accounting, they understand budgets. Information technology is one of the few aspects of school operation in which the leader has very little knowledge and shared understanding. 

Obviously, this is a generalization, but school leaders are drawn from educators. They may have used technology in their teaching, and they may have taken “computers in education” course during their graduate programs, but technology changes quickly, so if they have been in school administration more than a few years, then the technology used in teaching is likely to have changed, and graduate courses in educational technology usually focus on technology in classrooms rather than the configuration of IT. 

Technology leaders, on the other hand, are rarely drawn from educators. They are unlikely to have classroom experience other than they own experience as a student or in training others how to operate IT. The chief technology officer in a school is likely to hold an advanced degree in IT or technology management, and their coursework likely included business analysis, but the cases and situations studied in those courses rarely include education populations.  

We know, of course, that leaders do not work in isolation. Good educational CEO’s convene a leadership team to help make decisions. Within that leadership team, there are others with similar experience. It likely comprises many folks who have experience, for example, managing budgets in schools, so they can collaborate when necessary. Technology is one area where the chief technology officer may be the one person on the leadership team with a deep understanding of their field. While others on the leadership team may be able to check the interpretations and explanations of others on the team, it is rare that the team includes others who can check the interpretations and explanations of the technology professionals. 

In many aspects of schooling, leaders retain outside advisors as well. When the situation calls for it, they bring in their lawyers. In my experience it is rare that they call in outside expertise to advise them on technological decisions. IT auditors are occasionally retained to assess infrastructure, and specific IT advisors are used for security audits, for example, but school leaders rarely seek advice on how technology decisions are made, and how those departments are operating and interacting bullshit with others. 

Another factor that makes it difficult for leaders to assess operations of their technology leaders is the uniqueness of technology systems. While systems may ostensibly be the same, there are differences in how systems are configured and in the capacity of IT teams to operate them. Your school and a neighboring one may both have a network environment with Ethernet infrastructure and Windows Active Directory, that does not mean that both are configured in the same way, also the staff may have different beliefs about how to manage users and devices and there may be different levels of expertise in advanced configurations.  

For many reasons, then, IT leaders are likely to have knowledge that is not held by others on the leadership team. The result is that the leadership team must assume the IT leader is accurately reporting on the status of infrastructure, configuration, and operations. No one can challenge the IT folks when they say, “things must be done this way” or “we can’t do the changes you want.” 

Now, I wish I could say my IT colleagues are always honest with their reports. There is a reason why IT folks have a reputation of being difficult colleagues. They often are. They take advantage of the unique knowledge to avoid things they do not want to do. Yes, I realize this is not universally true, but I have seen it repeatedly during my career. I have also been on the receiving end of lazy excuses from IT folk as well. It always surprises me when IT folks try to hoodwink me. 

So, just what is a school leader to do if they believe their IT leaders are hoodwinking them? If they are having difficulty communicating with them? If they find the IT leaders are not accommodating the needs of faculty, students, and staff? Or if they are otherwise dissatisfied with how technology is being managed? 

Now, I have observed IT professionals who do not react well to leaders attempting to give them direction. They also recognize their unique knowledge. They also recognize the power they have as they control access to email and other essential communications systems and loads to sensitive data. It is true they could make school leaders have a very bad day indeed. 

Regardless of the difficulty of taking control of the IT by supervising and evaluating one who has expertise they don’t school leaders can adopt several strategies. 

First, school leaders should recognize the importance of IT in mission-critical operations. Just as no responsible school leader would eschew an active role in making decisions about curriculum, they should not avoid taking an active role in technology decisions. This can begin with insisting IT leaders explain things in plain language and asking questions until they understand the infrastructure, situation, or rationale. 

Second, frame your supervision and evaluation of IT professionals, along with daily conversations, through a lens you understand. I recommend technology acceptance (listen to episodes two and three) as a good framework that educators can understand. One advantage of using technology acceptance in this way is that objective performance indicators can be defined. There are reliable ways to measure technology acceptance, and evaluation of IT leaders can be tied to changes in those measures. 

Third, get help. When school leaders sense they may not be getting the complete story from IT leaders or if decisions seem unreasonable, they should find an independent expert to see if the explanation or decisions they are getting from IT leaders make sense. Of course, school IT leaders in a region tend to know each other, so this expertise may have to come from a distance.  

Schools have a long history of collaborative decision-making and independent review. That is what accreditation is all about. In my experience school leaders are reluctant to apply those same practices to IT decisions in schools, and that is a mistake.