The past year propelled IT teams and leadership into the spotlight with never-before-seen digital transformation and multi-year technology plans executed practically overnight. After a year of awe-inspiring progress, Hillsborough County Public Schools CTO Jeremy Bunkley believes K-12 IT leaders need to keep the momentum going to ensure the year’s gains translate to long lasting technology and culture transformation.
A veteran IT leader and change agent, Bunkley embraced the pandemic’s challenges as a catalyst for district transformation. After building a collaborative ecosystem of partners, he executed some of the largest technology projects in the district’s history in a span of only 11 months, including migrating to a new, more effective email client, increasing technology staff through additional federal funding opportunities, creating the blueprint for a dark fiber WAN, and overhauling the district’s Wi-Fi network to a cloud solution.
Additionally, Bunkley worked directly with an OEM–a move rarely leveraged in K-12–to design custom Windows laptops tailored to the needs of district students and the technology environment, enabling HCPS to roll out 190,000 devices with a focus on 1:1 in grades second through twelfth while saving the district $5.6M. Future projects on the horizon include building a private LTE network and integrating application usage data analytics.
But beyond technology, Bunkley advocates that the real work behind transformation lies in shifting district culture to encourage excellence, progress, and understanding. Here are Bunkley’s top 5 insights for inspiring transformation:
1. Foster a culture of understanding
Often overlooked in the digital transformation equation, achieving and sustaining shifts in culture is an integral component requiring dedicated time, focus, and effort. Technology is often the “easy” part, but changing people’s attitudes and the way departments tackle problems or make decisions is a much more difficult feat.
For IT teams to achieve the intended results of any transformational project, they must understand the “why” behind it. According to Bunkley, asking these three fundamental questions before any IT request will help foster a culture of understanding: 1) Why are we doing this? 2) What is the expected goal? 3) What else can we accomplish while doing this? These questions not only help IT teams identify other problems that can be solved, they encourage stakeholder buy-in by reinforcing IT’s desire to develop sustainable, successful solutions rather than temporary band-aid fixes and quick wins. With this culture of understanding, IT teams can shift from “no” as their de facto response, to starting with “yes” then working back to “no” only when absolutely necessary and all options have been exhausted.
Additionally, Bunkley recommends IT leaders make an intentional effort to overcommunicate the “why” behind technology decisions and explain how they directly impact the district’s outcomes. Everyone from IT and curriculum and instruction to administration needs to understand how their interactions with technology are driving the district and community to bigger and better things.
2. Prioritize equity
Technology has the power to be the great equalizer and can change the trajectory of a student’s life, but only if access to both the internet and devices are equitable. “Equity should be the driving force and framework behind every IT decision, including how funds are allocated,” says Bunkley. “Even on tight budgets, equitable solutions are possible with creativity and ingenuity. IT departments should review in deep detail how funding is being used and evaluate every facet of the technology supply chain from vendors, construction of devices, shipping, delivery, etc., and even consider working directly with OEMs to find opportunities for optimization, cost savings, and efficiency.”
Bunkley also recommends that districts proceed cautiously regarding their COVID-19 technology funds allocations to ensure long-term equity: Are you establishing sustainable, equitable technology lifecycles? In 3-5 years, will you have reliable funding sources to cover your technology purchases and operations, or do you have a plan to spread them out over time? By building repeatable, successful processes that can be stretched out over many years, you’ll prevent regression and shift the district’s culture toward long-term equity for all students.
It’s no secret K-12 has endured immense change over the last year. At its core, digital transformation has altered the very foundation of how staff do their jobs and interact with each other, students, parents, and the community. While change comes easy for some, for others it can be difficult–especially when it uproots systems they’ve worked in for decades.
According to Bunkley, being empathetic to the understanding of change is critical. “Whether it’s extending work from home permanently, implementing a new software, or altering a workflow, prioritizing empathy in discussions and intentionally taking time to thoughtfully listen to the concerns of others can go a long way in creating a culture of understanding and openness,” says Bunkley. “If there are dissenters, make them a part of the solution. They need to know their perspective is valued and concerns are heard.” Prioritize getting to know your team and colleagues on a personal level. The more IT understands about the environment around them, the better they can address problems and explain how changes will make a positive impact.
4. Leadership vs. management
“As IT leaders, it’s our job to put our teams in positions to succeed,” said Bunkley. “How? Through leadership, not management. Managers tell you how they did their jobs before and how they want it done. Leaders express ideas and empower their team to get it done. They recognize the full potential of their team’s talent and inspire them to become better, thriving people.”
5. Progression through risk
While tried-and-true approaches can feel natural, harmless, and familiar, districts that are resistant to progress could risk getting left behind. “Making bold and visionary decisions is scary, but pushing through the fear of risk and failure is necessary to effect real change,” said Bunkley. “IT leaders need to train themselves to be comfortable in the uncomfortable and embrace progress, even at the risk of failure.”
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