Mendoza School of Business

How IT governance can make or break a university’s crisis response

Research from Yoonseock Son and Corey Angst reveals how centralized IT governance was more efficient than decentralized organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: July 17, 2023 / Author: Courtney Ryan

illustration of hybrid learning with some students in person and others remote.

Like most people, Yoonseock (Yoon) Son saw most of his in-person interactions abruptly shift to online video messaging platforms as the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the uncertainty it contained, spread across the globe in early 2020. As an assistant professor of IT, Analytics, and Operations at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Son was naturally curious to learn about his colleagues’ experiences with suddenly teaching class online.

“As I was catching up with a friend over Zoom, we realized that we were having similar problems with remote teaching, but that others were struggling far more than we were and then other people weren’t having many problems at all,” he recalled. “That seemed weird because we were all doing the same job — teaching remotely — yet everyone was coping differently. I realized it wasn’t just about the faculty themselves, but it was also about their access to IT support and how it was affecting their productivity in terms of both research and teaching.”


Yoonseock Son

Having previously studied how IT governance impacts society in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion, Son thought the changes caused by the pandemic provided fertile ground for examining how IT governance affects the resilience of higher education institutions. He documented his insights in the paper “The Value of Centralized IT in Building Resilience During Crises: Evidence from U.S. Higher Education’s Transition to Emergency Remote Teaching” published in MIS Quarterly with co-authors Jiyong Park of the Bryan School of Business and Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Corey Angst, the Jack and Joan McGraw Family Collegiate Professor of IT, Analytics, and Operations at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

Previous research suggests that when there is high environmental uncertainty, such as when stock prices fluctuate or new competition emerges, organizations with decentralized IT governance are generally more effective at meeting these challenges. Son explained that this is because decentralized IT governance allows for more flexibility, enabling firms to address their specific needs. “But that’s when the environmental uncertainties are expected to a degree,” he said. “The pandemic was completely unprecedented, so the solutions were unknowable.”

Son and the researchers thought that during truly uncertain crises, centralized IT governance in higher education would be preferable because it would give a central body the authority to govern IT investments and coordinate information. To test this theory, they compared data for 463 US universities from before the pandemic in 2017 through the pandemic in 2020 from, a software engine that allows students to assign ratings to professors and campuses. For the same period, they also pulled surveys of the schools’ chief information officers (CIOs) conducted by the nonprofit EDUCAUSE.

Ultimately, the data showed that universities that centralized and coordinated their IT investments adapted more efficiently to the pandemic and performed better at maintaining student satisfaction.

“Because there was limited time and resources and no one knew what was happening, the centralized coordination of information was critical for maintaining quality of service,” said Son.

He explained that based on statistics from EDUCAUSE, it normally takes about six weeks to develop an online course, but in the early days of the pandemic, most instructors only had a week or two to shift everything online. “So most people needed technical support for this, but you don’t want to waste limited resources and time by decentralizing information and leaving it to many different individuals to decide how to allocate that technical support.”

Son said these results are not limited to higher education, but can apply to firms in most sectors. “The results show that organizations that gave CIOs higher authority were better at coping with COVID than schools where the CIO’s power was decentralized,“ he said. “So even if firms are operating with a decentralized governance structure, they should at least consider forming a strong task force to collect information, distribute information and provide support, because everyone’s going to have similar problems and it’s very inefficient for each department to respond to the same problem simultaneously.”

Though the paper’s results were in line with what the researchers expected, Son said that they have barely scratched the surface.

“There should be more qualitative research, like conducting interviews and surveys, to really understand what’s happening to individuals because with this data there are limitations,” said Son. “At some universities some faculty had to teach from inside their cars because they did not have the infrastructure in their home or school to support online teaching and this kind of thing is not reflected in the data. So further research could be conducted with a more granular level of data.”