CIOs as Strategic Campus Leaders

By Yvette Brown, CIO & VP IT, Barry University

Yvette Brown, CIO & VP IT, Barry University

We are operating in challenging times where for many of us in the independent sector of higher education—business as usual is simply not an option. If we do not take the time to rethink our current “business” models and find ways to move past our need to discuss and deliberate ad nauseum, we might find ourselves losing relevance in the marketplace and worse yet operating with no possibility of long term financial sustainability or hope of recovery. Long gone are the days of “if we build it or offer it, they will come.” It is more important than ever before for higher ed CIOs to be an integral part of the “inner circle” conversations on where the institution must go next.

The pervasiveness of technology and its simultaneous consumerization already required us to shift our focus as CIOs—away from policies and practices designed to limit, control and contain and leaning instead towards guiding and steering discussions and explorations about how the institution might achieve its strategic goals. CIOs are best positioned to see clearly across the institution and can therefore articulate the touchpoints and handoffs between units and functional systems. This big picture view across many areas also means that as CIOs we can help our cabinet partners understand more about requirements, dependencies and why timing is important as we attempt to prioritize institutional spend on strategic priorities.

Many of us as CIOs worked hard to change perceptions and overcome the many stereotypes of IT as the department of “no” or “not now”, the rule enforcers and the back-end folks struggling to keep the systems online. Even if we are not completely there yet in terms of the maturity of our systems and the capabilities of our organizational units, we are now in a very different place because of the dependence on technology both inside and outside of the classroom. Ultimately though, every CIO still has to make a very conscious decision about how they can best serve the institution.

"If you have not yet been tapped on the shoulder for your “moment”, start thinking about what you might do to add value and establish yourself as a thought leader"

An IT unit cannot exist on its own island or in its own silo nor should we ever presume to know everything there is to know about the academic and business units we support. In fact, part of our internal messaging with campus partners should be to ensure they understand our modus operandi is we never force solutions without first taking the time to truly understand needs. But, there are some CIOs who appear to be so focused on supporting, serving, enabling and facilitating, that they appear to have forgotten the need to lead. Leading in this context should not be confused with the idea described earlier of pushing technology or buying solutions first and then making them fit. CIOs must lead by engaging their peers and other academic leaders in discussions about possible outcomes. What else might we achieve through the adoption of solutions capable of overcoming existing gaps? If some of these gaps prevent the full execution or attainment of institutional strategic priorities—what can we do to fix them? We have an obligation to use whatever credibility we’ve already earned through prior successes to encourage the exploration of new ideas–but we should only do so when the time is right.

Those of us at independent institutions where the revenue struggles are real must look outside the academy to identify the best elements of new technology offerings that can be adopted on our campuses to drive strategic initiatives. The focus must always be on revenue generation, new markets, new business models and personalizing student experiences to boost retention and recruitment efforts. A “digital minded” higher education CIO, must rely on their team(s) to manage operational efficiencies that keep the basics running, while they work diligently on building the institution’s digital capabilities to serve, retain and recruit.

As I reflect on how my role as CIO has changed in recent years, I know that I am definitely less connected to the back end system operations. In my daily routines, I find myself rotating through the following roles—risk mitigator, collaborator, strategist, story-teller and communicator, transformation specialist, negotiator, relationship builder, cost optimizer and secure access provider.

As I am sure is the case with many of my colleagues, when you demonstrate over time that you understand the needs of your institution and involve yourself in difficult problem solving exercises, you might also be tapped for involvement in “special projects” or asked to lead strategic initiatives.

In May 2015, I was asked by my president to take on the role of Chairing the newly constituted Admissions Coordinating Council with primary responsibilities for the daily operations of Recruiting, Admissions and Financial Aid. On some campuses that concept might be perceived as heresy—after all what IT leader knows anything about the intricacies of enrollment management— and I am sure the same sentiment was echoed by many on my own campus.

I should also mention that in the midst of managing what was a truly transformative process for me personally, my institution was already embroiled in rolling out a new ERP system, implementing marketing automation capabilities, and custom developing salesforce CRM solutions to improve recruitment and admissions operations. The task of prioritizing resources to handle the competing priorities became even more difficult in the midst of multiple budget exercises to reduce operational expenses.

Overnight, my focus was less about the adoption of self-service tools, learning management systems, video distribution systems, and cloud storage options—all necessary and needed but none as directly involved with the university front line sales operations for revenue generation. While the functions were different—I quickly confirmed that many of the same operating rules applied. The things that we do naturally and innately as IT leaders— process improvements, data modeling, incident and problem management, risk management, cost optimization and process and relationship management, were very easily applied to the recruitment and admissions operations for our university.

Fast forward 19 months and we now have a series of streamlined processes made possible by automation and a team of people on the university's front lines operating with-dare I say it-a true sales mindset. The process was not without its challenges but we achieved more than what we set out to achieve and the work continues.

As we started the rebuilding process for recruiting and admissions, it was clear that we needed to collapse a few legacy units for savings while improving efficiencies and accountability. Instead of two different call centers, manual visit scheduling, a paper based application processing model, and primitive message scheduling, we now have a central engagement center responsible for multiple communication channels-phone, email and text. The center utilizes a cloud based dialer for predictive dialing of leads organized through a variety of auto populated campaigns; our main recruiting office utilizes another cloud based tool to support self-service scheduling of visits which automatically sends out reminders via text messaging and emails and captures feedback from visitors that is directed to our CRM; our lead capture paper forms are scanned and sent to another cloud provider, where they convert the handwriting on the forms and return the data in files that are then added to our Salesforce instance via another automation tool; automated processes attach thousands of “credentials” files to applicant records in Salesforce nightly; scripted processes handle a number of decision calculations that were done manually in the past; and as conditions are satisfied with an applicant's file they get some of their messages delivered on demand through our Salesforce integration with a print on demand external provider.

The same set of tools and processes described above can be adopted for other needs such as the personalization of messages to current students based on their status types, identified needs, academic performance and level of engagement in campus activities. As we continue the conversations around where we will focus our student success initiatives, my team and I are already poised to weigh in on what can be done to streamline communications and engage better with our current student body. In fact, to the earlier point about leadership, we will create opportunities to demonstrate possibilities to start the larger conversation.

One key element of credibility building is the need for CIO's to ensure that assessment methods are discussed as part of any new initiative rollout and that all of our progress reporting methods support required reporting needs for institutional effectiveness. The tracking of outcomes in this case goes way beyond the normal uptimes of systems, incident ticket counts and counts of output generated. We must articulate clearly how we supported the truly strategic initiatives.

I still have the distinct advantage and privilege of wearing two very important hats at my institution with the ability to see deep into the operations of both worlds—that view is priceless when it comes time to prioritize available resources. I am able to move more quickly to drive improvements in how we engage as an institution with our prospects, applicants and influencers. Though we know instinctively that businesses should work diligently to remove barriers to entry for those trying to engage with the business—I also know how it easy it is for many service units (both inside and outside of IT) to forget the need to walk the process as if they were outside of the university community.

If you have not yet been tapped on the shoulder for your “moment”, start thinking about what you might do to add value and establish yourself as a thought leader:

• Nurture relationships across the institution. Work hard to earn a strong reputation as a good collaborator, facilitator and able service provider.

• Look outside of higher ed to see what other industries are using to gain competitive advantage. Work with your teams and talk to your campus partners to see how the technology might be used for multiple institutional priorities. Differentiate your institution by identifying the top technology to grow the needs of your institution;

• Build relationships with vendors, community leaders, industry associations, etc.;

• Be ready to join the conversations on new markets, new teaching methods, student success, customizing and personalizing student experiences, reaching new markets, etc.

Our success as “Digital CIOs” is largely hinged on our ability to stay connected with all university leaders to identify opportunities for change and growth—both immediate and long term. Find the big problems and solve them but take care not to focus on big wins only. Small wins can be equally rewarding. Spend time listening to your peers and constituents and you will find many smaller, mundane but equally frustrating problems where there are likely to be an array of low cost solutions that can be implemented in a timely manner. Create opportunities to optimize processes and improve efficiencies while keeping an eye out for solutions that might be needed for your institution and when the time is right, create your own “moment.”

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