Would having an information technology representative at the executive table of a higher education institution positively impact the decisions made there? If so, how?
To answer these questions, and to address broader issues around data-informed decisions and increasing enrollment, retention, and student success, I spoke with three different higher ed leaders. They come from different educational institutions and offer diverse perspectives on the key issues.
Camille Samuel, Ph. D
Vice President of Student Affairs and VP in charge of Technology Services at COSTAATT (College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago), a tertiary level institution. *
*(In August 2021, Dr. Samuel will be transitioning to the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, where she’ll be a Deputy Registrar.)
What comes to mind when you hear the statement “Success Equals IT Having a Seat at the Executive Table?”
When the Information Technology Leader is among the other leaders of the institution, it gives them an opportunity to hear the business of education and then, ultimately, helps them to partner, and collaborate to try to drive the overall student success.
Executives and Information Technology should be working as partners. You’ll hear from some people in higher education that CIOs want to be part of the president’s cabinet. I think this type of partnership would be extremely helpful, but it doesn’t have to be a requirement. However, since everything involves IT nowadays, IT should be involved in projects from beginning to end.
What comes to mind is deployment of services – deployment of lots of student support services and deployment of services that make engaging with the College much easier.
Is data-informed decision making a strategic goal at your institution?
(All answered “absolutely!!”)
Data informs Texas Southern University in a variety of ways. We rely on historical reports, projections for the future, student recruitment and engagement solutions, retention tools, and the ability to register and engage with students remotely to help them intentionally focus their time and resources.
With so many different institutions, commitment can vary. However, we have a saying: “Data, or it didn’t happen.” Our campuses are becoming more and more invested in not only looking at numbers but understanding those numbers, and then making informed decisions based on them. The SUNY system administration is extremely involved in that goal and is therefore looking at more real-time integration with campuses’ data so that centralized decisions can be more data-informed as well.
Over the past 5-6 years, COSTAATT has done a really good job of moving analytics to the core of how we approach problem-solving and decision-making. The use of automated alerts is just one example of the way we’re driving conversations and making decision-making easier (e.g., The Office of the Registrar gets an alert when students who are on hold make a payment and when lecturers don’t submit grades on time). Technology is informing our responses to students and helps us get students into a space of understanding rules and abiding by those rules.
Can you share what obstacles you’ve encountered in the journey toward being data informed?
Being data-informed carries with it a need for a definition of terms. More specifically, when you look at the challenge of creating something digital, you should also think about the educational components tied to what that data means – the obstacles between connotation and denotation and the definition of terms. It’s important to get the team and the unit on the same page. Otherwise, their processing of that information, and the actions that they take could be somewhat skewed. Data governance can sometimes have a negative connotation, so creating the expectation of what that means for your institution is key.
Individual SUNY campuses have varying levels of technical expertise. At least 40 of the 64 campuses seem to be in really good shape in terms of understanding their data and accessing that data. Some, however, aren’t maximizing the use of their information delivery tools. SUNY system-wide reporting is required, but it’s not real time and not nearly in time enough to make decisions. SUNY System Administration is working to collect data from all the campuses and to have it as close to real time as possible in a practical sense.
There’s been a culture change with regard to the need for consistent reporting – and doing so persistently. One example was the initial issuing of statistically anchored reports to faculty. These were largely ignored at first, given faculty’s hectic schedules. As these reports eventually became incorporated within the end of semester executive meetings, more and more faculty members began referring to and using the reports in more meaningful ways. In fact, in some quarters, there were calls by end users for the more frequent dissemination of the reports. In other words, it became harder for many within the College environment to ignore the reports. Specifically, regarding the goal of attaining complete and on-time submission of all grades, the reports became the basis for an entire process improvement initiative, involving multiple stakeholders across the College.
The point of this is that, where executives are having the right conversations with stakeholders consistently and using the available data, positive changes can occur. Executive silence on matters of critical importance to core operations can no longer stand, particularly where useful data is so readily available.
Have you seen successful instances of IT and non-technical executives working together?
Yes, and not just at Texas Southern. When you can have that initial conversation to define the terms/parameters and set that expectation, then you can find success. You will always have nay-sayers, of course, because you’re going to challenge the status quo. But when you can find that one champion, and THEY can help to tell the story for the technology leader, THAT’s when you’ll really get the most bang for your buck. It’s not the technologist’s voice; it’s hopefully the trusted, valued voice from one of the other campus leaders. And that’s always critical to our ultimate success.
Yes. One example is where a stronger CIO really made the case for why they need to be involved, and did so by making the case for data. Now a lot of CIOs have seized on that and implemented processes and procedures. In some cases, schools became more robust in their reporting because there was this giant, immediate need.
Yes!! I believe that successes in IT are driving the executives’ agenda. Though the president of COSTAATT, Dr. Paul, calls me an IT junkie, I think I may have infected the entire College. There is a clear momentum and appetite for IT-infused administrative aids.
- During the early 2021 period, when we were all working remotely due to the pandemic, administrators across six campuses, supported by the IT Helpdesk, established an app to manage on-campus appointments for persons (students or the public) seeking to visit a campus. The system automatically re-directs you to the health and safety unit for further instructions if you fail the Covid Self-Checker. If you pass the Self-Checker, then you are allowed to select services at various campuses from pre-set available times.
- The College was also able to deploy a Virtual COSTAATT Assistant on the student portal and on the College’s website. This (WhatsApp-based) service is managed by various offices (the Office of the Registrar, the Enrollment Management Department, the IT Helpdesk, the Marketing Department etc.) and they answer about 500 unique messages a day. The automatically generated daily analytics are reviewed by an officer attached to the Office of the President, to ensure that the system traffic continues to be managed appropriately.
(With Dr. Samuel about to transition to a new role, these successes will remain as her legacy. She also has every confidence that such IT-driven administrative improvements will continue to be the order of the day at COSTAATT.)
How did the IT-Executive partnership develop, or accelerate, at your institution?
It’s always important, essential, & critical, for our successes to be business unit driven, as opposed to being driven by technology.
- As part of our overall “Digital Transformation Initiative / Renew 2022”, we had many business leaders that were used to working individually. So, bringing them together, and letting them hear the complete picture of any particular lifecycle or workflow, began to trigger more conversations amongst them.
- We created a Business Advisory Team and began to look across calendars (operational schedules) and then they interacted & engaged, talked about how, “If you do this at THIS time, then we may NOT be able to do THIS.” Or, “We ALL should do THIS, as this would be the impact.”
- We tie that to our overall IT Governance Committee. Both meet on a monthly basis, and then they interact. One (IT Governance Committee) is for project management, overall governance & investment. The other (Business Advisory Team) is targeted at upkeep, maintenance, and those cross-communications of impactful opportunities.
The pandemic exposed this issue. (Never waste a good crisis!) CIOs, in large part, said, “Here’s our opportunity.” They seized on the fact that they were not at the table, and that things needed to be done. They’ve gone to their non-technical executives, and said, “I’ve been talking about this all along. This is why! You now have a crisis and I can’t help you because we weren’t involved from the beginning.” These CIOs continued, “You want data because you need to make data-informed decisions. I can help you, but I need to be involved from the beginning. And that’s the only way that can happen or can happen quickly enough for you to make those decisions.”
Because of the pandemic, COSTAATT had to engage in some consolidation of operations (giving up some leased facilities), as most of the students are doing classes online. Thankfully, this work was made much easier as we re-dedicated ourselves to the IT transformation of COSTAATT around 2010 and have never looked back since. The following is a brief chronology of how the culture began to pivot around IT and the path used to have staff, as well as students, calling for more and more IT-driven improvements.
- 2010: In my first month of employment, I pushed to set up a dedicated student email system. In our efforts to resolve many student matters, we’d only respond to students via the new dedicated student email system. Quite soon, the student body understood that this was the system to use if you wanted to be a beneficiary of the almost 24-hour support mechanism managed by the VP Student Affairs
- 2011: With the support of the IT Helpdesk, we started to agitate for the deployment of walk-up computers at every campus and in all student common areas. The admissions unit and others then also demanded student walk-ups to make access to a computer, outside of the lab environment, easier.
- 2012: Along with the IT application support team, we created a student feedback mechanism with escalation groups set out to manage and resolve student matters in a timely fashion. Any matter submitted by students would automatically be emailed to 4 executives – the Associate VP Academic Affairs, the VP Academic Affairs, Camille as the VP Student Affairs and the President COSTAATT.
- 2015: The Board of Trustees and the President assigned the IT portfolio to me. With the students increasingly expecting more tech to serve their needs, attention was turned to getting the staff more reliant on tech services.
- 2016-2019: During this period, the system administrators, application support team, and IT Helpdesk all worked together to upgrade the College’s email platform, move critical IT operations to a Tier 4 data center, migrate the ERP to a cloud-based solution, operationalized an online payment system, and opened up payment facilities at various local banks.
- 2020: We brought the IT help desk into the center of the IT discussion to start the deployment of apps to support administrative work (as many admin processes were laborious and quite manual). Highly responsive systems were built with the administrators now taking the lead.
- The College, in 2021, announced the creation of an IT Governance Committee to carry on the IT deployment work. This Committee, which is to be made up of administrators and IT personnel from across divisions, will continue to build on the work already done.
What were some takeaways from this partnership development?
How did your school turn the corner?
It was initially a cultural shift from the previous leadership. We are still maturing, going from zero to level 1 or 2. There are ebbs & flows – that “trough of disillusionment” – and so we have to navigate and work through those things. But ultimately, it’s all about the students.
It’s also important to set expectations and write charters of what each committee is supposed to do:
- Business advisory is one thing (operational creativity, maintenance, upkeep)
- Governance is another (terms, definitions, project management, strategic planning, overall investing)
The challenge is keeping them separate, though smaller institutions may require dual participation.
Out of the crisis we established procedures. We weren’t doing things in an efficient way. We needed to take a look at our culture and make a decision about how to work better. As I like to put it: Culture ate strategy for lunch!
Working from home is a great example. In higher ed, that has been taboo. But the pandemic showed us that working from home works, especially in IT
When taking over IT in Jan. 2015, many technical challenges followed. As the old, out of date, on-premises ERP system and its servers started to crumble and the system lost the ability to be accessed remotely, I took physical control of the system and communicated extensively with all stakeholders. This communication campaign set the tone that assigning blame was not a legitimate topic of discussion. Only solutions would be entertained.
With the President’s charge to bring tech back into prominence at the College, I set about stabilizing and developing the IT system at the College. This included:
- Writing to the Board to apprise them of the critical matter and to appeal for a huge investment to fund the cloud-based version of the system (which would also facilitate the creation of a disaster recovery site)
- Establishing a Tier 4 data center for non-ERP critical services, which moved the system uptime to persistently 99%
- Installing walk-up computers at admin sites and automating and moving several student forms and services online.
Leading up to this, it was not the culture of the College to deploy tech solutions to issues. But with simultaneous crisis situations emerging in 2015, the College environment was more receptive to using technology to bring added value to the College. As many of the projects had top executive and Board sponsorship, as well as on-the-ground champions, the tech deployments were all successful. The president’s vision of having the College well-known for its tech initiatives was in fact becoming a reality.
What advice would you give to schools where IT isn’t included in executive decision making, or where the relationship between the CIO & other leadership isn’t as good?
When the IT executive does not have a seat at the executive table, the institution is increasing the likelihood of expanding expenditures and further minimizing opportunities for advancement and investment. When everyone is doing their own thing, you’re not targeted or focused.
With a centralized approach and IT involved, you can alleviate redundancies and those unnecessary expenditures. It’s like shooting a shotgun vs a 9mm with a laser on it. You can spray, hoping to impact your targets or you can be laser-focused and precise.
I also feel it’s important to always keep people first (empathy, understanding, appreciation, respecting what people do). People will engage and want to be a part of something if you provide empathy and know you appreciate and respect what they do. The actual processes and technology come last.
As with anything else, you need to provide examples as to why. It’s great to say that you need to be at the executive table, but why? It can be difficult for a CIO to say, “I want to have a say in what you do”, versus, “I just want to be included.” (That being said, even if not involved in decision-making, IT should still be involved in the process.)
If there’s resistance in having a say, you can work to show value. That’s when the respect comes in and the other leaders say, “Oh, this person CAN provide valuable input. We need to take that.” The pandemic made campuses realize that things might have been different – better – if IT was involved from the start.
As decay happens at every turn, you cannot afford to leave systems unattended and in an isolated state of play. In the history of life, in any sphere, we see that things return to their baseline position. If the baseline is chaotic, or riddled with poor service, it will return to that if left unmanaged. In these times, IT is the best tool/mechanism/pathway through which you can provide support to your constituents. If you are not deploying supportive technologies nowadays, you are well on your way to losing the battle for relevance and, ultimately, survival. IT is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but rather a survival tool/technique to get to where you need to be.
Though the pandemic may have created the opportunity for all the supportive technologies to emerge with successful adoption by stakeholders, that technology will be key to survival. Once the disruption caused by the pandemic is over, the tech advancements should continue at all campuses. Folks got used to FAST: instant gratification is the order of the day, where the resolution of issues should happen as instantaneously as possible. Your constituents should be able to reach you at a moment’s notice to have their matters addressed (if not resolved) with the support of artificial intelligence. If you are not engaged in building such systems, you’re passé.
Crisis-led opportunities can be a good catalyst for culture change for transforming processes. Once there is some acceptance for the new agenda, you can then start placing a degree of (transformational) load on the established system. With a stable foundation in IT, the sky is the limit.
Thank you to Mario Berry, Bill Grau, and Camille Samuel for sharing your experiences and knowledge, your struggles (and solutions) with people and data, and how you’ve kept moving forward with optimism, compassion, and leadership. We appreciate how you – and your peers throughout higher ed – are working to provide services and support to your institutions and constituents in brand new ways.