Leadership | Special Feature

Project Rescue!

Helping a lost but determined CIO navigate the tough new world of higher education IT.

In 2009, as a tidal wave crashed over the economy, higher education CIOs awoke to a new reality and faced some very real questions:

  • Why is technology spending across the campus increasing, in many cases faster than tuition?
  • What value is the campus receiving from its technology investment?
  • Why are so many stakeholders so unsatisfied with the campus technology offering?
  • Why can I do far more interesting things with my home technology than I can with my university-supplied technology?
  • And how do I hold on to and motivate a great technology team to meet the increased demands of the campus?

What do these questions mean for today's CIO? This column will explore the world of Gene, a composite CIO who may look very much like you or your colleagues. Our goal is to help him navigate the tough times ahead. We will peek into Gene's daily goings-on, investigate his problems, and help him to not only survive, but prosper.

Project Rescue will run every other month through July and culminate with a special event on CIO leadership at the Campus Technology 2011 conference in Boston, July 25-28.

Gene is a well established CIO leading a sizable IT organization for a top-100 university somewhere in America. He is a member of the president's cabinet and operates a full-service technology shop. He is ultimately responsible for infrastructure, administrative technology, educational technology, and research computing. Gene has been in the job for seven years and has delivered on projects large and small. He has had many successes and, like all of us, a few failures. Gene serves many constituents: students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and future employers of his students. In essence, his job is to oversee technology for a small village of people who teach, research, learn, live, and work together.

To begin, let's find out what happened to Gene at the start of his school year.

Part 1: Gene's Back-to-School
The summer had been busy. Gene and his team completed their network and data center upgrade, which resulted in a faster Internet connection, greater fault tolerance, and increased storage. As a result of the storage build-out, they were able to increase the mailbox quota size for their students. They had thought about outsourcing mail altogether, but first wanted to make sure that cloud mail providers could really implement FERPA and the privacy settings the university required. Gene also wanted to see the market mature before they bet on a provider.

As students streamed back in to campus, Gene couldn't help but be pleased. All systems were up and running, and the new network was easily handling the increased load. Wandering through campus on his way to the president's first staff meeting, Gene noticed that everyone seemed to have a mobile device--even the grounds crew. He made a mental note that his team had some work to do to leverage the devices as part of the campus infrastructure, but he figured he had time. Right now, Gene was looking forward to reporting to his peers that this had been the smoothest back-to-school in five years.

The Meeting and Its Aftermath
Gene entered the cabinet meeting and immediately felt the tension in the room. On the table were advance copies of the latest college rankings--the university had dropped in rank. The normal meeting protocol--where each vice president reports out his or her key achievements and issues--was abandoned, and the president and dean of the college of undergraduate studies led the conversation on the negative ranking results. Central to the results were students' comments on the "lack of real technology on campus."

"This campus does not do half of what my high school offered."
"Yes, we have wireless, but it is slow."
"They expect us to carry around notebooks; that's what my father uses."
"They just don't get how we want to collaborate."

The president asked Gene three questions:

  • Why did IT spend the summer on projects no one is interested in?
  • What are we getting out of our IT investment?
  • How is IT going to fix this mess?

To Gene's credit, he didn't become defensive but rather promised to come back with real answers to these questions. Going home that evening, Gene was despondent--and a bit scared. How could it be that after a summer of hard-fought successes, the rest of the campus viewed his organization as a failure? He knew he was an able and experienced manager of people and systems. He wondered how he could have fallen so short in people's expectations and not seen it coming. Needless to say, Gene did not have a good night's sleep.

When he woke up the morning, though, he knew what he had to do. He had to go back to the basics. Rummaging around his files, Gene found his old, beloved manager's handbook, a personal notebook where he had written down the advice he collected over the years. He began to review the secrets of success he had learned from mentors, bosses (good and bad), books, colleagues, and many other valuable professional and personal relationships. As he flipped through the book, Gene realized how--in just trying to keep up with the daily demands of the job--he had lost sight of these important lessons learned.

Lesson No. 1: Hire and Mentor a Great Team
Gene learned from his first mentor that, at its core, the practice of IT is all about people and teams. The world of technology is complex, and no one person can do it all. The culture of a team needs to be nurtured and supported. This means hiring collaborative, smart, adaptable, skilled people who will work together, embrace change, learn new ways of working, and quickly gain missing skills--all while operating at a high level of proficiency.

Mentoring a great team, Gene was reminded, means managing each person as a whole person. It means working with individuals to understand what is important to them and charting for each a course of professional development within the means and vision of the organization. It involves creating and embracing feedback systems, and, of course, recognizing and rewarding success. Mentoring also includes consistently holding people and teams accountable to measurable levels of service and using service failures as an open opportunity to learn and move forward.

Gene thought about his people and how he managed them. He was pretty sure he had a good team, but was it great? Were his staff members really operating at top capacity--and did he even know what that top capacity could be? He had to admit to himself that lately he had spent little time mentoring; his approach to his team had turned a bit laissez-faire.

Lesson No. 2: Run Your Shop as a Business
Gene didn't always work in academia. For the first few years of his career, he worked in a Fortune 500 company, and there Gene learned the value of IT operating as if it were its own business--meaning that the people responsible for its operations constantly asked themselves the following questions:

  • What do our customers want?
  • What are our core competencies?
  • Where can we add unique value?
  • What are we doing today that someone else could do better or more efficiently?

To be fair, Gene did ask these questions when he first started as CIO of the university. But the initial set of answers got stuck on some archived PowerPoint slides, and he hadn't bothered to revisit the questions as times and situations changed.

Right now, Gene said to himself, is surely one of those times to question ourselves all over again: Are we really thinking about our customers and what they need?

Gene headed to his staff meeting, ready to start a new conversation around these critical elements of success. He was hopeful that, if his team could adapt, it would not only survive this crisis, but emerge stronger and abler.

The Staff Meeting
Gene knew he needed to simultaneously rally his team members and help them to understand the gravity of the situation. After all, his goal was to be CIO for a long time! Recalling his days as a high school basketball player, he began to channel his coach, who knew how to inspire a team even in the face of adversity.

"Our team put in long hours this summer to achieve some great accomplishments. We had the smoothest fall startup in five years and our students now benefit from more storage for their e-mail. But we missed the boat--we didn't deliver on what our customers value. Because, the truth is, we've lost sight of what it is they want."

He went on to explain the general frustration at the president's cabinet meeting. "Think of us as a small startup with only one customer who has lost confidence in our product. We can no longer just be great at support, just provide a reliable network, or just develop software--our achievements of years past have turned into a commodity. To keep our customers, we need to pull together as a team and provide services that the campus truly values."

Gene then asked four questions:

  • Are you, as an individual and as a member of this team, committed to excellence?
  • Are you, as an individual and as a member of this team, committed to open and honest dialogue?
  • Can you commit to active listening and problem solving from the perspective of the team and not just your unit?
  • Can you commit to asking the same out of your direct reports and to taking time to engage all levels of our organization?

After some conversation, hesitant nods turned into raised hands of commitment, and the team members began to talk in terms of ownership of the problem: how they were responsible for IT's turnaround. They were a team of equals committed to building success.

The group agreed to meet the following day and to include everyone's direct reports. The goal of the meeting would be to identify immediate changes Gene and his team could make to address campus unrest as well as the work they could stop doing to free up their time. Without any new resources, and a time to completion of less than 30 days, it was a tall order--dubbed "Project Rescue" by the team--but one Gene had faith that he and they could accomplish.

What should Gene's next step be? Join the dialogue.

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