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Virtual Roundtable

Higher Ed: Meet the Chief Digital Officer

Taking a page from the corporate playbook, some universities are creating a new C-level title focused on moving the academy into the digital age. Will the CDO be a strategic advantage or an organizational name game that dilutes IT's role in institutional leadership?

Chief Digital Officer


Think back to 2012: Massive open online courses were at the top of the hype cycle, threatening to completely disrupt higher education. A new world of digital textbooks was beginning to take shape. Colleges and universities grappled with trends like badges, social media, mobile technology and more. And the stakes were high — that same year, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was dismissed and then reinstated in a controversy largely over whether the university was moving fast enough to respond to the online education movement.

Our Panelists

Ron Kraemer is vice president for information technology and chief information and digital officer at the University of Notre Dame. Previously, Kraemer was chief information officer and vice provost for information technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sree Sreenivasan, who was chief digital officer at Columbia University (NY) from 2012 to 2013, is currently chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Previously, he was on the faculty of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught new media, Web design and media entrepreneurship.

Elliott Visconsi was named the first chief academic digital officer at the University of Notre Dame in 2013. He also serves as both an associate professor of English and associate professor of law at Notre Dame.

Brian Voss, former vice president for information technology and CIO at the University of Maryland, recently served as interim CIO at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He also consults on leadership and information technology in higher education.

Brad Wheeler is vice president for information technology and CIO at Indiana University. He also is a professor of information systems at IU's Kelley School of Business.

At the core of all that disruption is the need for a digital strategy in higher education. In fact, some institutions have started establishing chief digital officer (CDO) positions to create a structure and accountability on campus around both online learning and the university's overall digital presence. It's a trend that has taken an even greater hold in the corporate sector: According to a 2013 McKinsey survey of C-level executives across a range of industries, regions and company sizes, 30 percent reported a CDO on their companies' leadership teams. And, according to the study, "In a sign that this new role is already creating value, respondents whose organizations have a CDO also indicate significantly more progress toward their digital vision than those without one."

Campus Technology asked a group of five higher ed IT leaders, some with digital in their title and some not, to discuss the pros and cons of creating a new C-level title around digital in higher education — and to prognosticate about whether the title will have staying power.

CT: Why are university presidents and boards creating chief digital officer positions?

Voss: My view is that the vast majority of universities have still not embraced IT. Along comes 2012 and the rise of MOOCs and the unfortunate incident at the University of Virginia, and everybody said, "Oh my god, there is a storm in the gulf." The presidents are just not finding a structure in place to make this rapid advance that the administration rightfully feels needs to happen to the academy. The provost may not be prepared to lead on this, and perhaps the CIO has not been engaged or in some cases has been told not to be. Administrations want someone to be in charge.

Sreenivasan: We are at an important moment of change in society, education and technology, and the chief digital officer's role is something that is ideal for this particular, unusual moment. Every senior executive in higher education needs someone at their right hand who can guide them about using digital technology to amplify, optimize and enhance the work they are doing. This is the right time for that. In a few years, you won't need that because the chief operating officers will already have that knowledge.

Wheeler: I think some of this stems from a lack of confidence in the CIO role and who is in that position. To the extent the academy — the provost, deans and faculty — can trust that person, then they can see things coming together in online learning, electronic recruiting of students, etc. To the extent that they don't, they feel they need to hold it more tightly. But it still has to have some kind of administrative structure, so they create these "vice provost of digital stuff" positions. When people create a position like this or play organizational box chart matrix and move stuff around, it often has very modest impact in the end, because they are not solving the core issue of how organizations evolve — through influence, trust, action and cohesive strategy.

CT: Ron, why did Notre Dame add "digital" to your title of CIO?

Kraemer: I think it was a clarification, a way of clearly establishing with other vice presidents that this was my role. Part of the reason Father John [the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president] wanted the chief digital officer to also be CIO is that he believes the CIO has a perspective across the institution. The network, data centers, etc., are part of my portfolio, enabling these different areas involving teaching and learning and research. But it will be different on every campus depending on the unique circumstances of that campus. Some chief digital officer roles are showing up in CIO offices. Some are showing up in marketing and communications.

CT: Elliott, what did you think when you were approached to become chief academic digital officer at Notre Dame?

Visconsi: I was very excited. It is a new role. There is a clear remit from the academic side to articulate a digital strategy from within the academic domain and then broaden that out to partner with the whole university in a public context. I have a background in teaching English as well as First Amendment law in the digital age. I also have started a software company. Understanding entrepreneurship in the technology space was really great training for taking this position. It touches all corners of the university. We will partner with faculty members to create an online graduate certificate series, for instance, or a flipped classroom model for Introduction to Biology.

CT: What is the potential impact of creating these positions on the overall IT picture and the role of the CIO?

Sreenivasan: At Columbia I worked very closely with the CIO Candace Fleming and her team. We had a wonderful understanding. Her job is the much more complicated, high-pressure, profit-and-loss job, whereas the chief digital officer is more focused on strategy. The CIO and CDO have to be connected at the hip.

Voss: I think creating these positions is diluting the role IT plays broadly across the institution. If you make your CIO responsible for the network, ERP, security and those things, that starts to feel very facility-ish. And then you create this chief digital officer focusing on the academy, mostly teaching and learning, and if you are a research university there may be another person in charge of research IT. You may end up with three different people trying to guide the IT strategy of an institution. It gets diluted. You are not going to have three chief IT officers in cabinet meetings. I believe universities should look carefully at where they are with their technology efforts and what role is most important to them — and that is the role that the CIO should play.

Wheeler: I agree with Brian. Over 10 years ago Mary Ann Broadbent [and Ellen Kitzis] wrote a book called The New CIO Leader, which made the point that the CIO role is not stagnant. It is either becoming more valuable to the institution every day or it is becoming less valuable in terms of just running infrastructure and plumbing. For universities our core business of research and education is becoming more technologically intensive. Do you put the CIO in charge of plumbing, then turn to a new chief officer of digital stuff to handle the parts around teaching and learning and research technologies? That is a tension you see now. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many colleges went through the first big move of merging academic and administrative computing. That was a big deal, putting those under a common organization. Now you see, almost by accident more than on purpose, some institutions re-creating that segmentation.

CT: Ron and Elliott, how are you two working together in these roles at Notre Dame?

Kraemer: Considering the pace of change we are faced with, it is always going to be an evolving platform. Elliott and I just look at it as natural for us to collaborate as things change at the speed of light, and the fact that we have the titles we have says something to the rest of the university. But we find the collaboration to be a natural part of what we do.

Visconsi: Not everybody in Ron's role would have the same appetite for getting involved as deeply in the teaching and learning work. I think that is a wonderful feature of our current setup and Ron's leadership. I think we are all working together to give students, faculty and staff the best experience we can. It is not just hype.

CT: Could those relationships between chief digital officers and CIOs be difficult to navigate?

Voss: Yes, because you have a lot of the same technologies and vendors and licensing issues that are interrelated, but if you try to parse it out and say this person is going to be in charge of issues as it relates to pedagogy and this person as it relates to research and this person as it relates to pervasive or administrative uses, then you are going to end up with what we had before we had CIOs.

CT: Could one outcome of the creation of these roles be a broadening of the pipeline into the CIO position to include more people from an academic background?

Wheeler: That is a double-edged sword. First off, not every good football player makes a good coach. Not every good coach makes a good TV commentator. On the positive side, however, I am a fully tenured professor and came up through the ranks. It does allow me to engage with faculty colleagues, and I come into the conversation with some degree of respect. Other CIOs may face resistance, not so much on the merits of the debate, but framed as the academy vs. the staff. It is a delicate point. But if you pull more faculty members into the CIO role, they must understand what the role is, in terms of how you manage uncertainty and ambiguity, lead people and build a healthy organization. I am a little biased. I think folks from a business school background have a broader preparation for that than other disciplines that don't study economics or organizational health.

Voss: Too often people who are CIOs or who have been put into the pipeline to be CIOs are not well equipped to deal with these issues, or are perceived as not well equipped. And sometimes elements within the academy bristle at the idea of an administrative type having much to say about the way teaching is done. We need to broaden the pipeline coming in. When I think of colleagues in the IT community — the ones I put at the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees level — they are members of the academy, people who make a conscious decision to broaden their background. You can't do the job if you don't have an experience of the organization.

CT: Sree, what are some things you focused on during your time as chief digital officer at Columbia?

Sreenivasan: Because we weren't trying to set the standards as some of the other universities were in the kinds of technology used to share with the world, we were able to cherry-pick from the different offerings and try them. That made sense for Columbia at that moment. At the time all the hype was about MOOCs, and we were experimenting with that. But we were doing a lot of things in individual courses and not MOOC-related. There is a lot to be gained in optimizing courses for the way people learn. To me, the digital classroom is comfortable in Google Docs. That makes it a digital place. I remember when I first used Google Docs I could see it was going to change my life as a faculty member. We used to e-mail back and forth with students. After you start using Google Docs, your e-mail box dries up in front of you. It is an amazing thing. Technology doesn't have to be this big, complicated $100 million project. Sometimes it is as simple as Google Docs.

CT: Have you studied what chief digital officers are doing at other universities or do you look outside higher education for inspiration and ideas?

Sreenivasan: The first person I called when I was contemplating taking the CDO job at Columbia was Perry Hewitt, chief digital officer at Harvard [MA], but her role is different. I was situated in the provost's office working on the academic side while she is focused on getting the entire university, not just the academics, much more digitally savvy. That is an amazing opportunity at Harvard. There are some fantastic people doing pioneering work on distance education, but I also look at companies in other industries, such as Disney. There is a Chief Digital Officer Summit that brings people together from many sectors to share ideas.

Visconsi: I have been looking at areas of the private sector interested in educational technology, and in particular the venture capital/private equity world, as well as education services companies, both as vendors and to understand their strategies. So I have been casting a pretty broad net looking at what companies such as Pearson and Wiley are doing. I wouldn't say I have one model of a university that seems especially compelling. Certainly we joined the edX Consortium because we saw in edX a partner and a group of university members who shared our vision about creating great teaching and learning courseware, enriching the world and researching what works in the context of a nonprofit company that nonetheless runs like a business. It resonated strongly with us.

CT: Do you think these chief digital officer titles will proliferate or fade away?

Kraemer: I am not a good predictor of the future, but I am going to be fascinated to see whether this title holds or morphs into something else. The responsibility will hold. In this personalized, individualized, consumer-oriented kind of world, this is going to be very important work. I just don't know how it is going to be titled. Progress won't be measurable by the number of universities that start putting digital in titles of people. Some of the deepest thinking in this area is going on within collaborations at universities where no one has digital in their title, but they are seeing the work as an important part of what they are doing.

Visconsi: The responsibilities of what are now vice provosts for digital learning, chief academic digital officers or chief digital officers are going to become more prominent. It will be essential for any university to have senior leadership that has a deep sense of both the way the on-campus and extra-campus environments operate. You can't just build a wall around your campus and say we are going to build great digital stuff here without understanding the broader ecosystem of vendor relationships, where the market is and what the higher education landscape is like in this area.

Sreenivasan: I used to joke that a chief digital officer is the equivalent to being a chief telephone officer when the phone was first introduced. People wanted to understand the strategy behind it, how to implement it and how to use it. They wondered if it would disrupt their life. Eventually everyone figured out how to use a phone and it became part of the workflow. There is a chance that will happen with this and you won't need a chief digital officer anymore. Everybody in the building will be a digital officer, so the CEO will be the chief digital officer. You'll have people who really understand this well and they will graduate into those top jobs.

CT: Are there some lessons higher education can learn from the experience of other industries?

Wheeler: From 1996 to 2000, there was an upheaval when online shopping and e-commerce started to have an impact. Companies that had long succeeded in the physical world just didn't know what to do in the digital world. When I spoke to companies and boards about the concept of e-commerce, I told them it is best understood if the "e" is silent — because this is core to the business, not a bolt-on. Companies that did bolt-on activities and created separate organizations to cause it to move forward — every one of those approaches flamed out. Even if they learned how to do something, they couldn't assimilate it back into the organization. The firms that learned to take what they did well and transfer it into a digital world fared far better than those that tried to pretend their culture didn't have to evolve. I see the same mistakes being repeated right now in higher education. If folks try to create separate online organizations rather than ingraining it in what they do, those efforts are going to have a modest impact on the academy over time and just dilute the role of the CIO and make it harder to recruit and retain someone of great talent to that role.

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