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8 CIO Tips for Leading Change in Higher Education

When it comes to technology in higher ed, change is inevitable. Here, IT leaders from across the country talk about how they manage change at their institutions.

In a recent Educause Review essay, Joshua Kim noted that campus CIOs must have one foot in daily technology operations, one foot in strategic decision-making and one foot in the larger discussion of how higher education is evolving. "You will notice the CIO needs three feet — an indication of why the role seems so impossible," wrote Kim, director of digital learning initiatives for the Dartmouth (NH) Center for the Advancement of Learning.

Indeed, being a three-footed CIO increasingly requires more communication skills than technical knowledge. In an April 2015 CT interview, Mark Askren, CIO of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said having a technology background helps in the CIO role — but communication skills are the most important to have. "Beyond just speaking skills, you need emotional intelligence, the ability to listen, be authentic and earn trust," he said. "We are change agents. You have to embrace change and reduce the fear level."

Campus Technology interviewed five CIOs from across the country to find out how they manage change — and change minds — at their institutions.

1) Make sure you understand the institutional culture.
Before launching any major technological change, it is a good idea to make sure you have a good grasp of the culture of your own institution and its appetite for change, said Hilary Baker, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at California State University, Northridge.

New CIOs should surround themselves with trusted colleagues for advice about where the university is in terms of technology change. "Ask what has worked and what hasn't," she said, "and about where there were snags when one tried to roll out a change."

Camille Shelley, executive director of the Office of Information Technology at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ, agrees with Baker. "I have 15 projects right now that we could move quickly on," she said. "However, I have to take into consideration what is involved in terms of communications, timing, the academic calendar and the overall tempo of the campus. Once you understand that, you can successfully implement your changes."

2) Be visible and transparent as CIO.

CSUN's Baker cited a 1:1 iPad initiative (MyCSUN) as an example of change management success at her institution. Started in January 2013 and rolled out to students in multiple disciplines that fall, the project impacted a wide array of faculty, staff and students. She said she made sure to keep a high profile on campus about the project: "During that first semester, there wasn't a meeting I attended where I didn't talk about the MyCSUN Tablet initiative. I addressed the faculty Senate and engaged faculty committees about it and spoke to the student body."

Baker also worked to improve the IT organization's communications efforts. "Who knew that a CIO was in the marketing business? But I am — and my team is — so much so that I now have a director of communications reporting to me that I did not have in other times in my CIO career." She said social media, e-mail, and Web site videos are all part of the package.

This fall, CSUN was preparing to launch an e-portfolio program for more than 42,000 students. "It is no small thing to communicate with such a large number of students," Baker noted.

3) Help IT team embrace change-agent role.

Link Alander, vice chancellor and CIO of Lone Star College System (TX), said IT staffers are by definition change agents causing disruption all the time, "but if the IT people don't understand organizational change management, then we can be negative to the organization." Alander's group has devoted time and resources to internal professional development related to change management.

This year, Alander brought together a group of about 30 people to talk about a series of books, discussions and presentations focused on internal change management. "We had a new chancellor come on board," he said. "When you have a C-level change that means that there are going to be organizational changes. We used the book Our Iceberg Is Melting by John Kotter for this one: The first discussion was around changes that are going to happen in IT now that we have a new vision and mission from the new chancellor and a new strategic plan," he said.

"The biggest mistake I see IT organizations make is not focusing on the soft side and change management principles enough," Alander said. A change made in Active Directory may ripple through the organization in ways IT employees may not perceive, he said. "To build buy-in and support, it comes down to embedding a change management philosophy and pushing hard on our purpose at Lone Star. That begins the process of getting to that point where the IT staffers are seen as trusted advisers."

4) Get internal customers to take ownership.

Alander said Lone Star's focus on organizational change management grew out of a huge ERP project that started in 2009 and went live in January 2010. One change involved getting business leaders to take ownership of projects, which led to stronger business partnerships. "Now we help lead them to a discussion, instead of making decisions or dictating to them," he said. "Prior to that, IT was the owner of the ERP. I am no longer the owner of the ERP," Alander said. "I am the mechanic. I maintain it. I bring them ideas; they bring me ideas. I bring them regulatory compliance, they bring me things they saw at conferences. But now IT is just a tool. Business owners drive what they want to do with the system and we help guide them."

5) Form a faculty advocacy group.

Loren Brown, senior vice president and CIO of Minneapolis-based Capella University, had heard horror stories about how difficult courseware migrations could be, and because Capella is an online university, it was a big change to migrate. "We had to touch every one of our 37,000 learners," he said. "All our faculty members had to change the way they were doing business."

Capella used a range of techniques to manage that change. For one, Brown said he made sure to include the academic team as equal partners at the table at the front end of the decision.

"We created a faculty advocacy group," he explained. "We found that faculty will not necessarily listen to us, but they will listen to their peers. In this case, that faculty advocacy group was part of the project team, and as we communicated or solicited input, they would carry that message to the rest of the faculty. That turned out to be really effective. We have been reusing that model."

On the communication side, Brown dedicated resources for communications and change management. "It is almost impossible to over-communicate on this," he said. "Every vehicle and channel we had we exercised. It turned out to be extremely successful. Every metric we had set up we either met or exceeded."

6) Meeting resistance? Listen and then rework communications.

CSUN's Baker said resistance to change takes many forms, ranging from requests for more information to slow uptake of new software. For instance, CSUN implemented Box for storage and rolled it out to replace a legacy file storage system, but at first the change didn't stick. "You think it is clear and everyone is going to get what you are doing and why, but it doesn't always come about the first time," she said. "For that initiative when the uptake was not as quick as we thought it would be, we went back and met with end users and asked about barriers," she recalled. "We tend to be pretty nimble about adjusting to the need for more information or clarification. You don't come out with a perfect communication plan every time."

Baker also uses the IT governance groups to get feedback. "We might go to an IT governance meeting and say we noticed that the adoption of this technology is slower than we might have thought, and ask about their experience," she said. "In the case of Box, we reworked our material to try to be clearer about how it can work and the ease of use. Some people hear technology change and think, 'I don't think I need that,' and they may not realize what it can do for them."

For Brookdale's Shelley, listening is key to the success of an ongoing ERP modernization project. "We have definitely encountered resistance to change and to moving away from custom processes," she said. "My IT team knows we are capable of doing things quickly. But with ERP, I tell them to listen to constituencies from all the functional departments — financial aid, registration and recruitment — and allow them to have a voice and resist. Then demonstrate a new way of doing something that used to take three days using the old process, and now it is an automated process they don't even have to touch."

Having worked in the corporate world previously, Shelley definitely notices a difference in terms of the amount of resistance to technology change in higher education. In the corporate world, it was very top-down, and changes came down as mandates. Higher education is a "whole different animal," she said. "People have a sense of voice and knowledge," she said. "You are dealing with a very educated community and people who are experts in their field. That is where we are fortunate that we can get their input. There is always more than one way to do things in IT."

7) Build a framework of relationships.

Carol Smith, Depauw University's (IN) CIO, said she relies on a strong IT governance framework to enhance communications and prioritize projects. "On the administrative side, a resource allocation advisory group can come together and identify the most important strategic goal right now," Smith said. On the academic side, a library and academic technology advisory committee acts as a liaison.

But beyond formal governance, Smith strives to develop a good framework of relationships and boost the campus's confidence level in IT. "I try to think about how we can get out there so people recognize us and use those opportunities to build relationships," she said. Because Greencastle, Indiana-based Depauw is a small residential campus with approximately 2,300 students and 400 to 500 faculty and staff, Smith is able to focus on building personal relationships. "I can leverage the fact that when people see an e-mail from me they can recognize who that is. In a larger institution, that is not possible. That human element gives us a starting point."

Smith also said it is important to make clear why a change is occurring. "If they understand why, they are more willing to go there with you, whether they agree or not," she said. "We try to communicate in a language that will resonate and avoid geek talk, but because I am a big proponent of transparency, I will say that if people want more detail, we can provide that deeper level of technical information." 

8) Build on key contacts.

All five CIOs spoke about the importance of spending time building personal relationships to other key executive team members. CSUN's Baker noted that for most of the initiatives that touch students and faculty, the relationship between her position and the provost is critical. "For many of these academic technology initiatives, they are co-sponsored by myself and the provost," she said, "and they need to have the support and leadership of the provost and CIO together."

And while all of the CIOs said that a strong relationship with the chief financial officer was essential, Capella's Brown also said he has gone out of his way to connect with the chief marketing officer. "The pace of what has to happen in our digital marketing world is amazing, and so she and I stay really close and make sure we are giving the team direction that is really consistent," he said. "I actually took my team supporting her organization and co-located it with her team."

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