Information Technology

Is There Life After Being a CIO?

A longtime chief information officer explains how moving to another operational area within his institution give him a new opportunity to bring about technology change, improve business processes and boost enrollment.

After 20 years as a chief information officer (CIO), eight of those at Columbia College in Missouri, Kevin Palmer changed jobs to become the vice president of the enrollment and marketing division of the college in August 2014. For somebody who previously thought being a CIO was the greatest job he had ever had, Palmer has discovered that there is a life after being a C-level executive. Campus Technology asked Palmer how he was able to apply his technology skills and knowledge to an operational area, improving the business processes and potentially increasing the college's enrollment numbers as a result.

Campus Technology: Why did you move from the CIO position to VP of enrollment and marketing?

Kevin Palmer: I think it was mutually beneficial. My boss was looking for somebody to reorganize the enrollment management division, combining enrollment and marketing, and to create a digital enterprise. As a CIO I had been very effective if divisions or departments wanted to work with me, but we had some cultural issues at the college, which allowed individual department directors to say yea or nay as to whether or not they would introduce automation to their environment. It looked to me, and still does, as a dream come true to have somebody who is a technologist move over into an operational area. I have been in education since 1995 — higher education and K-12 — so I understand the operational aspects of education, the logistical aspects, the processes, being able to move over and have a direct impact on automating and creating that digital enterprise.

CT: How did your technology background relate to the new role?

Palmer: When you look at a CIO you think technology and that's it, but the CIO really should be focused on processes, management, motivating people, understanding bottom lines, costs, negotiation. Every aspect of business skills is required when you're in a CIO seat, and every aspect of management skills is required. What I discovered is that the skills I acquired over my nearly 25 years as a CIO or senior manager in technology, my skill set in motivating people to accomplish difficult goals, the project management aspect of it, was really beneficial to moving into an operational area. However, as so much technology has been introduced into all of our operational areas, especially in marketing, you see that having this strong base in technology should be a basic requirement of every executive and manager out there. It's really a new fit for operational areas. I'm strong in business, I've got an MBA, I'm enrolled in a DBA, a doctorate in business administration program, so that's a natural piece of it.

CT: What were your goals moving into your new role?

Palmer: As a technologist I often thought of things in a systematic way, and that systems thinking really applies well to operational areas — especially the one I just came into this past year and a half ago. Each department was doing what they felt was best and not concerned with any issues that were created downstream on customer service, on response times, on the way information was handled. Having that technology background gives me the ability to look at things systemwide and say, "Okay, if we turn the knob on this side of the operation, it's going to turn up the heat on the other side, so what do we need to do to moderate that."

CT: Was improving the business processes of the enrollment and marketing division your primary challenge?

Palmer: That was one. A second one was to maintain a cost-effective structure. Those two are very closely related because as you become a digital enterprise, you're able to apply your resources to more qualitative, interactive work with the actual student or prospect instead of with the process. And then the third one, which is the ultimate beneficiary, is to increase enrollment. We have 35 campuses located around the nation, and we serve approximately 27,000 students per year. So we need systems that interact with each other and that are standardized, centralized and scalable, but increasing enrollment is the basic function of any enrollment and marketing department or division.

CT: What did you do to work on that goal of increasing enrollment?

Palmer: The first [step] was to create a baseline of truth. I think the reporting that was occurring throughout this division was so narrowly defined as to give the perception that we were doing really well, when in fact we were doing poorly. All the reports were showing was that silver lining, and not the big clouds back there. The first thing I did was to look at the reports that I knew were somewhat incorrect. There were other reports that I found out were incorrect also, and I had the directors rework them.

As an example, for transcript credit evaluation we used OnBase software from Hyland, and we thought we were creating a much more efficient system. To prove it we asked for weekly reports on the turnaround time for those transcripts, and they were reporting about 24 to 48 hours on average, which sounds wonderful. What I found out when I came to this side of the fence is that they were only reporting from the time the transcripts were received in the mail to the time they were imaged into the system. They were not reporting on the time it took to evaluate those transcripts and get them into the student information system, which is the full process that should have taken one to two days. So we went back to Hyland and said what needs to be done to get this system back into the way it should be, and we're now putting it into place. Now 60 to 80 percent of the transcripts will be entered into the system automatically and be written to the student record within minutes of imaging, and turnaround time should drop through the floor. There are always those institutions that we don't work with regularly, so there won't be a template there, but we'll image them in and it will go through manual evaluation before that data flows into the student application system.

CT: Aside from reporting, what other processes did you focus on improving?

Palmer: We had an outgoing transcript area that three people worked on and the average turnaround time to get that transcript was five days. By automating a couple of small pieces of that process, we were able to break it down to one person with a 24-hour turnaround time. All we did was create a couple of scripts that tuned the work up the way it needed to be done and automated the print jobs, so it was a very subtle change that had big ramifications to it.

CRM [customer relationship management] was very problematic, and we're still working through that. CRM has not been used effectively at all. As a CRM engine, we used it, we put data in, but we didn't do much with it. Communication tracks were built at the initiation of the project six or seven years ago and went five or six years before they were even updated. Now we're switching to Salesforce.com with TargetX as a layer on top of it. Salesforce.com is an industry standard and it's relatively simple to integrate and get up to speed on.

CT: Have you seen a change in your enrollment numbers since you took over?

Palmer: The first year was a year of reorganization, getting things in place, starting up the process changes — I believe it's going to be next year when we see this turnaround really kick into high gear. We are a not-for-profit and we kind of have two different personalities. We have the personality of small liberal arts college in the Midwest, which is what our main campus is. Then we have this other side of us which is non-traditional and online education at 35 different campuses across the nation. So we have these two different pieces that we're dealing with and working with. They take different methods for recruitment and marketing. Everything we do is to support those two different student populations in their own way. So are we seeing the enrollments? I think we'll see them starting with the 2016 cycle.

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