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IT Management

Enabling the Digital-First Campus

Leveraged strategically, technology can streamline university services and processes and ultimately help advance the institutional mission. Here, higher education leaders share how they pursue digital efficiencies, optimize operations and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

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In many ways, the pandemic pivot to remote operations in higher education provided a taste of what's possible in digital transformation initiatives. Paperless workflows, online collaboration tools and more became essential overnight, allowing critical work to continue virtually when campuses closed. In the long term, however, moving toward a digital-first mindset requires a strategic approach to change management and paying attention to both efficiency and effectiveness in project outcomes.

In our recent Campus Technology Leadership Summit, a panel of higher education leaders explored how technology can help institutions find efficiencies in IT and university administration — so that staff can spend less time on tedious tasks and more time focusing on supporting students' learning and the institution's mission. Brian Fodrey, senior director of business innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, served as moderator for the discussion, joined by panelists Sarah Collie, associate vice president for organizational excellence at the University of Virginia, and Joseph Drasin, senior director of enterprise planning and continuous improvement in the Division of IT at the University of Maryland. Here's their conversation. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)

Brian Fodrey: What does a digital first campus mean to you?

Joseph Drasin: While the name implies a technology focus, the digital campus to me is more a concept of availability of information. The availability of information on our campuses makes possible the ability to provide students better services, provide staff a more efficient workflow, and so forth. So while there's a set of technologies that obviously enable that, the idea that everything we do starts with, "How is information available in the best way possible to the people who need it, so they can use it most effectively?" That, kind of at a philosophical level, is where I start.

Sarah Collie: I see it as a way to leverage technology as a real strategic resource for both effective and efficient services and processes that support, enable and advance the mission. And I think it's important that this happens in two spaces: both mission-critical, supporting mission-critical work, but also in mission-supporting work as well, all that's on the back end that supports the mission.

Fodrey: How is your university tackling the need to find efficiencies within its operations?

Collie: I think it's important anytime we're talking about efficiency, that we're also talking about effectiveness — that they're connected. There's efficient and effective or effective and efficient, and we have to be careful that we don't entirely decouple them. There are probably some times where there's an intentionality in the trade-offs, but let's be intentional about that and not just let it happen by default. So when I think of efficiency, honestly I like to lead with effectiveness, and then look for the efficiencies. When you lead with efficiency, I find that people then go to cost cutting and budget reductions and jobs. And it can bring out a bit of a defensive posture. But when you start with, "Well, how can we make this better for you and others?" you get to start from a place of opportunity.

Drasin: I like how you articulated that efficiency has multi dimensions: It's not just about cost, it's about quality, it's about utilization, it's about impact to the mission. And I think that is really important when approaching these problems, whether it's improving a process or an organization. Obviously we have a fiduciary responsibility that's really critical, but we also have a mission we're trying to deliver.

Fodrey: What ways are you all realizing what effectiveness means as it relates to measurement of gains or reporting out of impact?

Collie: When I think of effectiveness, I think of outcomes. What are the desired outcomes that you're seeking to achieve? A lot of times, we're measuring other things — input or output — but we've got to look at the outcome when we're talking about effectiveness, the objectives you're trying to achieve. The efficiency is the optimization of resources. And we say resources in the broadest sense — time, money, skills, space, everything that you have, all of your resources — how are you using those resources in relation to the objectives you're trying to achieve?

Drasin: In addition to time, there's a mental bandwidth of, even if I have more time, there's only so many things I can do. To the question of measurement: This is really challenging because we have a habit of measuring what is easy to measure, which, Sarah to your point, is inputs. How many clicks? How many transactions? But what's really valuable, when we look at quality controls, is outputs. What is satisfaction or effectiveness of the hiring process? Are we getting good candidates? Are we onboarding them? Are they highly engaged? Those things are a lot harder to measure. But those are the things we really try to get to when we're talking about the quality of a service. Not just, "We've cut the days from 100 to 50." That's great, but we don't know if that's actually making the purpose of that process better.

Collie: Can I pick up on this notion of efficiency? Because I have this truth that I want to share. Some may find it a bit controversial, but I believe it to be true. And I'm an insider, so I feel like I can make this statement that higher education, and I'm going to make a generalization here, but higher education is just inherently inefficient. And yet in spite of our inefficiencies, we're largely effective. And to be fair, some of that's intentional by design — the nature of our multiple missions. But I'd also like to suggest that in some cases, we use effectiveness as a way to have permission not to look for the efficiencies. We're effective. Our rankings, our accolades, our awards, they give us a bit of a pass on not looking for those efficiencies. And the rationale becomes, "Well, we're really effective at x. So there must be nothing to gain by looking for the efficiencies in it." That assumes that there's an inverse relationship between effectiveness and efficiency, which may not always be the case. We might increase efficiency and continue to increase effectiveness as well.

Drasin: The multi dimensions of the purpose of a university does make that very challenging. We all work for excellent institutions that excel at so many things that they do, be it research, education, service and so forth. But just because you're good at one thing doesn't mean there's not opportunity there. So there is that need for constant self-reflection.

Fodrey: What role has technology played in efficiency and effectiveness?

Drasin: It's such a key enabler of everything going on at Maryland right now. And there's a lot. It's hard to think of many things we're doing that are improving various states of our organization that don't have a major IT component to them, whether it's new systems, improving systems, innovative technologies, innovative learning.

Collie: I would echo that. It's just such a strategic resource and an enabler. But I also might add, it's only a tool. So how it's leveraged, configured, deployed, makes a big difference in whether technology saves time or takes it away from us, adds value or takes value away, or even simplifies something or adds complexity. I suspect all of us can think of cases where the technology maybe hasn't always been an enhancement to either effectiveness or efficiency.

Drasin: Without a doubt. A philosophy we drive forward with is "process before technology, always." But to add to that, I think it's also important to recognize the complexity of the institution as it is now compared to 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. It's just such a different environment that sometimes yes, the technology seems to be driving the complexity, but often it's the technologies trying to keep up with the complexities.

Fodrey: Do you have any best practices or approaches that you utilize to identify opportunities for efficiency gains? Recognizing that there are elements such as resistance to change [to deal with].

Drasin: I'll start by trying not to get up on my soapbox. I always cringe at the phrase "resistance to change." Not because there aren't elements of that, but I think sometimes resistance to change is used to place the blame on the staff for any kind of failure, rather than being reflective of our role in communicating change and leading change. So whenever I come to an organization and I hear resistance to change, I always try [to ask] — and there are lots of very effective tools for looking into this — what are people's concerns? What is it about the change that is causing a negative reaction? But to your specific question, one of the things we really look for when looking at opportunities is what we call "high deltas." Is there a process that some departments are able to execute really effectively and others aren't? Or maybe certain times you execute this process and it's very fast; other times it's slow. Whenever we see that high variance in either quality or speed or whatever, that's some of our data we look to to say, this might be a really good opportunity. Because if you're executing something and it's always slow — worth looking into, but maybe there's some apparent reason for that. But if you're looking at something and it's all over the place, that's often where I see some of the greatest opportunities.

Collie: I wholeheartedly agree with Joseph. I put it in bit more crude of a statement: Where's the pain? Where is the pain for people, their challenges or bottlenecks or long wait times? You have to go out there and find that out sometimes. We can be a little bit complacent, and we may not have really good data or information assessment of where the pain is. So you have to make an intentional effort to hear from people as well as collect the data to know where they're experiencing that. And then I would add, we need to look at what we can stop. Higher education is notorious for adding, adding, adding, adding, let's do more, more, more. But are there opportunities to grow by substitution? If we can stop doing something — it made perfect sense at one time, but could we stop doing that so we can reallocate our time and our money and our resources to something of higher value? And that can be really big stuff, like maybe it's insourcing/outsourcing. Or it could be something really small like a step in a process, information we've collected, guess what we now have it already stored somewhere, can we automate that, or a step in a process that just doesn't add any value anymore. So it happens at multiple levels. I want to come back to this issue of change, though, because I think that's a really important one. I see all of this work really as continuous improvement. And when I think of continuous improvement, I think of the importance of engaging others in that journey throughout the entire lifecycle of work, from the discovery stage, to the redesign, to implementing and monitoring as well, and adjusting. People are really an asset here. And they need to be engaged at all those stages, and involved. People support what they co-create.

Fodrey: How important is transparency to the idea of change management efforts?

Drasin: Completely. Engagement is so important. If you read any of the literature, particularly some of the really current stuff around change management, engagement management, organizational justice theories and stuff like that — when people are engaged, when they feel it's transparent, that they're being treated fairly and honestly and listened to and engaged with, they're generally okay. The perfect example: Two-some years ago, we all went remote overnight. I don't remember too many employees resisting that change. And that was a pretty dramatic change. And yet, we all did it. And people adapted incredibly quickly. Now obviously, there was an intense driver for that. But people understood it, understood why it was happening. And they were okay. And that is a far more dramatic change than probably anything else any of us will ever try and implement an organization.

Collie: Just hearing this conversation, it reminds me of the quote: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." There's a heavy people component of all this work. And I would go so far to say, this is about cultivating a culture. You need to have an environment that's conducive to allowing people to challenge the status quo, to explore, ideate, experiment. And that requires some intentionality, too. It's really about creating a culture and a space for that to happen: having the psychological safety, having idea meritocracy, not having an over-reliance on hierarchy, and allowing everyone to collaborate and contribute.

Fodrey: What advice would you have for those who are having conversations with campus leaders and encouraging them to be more deliberate about efficiencies and effectiveness?

Drasin: You really need to understand your organization's strategic plan. Every one of our universities has one, and you really need to understand what is the priority and the importance of everyone in the room that you're speaking with. There are so many things we could try and solve, and you can't go after everything. You have to be really judicious about where you're going to focus your energy. So know what is important. That's number one. The second: Spend a lot of time — and this can really take quite a while — thinking about how you'll know that this, whatever you're trying to do, is efficient, effective, whatever dimensions you're going to want to measure, and there's usually at least three or four. What will really tell you how you're being effective? And then — and you may have to get someone's help with this — try and have someone else game those numbers, because you want to develop a metric that is a real, honest representation of the quality of what's being delivered, and isn't just another operational metric. So think about what qualitatively would tell me that this is working well, and then back that into how you would design quantitative measures for that. When you're implementing a new system, you have to have that understanding of what you're going to be measuring before you ever start the implementation. Because a lot of these things, the really good data is not easy to get out of a system that's already been designed. Systems are usually implemented and designed around operational data, not qualitative data.

Collie: When you're doing this work, I'd also focus on the positioning and the messaging — getting really clear about the "why," tying it to mission, integrating this work into the organizational fabric. So this is not something that's just bolted on or added on. This becomes part of the culture; it's really embedded. It's not temporary, either. I recall early on, someone once asked me, "When does your program sunset?" Never, I hope. This work is ongoing and continuous. I think a second thing would be: I would encourage leaders to think horizontally, to bring a horizontal lens to this work. Organizations are structured vertically, but value is delivered horizontally. And sometimes we get so focused on our verticals that we're missing what happens between those verticals and the connective tissue and the handoffs and the full experience. That horizontal view is really critical to achieving effectiveness and efficiency. And then I'll just say again, because I don't think it can be overemphasized, the importance of engaging your community broadly in the process. Your social capital that you have within your institution is really your advantage to doing this work.

Fodrey: Any closing thoughts or comments?

Drasin: Something pragmatic I would offer: Don't get frustrated, because that just comes with this job. Building a network and building your own ability to influence is really critical. I will tell you, a lot of folks that I know who do the kind of work we do at other institutions, a lot of them essentially grew into their role. It's not like someone picked them out and said, "You are now going to be the whatever whatever of making better processes on campus." They built that opportunity through their work, and influencing leaders on campus that this was an important strategic investment to make. Learning how to facilitate and how to do change management, those are really important skills, but also developing your own network and ability to influence so you can push the need for this capability on your campuses.

Collie: I once had a mentor who said there is no one right approach, so remain sort of flexible and adaptable. In that vein, I'm just going to share that we don't subscribe to one single methodology in this work. We pull from a lot of different methodologies to try and match the tools and the approach to the situation. I would encourage people to be familiar with lots of different methodologies, whether that be design thinking, appreciative inquiry, organizational change models, lean, balanced scorecard. And you don't have to be an expert in any of those to drive this kind of change.

Drasin: We are the same, we don't subscribe to a single methodology. We have probably a dozen that we've borrowed bits and pieces from and we adapt depending on the situation. So I would encourage people to do that. Also, there's a lot of really good literature on the change psychology side, and if you go and read some of that, it really helps you understand what's driving a lot of these principles. Why does appreciative inquiry work? Well, there's a whole field of research on why it's effective. And you don't need to do your dissertation in it, but understanding a little bit of the key authors really helps.

Collie: And what becomes evident again is this human element. In all of this, the human element is so critical to success.

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