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Campus Technology Insider Podcast June 2023

Listen: The Mechanics of Digital Transformation at National University

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.

At National University, the role of the data officer has shifted from the capture and analysis of data to a broader focus on digital transformation. As the institution's chief digital officer, my guest Alex Chimon leads both the digital and the data realms, with the strategic goal of improving student outcomes and the student experience.

Chimon comes from a diverse background, driving digital strategy in industries such as healthcare, marketing, and food service before joining NU last year. We talked about NU's key digital transformation goals, how the worrisome capabilities of artificial intelligence will impact Dx efforts, overcoming fear of change, and more. Here's our chat.

Hi, Alex, welcome to the podcast.

Alex Chimon: Thank you. I appreciate being here.

Kelly: So I thought maybe we could start by having you kind of introduce yourself and your role as chief digital officer at National University.

Chimon: Sure. So Alex Chimon, I am the chief digital officer at National University. I have been here now about nine months, so relatively new into the role at National University. I actually come from a background that is not in higher ed, so it's not the traditional higher ed background, coming from more consumer brands and healthcare is where I come from. So relatively new into the world, but I'm bringing a lot of the I will call it knowledge and experiences that I've had from outside into the organization.

Kelly: So is that a new role at National U? Or?

Chimon: Yes, it's a new role at National University. Prior, they have had data officers in play, not digital officers in play. When I joined, the original thinking was to bring in a new data leader, and they had shifted that to be a digital and data leader. So my role is basically both digital and data, and leading both areas and understanding, where do we need to go from a digital aspect? How do we bring kind of that outside-in consumer lens to our students and improve that student experience? So that was something that they, that National University, prior to me joining, had said, we need to have a better focus on the student, student's outcome, and what the student's looking for, for their success, versus a traditional lens of just build it and they will come and that type of thinking. So it's, it's new from a digital lens, and then encompassing data as well, too.

Kelly: What would you say, I mean, is that focus on the student kind of the main difference between what a chief data officer would, would be and, and bringing in the digital?

Chimon: Well, so the data officer is really more focused, when you look at the data side, they're really more focused on data, maybe the insights of the data, and then how do you bring that data across the organization, and what are you capturing. Digital is focusing on how do you use that data to drive the better outcomes in the various channels, leveraging digital. And then there's also looking at, what are the traditional channels and work efforts that are being put in place, and how do we improve those leveraging digital technology as well?

Kelly: So you mentioned your diverse background, working in a variety of industries. How has that informed your thinking about digital? And, and also I want to know, how is the adjustment of entering the higher ed world for you?

Chimon: Yeah, I'll actually start with the latter on that one, right? Entering the higher ed world, it's, it's, it's a different world than consumer brands, mainly because the focus isn't really on selling something. It's really focused on, how are you driving student success? How are you getting students to get educated and getting them to graduate or getting them the right certifications, so that their lives are better? So it's a bit of a different thinking process. It's close to, I would say, the healthcare industry. When you think about certain healthcare organizations, if you think, for example, I know a lot of people would be like, okay, health, you know, health insurance is a scam, that kind of stuff. But when you think about how most health insurance companies have come to life and what their real purpose is, it's actually to drive better health outcomes, right? And get your, what they call members, right, but get the people that have health insurance and health coverage healthy, and to where they need to be, and so forth. It's the same type of concept. So it's, there are some similarities in that concept of, we are driving students' success and trying to make their lives better through leveraging the right digital experiences and getting them to where they need to be, self service, and so forth, through the whole process. So I think there's a lot of differences. But there's also some similarities in certain areas. The biggest difference, I think also, is more speed to how you move forward. And some of these, you, the higher ed world doesn't move as quick. And some of that has to do with regulatory factors; some of that has to do with more, I will call it organization, operational factors. So, you know, if you're starting on a semester or quarter model, that kind of stuff, there are certain things that you don't want to do in the middle of a student's class, or the middle of their engagement with the university that might disrupt it, right? So you might have certain blockers that don't allow you to move as fast as you would, as you can in the consumer world. However, we are also looking at how do we enable some of those moving faster in the consumer, as we did in the consumer world, within higher ed. And a lot of that has to do with, 1) thinking, 2) policy, how do we set our policies and procedures, and then 3) how do we build our technologies and capabilities in a way that allows us to be more modular, more nimble, so that we can very easily change and shift and it doesn't really affect the student's outcome, but it should continually improve how we're engaging with the student and what we're providing for him. So it's really bringing kind of that continual improvement, that Agile methodology thinking around, let's continue to improve small bits as we go and leverage student feedback to change quickly, and pivot when we need to pivot to really drive those outcomes in the success.

Kelly: I'm hearing a lot of the language of digital transformation in what you just said. So I'm wondering if you could talk about the key goals for National University in terms of digital transformation? Is there kind of a, like a stated, here's how we are approaching digital transformation itself?

Chimon: I would say, there are probably a couple different ways to look at it depending on who you speak to and depending on the lens that you put on this. So, digital transformation, you know, the way I always describe, describe digital transformation is, it's not technology, it's not IT. It's more, how are we thinking about enabling experiences and working differently, leveraging technology, right? So how do we really drive that engagement with our customers, in this case students, right? How are we driving that engagement with our students and being able to bring their needs forward with a digital technology and also helping the organization reduce their costs, right? So if, if there are ways that we can improve efficiencies, leveraging new process and technology, then that's the other piece that we're looking at, too. So when we take the overall lens, it's student success, so enabling digital to drive student success, drive personalized experience, better guidance, leveraging, leveraging digital for our students, focusing on our student outcomes, and being more personalized in how we engage them. So it's not just a, I will call it self service, going to chatbot and it answers to you, it's also making sure that our faculty and staff have those same capabilities, the same insights, pulling that data forward, and leveraging that data to be able to engage those students, knowing where they are, what they're doing, what the student, what their progress is, and be able, being able to pull forward more predictive, proactive insights on top of our data to really be able to engage them. So I always use the example of a student that might be struggling in their class. There are certain key predictors or data elements that identify, or that we can use to identify a student struggling. Well, if we already identify that proactively or predict that, we identify that, we can proactively engage that student and either the faculty can reach out to them or our staff, our academic advisers, can reach out to a student and say, "Hey, Alex, is everything okay? Do you need some help? How can we help you?" That kind of stuff, right? So really have that more personal touch and have the personal touch at the moments that really matter, versus just trying to outreach to them to outreach them, right? It's reduce the amount of noise and be more precise with where we're going. And then when we take that lens on the data side, and how do we leverage that data, the other part of the transformation is also making sure that we have a very strong data infrastructure with the right intelligence, the right insights, and I'll call it the right connective tissue across the organization to help drive how we bring those capabilities to life.

Kelly: I'm really curious about how this works in, in practice, you know, like it, do you have a steering committee, regular meetings, who's involved with making all these things happen, like how does that work?

Chimon: Yeah, so, so there are, we do have a steering committee. There's actually three different levels of governance, governance that we put in place. But even before it gets to the governance level, and the steering committee around that, it's really tied to the organizational strategy, and what are the key initiatives that we look at. So at NU we have a set of, I'll call five high-level organizational strategy outcomes that we're driving towards. And within those strategy outcomes, we have some pillars of here's where we're looking at world-class student experience, student success, and being able to drive the right outcomes within those. So when we start looking at what are the areas of opportunity, we actually tie those up to our strategy. And then there's some work that we've put in place that identifies our, what we're calling our loss of momentum. So it's leveraging the loss of momentum model to identify areas that either we are, we have an opportunity of a loss, or we have an opportunity for momentum, for making things better, right, within, within our engagement with our students. So it's leveraging that lens, and then understanding what are the key capabilities we can put in place that help make those come to life. Then, as we identify those, we bring those into our governance model, which has the steering committee at multiple levels. One's an executive level, so we have our executive steer co, which is really more the strategic alignment, and should we do something or not do something based off of it aligning to our strategy or not. Then you have our, what I'm going to call our standard steering committee, which is the level one, one or two levels below the executive level, which are the folks that are really looking at, how do you clear the hurdles, making the decisions on the work that has to come to life, and then help with any type of initiative around resource and so forth as we move forward. And then we have the third level, the steering committees, which is actually the workgroups — the people that are on the ground, building the work, making it come to life, who are really the folks that are making the technical decisions, the design and experience decisions, and actually figuring out how do we bring the pieces together. So there's different levels that we have within that. And each of those meet at different regular, different intervals. The executive team, right now the executive team meets once a month, that executive steer co, once a month, connect on strategy, and so forth. The steer co meets, meets basically every other week to talk about roadblocks, help, anything that's needed there. And then the working committee is meeting sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, all depends on the work effort in hand and I would call it the scale of what that work needs. Because some of them will need more meetings, some may, may need less, because it's go build it or you're trying to shape it still. So when you're shaping it, you meet a little bit more, when you're building it, meet a little bit less, because you're in the process of making it come together.

Kelly: So I'd love to hear about some specific technology projects. Could you maybe describe one of those work groups, like, and what they're doing?

Chimon: Yeah, yeah. So I think the one that I can easily talk to, is our, what we're calling our Digital Campus. So we have a work effort right now that we're identifying called Digital Campus. It's basically what we like to call a single front door for our students into our ecosystem, our digital ecosystem, and it'll allow us to bring the, all of the student experiences into one place, and enable a true cross-functional lens of, what is the student trying to do? Where can we help them? How can we support them? Bring personalization forward, bring student engagement forward, cross-collaboration between our students, so allowing students collaborate to, with each other within that, as well as have an easier capacity to collaborate with their, with the faculty and staff within those tools, and then provide more of that personalized self service capability within there. It also allows us to engage them better in terms of their outcome and their success as we start identifying and understanding what is, where are they in their journey. We can start having conversations around how we help them with, within that journey, and bring pieces forward. And that's work efforts that are, I'm going to call it relatively new, so as we've put that together, we've started this steering committee having conversations across the organization around how do we unify the work that's happening in different organizations, bringing that together —that's the first goal that the steering committee is talking through. And then planning how it comes to life and what needs, what the, I will call it prioritized roadmap looks like, what's important first, and then how do we get to what I call the MVP and MLPs. So MVP is minimal, minimal viable product; MLP is minimal lovable product. So to me, you start at minimal viable, you shoot for minimal loveable, and then you continue to grow from there. And that's kind of the lens that we're taking as we go through the process.

Kelly: So the, this virtual campus, is this basically a web experience? Or what does that look like to the student?

Chimon: Yeah, so this is, we're not calling it web, primarily, because this is an omnichannel lens. It's how do we enable this from wherever they want to get to it. It's going to start initially with the web, primarily because most of our students use the web to get to where they're at. But it's also with a heavy, heavy load on mobile as well, to enable the capabilities and access through mobile. As we look at different populace sets, I've got, call it different segments of our students have different ways that they engage with us. Majority right now is web, but as we start moving into a younger segment, they actually want to be able to engage more on the mobile. The tough part is there are certain things that are put in place that really are not designed for mobile. So the way we operate, and the way we actually deliver information or acquire information isn't really designed in a mobile-friendly way. So it's taking that view of what works best for mobile, what works best for the web, and ensuring that we enable those capabilities, but then in the future, enabling those in different capacity, in different channels also. So example, maybe at some point we enable in Siri, right? It's easily going out, and I just gotta make sure I don't trigger it on my computer, but, Hey Siri, how do you … or what's my next class that I need to go to? Or do I have homework, a homework assignment that's due for my calculus class? Or, Hey Siri, enroll me into my next class — what are my options? And you know, it comes back and says, Well, here are the three options you have for your next course. Which one would you like to be enrolled in, right? So when you start looking at how do we progress and move forward a little bit better, it's leveraging that omnichannel lens, but building the base framework, what I call the bones, and then that foundational capability of what is the Digital Campus, and making sure that that framework is supporting an omnichannel view. But we're starting with web, with a mobile-enabled opportunity or mobile-enabled web, that we also will then build out as a mobile application and expand and continue to expand into different things like, again, voice or watches, right, wearables, and so forth. And how do you integrate into those pieces.

Kelly: It kind of sounds like laying the foundation for innovation, and maybe emerging technologies, like you have to create a virtual campus that is ready for anything.

Chimon: Exactly. That's the idea is, if you build the model flexible enough, with the right, I'll call it future-forward thinking around how you set up your platform and your systems, and also how you think about the way you operate and the way you engage those, you modulate those and build those in the way that you're actually able to be flexible, and then change them relatively easily. If you have the right tools in place, you can actually shift them within days by changing experiences or unplugging experiences or enabling them pretty quickly. So it's, it's really being as flexible as possible, possible, agile, and bringing those pieces forward.

Kelly: So you mentioned Siri. So that makes me wonder about, you know, things like AI, emerging technologies, and being future-ready. How does that impact digital transformation efforts overall?

Chimon: Yeah, I think, depending on what emerging technology you look at, and which, which pieces you talk through, you know, AI, XR, VR — those are, those are all I'm gonna call it hot topics. And a lot of those are I'm gonna call it in their nascent state, right? So when we when we think about, I'm gonna use AI as an example, right? When you think about AI and what the opportunity is, AI has been around for a while. It's nothing new. So we've been using Siri for how long now, Alexa, for how long now? And all these other solutions that have AI brought, built into them. But now as we start getting more to cognitive AI solutions, you're starting to get to I will call it more worrisome capabilities with AI is the easiest way I can describe it, right? People are afraid of what can it do or what does it look like or how do we leverage, how do we leverage or how do we secure, secure our engagements or interactions. And as we dive into more that digital transformation, thinking through future vision, there are areas where we can very easily start enabling AI today. So example, leveraging AI to help with tutoring, right, and or educational coaching, that kind of stuff. That's stuff that we can do almost immediately. But then when you start talking about how do you leverage, leveraging AI to create course curriculum and course curriculum material, that actually helps us speed up some of our digital capabilities, because you're now able to leverage some AI to bring those pieces forward a little bit quicker. And it's never 100% accurate. That's, that's, you know, if anybody feels AI is 100% accurate when it delivers to you, yeah, take a, take another look, because it isn't. So there's a lot of stuff you have to kind of figure out as you go. But it's, it provides a great starting point. So it helps us fast track some pieces, including when I start looking at digital from a marketing perspective, and or from a copy and print perspective, you can leverage AI to help create that first draft based off an idea and expand that. So it's, you know, expedites things, but at the same time, it also causes us to be a lot more cautious because we have to be careful where and how we enable AI, and what the outcomes of AI can provide. So example I can use actually, this is a, I can't say the company that it was at, but another company I worked for, we had leveraged AI for a chatbot. And that AI, based off of feedback that it was getting from people within the marketplace and engagement, turned very negative very fast, that it had to be shut off within 15 minutes of being activated.

Kelly: 15 minutes! Oh my gosh.

Chimon: Yeah, yeah. Within 15 minutes of being activated, it started having profanity, racial inclinations and other things, that we just said, this has to get turned off. It was very close to a lawsuit. So we had to say, okay, no more. Let's, let's keep that from happening. So yeah, so it got very tricky. But when you look at how do we use that, there are certain boundaries we can put in place that we think about where we bring that forward. But then also, when you start looking at other emerging technologies like AR or VR, it's also thinking about how do we leverage those capabilities to teach differently. So there are, right now, for example, we have our nursing department that is actually using VR to train the nurses in certain aspects of, of their program that actually help augment the teaching. So it doesn't replace the teaching, but allows you to augment that teaching, which I think is a great way to handle it, and then enable it. There's more work and research we've been doing to identify and understand how else can we use AR and VR, as an example, the technology itself, the cost of the technology, the limitations between all the different types of solutions, limit us to be able to move forward, but we are leveraging the understanding behind that to plan for the future. And look at all the different possibilities that come up.

Kelly: I like the term, the worrisome, that you, worrisome AI, and that makes me want to ask about how you manage people's fear of, of emerging technologies or fear of change in, in this process of digital transformation.

Chimon: Yeah, that, one, very good question. But when you look at how do you, I will call it help alleviate the fear. It's really being transparent with what you're using, how are you using it, the information that's being captured. Most of the fear it's twofold. Most of the fear is one, what information, what data are you capturing, and how are you using that data, right? The other one is, I'm going to call it the creepy factor behind how AR can actually, AI can actually drive things. I always call it the Minority Report effect, right? If you remember that movie Minority Report with Tom Cruise, as he walks by a digital display and the digital display says, "Hey, Michael, how was your hemorrhoid cream yesterday?" And he's just like, whoa, everybody recognized who he was but then it also exposed, you know, private information about him and so forth. So the, trying to keep away from that. So it's really talking through, here's how we're using your information. Identifying, understanding the ethical bounds of what we're doing with that information and what that means, enabling the student to be able to see and get that information themselves, but then also ensuring that we have the right guardrails in place for the proper engagements and making sure that they're aware of them. And when they're engaging, this is a rule I've had in almost any, any place I've been is, when someone is engaging in an AI engagement, to make sure that they're aware that they're, they're actually talking to an AI and not to human, so that they have that understanding that, hey, this isn't the real person. And also having the ability to relatively quickly get to a real person if they have concerns, questions, and so forth, right? So it's a very, it's communication, transparency, and engagement, having all three of those in place to make sure you can get to them when they need the help. But also the awareness of, this is, you know, this is what we're doing, this is how we got to this recommendation, and if you have concerns, raise your hand, so we can also make sure we correct any, any concerns and or issues that might rise up. Because as, as AI is continually improving, it's still not perfect. So ensuring that we also have a way of rectifying and capturing imperfections and workarounds to that.

Kelly: Do you have any tips for other higher ed institutions on developing their digital transformation strategy, especially in the face of all these evolving technologies?

Chimon: I would say that there's a number of things when I stepped into the organization here and kind of thought through what are, what I call some either, either roadblocks and or fears as we step into it. I would say one, don't be afraid to fail as you move into some of these pieces. There's a lot of emerging technology, a lot of new things, we really need to take the lens of test and learn and understand how is the solution, the technology going to really drive things forward, if it does. And then if it does, how do we enable that for the student, which actually is the other part of the recommendation, is really take that human-entered design thinking approach along it as well. Because if you're putting something out there, for the student, you want to make sure that the student's going to use it, right, and it actually has a value for them. So leveraging their understanding behind it. And when we think about, as I look at the consumer behavior, right, outside in industry, there is this concept of instant gratification, leveraging digital technologies that you have, right, using the McDonald's app to order some food, Uber to get a ride almost instantly, Amazon shipping, you know Amazon and getting shipping the next day. So that there's this concept of how do we make sure that we're delivering the right experience at the speed of digital is the way I like to describe it. And that speed of digital changes daily. So it's, I use that term intentionally because back in the day speed of digital was, yeah, maybe it takes, you know, 12 hours to get a response for an email, where now if it takes anything less than a couple minutes, people are already disengaged, and they're not satisfied, and so forth. So it's really looking at that. The other part is similar to what I described earlier is, leverage the concept of minimal viable product and minimal lovable of product. Because if you try to go big bang, so you want to build something, get it out there and you go big bang, you've probably already failed. And that, every other industry has already learned this, is really get something out there, get it out there fast, get feedback on it. That's the MVP part. Improve on that feedback until, until students really like it. And at that point, you're at minimum lovable product. And you can now continue to evolve, improve, expand, integrate new capabilities to make it an even more lovable product as you go.

And the last part too, is ensure that you are aligning to the right outcomes before you start putting something together. And do not be afraid to do things differently. That is key, in my view, is sticking to the status quo will always cause failure. It's how you're looking at the future and how you do things differently to really bring those experiences forward.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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