Real, pervasive Digital transformation can happen in Higher education IT

Andrea Ballinger, Vice Provost & CIO, Oregon State University | University Information and Technology

Andrea Ballinger, Vice Provost & CIO, Oregon State University | University Information and Technology

Let’s be honest, trying to accomplish digital transformation in higher education is often seen as a career ending move for a CIO driven to produce outcomes and value for their institution.

Digital transformation requires a new way of looking at all areas of our institutions, understanding the perspectives of students, faculty, staff, researchers, donors, community members and other constituents, and then fundamentally changing how the institution operates to improve their experiences.  We add computers, new types of software, and powerful networks. Yet often our institutions don’t innovate: we take a “lift and shift” approach with new tools, producing very little added value. We are hired to modernize our institutions, and through the interview process we have been tested to assess whether we have the vision and experience needed to make change happen. Our institutions are seemingly aligned with our vision, but we are not able to make change happen.

Why do we "lift and shift”? Why do we fail to realize the goals we outlined when we were hired? Each of us would answer these questions differently, but as CIOs, we have tackled digital transformation using similar tools. We have argued for the same strategies: a seat at the Cabinet table and gaining “control” by centralizing all IT, decentralizing IT, or creating shared IT services and support. We have created Change Management teams to align IT and campus expectations and get everyone on campus on the same page and have everyone involved in the change process. All these strategies have some value, but we still fall short of expectations when it comes to delivering real value with digital transformation.

“I believe that through courage and an acceptance of vulnerability in support of a shared vision we can help our institutions innovate through successful digital transformations”

One of my favorite movie lines comes from a speech Michael Douglas gave in the 1995 movie, American President: “I was so busy keeping my job; I forgot to do my job”. I often wonder if the reason we are not successful in achieving digital transformation is because we give too much weight to maintaining the status quo and keeping the noise down. We are not doing our jobs supplying three essential ingredients of success: a genuinely shared vision, staying vulnerable throughout the transformation process, and having the courage to show up and act.

I know that often I lose my colleagues when I speak of having a shared vision. We are hired because of our vision, but do we and our institution know what the ultimate state after a digital transformation looks like?  Is our vision genuinely shared? Do we agree on the story we need to tell when we get there?  Do our IT teams – regardless of where they currently report – see that future state?  Does this story align with where the institution wants to go?  If the answer to these questions is yes, you do have a shared vision. That shared vision needs to be more than just a slogan the CIO recites. It needs to be both bold and inspiring and to be articulated as the benefit to the people we serve.  It needs to go beyond what we currently think or can imagine with our knowledge, tools, and approaches. It must motivate our teams to deliberately act every day to work together and create new solutions. It should also serve as the guardrail to all our IT funding allocations. 

Even with a shared vision, all the bricks in the yellow brick road to digital transformation may not be in place. Each member of the team brings one of the needed bricks, their skills, core competencies and energy, but at times, either the mortar will not be strong enough or the brick will be not fit. There must be an acceptance of vulnerability among all the participants in a digital transformation, and in your culture, to be ready for change. No one person, not even CIOs, has all the answers, and we need to be open and accepting of non-traditional or not-yet-tested ideas. We often shy away from being first to do something differently than our peers. When as CIOs we show vulnerability, we give permission for our teams to be vulnerable, and only then can the most innovative ideas be shared, conceptualized, and evaluated. We will have false starts and make mistakes trying to get there, and that is absolutely ok. That unsettling and at times scary process is how we can best bond, learn, innovate, and make real progress towards pervasive digital transformation, if we are willing to be vulnerable.

The final ingredient is courage to show up and act. The moment we start focusing time and resources on the transformation, the effort gets real to the people involved and the unwillingness-to-change culture starts popping its ugly head. You may not have signed up for this portion of the transformative journey, but this is precisely when we are called to do our jobs. Our role as CIOs become more of a standard bearer, constantly reminding our constituencies about the shared vision and how our collective actions in this journey will help impact the institution’s ability to move forward and thrive. A great deal of noise and anxiety appear. It takes great courage to show up and act in these sometimes very divisive discussions. That courage to show up and take a visible stance within our institutions can be exhausting, unpopular and lonely. Because of the tiresome nature of these efforts, we sometimes lose site of the goal and are tempted to ignore vision and instead change/dilute paths or even to give up. Success will depend on our ability to persevere and to persevere, we need courage. Courage to be visible, deliberate, and persistently show up and work with senior leaders and community members to keep moving forward. This is not easy and not for the faint of heart…. but nothing is in our roles as educational CIOs.

Bottom line… I believe that through courage and an acceptance of vulnerability in support of a shared vision we can help our institutions innovate through successful digital transformations.

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