Bob Johnson, CIO/ VP, Student and Information Services, Rhodes College
Seeking the Benefits of Cloud
In addition to teaching and research, the Education Industry has grafted on healthcare and psychological counseling, hospitality and entertainment services, sports management, career planning and placement, and retail operations. All of these serve an important purpose but take the industry away from its core competency and relevance. For some of these functions, the industry has been successful in finding partners, vendors, and outsourcing agents, and it is demanding the same or more from IT. For these reasons, the benefits that the Education Industry seeks from the cloud are those that all other industries seek, namely, (1) shedding tasks that we cannot do as well as others for the same price, (2) devoting our attention to things we can do better than others for the price, and (3) adding value and relevance at the right price. The role of the CIO is to ensure that the right elements are appropriately assigned to the cloud for the benefit of the institution’s core competency.
"The biggest changes in the CIO’s role involve being torn between a risk-averse industry and a rapidly changing and aggressively demanding market"
Consolidating Data to Drive Business
The chief problems are those of maintaining institutional focus and attention span. The business is usually decentralized in governance, interests, and politics, making the task of using information to drive the business a problematic proposition from the start. Whose information, what information, and what constitutes the business are matters that are negotiated constantly and only occasionally successfully. In fact, outside of the unity of fans for a major college football team, most institutions are at best loose confederations of interests and agendas. Even at a smaller institution, like Rhodes College, it is easier to consolidate and integrate information than it is to use it to drive the business, making the CIO role one that requires political insight and delicate diplomacy.
A Step Forward to Achieve Growth
Colleges and universities are notoriously tradition-bound and risk-averse. Additionally, most institutions are precipitously and perpetually close to negative returns and are paralyzed by the risks they cannot avoid. The industry and its member institutions need to learn from companies and entire industries that have stared into the face of extinction and found their way through. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb promotes the “barbell strategy” of placing the most weight on nearly risk-free investments while retaining a minor portion that can benefit from market volatility. ServiceMaster has recently announced its intention to follow a similar path, devoting significant square footage, personnel, and money to ensuring itself against disruption and displacement Colleges and universities would do well to follow this lead. Thomas Gieselmann, Co-founder and General Partner of e.ventures, describes his company’s approach portfolio management as making numerous small investments, expecting most to fail and one or two to cover all the other losses and then some. While many colleges and universities are promoting entrepreneurism, some are benefiting from the revenue stream created by it, few are turning those efforts into R&D for the institution narrowly or the industry broadly.
Revolving CIOs Role around the Changing Business Environment
The biggest changes in the CIO’s role involve being torn between a risk-averse industry and a rapidly changing and aggressively demanding market. Think your industry has issues with Millennials? Colleges and universities have been working with them and their parents for years and now face their younger siblings, who are even more demanding of the institution and its support services. We don’t deal with BYOD. We deal more broadly with BYOE (environment) or BYOE (ecosystem). Standards are in constant conflict with user autonomy, and departure from standards and even the idea of them is costly. In the last couple of years, the cost of that autonomy has risen. For the Education Industry CIOs, the growing distance between the customers’ and the employees’ demands is real and daunting.
Initiatives for Business Transformation
We have had to find ways to extend our capacity, particularly to multiply the human resources at our disposal. Drawing upon parents, community partners, employers, alumni, and, especially upon students has become mandatory to the survival of the industry, and Rhodes has been on the vanguard of these shifts. Using CRM-based online communities to take our faculty and staff out of the middle of every interaction has been necessary for rapid scaling of our services and attention. Unlike most industries, education has to turn its customers into partners and providers in order to simultaneously meet the challenges of cost and value and to remain relevant.
Improvements in the Area of Infrastructure Investment
No business enjoys paying for infrastructure improvement, especially colleges and universities, but the prevalence of digital content and mobile devices require that institutions stay on top of wireless networking most of all. The hardest part of the job is providing secure, wireless connectivity for many users in constantly shifting roles using numerous consumer devices. When a college or university is predominately residential, can count close to ten devices per resident, and must mix both residential or consumer connectivity with enterprise and educational security, the compromises are temporary, difficult, and far from perfect.
Most institutions have yet to make the Internet of Things change campus life and learning as they would like, but that has not stopped faculty, staff, and especially students from trying anything and everything they can think of. The users never wait on us. They find their own solutions, and we work to catch up.