How To Get Institution-Wide Buy-In for Major Changes
The following interview is with Jack Suess, chief information officer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Suess is a leader in the postsecondary technology space, and has developed and expanded the REX data management system in an effort to make UMBC more efficient and data driven. In this interview, he reflects on that experience and shares tips for other postsecondary leaders looking to launch efficiency-related projects on their own campuses.
1. Why are today’s higher education leaders trying to find ways to become more efficient?
The recession that started five years ago put intense cost pressures on most institutions. If you’re a private institution, you’re dealing with the fact your institution has, more than likely, had to increase the discount rate it gives on tuition. If you’re a state institution, you’ve probably seen you’ve had either declining state revenues or you’ve had to increase tuition to offset some of the declining state revenues. In both cases, what we’ve seen is there’s an intense cost pressure that’s been applied to higher ed.
Students are facing a college affordability crisis and the debt students are taking on has been increasing quite a bit. As a result, we can’t keep going back and saying the solution is more resources and we’ll increase tuition to be able to generate those. As a result, universities are having to look for ways they can both do things better and more cost effectively.
2. What are some of the biggest challenges executives face when it comes to launching efficiency-creating projects?
All projects are ones that end up requiring both a shared vision and goals that people understand are going to be delivered and when they can be delivered. As you begin to think about these plans for moving your institution to becoming a more data-driven institution, it’s not a single project but it’s a way of being that you have to think about; it’s a changing of the culture.
3. A lot of these efficiency-creating projects are coming out of IT shops. Are there any particular hurdles IT leaders may face when trying to develop these kinds of projects or trying to move forward with major efficiency-related changes?
While everyone appreciates the role technology can play in an institution, and that technology is going to be important for organizations moving forward, there isn’t always a shared vision.
I often look at the aftermath of the implementation of Enterprise Resource Planning systems we did the late 90s and early 2000s. We often touted that those systems were going to greatly improve business processes — they were going to offer new reporting functionality, they would enable the institution to do things that it never would have been able to do. While in many instances it delivered on some of those promises, it was overpromised as to what the benefits would be across of all of those systems. As a result, IT has a credibility problem when it begins to talk to stakeholders around big projects that are going to offer potentially large benefits.
That’s one area where IT leaders have to be making sure they’re talking with their peers at the executive table, that everyone understands what can be delivered, what is also going to be needed in the functional units.
4. How important is it in the modern age to be able to deliver highest common denominator solutions that meet both the infrastructural needs of the institution and the unique needs of specific units?
In a way, ERP systems often had great benefits — they did improve business processes — but what they ended up doing was constraining organizations in how they think.
You were locked into the thinking that was taking place around your ERP vendor. Or, [alternatively], you brought in an ERP package and made so many modifications you couldn’t keep it updated so you had to focus all of your resources on the maintenance and upkeep of that particular system.
One of the key things IT leaders have to be thinking about is how they redistribute resources within their environment to be focusing on the kinds of activities — like data-driven decision making and data analytics — that can really drive institutional success in a way that just doing the transactions isn’t going to get you.
5. What can leaders do to overcome these obstacles and convince staff of the value of efficiency-related changes?
One of the key things that’s going to drive data-driven decision making is when you have a big goal and a big vision within your institution. As IT leaders, what we need to be doing is understanding our institutional context and talking about how this data-driven decision making can lead to supporting the really big institutional goals many institutions want to have.
Whether that’s in building faculty research, in student success, in rethinking teaching and learning through learning analytics, data is going to be essential if you’re going to do things differently.
6. What are some of the misconceptions/misunderstandings about data-driven decision making that’s making it such a flashpoint?
Universities tend to be organizations that change at a slow rate. You have to be thinking about cultural change when you want to introduce new, big ideas. That cultural change is one that’s built on the fact that faculty and other departments trust central IT to deliver valued services, that they believe central IT is competent and capable. First and foremost, you’ve got to be able to make the trains run on time; make sure that email works, your learning management system is there; make sure that performance of your transactional systems is adequate.
From the IT side, one of our challenges we’ve often had is we’ve focused more around what are the best tools to be using and less around what those tools are going to be used for. Often, IT organizations go off and they’ll do an RFP; they evaluate all sorts of technologies. At the end of the day, that isn’t the most important aspect. It’s about the problems you’re going to be solving.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the steps postsecondary leaders need to take to drive these efficiency-related projects forward and some of the challenges they may encounter along the way?
In terms of trying to drive these projects forward, it’s instrumental to pick an area where you have other leaders who have bought into the idea. Finding the groups that want to move in that direction, working with their leadership team, is the secret to success. When you find those groups … it’s about coming up with ways you can support them in ways that maybe you haven’t thought about.
What I love in moving to this direction, once you set up this environment, is that this is being taken and driven outside of IT. That’s when you know you’ve got a success; when something is taken ownership of by the different areas on campus and is not looked at as an IT initiative anymore, [but] a campus initiative that’s helping to change the culture.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator