Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hiding in Splendid Isolation

She was hard to understand at first. Over the phone I heard sobbing, a stream of tangled words, and sirens. After she calmed down, she told me all about the accident. I tried my best to get the details and assure her that we could take care of her and her car. This was my first taste of being on a help desk at an insurance company. I was taking a real call from a real customer, and I was expected to solve real insurance business issues. The CEO wanted everyone to have some exposure to the front-lines of the business, and as an IT guy this was a visceral real world experience. This simple exercise taught me a lot about the insurance business very quickly.

During the development of Windows NT Microsoft used the expression “eat your own dog food”. Once the operating system was sufficiently developed, all the NT designers and coders were expected to use it on their own development machine. What better way to expose real bugs than by making you use your own tools? If you work for Ford, you should drive a Ford and you will get first hand experience with the products you make and service.

Several years ago I worked for the President of a credit card bank whose office was right in front of noisiest place in the whole company – the call centre. I never knew what volume level to expect from the neighboring cavern of helpful voices, and after a number of meetings in his office I asked him why he chose to have office so close to such apparent chaos. His answer was clear and simple, “I have a direct ear to the business, and I know exactly when something happens. I know when business is good and when it’s bad just by gauging the volume of chatter.”

That philosophy has followed me over the years, and begs the question of why do CIOs and senior IT leaders seem to quarantine themselves from their customers? Hiding in splendid isolation behind barriers of technology they don’t experience their own services, nor do they vicariously live as one of their customers. It’s too easy for CIO’s and senior IT leaders to focus on operating technology without ever having to use the tools their departments build and maintain. Excuses include, “I’m too busy”, “that’s for my staff to worry about”, or the worst, “I’m not a customer, so why would I use our products?”

If you’re a CIO or senior leader you can’t afford to be too busy to learn about your customers. Get out of your office and spend time with real customers and ask them about their experiences with your systems. No staff in the world are responsible for your learning – you need to be personally engaged with your customers to really know and understand the purpose of your job. Finally, I would argue that there is always a way to use your products. The best CIOs and senior IT leaders I know in higher education have worked towards degrees, performed research projects, or taught courses at their institution at some point in their career.

At Simon Fraser University we were experiencing significant problems with technology in a particularly large classroom. After talking to the prof I was invited to come and listen directly to the students’ concerns. I spent a few minutes explaining the core problem and addressed any questions related to the issue. They were appreciative of the conversation and since we had some time left over I opened up the discussion to any other comments they had about our systems. Suddenly I felt like I had opened up a floodgate – from registration issues to booking advisors they had a seemingly infinite number of concerns. That day I became the student and it may have been the most valuable classroom learning experience I’ve ever had.

For some CIOs, spending time with their customers may seem like an inefficient use of their time. They may feel any issues or concerns could be dealt with via email or Twitter. But without real world exposure to your customers’ dreams and aspirations, you run the risk of losing touch with the core value proposition of IT. So get out from behind your desk and your devices, talk to your customers, and eat your own dog food.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

IT Projects are Innovation Investments

Sometimes as a CIO I feel like Bill Murray’s character Phil in the movie Groundhog Day. Every few years I seem to wake up and do the same project all over again. But the good news is that I am seeing the project with a different perspective each time, and hopefully learning more each time.

For example, over 20 years ago I ran an email and calendaring system replacement project. We moved an entire insurance company from a mainframe email system to a bright and shiny new client/server email and calendaring system. Everybody believed it was an IT project. The shift from the big clunky green screen terminals to PCs with a graphical user interface was a big technology shock for the whole company. We all viewed the project as a massive technology change, so of course we simply labelled the project as an IT project. The business case to justify the change focused almost entirely on the how the new technology would improve the efficiency of the company.

Fast forward a decade and as a CIO I upgraded a large research university to new email system. This time the change had a somewhat different focus. Although the change brought a vastly new technology into use, the project also had to focus on how to change a culture with firmly rooted processes in existing systems. The calendaring component of email was such an integral component of everyone’s workflow that socializing the innovation became just as important as the technology. Our business case emphasized the need to help people through the dramatic process changes invoked by the new technology.

Another decade later and I’m the CIO at an even larger institution and I find myself championing the move towards a new email system. But this time the business case is intensely different. We are not debating the merits of particular technologies because that’s a well understood activity. Nor are we concerned with how to socialize the new innovation because that’s also a well worn path. The debate now focuses on the strategic impact of the project on our organization. Today we are concerned about ethical issues arising from where our data should reside.

This evolutionary path requires a different kind of business case that addresses much more fundamental questions.
  • Is it safer to keep data on your own premises where you can keep a watchful eye on it? 
  • Can a behemoth IT services company afford to provide better security than your local IT department? 
  • Are the people who are going to use a new system comfortable with their data residing in a potentially foreign jurisdiction? 
  • Will the users of a new system be fully cognizant of what could happen to their personal information in world where data flows are borderless? 

These are not technology questions.

The fundamental nature of how organizations view IT projects has transformed. Culturally, organizations are so familiar with technology change that it is not nearly as dramatic as it once was. The traditional technology components have faded so far into the background that we can no longer use the traditional IT model. When even a simple email upgrade becomes a strategic decision, we need to think differently about all IT projects. Organizations must view IT projects as innovation investments where their business cases provide answers to far more strategic demands.

Much like Bill Murray’s Phil from Groundhog Day, I’m getting better every time I wake up with the same project. On the morning I wake up and the radio is finally playing a different song, I’m sure we will be replacing email with global telepathic interconnectivity … and that will be a fun project.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

SFU and the EDUCAUSE 2017 Top 10 Issues

Every year EDUCAUSE publishes the top 10 issues in higher education IT. I look forward to reading the list each year because it is an excellent gauge of how we fare compared to the industry at large. The top 10 helps us understand the key trends in IT for our industry, guides our planning about where we may need to invest, and provides us with confirmation about where we are already allocating resources.

Here is this year’s list:

  1. Information Security: Developing a holistic, agile approach to reduce institutional exposure to information security threats
  2. Student Success and Completion: Effectively applying data and predictive analytics to improve student success and completion
  3. Data-Informed Decision Making: Ensuring that business intelligence, reporting, and analytics are relevant, convenient, and used by administrators, faculty, and students
  4. Strategic Leadership: Repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as a strategic partner with institutional leadership
  5. Sustainable Funding: Developing IT funding models that sustain core services, support innovation, and facilitate growth
  6. Data Management and Governance: Improving the management of institutional data through data standards, integration, protection, and governance
  7. Higher Education Affordability: Prioritizing IT investments and resources in the context of increasing demand and limited resources
  8. Sustainable Staffing: Ensuring adequate staffing capacity and staff retention as budgets shrink or remain flat and as external competition grows
  9. Next-Gen Enterprise IT: Developing and implementing enterprise IT applications, architectures, and sourcing strategies to achieve agility, scalability, cost-effectiveness, and effective analytics
  10. Digital Transformation of Learning: Collaborating with faculty and academic leadership to apply technology to teaching and learning in ways that reflect innovations in pedagogy and the institutional mission

From Simon Fraser University’s information systems perspective, I have some observations about how these top 10 issues relate to several of our key initiatives.

  • The #1 issue is Information Security. Given the serious breaches at the University of Calgary and Carleton University within the past few months, it is clear that Canadian universities are not alone in our concerns about security. Our efforts at SFU in this area are being led by the cross-functional, cross-departmental Security Council. They have introduced a number of changes and will continue to improve our security posture. 
  • Three of the top 10 issues are data related. Using data and predictive analytics to improve student success (#2), focusing on using data management and business intelligence tools to improve decision-making (#3), and improving data management (#6). All three of these issues are being addressed by our Enterprise Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence project. The scope of this project includes the development of a comprehensive data model and data warehouse to support our analytics requirements, the implementation of tools to leverage the integrated data, and the development of the appropriate data governance and data access policies to ensure the success of the new systems.
  • The concept of providing strategic IT leadership (#4) to the institution is the foundation of our Vision for One I.S. Full realization and implementation of this vision is currently under development through our information systems strategic planning exercise.
  • The creation of the new IT Fund in the 2017-2018 fiscal year is essential to the development of an IT funding model that will enhance innovation and facilitate growth (#5). Similarly, this new fund will help us with ensuring adequate funding for the staffing of projects needed to proactively respond to expanding demands for information systems across the campus (#8).
  • Optimizing IT to ensure our stakeholders get the most value for their investment (#7) is being discussed across SFU. We are currently in the process of creating a new model for prioritizing demands for administrative systems resources. The Administrative Systems Priority Setting Committees have been restructured and these new committees will launch soon. In conjunction with this change we are introducing a project scorecard and prioritization model that will create a more systemic, consistent, and transparent approach to ranking information systems investments and allocating our resources.
  • Our new an Enterprise Architect position is expected help us define our current information systems architecture and map out the path to the future next generation enterprise IT model (#9). This is a visionary role requiring close integration of data, process, and technology.
  • Our Educational Systems Stewardship Committee (ESSC) regularly discusses the many and varied issues related to the digital transformation of learning (#10). These are complex discussions blending pedagogical and technological challenges together. 

Clearly we have a lot of work to do, but the good news is that SFU information systems initiatives are addressing key higher education industry trends. We are allocating our resources and investing our funds in the right places, and I’m excited about our future.