Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ageism in a period of very low unemployment?

The past two years have been a real education for me. I left my position as a CIO after working in higher education for over 30 years. I had no intention of retiring, and still don’t, but soon found that finding another opportunity at 60 is almost impossible. After talking with colleagues my age, I found that all felt that they had encountered ageism in their own search for full-time, part-time, or consulting work. All of the people in my straw poll are highly qualified, very experienced, professionals. They have had long and successful careers and are usually highly educated. Why in a period of 4.2% unemployment and a booming economy are we seeing that most companies and organizations are not seeking out this treasure trove of experience? All of the older professionals I have talked with are interested in working, have flexible schedules, and are willing to negotiate on compensation. Some don’t need health care or other traditional benefits.

I have an idea why there is resistance. Some may believe that older workers will not be committed or will not be around for the long term or are not technologically savvy. This is less true than ever. Keep in mind that younger employees often move on to the next opportunity when something looks a bit better. In our society people can expect to live until their 80’s and be fit to work in many fields until at least 70. Organizations need to wake up and realize that older professionals are exactly what they need and can afford. Stereotypes are bad for everyone.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Selling Digital Transformation

As I write this title I wonder if digital transformation can be sold or even understood. Sales professionals and consultants can paint a picture with the term, but will the customer be sold? I would suggest that most CIOs would be strong advocates for change and digital transformation, at least as they define it. Therein lies the problem. What is digital transformation? It is usually described as a change in culture within the organization that everyone buys into that can position the organization to provide greater efficiency, better customer service, perhaps lower operating costs, and a platform for innovation and growth. It centers on the adoption of strategically selected technologies to create a better organization. For some entities this might mean eliminating paper processes or providing smooth workflows to save time, cost, and effort, as an initial step. For others it could mean enhancing customer service, raising productivity or improving the supply chain with a cloud ERP system. In all, digital transformation is a commitment to improve performance in all areas using technology.

I take the position that CIOs and consultants should use the term digital transformation only when talking to CEOs and they should be quick to provide a definition that hits the pain points of the particular organization. Digital transformation is a buzz phrase that has multiple meanings, yet we see it in every technology blog and IT article. Digital transformation puts a label on a goal. Unfortunately it is not meaningful to the average person. It belongs in a the strategic plan and the elevator speech of any CIO these days, but when discussing this type of change with functional users or other executives it should be coupled with 3-4 significant projects that result in significant change and improve the organization. These projects should provide the groundwork for changes down the line. I say 3-4 projects because this is probably the maximum amount of change an organization can deal with in one conversation. Managing change and setting goals must be done in manageable bites. Include enough ideas to whet the appetite, but make sure the goals are not overwhelming.

As we prepare for the next decade institutions/organizations need to take a hard look at what they want to become and how they want to operate. They need to consider their goals and their competition. What will it take to remain successful? What kind of organization do we want to and need to become? How do we want to present ourselves to the market? What changes do we need to put in place to enable us to be agile and poised for additional change? Digital transformation is the process that leads to agility and better performance, but it needs to be presented as a series of strategic steps within a larger context.

The New Higher Education CIO
After serving in a number of roles in higher education, including 16 years as a Chief Information Officer, some of what I have been thinking about and reading in articles and job ads lately about the new CIO has been affirmed. Recent articles talk about the CIO needing to be a communicator, a consensus builder, a visionary, and someone who provides solutions, not just technology. Of course to provide solutions the CIO needs to understand the business or institution in the higher education world. Understanding means mentally sitting on the academic and business side of the desk and understanding what the institutions are and will be. This seems to be an affirmation of the obvious, but it’s not so true on many campuses.

Over the past two years I have talked to CIOs, academic leaders, higher education business professionals and vendors about technology and higher education in a period of great change. Some have said this is nothing new. IT has been bringing on new technologies for the past 15 years. This is true as campuses have implemented web ERP systems, SMART classrooms, installed wireless networks everywhere, and most recently started to work on student success initiatives. Student success projects have been collaborative with other parts of the campus and have been largely driven from the top. As a result, everybody works on this. These recent initiatives provide a glimpse of how information technology (IT) should work. I would suggest that many CIOs are still techies who do not understand higher education and have been focusing primarily on ERP upgrades, computer refreshes, firewall placement, security, and internet capacity and up-time. As a result, IT is often seen as outside the loop of higher education and not connecting well with what really needs to be done on campus.

This sounds harsh and unappreciative, but ask a provost, CFO or registrar what they think of IT on their campus. Having read job advertisements for dozens of CIO positions in the past two years, I can tell you that the most often seen “must haves” are that the new CIO “needs to be an effective communicator and accomplished innovator”. This implies that the last CIO was probably not an effective communicator and was not particularly innovative. In other words, the last CIO did not get higher education and was focused too much on providing ubiquitous (often unnoticed and underappreciated) infrastructure. I have no intention of bashing CIOs or IT teams. They provide incredibly valuable services and often do so with limited staffing and funding. That said the new CIO needs to be something different. They can’t view the next need from the faculty or a user department as “just another project that I don’t have time for”.

The new CIO needs to either come from outside of IT or be an IT person with the passion for providing service and technology that advances the mission of the college/university. A person with only an IT background needs to get out on campus as often as possible and participate in campus life and sit with administrative and academic department heads regularly to understand their biggest pain points and that next regulatory requirement. A CIO does not have endless resources, but they need to become a broker for the resources they do have. Where can time, energy, and money be utilized to benefit the institution? Can partnerships be formed within the college to meet a need or initiative that advances the campus? I think campuses are looking for the new CIO to be their partner, not a gatekeeper or solely and infrastructure provider. IT cannot be all things to all people, but with much better communication and openness to meaningful innovation they can hit the moving target a bit closer to the center.