Monday, July 30, 2012

What ConnectUGA is About

One of the more memorable experiences from earlier in my career was sitting with the Director of Human Resources at Texas A&M and hearing her recount a frustrating experience she had had with the IT director managing the University’s payroll system. She and I were talking about a project to better manage the University’s classification and employment records and she was telling me about her need for authoritative data about employees. What she got from the payroll system wasn’t quite what she wanted and certainly was less helpful than expected. When Susan asked the IT director about what some of the data meant he responded by saying “what do you want the data to mean?” And that was one of my first real lessons on why authoritative data is really, really, important.

Most in higher education can recount a similar experience when faced with an inability to get at timely, accurate, and authoritative information when it was needed. Yet, among the same group of individuals, you would never find a single one who could tell you when either they or someone they know made the conscious decision to choose not to have authoritative data. That’s because problems with data management in higher education do not happen because of commitments we make at a more conceptual level, it happens as the sum total of smaller, more isolated decisions that don’t seem to matter much by themselves, but over-time result in untenable situations where institutions are not sure how much timely and accurate data they really have and where it might be. That shortcoming is handicapping higher education at a very critical juncture in its history.

Timely, responsive, and accurate data has never been more important to institutions of higher education. When you look at the challenges institutions face collectively, as well as the challenges each institution faces uniquely, responding to them requires that decision-maker’s have the most relevant, the most timely, and the most authoritative data available to them to inform decision-making. Student information system replacement projects like the one we are now embarking on at UGA – the ConnectUGA project – at their core are really building better capacity for authoritative data.

The challenge with such projects is that it is very easy to get off track and if you are not careful you can end up on a circular path that leads you back to the same exact circumstances that you began with. That’s because technical issues tend to not be the largest drivers behind a lack of authoritative data, it is a symptom of decentralized business practices, too much decision-making by exception instead of policy, and by many times choosing specialization when best practices would have been enough. A project charter that outlines the desired outcomes of the project, the guiding principles that are associated with those outcomes, plus appropriate financial resources and an institutional commitment to stick to it are key if these projects are to avoid the circular path. We are blessed to have all of those things at the University of Georgia.

But as critical as they are, those are not the most important component. In the end, successful projects find that their work was really about people and was much less about the technology itself. The expertise, dedication, loyalty, and creativity of the individuals working on these projects are the reason they succeed. They are the most valuable and important resource that the entire institution possesses. In this regard, we are very blessed at the University of Georgia as well.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Clarity, Honesty, and Steadfastness

Don’t expect a lot of consistency if you ask CIOs who they should report to.

Is reporting to the President (or Chancellor / CEO) necessary to be effective as CIO? Some CIOs I know aspire to report to a President because of the perceived credibility and political heft that comes from reporting to the top. Others I know say that it only needs to be one of the three primary C-level executives (President, Provost, or CFO/COO) but not necessarily the President. The latter view is one that I tend to agree with. Reporting to one of the three chief executives helps to ensure that the CIO is positioned to weave IT strategy and facilitate IT operations effectively throughout the entire organization, consistent with the organization’s unique culture and the CIOs established credibility (which is probably the biggest long-term driver of CIO effectiveness).

I do believe that it is vital that CIOs have some regular face time with the President, but not just for the reasons you might think. Serving as a University President is one of the more demanding jobs that there is, and being around a good one will teach you more about leadership than you will ever find in any book. Over the past ten years I have been fortunate to have been around three of the best: Robert Gates at Texas A&M, Andrew Benton at Pepperdine, and Michael Adams at the University of Georgia. My time with them has taught me three important things about leadership that are vital to being effective as a CIO.
  • Clarity matters. Good leaders are ones who can communicate a vision, strategy, and set of goals in clear and concise terms that let each and every employee know their role and responsibility in supporting the effort. When doing so leaders find it much easier to quickly change the strategic direction of any organization whether large or small. In our fast changing world being a change agent is a regular part of a CIO's job.
  • Honesty is expected. IT is a critical function for any organization and IT operations are many times fraught with difficulty and risks. In communicating about challenges, opportunities, and risks, the glass is never half-empty or half-full; there are only facts and honest appraisals of those facts. Learning how to sit one-on-one with a President and have a frank conversation – whether it is about discussing risks or delivering bad news – is a rite of passage for every CIO.
  • Steadfastness is required. Exercising leadership is about creating context by convening conversations about mission, strategy, and goals, collecting data and accepting the wisdom of others, making decisions, and then sticking with them – even when they prove to be unpopular. Effective leaders strive for consensus without insisting on it, while not being stubborn or inflexible. A good CIO knows how to do both.    
All CIOs finds themselves faced with challenges that require clarity, honesty, and steadfastness. Being around a campus President is one of the best ways to learn how to exercise leadership over large organizations, and these traits matter. Developing them is crucial for any CIO who desires to sit at the executive table or keep their seat once they have earned it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dysfunctional Politics?

Last week Gail and I watched a PBS documentary on Harry Truman and found the parallels between the presidential election of 1948 and the current election striking. Anytime you turn on the news you can’t get away from media attention on our supposed dysfunctional government and the inability of our political leaders to compromise. Is today’s political dysfunction unique in our history? Not really, it’s par for the course.
  • Go back to the presidential election of 1984, the rancor then over tax policy and federal deficits sounds eerily familiar to what we hear on the presidential campaign trail today.
  • The relationship between the president and congress in 1948 parallels what is happening in Washington today. Issues such as the proper role of government and the question of free enterprise vs. government overreach were as key then as they are now.
While compromise remains critical to our collective history, political compromise at the federal level seems to happen more often during narrow windows of opportunity either before or after elections. Beyond that both parties tend to stay in their corners, hardening their differences and waiting for the next election to settle them.

If you are interested in some historical perspective on the nature of political division in the United States, pick up a copy of Ed Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign. Gail and I got to know Ed while at Pepperdine University and this book will reveal that both partisan rancor and nasty, personal politics are a part of our country’s DNA. Later this year John Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power promises to shed some light on the origins of current debates on freedom, economic vibrancy, and the role of the state.