Leading during Times of Exponential Change

By Curtis A. Carver, VP & CIO, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Curtis A. Carver, VP & CIO, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

We live during a period of rapid change—a time of exponential innovation. To put this in perspective, consider the following. A week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century. In 2006, there were 2.7 billion Google searches every month. Today, there are 3.1 billion every day. By 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet. For those readers who see life as a journey, if you take 30 steps linearly, you walk across the room. If you take 30 steps exponentially, you walk to the moon. Or, if you are a pessimist, during exponential times, if you improve your performance incrementally, you are falling behind the competition exponentially. This applies to all knowledge-based industries and higher education is no exception. Here, I am exploring this premise from the perspective of higher education with a focus on how to lead organizations during times of exponential change.

"To create value within an organization, you have to either grow revenue, realize cost efficiency, or create process innovation"

As Bob Dylan opined, “the times they are a-changing” and higher education is no exception. When I was hired in 2009 as the Vice Chancellor and CIO for state university system, we had 36 universities and colleges. When I left in 2015, there were 29. In December 2016, the chancellor announced board review of a plan to move to 26. In less than ten years, the state university system lost a third of its institutions. Did its enrollment drop? Nope—it grew. Did productivity and research revenues drop? No—they grew as well. The problem is the competition grew faster and to remain competitive, the state had to consolidate institutions to enhance student education by making students the center of the conversation and not university presidents and their administrative staffs. During the same time, the state system deployed a new learning management system, created 160,000 new courses and more than 40 petabytes of new course material. In 2009, there was a meaningful difference between traditional and online classes. Today, the lines are more blurred as almost every class has an online component and presence in the learning management system. Other examples abound. Adaptive testing, adaptive learning, intelligent agents, automated transfer articulation, micro-credentialing, and predictive analytics are not fringe discussions anymore but under active implementation and refinement around the country as part of a higher education digital transformation. Given that the times are changing in higher education, what does this mean for technology leaders in higher education?

Perhaps most importantly, the pace of change will never be as slow as it is today. The pace of change is not slowing down—it is accelerating. This has significant implications. Technology leaders must relentlessly automate and self-service everything. When I started in my current role as a university CIO 18 months ago, 90 percent of helpdesk calls at my institution were password resets. By making this self-service, I made customers a lot happier and created capacity to add value to the organization. Our next most popular request was software download. We automated that process so that it is self-service in the majority of cases. We are working on the 15 percent of calls that are misdirected to the campus helpdesk when they should be going to the hospital helpdesk. Document, template, optimize, automate everything you can so that you create the necessary capacity in people, time, money, and space to deal with the increased pace and customer expectations of tomorrow. This is not a small team within your organization. Everyone in the IT operation has to be actively involved.

To create value within an organization, you have to either grow revenue, realize cost efficiency, or create process innovation. This applies to higher education just like other fields. Technology leaders create value through bi-modal or tri-modal operations focusing on cost efficiency, innovation, and agility if you are tri-modal. If you are unimodal and that mode is cost efficiency, you are on the fast track to being marginalized and outsourced via the cloud. This is important because each of these modes generate very different cultures within your IT organization that have to be managed and led. For example, those folks working on mobile apps with a 90-day life before replacement have very different ideas about change management than folks working on cost efficiency and innovation. Do not underestimate how difficult this balancing act is between cost efficiency, innovation, and agility and leading an organization trying to do all three at the same time. Ok, I got it. Leading is hard. So how do you create value during a time of exponential change?

Creating value during a time of exponential change starts with hiring A+ team members and not accepting anything less. It is better to have a failed search than to hire someone who lacks the technical aptitude, emotional maturity, alignment and fit to thrive with the team. Three out of four attributes is not enough and any verb other than thrive does not work. Sometimes you can develop A+ players and sometimes the only way to change a team member’s mind is to change the team member. I have come to accept 10-20 percent vacancy rates in the organization until I get the right team members. Once I get the right team members, the vacancy rate has fallen to a sustainable 4 percent.

Once you have the right folks on the team, you must instill a culture of the relentless pursuit of systemic excellence. This means everyone is constantly optimizing processes, creating self-help for users or other team members, and generally creating capacity for new work. If you accept today is the slowest day you will ever have, creating capacity for new work across the enterprise is foundational for success. It creates a culture of innovation through the belief that everyone is an agent of innovation and everyone can change the world. In my first year in my current role, I promised 100 wins—100 improvements how our faculty, researchers, and students learned and changed the world. Our team delivered 147 wins and the community hosted a surprise party to thank central IT. We are now working on the next 100 wins for our customers.

To maintain this pace, influence and co-authorship, not control, are key to leading effectively during times of exponential change. The days of, from heights so ever-high, controlling all aspects of institutional technology are gone through a combination of factors including consumerization, shadow IT, and dramatic shifts in the environment from eras of scarcity to eras of abundance with core technologies. Leaders who try to control innovation become the bottleneck to innovation. Leaders set the vision and intent of the organization and the agents of innovation within the team act to envision how to achieve that vision and intent and then constantly enhance it. Co-authorship and partnership become the norm. Done correctly, you empower greatness in others and create an IT organization that prospers during times of exponential change.

In conclusion, higher education is going through a period of rapid transformation and exponential change. Leading technology organizations in higher education requires building the right team, leading it effectively, and balancing cost efficiency, innovation, and agility. Partnership and co-authorship are central to innovation and change. Everyday must be a relentless pursuit to create capacity. Done correctly, higher education technology leaders can help educate and inspire the next generation of leaders and change the world.