A Selection of Leadership Issues for Higher Education CIOs in 2017

Jeffrey Cepull, VP for Information Resources and CIO, Philadelphia University
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As we head into a new year with new challenges and opportunities, the following list can provide a foundation for discussion, additional thought, and dialogue to best meet and exceed many of our goals in 2017 as higher education CIOs.

Know your Core Business

You may believe you work in the technology sector, but your core business is higher education. The fundamental driving force behind your decision-making should involve how your actions, suggestions, planning, and counsel impact the core business activities and the student experience on your campus. The concept of the “business” is common in the private sector, but higher education CIOs should find the approach instructive.

Be a Student of History

Consider other industries that have proven to be susceptible to massive change and transformation in recent years. Manufacturing, automotive, and health care come to mind.

What were some of the variables that impacted the demise and reinvention of those industries? What factors led to the transformation in those sectors? Facing student challenges on issues relating to affordability, student debt, mission, and demographics, will all colleges and universities survive? Could new forms of higher education, training, or workplace preparation emerge?

Instill Workplace Activities that Encourage Creative Practices Involving Mastery and “Play”

Daniel H. Pink in his book “Drive” discusses the role of building mastery and how one approach involves transforming work into play. He writes:

“Take the work of scientists. Research shows us that a lot of discoveries were made when people had more playful mind-sets. In 2010, a pair of scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for isolating a material called graphene, the thinnest, strongest, most conductive material in existence. They did this work during what they called “"Friday evening experiments,” a regularly scheduled two or three hours apart from their regular work hours when they just tested out stuff they thought was cool. They ended up making one of the greatest breakthroughs in material science in the last 50 years, basically during a physicists' recess. We need to take more of this into our classrooms. It's less loosey-goosey than it seems. Rigor and playfulness pair much more smoothly than we think they do—and that pairing can have some pretty spectacular results.”

  Automation in many forms is reshaping a host of industries and service sectors, including robots, intelligent agents 

Consider developing a framework for your team to set aside time to focus on “cool stuff”. Allocate some time for this type of deep dive into the experimentation pool. And be patient—some team members won’t initially feel comfortable with the notion of spending time with their co-workers that is not directed toward a specific work project, but the outcome is great. This type of activity can lead to mastery and application of that “cool stuff” in ways that might not have otherwise emerged.

Measure and Reward Collaboration and Team Success

How do We evaluate success or failure on individual performance, the antithesis of successful collaboration and cooperation. A recent article in Harvard Business Review by Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, “The Problem with Rewarding Individual Performers,” highlights the challenges of breaking this norm:

“Although leaders are concerned with collective success, most organizations—from sports teams to universities to global companies—still focus on rewarding individual performance. The majority of Fortune 500 companies reward the most productive individuals, not the most effective groups or indispensable group members. We believe that leaders at these organizations are overlooking something fundamental about human nature—our tribalism.

The article provides several steps that leaders can take to develop a solid group identity. While this is a significant departure and represents a shift for many of our workplace environments, it more accurately represents the way in which most teams should operate.

Study Automation in All Forms and In All Sectors and Be Open to Its Potential

Automation in many forms is reshaping a host of industries and service sectors, including robots, intelligent agents, or self-directed experiences lead by AI machines. A 2013 Oxford study forecasted that as many as 47 percent of today’s jobs will be automated by 2034. Analyze automation, understand its value, and find opportunities to leverage it in your organization. Automation is a key component of digital transformation and note how it can alter your organization and impact the future of work.

Explore and Employ Design Thinking

Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO provides one of the best definitions of design thinking:

“Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

This approach is generally not problem-focused, rather it’s solution focused and action oriented towards creating a preferred result. Design thinking draws upon logic, imagination, research, intuition, brainstorming, prototyping, iteration, and systemic reasoning, to explore possibilities of what could be—and to create desired outcomes that benefit the client, customer, student, etc. This approach can be used to resolve problems beyond the design disciplines—in the business, social, or education sectors. The impact of design thinking on work environments is building momentum and a trend has emerged, the employee experience (EX). Extending that notion to academia and the classroom, a case could certainly be made for the student experience (SX) in the learning or instructional space. Classroom, studio, lab, and study space design in new construction or a renovation could benefit from a design thinking methodology. This is only one potential application; there are likely many others in your organization.

Engage and Participate with Professionals in Other Industries

Those of us in higher education are fortunate to work in a profession in which the sharing of ideas, solutions, successes, and mistakes is readily embraced and practiced. The benefits and rewards of this approach are invaluable. But is it possible to find a similar level of candor and debate surrounding the challenges of an ever-changing technology environment in the private sector? Across the U.S., there are associations bringing together individuals from the private sector, the start-up community, the technology sector, and higher education for purposes of sharing ideas, finding talent, or solving common problems. These organizations often provide a platform for valuable dialogue and exchange, providing tremendously valuable insights into the challenges and pain-points facing our counterparts in the private sector.

Mentor the Future Leaders on your Team

Leaders in any organization should recognize their responsibility to mentor and guide members of their team who demonstrate the aptitude, ability, and drive to lead. And it’s great when that professional path leads to a leadership role for an individual within your organization. But recognize that some of your best team members—mentored and well-guided—may find their next undertaking with another organization. Encourage your team members to seek advanced degrees, support their participation in professional development focused on leadership development, and provide them with opportunities for additional responsibilities and challenges.

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