Removing Classical IT Thinking from your Organization

We are getting better. I need to remind myself of that. I need to take a deep breath, and remind myself that we have less classical IT thinking in our organization today than yesterday, and much less yesterday than two years ago.

So what the heck is “classical IT thinking?” Essentially, it is when all or part of the IT group make decisions that protects or optimizes systems instead of the people who are using the system/service.

Student satisfaction is down, but take heart, portal usage is up!

When I arrived at Armstrong, they were in the midst of implementing a new portal. This new portal would be a one stop shop for all of our students’ needs. Sounds great, I’m on board.

You will use the portal, and you will LIKE IT!

You will use the portal, and you will LIKE IT!

However, to ensure that students would go to the portal, the only way students could check their email (we are a Google campus) was to log in to the portal. STUDENTS COULD NOT CHECK THEIR EMAIL WITH THEIR SMART PHONES. Forgive me for shouting, but c’mon, people, c’mon. First, we know that many students are abandoning email in favor of texting, and we know that they carry phones everywhere. And we want them to check their email for class information and general campus information.

Being new and given that I prefer to influence rather than mandate wherever possible, I began a Socratic process of working with the implementation team on the rationale behind this. Quickly, people realized that this wasn’t in the best interests of our students or Armstrong. The initial rationale was that we wanted the system to be successful, and this came slightly behind the success of the student. Classical IT Thinking.

But we might run out…

Before we begin, and I start scaring you, let me give you the ending: it all worked out.

We rolled out a new wireless system for our campus and increased coverage to our gorgeous green spaces and athletic fields, increased ability to handle growing device density (i.e., people connecting their iPhones, iPads, and laptops all at once), and save 30% on maintenance costs to boot!

Almost a win. So close…

Apparently, we were worried about running out of IP addresses, so we had the students have to log back in to the network. Every. Twenty. Minutes. Now, people are used to the home or Starbucks experience, where you log in and then you are good to go. We look fairly silly by not trying to duplicate this experience.

The students all perceived this as a service outage, not a normal part of wireless experience. I went on a “house calls” visit to residence halls recently, and students were up beat and happy. When I asked about wireless, their faces fell, and I began to hear the frustration.

What scarcity or resource over-consumption were we protecting against? We have a full class A range, so we have over 16 million addresses available. Let’s assume that every faculty, staff, and student has 5 devices at the peak of our enrollment and staffing levels. This would be about 45,000 ip addresses taken. Okay, lets add in a generous allowance for sensor building controls, and guests, etc. I’ll just round up to 100k. Wait, for capacity planning sake, I’ll assume that in the next three years we will match Arizona State’s 60k students with the fac/staff/buildings increasing in similar ratios. Now we are up to about 500,000 IP addresses needed.

Now I’m not a networking whiz, but some rough calculations tell me that it may be unnecessary to degrade the student wireless experience so we can keep (with grandiose plans) 15.5 million IP numbers on reserve. (Yes, I know that there are subnets and networking complexities that reduce that number; however, the main point remains that we were providing a disservice to our students over a fictional scarcity.)

Breaking the Cycle

The first step is not to blame or shame the people involved in classical IT thinking. Somehow this was engrained in their careers early on and perpetuated by the culture within IT and the institution. This is not a time for thunderous finger pointing, where people get defensive and close up, but a time where we can permanently change culture by being tough on the problem not on the people.

My first master’s was in organizational change, so we tackled this issue from that perspective rather than a technology perspective. Why was this mindset in place, and what mindset/culture did we want to be here instead?

Many IT organizations have grown up embedded under various units and have been relegated to a cost center status. IT is expensive, and it is precisely because it is so expensive that the IT leadership (not just the CIO) needs to be plugged into the what’s and why’s of campus. The IT staff thought their job was to implement the portal and have everyone use it and to ensure that the IP ranges were in no danger of being exhausted. There was little to no context of “why?” How does this affect the student experience? Does this have an impact on enrollment or retention?

What did we do?

1. Connect people to the mission of the university, which will put the IT part in context.

One of my primary goals in my first six months was to quiz my direct reports on the university’s strategic goals. What are the enrollment figures? Retention? How can IT help support all of these things? Once we began a conversation that tied them into the real reason we are here, many of the classical IT thinking traps went away. We began to have discussions about the on-boarding process for students, faculty, and staff. We can partner with HR to make the experience of becoming a Pirate (we’re the Pirates, by the way) to be a positive one. Hear that? We can influence campus culture and impact people’s first impression of the campus with the way we design, implement, and support services. That’s pretty powerful, and it engages people.

In all-staff meetings, I gave away Starbucks or iTunes gift cards to staff who knew what was going on in the university around them. We made it fun, or at least I had fun doing it, and the staff probably had some fun at my expense when I was being hokey doing it. Laughter is okay, and it can make the learning process more enjoyable (and make the learning stick better too!)

2. Continuous Improvement Approaches: Six Sigma and Design Thinking

I have seen and experienced organizations that care more about the process than the outcome, but a good continuous improvement program focuses on both.

To help with ensuring that we are managing processes, we have begun a lean six sigma program whereby all directors worked to earn their green belt and all staff will have a yellow belt by the end of 2014. We’re not likely to do the heavy statistics portion or spend the time to finely measure the before state, but knowing and thinking in terms of a value stream map or understanding forms of waste (defects, overproduction, inventory, over-processing, motion, transport/handling, and waiting) can help with re-engineering services.

However, the biggest impact that we’ve seen was an exercise in Design Thinking. I had some of my former colleagues from Miami University’s AIMS come down to give us a workshop. People generally enjoyed this much better than the lean six sigma approach (perhaps because there was no use of Minitab?). The design thinking approach starts with observation, empathy and understanding what the “customer” wants. This empathetic bond created outside of the transactional context is powerful. What do customers really want during the transactiodtn and afterwards? What elements can we design to make that happen?  By analyzing the context around the service and transaction, you get to use creativity to develop solutions. Given the relationship nature a university has with its faculty, staff, and students, we do want to create a feeling that goes with our campus experience. We want our services to be efficient, yield good results, and also create a feeling of welcome for our students, faculty, and staff.

By the way, for both six sigma and design thinking we invited staff from all over campus, and it was a great way for us to share with other service areas and develop relationships. Of particular value was that many from enrollment service areas went to both six sigma and design thinking, and we wound up collaborating to come up with some excellent improvements to our admissions and financial aid processes because of these engagements. And great relationships. Let me say that one more time: great relationships.

Wrapping it up

People want to be engaged and know their work has meaning, particularly in IT where something that is brand new and innovative may be old hat in 5 years. If we are on this cycle of churn, then helping to connect people to the institution’s mission and giving people tools will help with that engagement. And, it will help significantly reduce classical IT thinking.

Most importantly, it will help ensure that IT enables students, faculty, and staff to do their work with fewer frustrations!


Are They Students or Customers?

We’ve been debating this a bit, and I realize that this is a polarizing issue, and I know that I’m going to get someone’s hackles up about my verbiage and rationale. However, one of the great things about higher ed is that we can have discourse around nuances.

My answer is “Yes.” (How’s that for a hedge?!)


I firmly believe that in the classroom and labs, we have students who need to be pushed, stretched, and have all of those wonderful transformative experiences that is part of the educational environment. They leave our campus not only with a degree and a set of skills but also with the ability to think critically and take on that role of citizenry that we love to think about beyond our role of preparing them for careers.


In so many other areas of campus, our students are customers. Interacting with our enrollment services, in our dining halls, IT Services, our students should be treated with great customer service. It is a privilege to serve them, and if we don’t appreciate that then they have many other institutions who will take care of them. We need to compete here because we are in a competitive environment. One size fits all doesn’t work any more because our student populations represent many different needs. Who do we serve? Traditional age students (outside of Hispanic populations) are declining, first generation students, mid-career students, military students. They each have different needs and different obstacles to overcome to get (and stay!) in our classrooms as students and eventually become alumni (here’s a link to make a donation).

The Balance

We don’t enroll students because we have the world’s best IT shop or enrollment services or dining halls. If we are bad, then we can lose students because of these things and the feeling poor service culture gives a campus. However, we need to be good enough that the students can focus on the great academic programs we offer.


IT Doublespeak for the Unintiated: Complete v. Done

We’ve been working on our Enrollment Management (EM) processes here at Armstrong, and I’m delighted to say that while we are not done, we are in a much better place than a year ago. Many of the issues we faced were around processes that hadn’t been updated or questioned since they were put in place about 15 years ago. Correlated was the lack of continuing education for staff to keep abreast of current practices in EM and the technology advances.

The highs and lows of this undertaking are for another posting, but in the midst of this we’ve had some interesting conversations among president’s cabinet members. The conversations have been around when something is “done.”

Consider this conversation a process of IT and institutional maturation as we learn to be a planned and proactive institution. Also, this has been a process of learning how to engage and do things as partners rather than the unsuccessful approach of IT as short order cooks. This leads to much better satisfaction and outcomes for everyone.

In a nutshell

The crux of the discussion was that IT was calling a project complete when the functional outcome wasn’t achieved. Both are correct, and that isn’t very satsifying. To be successful, the business units and the IT units need to manage engagement and expectation.

You: Aaarg! You IT rabble are playing doublespeak again. (sigh). 

Me: At least there were no acronyms. That means we are getting better, right?

You:  (Hey! I can’t print that…this is a family oriented blog)

Over-simplified version

Complete=the technical deliverables have been met, and IT thinks that it is ready for testing by the client.

Done=the clients have tested and affirmed that the solution meets the desired outcome/specification.

Many times there is an iterative cycle before reaching “done.”

Here is a picture.

Slide1But wait, there is an analogy too.

You have taken some pants to a tailor to be hemmed. The tailor measures, and you leave with an idea of when the pants will be ready and the cost. The tailor does his thing and hems the pants. (complete)

You still need to come back and try on the pants to make sure that the work is done to your specification/satisfaction. If you never pick up the pants, the tailor has still completed the work. If you pick up the pants but never wear them, then the tailor has still completed the work.

If the new hem is too short/long, then the tailor will have to make adjustments. (Too many of these iterations and you will know you’ve got a bad tailor and won’t trust him with your pants anymore!)

If you decide you want a cuff, then that is new work and the tailor must do more work. (Too many of these new requests on the same dime, and your tailor will realize he’s got a bad client!)

Once the tailor has finished and you are satisfied with the pants, then you are both done for this engagement. (done) Enjoy your pants.

Caution: pitfalls all along the way.
1) Bad specifications=bad output.
2) Shoddy IT work=burdensome testing cycle for clients and delays in achieving outcome.
3) No client testing=outcomes not achieved and IT in a hostage situation not able to cross project off list.
4) Feature creep/nibbling for extras= this can add delays to getting to other work. It happens but should be managed through good original specifications and joint prioritization of overall portfolio of requests.
5) Finished product that works, but no one uses in favor of the old way=waste and unachieved outcomes
While 1-4 are quite common, #5 scares me most of all, which is why outside of the technical components of an implementation, the training and organizational change components must be accounted for (think Lewin: unfreeze, change, freeze).
The worst situation is to have spent resources developing something miraculous that will help out students and also the staff delivering a service only to have it not be used because you spent resources developing the technology and not the people side. Again, a topic for another post.

The Takeaway

Clearly communication plays a vital role in reducing the risk for the pitfalls mentioned, and these outcomes require joint participation throughout. Please make sure to manage engagement and expectations to get better, more satisfying, outcomes!

Congratulations! You are now initiated.


MOOCs, Disruptive Innovation, and IT at a university. (Or Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh my.)

If you’re really busy the take away is that MOOCs are probably not the dinosaur killer, but they are a great experiment to determine what might work. They are a portent of things to come in an industry that is ripe for disruption.

Are MOOCS a game changer? The real question is “What is the future of higher education?” In America? Around the world? To get around to that one should give some consideration regarding the goals of higher education. If you ask many at a university, they would probably talk about student success, learning outcomes, and perhaps a few who talk about the Aristotelian or Jeffersonian ideals that embody a liberal arts education. But, that last bit is your own fault if you find yourself asking philosophy professors philosophical questions. If you ask most students or their parents, they would talk about education as a means to a quality life with a “good” job or career, and some personal sense of fulfillment. Treble that if you’re talking to a non-traditional or mid-career person who is looking to advance their own situation and need education/credentials to do that. (Politics aside, there are more of this demographic than traditional 18-22 year old students in most markets. And they need education to meet their needs, rather than the other way around.)

One may argue that the function of higher education is to provide a few things:

1) Learning in both a classroom and experiential setting

2) Credentialing for that learning for the benefit of a third party (e.g., an employer, graduate school, etc.)

3) Expanding the scope of human knowledge and understanding

4) Connecting to an alumni network

This arrangement has worked well, more or less, for just under a thousand years. However, there are forces at play that have the potential to significantly disrupt this venerable tradition. In America since 1985, tuition has increased 500%, compared to general inflation of 121% and health care costs of 286% outpaced general inflation and health care inflation. US Students carry roughly $1.2 Trillion in debt, which is having profound effects on how young adults start their careers, start their families, and buy their first homes (Notte, 2013). Sebastian Thrun of Udacity states, “We spend approximately $400 billion annually on universities, a figure greater than the revenues of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter combined” (Chafkin, 2013). On a global level, one sees education, particularly engineering and science disciplines, not only as a means to an upper middle class life, but also as an escape from poverty.

At the same time technology has allowed us to be connected in a way that eradicates the difficulty of distance and, to some degree, time. Currently, Coursera, MITx, and Udacity are all new ventures experimenting with formulas to provide global and free access to world-class education through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Currently, 2.6% of higher education institutions have a MOOC; 9.4% are in the planning stages; 57% are undecided; and 32.7% have no plans for a MOOC. (Allen and Seaman, 2013). The general perception amongst Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) is that MOOCS are good experimental landscape for online pedagogy, but that MOOCS are not sustainable. Some of the barriers include faculty resistance (it’s a lot of work!); increased level of discipline needed for students to complete successfully; lower retention rates; and lack of credibility (Allen and Seaman, 2013). Also, from Allen and Seaman comes the fact that at the time of their research in 2013 ~6.7M students were taking an online course, which is why 69.1% of CAO’s think that, regardless of MOOCS, online learning is a key long term strategy for their institutions.

If one examines the course statistics around MOOCS, the successful completion rate is ~7%, which led Udacity founder, Sebastian Thrun to call it a “lousy product.” (Chafkin, 2013). Of course this recognition is leading Thrun to increase the quality of outcomes, not throw in the towel. One software engineering course from EPFL, a leading Swiss technical university, showed a 19% completion rate. (Miller, Haller, Rytz & Odersky, 2014). They attributed their success to innovative methods related to innovative course supporting tools (e.g., automated graders for code, etc.) and tight feedback loops between students and faculty.  A MITx study showed that collaboration between students increased the likelihood of completion as well (DeBoer, Seaton, Stump & Breslow, 2013).

One study attempted to use sentiment analysis across the discussion boards to determine if the general tone of the comments were positive or negative and what the trend was across the course schedule. The course was consistently positive, which yielded no specific results but was a novel approach that could be re-worked to ask different questions in additional studies (Koutropoulos, Gallagher, Abajian, de Waard, Hogue, Keskin & Rodriguez, 2012). This type of data mining analysis is eventually going to give up leading indicators as to what is causal to completion or abandonment. The Koutropolous, et. al. study also recognized that most in the course are “lurkers” who actively read content, but do not create content on their own. Another interesting side note from this study is that around week three of the course, the technology for the active contributors led to a sense of intimacy as evidenced by use of first names and general tonality.

One fact across multiple studies is that most of the participants already have a Bachelors or Masters degree. In the EPFL study 35% had a Bachelors, 45% had a Masters, 10% were in their undergrad, and 5% were in high school. (Miller, Haller, Rytz & Odersky, 2014). In a MITx “Circuits and Electronics” Sophomore level course that had ~150k enrollment, 1173 responded to a survey that reported 36.6% had a Bachelors, 27.87% had a Masters, and 26.68% were in high school. (DeBoer, Seaton, Stump & Breslow, 2013). The MITx study also ranked the number of enrollees by country as well as their completion rates. In order of number of enrolled students they are as follows (with % complete in parenthesis): US (5% complete); India (6.4% complete); UK (6.5% complete); Columbia (7.7% complete). Number seven in enrollees Spain was actually first in completions with 14.5% complete. There was no attribution as to why.

From the respondent to the MITx study, motivations for taking a MOOC are reported as follows: gaining knowledge (55%); personal challenge (25.58%); gain or advance employment (8.27%); entertainment (4.52%); and seeking social credibility (.43%). A very favorable use of a MOOC was as a “wrapper course” (akin to the inverted classroom model) where the lectures were delivered by the Stanford MOOC professor online outside of “class” and the local Vanderbilt professor held in-class discussion groups to apply concepts. The closer the MOOC course and the face-to-face course were in sync the higher the satisfaction (Bruff, Fisher, McEwen & Smith, 2013). This wrapper concept could be extremely disruptive over time.

Younger faculty tend to see MOOCS as a vehicle for to have an impact in that one can reach more in one semester than in a lifetime of traditional teaching. (Kellogg, 2013) Kellog also recommended some best practices from a faculty standpoint: set learning goals, make interactive, hire assistant to monitor forums, encourage collaboration, collect data to improve.

Outside of the classroom, two major obstacles exist to MOOCS: digital divide issues and path to monetization. In a study that examined K-12 students use of technology through wikis, it was determined that low income students had fewer opportunities to interact with the wikis and that the wikis faded out of use much quicker than with affluent students. There is a great danger that the promise and potential of free Web 2.0 tools will disproportionately benefit those already advantaged.” (Reich, Murnane & Willett, 2012). Similarly, Udacity’s did an experiment with a San Jose State pilot that showed them that low income wasn’t a good mix for MOOC-style learning. According to Sebastian Thrun, “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.” (Chafkin, 2013).

As to the path to monetization, right now venture capital and intellectual curiosity are keeping the MOOC phenomenon alive ($22M in external funding for Coursera). (Young, 2012). The Coursera joint ventures between the MOOC providers and established universities, the universities’ cut will be 6-15% of the revenue and 20% of the gross profit. But they are searching for other paths too. Advertising is an easy concept within the Silicon Valley startups, as is corporate sponsored education (Young 2012). For instance the $6k GA Tech Masters degree MOOC is really being underwritten by ATT as an experiment that also may lead them to some excellent talent. Coursera is actively pursuing two ideas: the concepts of having students pay for certificates for completion and serving as a matchmaker between students and employers (Lewin, 2012). They will use photo ID (from the computer) and typing pattern recognition to verify the student of record actually took the assessments. (Young, 2013).

Personal MOOC Experience

My own personal interaction with MOOCS bears out the statistics. I love learning, and the variety of excellent material out there is exciting to me. This fall I signed up for several courses based on interest. A Strategy course from UPenn business school, a big data in higher ed course, and an emotional intelligence based leadership course. All of these are fantastically interesting to me. I even paid money for a certificate for the emotional intelligence course. I know the theories that the more I commit; the more likely I am to follow through. However, in each case, I downloaded a few lectures and watched them. Very good stuff! I posted to a few discussion boards and allowed myself to be taken in by the game mechanics. In the end though, I am a ninety-three percenter because I quit. Actually, I didn’t even quit…I abandoned the course. The discussion boards were easy to navigate, the materials were easy to access, and the material was interesting to me. Part of me thinks that I am overcommitted and of the things in my life that could be set aside, the MOOCS were an easy decision. Except that there wasn’t a “decision” as it were. I just stopped logging in, and perhaps went into a little avoidance behavior. The big data course, I never even opened up after abandoning the others, despite a few consistent emails telling me about what’s happening in the course. It’s like the course doesn’t even know we broke up. Part of it for me is that it would be nice to have a master schedule that laid out what was due when across multiple courses. I got caught up in the logistics of trying to cram more things in my life, and I needed an “easy button.” This may sound incredibly self-entitled; however, this would likely have made a difference on whether or not I completed the course. For me it was about time allocation and budgeting, and the MOOC format isn’t a good one for me in that regard. I will download the content to view at my own leisure, much as I would read a book for pleasure, but the drive to have it as a “course” is low for me at this point in my life.

From the research and from personal experience, I think that the higher education vertical is in a state ripe for disruption. From a supply side and a demand side, the need for change is great, and I believe we will see this in my lifetime; however, I don’t think MOOCS are it. Again, the consensus is that MOOCS are an experimental model, rather than THE answer. Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute states,  “The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature.” (Chafkin, 2013) They are a portent of things to come, and in the startup mantra of “fail fast to succeed,” I believe that as the players iterate we will find a sustainable answer to how we educate the students of tomorrow.  Hopefully, this will come in time to relieve my family of the burden of paying for my three young children to go to college. If not though, we will find a way to get them what they need so that they can reach their fullest potential.

Implications of Disruptive Technologies

Before we get into the thick of the implications, it may be useful to talk about disruption and innovation.Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.” (Howard, 2013). There is also uncertainty with disruption and how the market will react to the disruption.  Some examples of disruptors: Netflix v Blockbuster; digital cameras v Kodak; Seiko digital watches v Swiss gear watchs; Dell low cost PC v IBM high end PC.

Many times a larger company can sense the disruption, but due to the established incumbent position—existing market share, culture, resource scarcity, etc.– it chooses to ignore while a new market is established. Essentially, they are risk averse at their own peril. (Garrison, 2009). Garrison states the following:

Larger organizations tend to become more structurally rigid, potentially constraining the ability of managers to adopt disruptive technologies. Additionally, larger organizations could possibly face greater challenges altering their existing strategy in favor of implementing a new one; not to mention the difficulty in allocating the necessary resources required to supplant existing routines and processes that support the functioning of their core competencies.”

Here is a typical cycle: disruption starts as an inferior product that attracts a different market than the incumbent, the incumbent ignores for the reasons stated above, the toe hold in the market gained by the disruptor is used to iterate and begin losing the inferior status and attract primary consumers of the incumbent (Adner, 2002). One strategy businesses use to overcome this tendency is to create a separate unit which can break free from existing corporate rigors and answer the challenge of a disruptor/competitor (Markides, 2006).

Another point that should be made is that sometime “technology disruption” is confused with “business model disruption.” In the case of Amazon, technology supported a supply chain that disrupted the business model of Barnes and Noble and brick and mortar resellers, but it truly was a business model disruption (Markides, 2006). Later, of course, technology furthered this with the Kindle to develop Amazon as an ecosystem rather than “just” a retailer. In Table 1, Markides gives examples of new v established business models.


Care should also be given to disruptions that are technologically driven rather than market driven. Technologically driven disruptions tend to be constrained by technological and market uncertainties, enter on the low end, have economic unfeasibility, and resource scarcity. On the other end, market driven disruptions typically have economic feasibility and resources can grow quickly (Habtay, 2012).

When new markets are created, there can be a flood of entrants and then a quick die off of companies. Of personal interest to me is the wearable technology sector that includes Nike, Fitbit, Jawbone, Withings, etc. The idea of a “measured me” with regard to personal fitness is appealing; however, every time I think about purchasing one of these gadgets, a new model or new entrant pops up, and I’m left waiting for the Goldilocks moment where this one is “just right.” So, while the market plays out, I sit on the sidelines. Ironically, it can sometimes be a strategic advantage to be a later entrant. Occasionally companies are so enthused by their engineering capabilities that they over engineer the product with features not wanted by the consumer that adds complexity and cost (Markides, 2006). A savvy late entrant can come in as the major “die off” happens and the emergent winner is unsure winner what to do without the major competition, and they take that path of over-engineering.

This last mover advantage could appear to be at odds with the previous statements that established incumbents are at peril by ignoring potential disruptors. The key here is actively managing the uncertainty. It is a fine thing to do the analysis and choose not to go down a path or to wait, but it is a management mistake to choose a path by not making a choice.

Personal Reflection

As I think about what disruptors are playing out in my own life, clearly as a higher education CIO, the MOOC discussion above is one that has significant relevance, but we have covered that with enough detail. The thing that could elicit worry about the future of my career is that more and more “ a service” seems to be popping up. Software as a service, Infrastructure as a service, cloud this, cloud that. At times it is hard enough to be a part of the conversation when I am directly responsible for implementing an initiative. Vendors are marketing solutions directly to the end users now, and the IT group is perhaps superfluous. The perception–and many times the reality– is that involving us just slows things down. When those things involve regulatory issues (e.g., HIPAA, FERPA, PCI, etc.), then I am happy to be the speed bump to protect the liability of the university. The other times, I want to figure out how to be faster and more nimble.

Realistically, the X. as a service model is here, and my best play is to figure a way to embrace this methodology and let go of the physical part of the portfolio and find a way to transition the value of IT away from providing the basic infrastructure for these types of services. For me the challenge is how to transition staff expertise to being business experts to help the functional areas of the university get the most out of their use of technology. We have already started a continuous improvement culture where we are looking at Six Sigma methodologies and also Design Thinking methodologies to deliver value to students. We are becoming innovators who try to help reduce waste and make our marketing and services more like an Amazon experience than a DMV experience. Perhaps it has always been the case, but it feels like we in IT are the disruptors within the university, and that our best value is learning to speak the various languages across the functional areas so that we can help translate technical possibilities and opportunities into business needs. This is both on the cost reduction (e.g., business process improvement, managed contracts, etc.) and revenue generation side (e.g., marketing and mobile services, more targeted recruitment practices, better data around student retention, etc.)

As we disrupt, we also need to be mindful of our role in the organizational change process. If we do not implement well, or take in to account the human elements, then we are setting up for failure and even more resistance to new ideas in the future. If we can marry the opportunities of technological innovation and disruption with a human centered approach to make the transition to those opportunities more effective, then I believe we can successfully help guide the university through the challenges it inevitably faces over the next few decades.


Adner, R. (2002). When are technologies disruptive? a demand-based view of the emergence of competition. Strategic Management Journal, 23(8), 667–688. doi:10.1002/smj.246

Allen, E., & Seaman, J. Sloan Consortium, Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson Foundation, (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the united states. Retrieved from Sloan Consortium website:

Bruff, D., Fisher, D., McEwen, K., & Smith, B. (2013). Wrapping a mooc: Student perceptions of an experiment in blended learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), Retrieved from

Chafkin, M. (2013, 11 14). Udacit’ys sebastian thrun, godfather of free online education, changes course Fast Company, (181), Retrieved from

DeBoer, J., Seaton, D., Stump, G., & Breslow, L. (2013, 6). In Richard Larson (Chair). Diversity in mooc students’ backgrounds and behaviors in relationship to performance in 6.002x. Presentation delivered at MIT-managed international initiative Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) Learning international networks consortium, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved from ’13.pdf

Garrison, G. (2009). An assessment of organizational size and sense and response capability on the early adoption of disruptive technology. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 444–449. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.10.007

Habtay, S. R. (2012). A Firm-Level Analysis on the Relative Difference between Technology-Driven and Market-Driven Disruptive Business Model Innovations. Creativity and Innovation Management, 21(3), 290–303. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8691.2012.00628.x

Howard, C. (2013, 3 27). Disruption vs. innovation: What’s the difference?. Forbes, Retrieved from

Kellogg, S. (2013). Online learning: How to make a mooc. Nature, 499, 369-371. doi: 10.1038/nj7458-369a

Koutropoulos, A., Gallagher, M., Abajian, S., de Waard, I., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., & Rodriguez, C. (2012). Emotive vocabulary in moocs: Context & participant retention. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, Retrieved from

Lewin, T. (2012, 7 17). Universities reshaping education on the web. The New York Times. Retrieved from Articles/On-line classes.pdf

Markides, C. (2006). Disruptive Innovation: In Need of Better Theory*. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 23(1), 19–25. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2005.00177.x

Miller, H., Haller, P., Rytz, L., & Odersky, M. (2014, 5). In Pankaj Jalote (Chair). Functional programming for all! scaling a mooc for students and professionals alike. Presentation to be delivered at the 26th International Conference on Software Engineering Icse 2014, Hyderabad, India. Retrieved from

Notte, J. (2013, 9 27). College tuition has jumped by 500% since 1985. Retrieved from–college-tuition-jumps-500percent-since-1985

Reich, J., Murnane, R., & Willett, J. (2012). The state of wiki usage in u.s. k−12 schools: Leveraging web 2.0 data warehouses to assess quality and equity in online learning environments. Educational Research, 41(1), 7-15. doi: 10.3102/0013189X11427083

Young, J. (2013, 1 9). 1 14 january 2013 from coursera announces details for selling certificates and verifying identities The Chronicle, DOI:

Young, J. (2012, 7 19). Inside the coursera contract: How an upstart company might profit from free courses The Chronicle, DOI:




Me v. the GRE: obstacles to a second Masters degree

Hello. Will you teach me?

Hello. Will you teach me?

Hello, Admissions Department at Georgia Regents University. My name is Robert. I am 41. I have a MS in Executive Leadership and Organizational Change from an AACSB accredited school with a 3.9 GPA. I have a BS in Cell Biology, Microbiology, and a minor in Biochemistry from the University of GA. I am the Chief Information Officer at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and I’ve held progressive leadership roles at Miami University and the University of Georgia. I’m also a volunteer firefighter to help serve my community.

By some definitions, I’d be considered successful and a safe bet.

After graduating high school with honors, I received an academic scholarship to the University of GA where I pursued a degree in science because I loved critical thinking, problem solving, and diagnosing, especially when focused on applied or human systems. I thought I was going to be a surgeon. However, my Dad had thyroid cancer (he recovered) in the first part of my college career, and I dropped out of school to help run and work in the family electrical and general contracting business. I didn’t handle the transition well, and I have the grades to show for it. In a tough situation, I made some bad choices and mistakes. I own that.  It took me some 8 years to finish, but through tenacity and strong encouragement from my parents I graduated with some of the toughest majors at UGA. My 400 level science course GPA is 3.2.

I left lab science for the IT world, and became a support person, then a manager, then a director, then a senior director, then an Asst. VP, and now a CIO. Along the way I thought I needed to get an MBA, but never got around to it. (The thought of financial accounting classes made me nauseous, so I kept avoiding it.) Finally, I figured out that my real challenges were related to helping people navigate change. My world has major upheavals every 3-5 years, and, thus having skills in leadership development, communication, conflict, negotiation, and organizational change would be helpful. I found the ELOC program at NKU to be vitally helpful and useful. I am a better husband, father, son, and employee for going through the curriculum.

Over my career, I’ve seen disruptive forces at play in higher education, and I have more recently observed those same forces at play in healthcare. Dramatically rising costs; expensive technology promises that have great potential but too many times have unrealized value; people vested in maintaining the status quo regardless of outside pressure; unequal access to services; populations in need; and increasing levels of public scrutiny are just a few similarities.

A practical example is that a large number of Georgians live in a place that is served by a rural hospital where it is tough to attract and retain medical specialist. Georgia has the dubious distinction of being in the “stroke belt” (stroke mortality rates 10% above national rate). There is something called a TPA protocol that dramatically improves the outcome of patients suffering from a stroke. The kicker is that it must be administered within a three hour window of the stroke or it can cause more damage. There are companies (e.g., REACH) who can provide the experts through telemedicine. I heard one doc at an economic development seminar talking about providing this care to a patient. He was there to talk about the rural telemedicine and business model, but all I heard was that they wasted about 45 minutes faxing medical records back and forth to ensure no medical contraindications before actual treatment could begin. This particular patient had a successful outcome, but 13.5% of the effective treatment window was taken up with (important) administrivia. That’s one of the things the HITECH Act of 2009 is supposed to help address, but we are still in the implementation phases. We have the technical capabilities to increase successful healthcare outcomes–from diagnosis to treatment–, and those systems, infrastructure, and practices are what I’d like to be a part of creating.

As a part of creating those solutions, I thought I’d get to know more about the problem by getting a Masters in Public Health. Even better, I thought I would take advantage of the University System of Georgia tuition assistance program by utilizing the web program offered by Georgia Regents University (formerly ‘Georgia Health Sciences University,’ but it will always be known to me as the ‘Medical College of Georgia’).

Fantastic! In the course of one degree program I’m about to fuse together my science background, my higher ed experience, and my organizational change experience so that I can advance my career and better serve society.

But first, I have to remember geometry and the quadratic formula. That’s right folks, I have to take the GRE. Never mind that my last class in geometry was in my freshman year of high school back in 1986. Never mind that I’ve never taken math courses on a computer. Yes, I do math in my job, but it’s is in Excel and it has nothing to do with the sort of math that is on these tests.

To my own children and anyone else out there who point to this as a reason for not taking or not studying for their own math classes: It is important to go through these classes and do well. It teaches problem solving and gives you choices and avenues to pursue. Because of these classes, I had the opportunity to pursue a career in engineering or physics, where I would no doubt still be using these concepts. Except in matters that compromise personal integrity, don’t ever shut doors until you absolutely have to.  But twenty-seven years later, you have my permission to forget information that hasn’t been meaningful to you.

Based on JD House’s (1998) research, the GRE under predicts achievement for older students. There are studies that prove that for older students the verbal stays about the same, but the math portions decline (Clark 1984).

“According to data from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the test’s manufacturer, the GRE is a weak predictor of first year graduate school grades (, 2007).  A study conducted by Morrison, T. & Morrison, M. (1995) found an even weaker relationship between test scores and grades — GRE scores predicted a mere 6 percent of the variation in grades.” (Hale  2010)

To be fair, one study also pointed out that older GRE students are less likely to graduate from traditional Masters/Doctoral program (Barry & Mathies 2011). There are other studies that show that GRE, etc are great predictors of first year grades; however, it seemed as if those were more traditional PhD type programs in psychology, etc.

I’m sure I could re-learn all of the formulas and little tips and tricks of geometry and algebra. I can sign up for test prep and hope to master the nuances of the test.  However, I have a family and a job that requires me to balance my investment of time. I have a great career, so this isn’t going to mean a giant leap in pay. This degree is for personal growth and a small hope of contributing to a public good.

My wife understands the time commitment of these programs, and she is happy to support me in this goal just as I am happy to support her in her pursuit of an MBA. This is the opportunity cost for the degree. However, I’m having a hard time with the realization that the opportunity cost has opportunity cost. This is a major problem


Meet the GRE’s competition: Casey, Eva,Preston, and Ella.

with higher education. There are people willing and wanting to get their first degree or one or more advanced degrees. However, we in higher education keep putting obstacles in front of them to make them fit into our mold rather than the other way around. This is one reason why the for-profit schools are making a killing. Sure, some programs are mills that take money for a degree that isn’t worth much. But some programs are the real deal. Even more importantly, eventually someone will get this right on a large scale and serve a very hungry audience.

My personal mission in life is to create a healthy environment where others can reach their full potential to excel at life & contribute positively to humanity. So far, I’ve spent my life serving society by making higher education institutions better at cost effectively serving their teaching and research agendas through the use of technology. It is a noble task to help prepare students to manage a complicated democracy, and it is also a noble task to help people become employable. I have viewed my career as serving a public good with higher education, but only about 30% of the US population receives a bachelor’s degree. In this same view, 100% of the population will interact with healthcare systems at some point in their lives. This degree will give me more opportunities to serve.

In conclusion, admission department at Georgia Regents University, I am a huge fan of your Masters of Public Health with concentration in Healthcare Informatics program. I want to make you proud as an alumnus. I’ll buy some merch and maybe give to a campaign in the future. Kudos for making the program online and accessible to working professionals! But, I will ask you as a non-traditional student: is the GRE score really a meaningful indicator of my chances for both success and completion? I believe that my verbal will be good, but my math will be not so great because of the content and the format/time constraints. If the results are important, then I should not bother applying. If the results are perfunctory, I would ask that you consider my graduate GPA, my extensive work experience, and recommendations.  Will you take me as a student without the GRE scores? In every way imaginable, I’m eager to learn.


Barry, M., & Mathies, C. (2011, May). An examination of master’s student retention & completion. Association of institutional research annual forum, Toronto, Ontario.

Clark, M. (1984). OLDER AND YOUNGER GRADUATE STUDENTS : A COMPARISON OF GOALS, GRADES , AND GRE SCORES auspices of the Graduate Record of, (February).

House, J. (1998). Age differences in prediction of student achievement from Graduate Record Examination scores. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 379–382. Retrieved from

Hale, J. (2010, December 09). Does the gre measure anything related to graduate school?. Retrieved from

IT Mission and Vision

Here is my take on the mission and vision for IT at a university. It’s not about the technology…it is about what the technology can enable. In the IT arena world most define our means of getting things done as people, process, and technology. All are important, but I’ve bet my career on fundamentally understanding the people part of that equation. Technology will change rapidly; processes will need to shift to meet different outcomes; however, people’s basic needs are foundational to all of this and the most stable. I think I’ve made a good bet. Robert

Vision for IT

We help people reach their fullest potential by helping
them use technology to connect with others, discover knowledge,
express ideas, and transform our daily lives.

Mission of IT

We are committed to providing excellent technology services and creating an environment for success for the students, faculty, and staff by…

… creating a culture of exceptional service that leads to student success while advancing scholarship and research

… providing leadership and support so our constituents may best use technology to reach their goals

… focusing on outcomes and seeking to eliminate inefficient processes

… being excellent stewards of resources of money, staff time, and the environment

… endeavoring to improve communication, services, and relationships

… innovating and adapting so as to meet the ever-changing needs of our constituents

5 Lessons from my Mother’s Life

From my last post, you will remember my Mom passed away last year. As the sharpest edges of mourning lessen even slightly, I’ve had some opportunity to reflect about my Mom and things I’ve learned from her. This post will likely grow over time as I have time and energy to look through the past in a meaningful way. Here is eight months worth of reflection.

Live your priorities

My Mom wanted everyone around her to reach their full potential, and she was willing to sacrifice to help. Sacrifice can take many forms. In some cases it was monetary. She and Dad didn’t always have the newest car. They bought new and drove it for 10+ years before trading in. However, she invested in my education. That was more important to her than creature comforts.

One very simple exercise we did in graduate school was to make a top 10 sort of list of what we valued most. Then we logged our activities for a week. It’s amazing that I wrote that exercising and reading was a big priority, but that I spent way more time watching TV than exercising or reading. We got rid of cable that month.

How you spend your time and money will show what you value more than what you say or think your priorities are. Don’t go through life fooling yourself.

Be courageous enough to give honest feedback and hold people accountable for their best

My Mom also sacrificed the “easy” path. She was willing to take on hard topics even when it would’ve been easier to let them slide. She held those she cared about accountable for their actions when they were against their stated goals. This is not to say she was an inscrutable nit-picker (although it sure felt like it when I was 18). She just wanted everyone to reach their full potential and where she had influence she would let you know if you were on or off that path.

My Mom had extremely high standards for me. I can remember when I dreaded going home with a “B” on a report card (and this means I faced a fair amount of dread). But, Mom knew what I was capable of, and she held me accountable for it.

This was also evidenced in making peace between those for whom she cared. I worked with my Dad in his electrical and general contracting business summers in high school. I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it now, but back then it was a rough go for me and my Dad. Sometimes we would argue, but usually about the time we pulled into the neighborhood we would reach a cease fire agreement so we wouldn’t get Mom involved. Mind you, we were still mad, but we thought we could fake Mom out. Um. Yeah. Right.

Typically, she was on to us in about 5 seconds. Dad and I tried to sweep things under the carpet, but she had none of that. We dealt with the core issue, and then peace and understanding were real.

In the work environment, I’ve observed and inherited staff and organizations that had done a lot of sweeping under the carpet. It was easier for a manager to ignore a problem and work around an individual than to address the challenge. I can’t and won’t claim 100% success rate with identifying and correcting this serious organizational problem, but I can say that I worked diligently at it and never turned a blind eye to an ongoing problem of which I became aware. From my experience, you can’t have a high performing team or organization if there is a lack of uniform expectations and accountability.

Praise people when they get it right, encourage them when they slip

This seems pretty obvious but is often overlooked. When people do right things, let them know it. It will give them the right kind of pride, and it will reinforce what success looks like. Many people slog through life attempting “success” without really knowing what it looks or feels like.

Show ’em. Tell ’em. Put the spotlight on it.

In a work or team environment, praising helps others see how things should be too. Again, be uniform, because uneven praise can give a sense of unfairness, and nobody likes that.

But all of us– the average and the excellent–will make a bad choice here or there or have a slump season. Encourage their way out of that. In the Sacred Hoops book by Phil Jackson, he discussed when a player missed a key shot, their teams philosophy was to give that player the ball more not less. If you goof something, then avoid it, there are some serious mental calculus happening that will create an artificial obstacle to success. If you are a parent, manager, or coach, then get your person in the game again quickly. If they were good enough to get hired or make the team, then they have the potential. If you’re a parent, then it’s your DNA and conditioning you are seeing before you.

My Mom always made it clear to me when I was doing something right, and I enjoyed that praise. When I fell short, there were consequences, but overall there was assistance getting back to a a right place.

Control what you can control, accept what you can’t

The above lessons are positive and places where my Mom got things mostly right in my opinion. Here we take a different turn, and look at where I saw my Mom struggle. Basically, my Mom for most of her life had the Serenity Prayer backwards. Here it is if you’ve never heard it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My Mom worried if a strange bruise might be leukemia; she never flew because she thought the plane would go down; she thought that a sniffle was pneumonia.

And yet…she didn’t exercise. She didn’t control her diet. She missed out on things and didn’t feel her best while she was alive

We went round and round about this. And, it’s pretty painful to write about this after she is gone, but if anyone can benefit from this perspective, it is worth my reflective pain. I can also proudly add that in the last couple of years of her life, she got this right.

She didn’t die in a plane crash nor was the bruise leukemia. She died from a freak, out-of-the-blue autoimmune disease that attacked her lungs. She had no control over this. So, all that worry meant that she missed out on things and not controlling some things that would’ve given her a better quality of life while she was living.

There is a great Bible verse that hits this. Regardless of your religious background, there is wisdom here.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

Psalms 90:12

Life is in itself a mortal condition. Spend your life living it wisely rather than worrying about dieing.

Help others, but look after yourself too

My Mom lived to help my Dad and me shine, almost to a fault. Even now we discover little areas where Mom smoothed things over that we had no idea that she was doing and yet took for granted. Some may argue that this is part of being a mom and wife (and it’s an equally corresponding part of being a dad and a husband, but this post is about my Mom).

When I left high school and was a nascent adult, I thought my Mom was too much in my business. I, rather harshly, told her she needed a hobby, and it shouldn’t be me. Now that I have kids, I realize how silly that is. They will never be too old or too secure for me not to spend time worrying or caring about their lives. And, while I am an involved Dad and love my children more than I could have ever realized, it is my opinion– based on no fact– that a mother’s love is just different than a dad’s love. Not better or worse. Just different. So it’s easy to see how that selfless love could come at personal neglect.

My first comment about prioritizing lives and driving old cars to spend the money elsewhere is not what I’m talking about here. There is a level of personal investment that, again in my opinion, one should never give up. Continue finding areas to personally grow and where you can retain a sense of self.

As you feel that pride of accomplishment and reaching your own potential, it gives you energy to also give out to others. I must face the reality that, while my Mom helped me reach my potential, she never quite reached her full potential. When she was diagnosed with her condition of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she took back some of her life. She dieted; she exercised; she bought new clothes; she went out and had fun. She faced her fear of the computer and got on Facebook. She learned to Skype (to see the grand kids). She lived well, and she would always say that 2010 was the best year of her life.

My Mom spent her life trying to give me the tools and opportunity to be the best person I could be, and I think she would be happy that she is still able to provide those tools even after she is gone. Thank you, Mom.