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Business Officer Magazine
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On Balance: John O'Brien

The value of technology is its power to engage students, faculty, and staff across campus and beyond.

By Bill Dillon

IT as an Enabling Force

The path that led John O’Brien to become president and CEO of EDUCAUSE took a few turns along the way: professor, system IT leader, provost, college president, and senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the fifth largest higher education system in the United States. Because of his broad experience, O’Brien understands the multifaceted role of technology for a campus, whether to increase operational efficiency, secure data and networks, or equalize opportunities for student learning and success.

In this interview with Business Officer, O’Brien reflects on the real “X” factor for leveraging IT success in today’s higher education environment: collaboration.

You've been at the helm of EDUCAUSE since June 2015. What has been your greatest surprise in this role?

My biggest surprise was that there wasn't any big surprise. EDUCAUSE has been in good hands for a long time, with strong leadership and a staff with a level of competence and caring that you dream of when you're a leader new to an organization. There have been smaller surprises related to my learning curve, such as wrapping my mind around the vastly different institution types that EDUCAUSE serves.

I've been looking at benchmarking data from our Core Data Survey, and lately I'm actually more surprised by how much these different institution types have in common. For example, I gave a keynote in November at the League for Innovation conference for two-year colleges, and when I compared EDUCAUSE Benchmarking Service maturity indexes for things like student success technologies, analytics, and innovation, there were more similarities than differences between two-year colleges and the other institution types.

At your 2016 annual conference, you announced that EDUCAUSE would change its member experience. What kinds of key changes do you envision?

Campus life has involved one IT-related change after another for faculty, staff, and students. Think about how many years it took higher education to build out campus e-mail. And, by the time we did, students had moved on to texting. (I know, because I've seen my kids' inboxes, and they are filled with unopened e-mails—mine included.)

As another example of IT efforts, we focused on figuring out how to deliver high-quality services on campus only to shift to standardizing business practices and increasingly moving them to the cloud.

This constant IT evolution is a familiar story for our members. So, I announced that our new five-year strategic priorities (approved unanimously by our board) will likewise take EDUCAUSE in some new directions. In short, these priorities are personalization, professional learning and development, and partnerships and collaboration, with a focus on diversity and inclusion throughout.

Can you elaborate? For instance, you indicated that you plan a more proactive and tailored approach to disseminating knowledge to your members.

Our priority for personalizing the member experience means that we're going to throw a lifeline to our members, who are drowning in information. As we build out this new functionality, we'll ask them to include in their EDUCAUSE profile their interests, priority concerns, and maybe even professional development plans. Over the next five years, we'll create increasingly personalized content channels to get members exactly the information that they need when they need it.

This will be a heavy lift, but we are convinced it's worth it because it has the potential to transform the EDUCAUSE experience for our members. We currently offer an unprecedented array of higher education IT resources—publications, research studies, tool kits, affinity groups, and much more. But, instead of expecting members to search and find what they need—or notifying them of everything in the hope they will find something they need—we want to help them sort through all the information and meet them at their point of need. 

What inspired you to envision these changes?

This idea took shape at a strategic planning session with the EDUCAUSE board and really took flight at a retreat of our executive team the next day. We are pretty excited by this direction because it's new and bold, but also because it fits so perfectly with the technology infrastructure we've been putting into place with our new enterprise resource planning implementation and our new content management system and website.

I'm a believer in planning, and when you go into a strategic planning process with really smart people and don't have predetermined outcomes, it's amazing what you can come up with.

You've expressed interest in working closely with other higher education associations such as NACUBO. To what end?

This is more than an interest. Our third strategic priority of "partnerships and collaboration" is crucial for us and for our membership. We're convinced that successful higher education IT is not IT working in isolation, but IT working more collaboratively on campus with business officers, academic leaders, faculty, and other C-suite leaders. This really isn't optional over the next five years, especially when we have so much to do together to improve student success and other areas that span across traditional campus silos. So, we're going to work to provide our member institutions with tools to make this happen on campus, and we're going to be intentional about connecting with other associations that serve the communities with which we, in turn, need to collaborate.

When I've talked about what this kind of partnership means, I usually crow quite a bit about the relationship between EDUCAUSE and NACUBO—for example, in our co-sponsoring of the Enterprise IT Summit for the past three years.

This year we also launched the first annual Diana G. Oblinger Innovation Forum, where we brought together IT and academic leaders to talk about academic transformation and student success. I fundamentally believe that we can do more together than we can alone, and I'm determined to make connections in this spirit more and more frequently in the years ahead. 

The technology-related concerns of NACUBO's members include: the cost of keeping up-to-date with IT infrastructure improvements and advances in digital education models, recruiting and retaining skilled IT personnel, providing secured networks, and effectively making use of all the data institutions generate. How do these align with the concerns of chief IT officers?

If you glance at EDUCAUSE's "Top 10 IT Issues" for 2017, it's clear that all the issues you mention that are of concern to chief business officers are on our list in one form or another. In general, we try to focus on both value and cost. While controlling costs and realizing efficiencies are non-negotiable these days, in the end, IT is held accountable for more than purely costs.

Can you characterize the nature of your top 10 IT issues and the concerns most likely to impact U.S. college and university leadership and operations in the years ahead?

We continue to see information security as the top IT issue, as it was in 2016. For 2017, we will also see more technology that offers value and efficiency through enterprise systems and innovations; and technology will continue to spur research innovation and other campus advancements.

In some cases, technology will be refactored (such as moving to cloud-based services). In other cases, entirely new and additive investments will be needed (such as to support analytics and student success technologies). Higher education needs to rethink its funding models for technology to ensure sustainable, high-value investments. EDUCAUSE and NACUBO are already collaborating in this area and have produced useful guidance on IT funding models and on calculating the cost of distributed IT.

One noticeable shift is that we're really seeing technology issues related directly or indirectly to student success moving into the foreground. I'm convinced that we will continue to see technology play an unprecedented role in moving the needle in this arena.

At EDUCAUSE, we've been working with integrated planning and advising tools in particular; and we believe that these systems, deployed at scale, are crucial and potentially only the beginning of how technology can make a difference in the lives of students. I've been talking for the past decade about using games and simulations to enhance teaching; but I really think that the combination of adaptive learning, voice recognition, augmented and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence advances are going to make learner engagement the big story of the next 10 years. 

What do you think is of special interest for CBOs as they help their institutions navigate important technology spending and implementation decisions?

I'm a fan of appreciative inquiry—searching for the best in people and their organizations. We've talked a lot about how we need to respond to dynamic challenges, exciting opportunities, and palpable threats. I think in some ways the first question should be: "What are we already doing effectively now?" How are business officers already working in powerful collaboration with IT leaders? Who has already figured this out? What does that look like? And, how can we use our networks as an association to spread the word, amplify the message, and accelerate positive change? Those are the kinds of questions, I believe, that will continue to guide good decision making and partnership.

BILL DILLON is executive vice president of NACUBO.