Little College, Big World: Big Tech Wins for Small Schools [podcast]

min read

Smaller institutions have their own sets of challenges and opportunities around using technology to effectively carry out their missions.

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G. Bayne: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Podcast. I'm G. Bayne for EDUCAUSE. Are you effectively leveraging your technology investment to provide big wins for your small college? Are you a technology leader at a small institution whose day is filled with the joys and challenges of supporting your institution's mission through the evolving use of technology with limited resources? If you answered yes to either of these questions, this podcast is for you.

G. Bayne: I spoke with a panel of experienced CIOs from smaller institutions about the challenges of providing technology for their institutions.

G. Bayne: I spoke with William Anderson, CIO of Saint Michael's College, Kevin Brassard, CIO of Nichols College, and Carol Thomas, Vice President of Technology in Marketing Communications at the New England College.

G. Bayne: Could you talk about the obvious and maybe not so obvious differences between the way smaller colleges approach technologies compared to larger schools? What are some of the issues that you guys are dealing with and talking about that maybe Pennsylvania State University isn't even thinking about?

William Anderson: I mean, I think one thing is our portfolios are very broad. No good deed goes unpunished, right? So, if you did that right, then you're gonna get something else, and I think larger schools are much more compartmentalized. There's a person that does this, or office that does this. That's one important difference, I think.

Kevin Brassard: It is, in my opinion, one of the ... maybe the most important difference is because you can't be so siloed, that you actually have to have that collaboration, because you cover multiple roles. Carol covers multiple roles at her school. I have in the past. My team members actually have to do more than one thing, and honestly, most people actually enjoy that. They don't wanna be siloed. Most IT professionals enjoy the variety of being able to go from networking into applications or into desktop support and really understanding the whole dynamic, and as a CIO in a smaller school, I think it's fun because you also have to roll up your sleeves at times to get things going, and if you're a do-er in the technology world, it's far more interesting at a small school, I think, than at a larger school where you're more involved with budgets and staffing and the politics of running an IT shop.

Carol Thomas: Yeah, I'd describe being a leader at a small college, and I've been a technology leader at large schools as well, as being the opportunity to be up and be strategic, and the necessity for me to do that and align everything that we do to ensuring that the strategy of the institution is met, and I think we'll talk about that a little more later, but also be willing to go straight down into the operational day to day and into the trenches and make sure that the things that need to be happening are happening as effectively and as appropriately as they need to be.

Carol Thomas: We have, I think, a big role to play in organizational maturity around the use of technology, and we're not, at least in my institution, I'm not staffed, nor do I wish to be, to be the be all and end all for everything related to technology, because that's not our mission. Our mission is to get just enough of the right kind of technology to meet the institutional mission and to really steward our resources wisely.

Kevin Brassard: Yeah. That's interesting to hear, because I figured it could have gone one of two ways, it could have been we are very centralized, we have to serve everything, or we have the math department with their little server and their little five domain lead, you know what I mean? How it used to be. Because I could see that happening at smaller colleges too, you know, because, handling your own stuff. But it sounds like it's very centralized and very, sort of, you have to serve the whole college.

Carol Thomas: I would say it's collaboratively centralized. [crosstalk] I hear the word centralized and it kind of gives me the heebie jeebies, because there's so much interaction between us and the people that we serve, and that's why we get to learn so much about what's going on at the college, because we need to have that interaction and that collaboration, and I wouldn't even call it straight governance, it's just cooperation. That's that collegial component that I think we have a leadership responsibility to support.

Carol Thomas: It isn't for every technologist to do this.

G. Bayne: No, but this also allows you, you mention collaboration, it's building the relationships and the trust factor, I think it's easier to do because you're closer together.

William Anderson: Mhmmm.

Kevin Brassard: Yeah.

G. Bayne: Right? You're not spread out across a broad university campus system like at UMass where you probably got, what, a mile or two from end to end, you know, you're all pretty close in together. So, it can be very enriching, actually, to get to know people much better than you would otherwise.

Carol Thomas: Yes. And to know, like, I love it when there's an issue that comes up that is not really a technology issue, the symptoms of a technology issue, but the problem, the root cause, is not the technology, to know who to call to say, "Hey, look, could you talk to this person or that person about this?" And defer and share that responsibility so ... I mean, I don't like being the ogre, I can be if I have to be, but I don't like that. I'd rather correct the behavior and move on, and I think we really have the opportunity to do that.

Carol Thomas: One of the other things that we talked about yesterday is the notion that in small colleges, the compressed leadership structure really helps us to be able to be both visible and participatory in the process, and I think that's one of the pleasures of this work, despite there's plenty of politics and plenty of problems, but there's a lot of pleasure that comes from building those kind of relationships.

G. Bayne: Would you say decisions get made quicker because they can get- [crosstalk]

Carol Thomas: Yes. Much faster. Much quicker.

William Anderson: Absolutely. Yeah. Much more agile.

Kevin Brassard: Absolutely. Yes, because it's very easy for me to get admissions and marketing together, and talk about what we want to do with analytics, or do a proof of concept and say, "Hey, let's talk about this," and they don't feel the need to go through their layers of their organization as well, because they're in the same boat, right? This small marketing department, small admission, so they're in the same boat to where they'll feel empowered to say, "You know what? This makes sense, we're gonna do that", and they'll carry that message to their smaller teams. [crosstalk]

Kevin Brassard: So it is, it's fulfilling because you can really move very quickly. Double-edged sword on that, saying you can move very quickly, but you can.

G. Bayne: Why is aligning technology with the institutional mission especially important for small colleges?

William Anderson: Well, because the resources are limited. [crosstalk] I think, and it's interesting that that concept was sort of a major talking point for a while. Our keynote speaker last year here, took it the next step and said, "It's not a question of alignment, IT is the business." Right? So it's not like we're sitting over here going, "Hmm, we need to figure out what this institution is doing," it's intimately integrated, and so it's not so much a question of alignment as it is integration.

Kevin Brassard: There's also perception issues I think we battle. It's perceived, for example, a Bentley college or a Brandeis has great technology and great people and all that, and the smaller schools, they must struggle to keep up with technology, and there is some struggle, but you gotta have that optics of you've got great wifi, you've got great network, you've got great workstations, because you can ... there's just a perception, right, that these smaller schools can't be nearly as effective as bigger schools because bigger schools do have more resources.

William Anderson: Right.

G. Bayne: Right.

Carol Thomas: But that gets back to the notion of, for me anyway, in my leadership style is very much a partnership style. It's a partnership style with vendors particularly, because I am not in a place where I'm ever gonna be able to recruit fifteen people to do all these specialized tasks, so I have to have really great relationships and willingness among my own leadership team to see that partnership as important. So for us one of the big examples of that is when we had a huge remediation that we needed to do on our network, was making the institutional decision to put our residence halls on a vendor managed network, so the students could have the consumer experience that they really wanted. That was actually in alignment with the mission. When I've got limited resources, I shouldn't be running that side of the business. I need to run the academic and administrative side of the business, which we also do very well. That is an education process for both the leaders and for us as technologists to get out of our own way, because we like to do all this stuff ourselves, but it doesn't really, really make sense in many situations.

G. Bayne: Yeah, can you give me [crosstalk] ... Yeah, go ahead.

Kevin Brassard: So we actually have been very fortunate. We've basically completely outsourced our whole PC replacement cycle. We'll do the image, but we've got a vendor that does the placement, cleans them off, places them, moves them, all that kind of thing, and we pay a little extra for everyone in order to do that, but it's nothing like what it would cost us to actually be staffed to do that and we do the same thing with our network technician. We've got a guy from our Juniper reseller who works in our office. I mean, he's there, and he's the person who gets called at two in the morning when a switch needs to be rebooted or something like that. So we've really done a, I think, pretty effective job of staff augmentation with vendors.

G. Bayne: So is this ability to do what you're doing, is this sort of a newer thing in the last five to ten years? I mean, if we went back ten years, would it have been a much harder road to get things done like that?

Kevin Brassard: I was on the Gateway Higher Ed Advisory Board for awhile, and the first meeting I went to, everybody else in the room was a certified repair shop, and I'm like, "Why do you want to be doing this?" I'm gonna send all my stuff to you, because I want nothing to do with this. I think the idea has gradually changed, but-

William Anderson: Yeah, I feel like we've gotten a lot more comfortable with outsourcing in the last ten years.

Carol Thomas: Well, and I would call it strategic use of resources myself. I don't think of it as outsourcing, I think of it as providing the right resource at the right time to meet the institutional goals and objectives. So, for me another big area that is getting at, they heard me say it, is getting out of the data center business. I have no business running a data center at my school. Now, in the old days, ten years ago, that would have been-

Kevin Brassard: Heresy.

Carol Thomas: Heresy! Oh, we have to do it and it's secure because it's in our library and it's all these things, and I'm like, "Not these days." And do I use the institutional resources to build up the infrastructure, to really be what we need to be? Or do I take a fraction of that and say, "Somebody else does that better. They're a center of excellence on that kind of work. I'm gonna let them do that so then, again, I can take the resources that I have and deploy them around that special care that's really necessary.

Kevin Brassard: Truly what business value adds.

Carol Thomas: That's right.

Kevin Brassard: If you're not adding any value, there's no value to add to running a data center.

Carol Thomas: Right.

Kevin Brassard: It is truly, you know, the power.

Carol Thomas: That's right.

William Anderson: [crosstalk] table sticks, right?

Carol Thomas: Exactly.

Kevin Brassard: It is, it truly is.

Carol Thomas: Exactly. It's a utility. Why do I need to manage ... I don't run a power plant on my campus. So it's that big, I think. And I think, to go to your question about larger schools, I think those conversations, at least when I was at a larger school, that was a very hard conversation to have, because there was so much invested in all of that and there was so much personal stake.

Kevin Brassard: People, right.

Carol Thomas: In the work. Yeah, I was trying to move a data center to a state operated data center in a [inaudible] and my staff just went crazy, and it didn't end up happening, and I don't blame them but it was still ... It was like, "Let's have this conversation again about the value that we bring and what we add and what really makes sense."

Kevin Brassard: You reminded me of something else that's really distinctive, I think, about staffs ... what I keep, in small schools like us is ... I was talking to some folks at a much larger college, staff of fifty plus people, and the personality difference. There's a different personality of people in certain stereotypical areas that's different than smaller schools, where in smaller schools you have to be able to converse. My network guy, my [inaudible 00:12:20], they all have to have good, strong communication skills, interpersonal skills. At larger universities, it's easier to hide the stereotypical network, server geek- [crosstalk]

Carol Thomas: Who we don't let out [crosstalk]

William Anderson: [crosstalk] Closet-

Carol Thomas: [crosstalk] Exactly. And they're incredibly talented.

William Anderson: Absolutely.

Carol Thomas: I think can think of several, but you just don't want them out talking to people.

Kevin Brassard: And you can't have that at a smaller school. Sometimes everybody has to converse with a VP, or a director, or just a basic end user and handhold them through a technical issue or question, because, again, it's all hands on deck sometimes when you've got vacations, and travel, and illnesses, and sometimes, again, you have to fall into things that you're not normally doing and not comfortable with. And talk about business value adds, talk about collaboration, there's a core communication aspect, a core personality aspect that I bet if we talked about what do we look for when we hire people. There's a core technical skill set but then there's a layer on top of that that probably goes unwritten in the job description about how are they going to work with my users? How are they going to coordinate?

G. Bayne: Could you talk about some of your own experience with articulating the value of technology with executives or other interested parties at your institution?

Kevin Brassard: I'll start there because I struggle with that, honestly, with my boss or Chief Financial Officers. We've got Colleague, that's our student information system. Very stable, very mundane, transaction oriented system. And now we've got Recruit, our CRM system that is a recruiting system. It's a dynamic platform to create new campaigns and I have to have a conversation with them several times about why do I need more staffing on supporting our CRM system versus our Colleague student information system. He's a finance guy, debits and credits, APAR. That doesn't change all that much. That's very simple. But then when you get into undergraduate, graduate programs, and the campaigns that they're creating to be creative and generally speaking admissions and marketing teams, again, especially at small schools, they're not necessarily technically advanced enough to do some of ... Could they? At some larger schools maybe they have a power user, but smaller schools sometimes it's harder to get a power user, so IT's got to carry more of that load, so sometimes it's hard to try to reinforce certain concepts about why certain systems need more work than others, why are they more strategic. Well, maybe not why they're more strategic, but why do they need more nurturing?

William Anderson: So I have the good fortune of sitting on the cabinet, and so I'm a direct report to the President, who is a technology guy. I mean, he's a computer scientist.

Kevin Brassard: That sounds like a double-edged sword.

William Anderson: Well, [crosstalk] no, it's good and bad because he holds my feet to the fire, but by the same token, when I say, "We need this," he goes, "Yup, you do." And being on the cabinet gives me an opportunity to articulate during those budget, in particular, capital expenditure budget preparation, the value of the different projects in a way that didn't happen before the previous president created this job for me, actually. I've had very good luck, I guess. [crosstalk] And we're getting a new president in July, so we'll have to see how that goes.

Carol Thomas: Can I just? Yeah, because I was gonna say that I learned something a long time ago and it was reinforced, I think, last year here we had a professional development session on communicating the value of IT with Jonathan Gardner, who said, "It's all about them." Hundred percent. It's always a hundred percent about them. I had always felt that way, but I've never heard it articulated quite that directly, and what I realized is the skill I'm sure we all have, is ... I'm not going to talk to them about what switches we need to put in the closets or how the sand needs to be configured. What I'm gonna talk about is, "Here's the thing you say you want to be able to do. In order to do that, here's the stack or the steps of activity, or the acquisitions that need to happen in order for us to do that." And almost all the time I put it in the context of a Maslow's hierarchy, the value of IT.

Carol Thomas: This was how, when my current institution when through a painful transition from difficult situations to the environment that we're in now which is very stable and very modern and to get there they had to understand we have to do these things were, which were infrastructure. Build the infrastructure, get that right, make sure it's stable and secure, and get our applications all working at at least an appropriate level to then be able to think of how do I get to the next step and up to what every good educator and leader wants, and that's to be innovative and paradigm-shifting and doing all the cool stuff, but if you don't do the stuff at the bottom everything else is just changing a vacuous shiny bauble. It isn't going to work. So, it's been really interesting, and then it's my job to show them every time we move up that hierarchy what we've done and what we've accomplished, so the context for that value is really well understood. It has worked very well for us with the leadership team. They don't really ask me a lot of questions anymore. When I say, "We need to do this." I've built that expertise and trust, or I know if something's high-risk I tell them, I tell them, "This might now work, but let's give it a shot."

Carol Thomas: So that does really help to, not necessarily get more resources because there's only so much to go around, but to help to re-allocate and readjust towards those trends and to bring in others in the community, both up the hierarchy and down. Essentially, I don't mean to say up and down, they're not bad or worse. They're just different places in the hierarchy. But to engage people and involve them there and then help them understand their responsibilities, because just because it's digital doesn't mean it's mine.

G. Bayne: So we've covered pretty much everything I had. Is there anything else you guys want to talk about in terms of the challenges or the advantages of working in a smaller institution?

Kevin Brassard: Yeah, I want to touch upon something, it's ... guess with a small staff, and staff development. Because everybody, especially coming in at a lower level, they're all looking for promotions and raises and all that and I always have to have a difficult conversation with them about well, there's not a lot of promotional opportunities per se within the organization because we're not that big, but there are opportunities for developing leadership skills. How do you lead without managing people? How do you develop empathy for users and improve your communication skills? There's great coaching opportunities. A lot of times I find it difficult to put the context on how does that benefit them from a professional development perspective. That's not the stereotypical, I'm coming in as a PC support specialist now, two years from now I wanna be a senior PC support specialist.

G. Bayne: Do you guys want to talk about staff at all?

William Anderson: Sure, just a couple quick things in addition to the ideas that Kevin has expressed. There are some things like support for going to conferences, support for certain occasions, those kinds of things that we can offer as opposed to a career path, but we're going to have inevitable turnover, right? [crosstalk] And if we've got a really sharp employee who's in his or her late thirties, they're not going to be staying at Saint Mike's for the next twenty five years. Or it would be unusual if they stayed at Saint Mike's for the next twenty five years.

Carol Thomas: Well, I think we all just have to think of it from a leadership perspective as well and what I've noticed, both in my own experience and watching other colleges, is we're not interchangeable widgets at the leadership level either. Finding the right person with the right cultural fit, with the right understanding and knowledge to be really a high powered communicator ... I'm sorry, a contributor at the leadership level I think is an interesting challenge for many presidents and other technology leaders.

Carol Thomas: I have one other thing I wanted to talk about as it related small school technology, and I've mentioned these words a couple of times, but I really think it's a triumvirate of three words that really, I think, probably contribute to all of our successes in the work that we do. But those are leadership, partnership, and stewardship. I've used those in my entire career and like I said, I've worked at big institutions and small institutions but right now they're really important to me in my current role where it is my job to be the leader, and I need to be willing to stand up and be counted, to have built the environment around me of trust and respect and knowledge and collaboration so that when touch decisions need to be made, or fun decisions get to be made, I get to be a contributing part of that. That matters to me personally and it matters, I think, to the institution and my colleagues. Partnership is so important both within the institution as well as with people that we work with outside of the institution and several vendors, I'm willing to give them a reference, I'm willing to go to their conferences and speak, I'm willing to do anything that will help them to grow their business. Not anything, but anything reasonable, to help them grow their business because they've been such great partners with me.

Carol Thomas: Some of my colleagues will say, "I don't really believe in partnership. They're just a vendor, all I want is a discount." Well, I want a discount too. I want the best pricing I can get, but I want the value that comes from that relationship so that when the network goes down at two o' clock in the morning, I can call this particular firm and they'll help me, you know? So that was important and then stewardship, when we have constrained ... I guess I would say I don't feel like I have constrained resources, I have the right resources at the right time most of the time. I don't have excess of resources by any means. And managing that is really a stewardship question. How do I spend that money? Not letting people make unwise investments at the wrong time. They might be a wise investment next year, but maybe we're not ready for it this year. Helping to really articulate that challenge and be recognized to someone that when I come and say we have to spend x amount of dollars to do this, that they know I've done my due diligence and thought about it all the way through and figured out that this is the best solution. I see that stewardship both for dollars and people to be really, really important.

Kevin Brassard: Good point.

William Anderson: That's a good plug actually for the Core Data Service. We use that extensively to benchmark and make arguments that, look, we're at four percent and the average is five percent. I'm not arguing for the extra percent, I'm just pointing out that we're doing pretty well with less than most schools use.

Carol Thomas: Right. Exactly.

G. Bayne: That's great, I'm glad that service is useful to you.

Carol Thomas: Yeah, I've used the Core Data Service all the time.

William Anderson: Interesting.

Carol Thomas: To really, to benchmark, to look and again being able to look at comparable schools is so important. One of the big numbers for me always is what percent of the overall budget should be the IT operating budget. Now, that's shifting as we move to the cloud. That's going to be an interesting one to watch trends, but in the old days, if it was more than something like fourteen percent, you had a problem. I'm not sure what the current number is but it's good to know that and to have that resource. Which is why EDUCAUSE membership, by the way, is really important to us and it's one of those [crosstalk] things that's always on the table. Do we need to be ... This is a non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned.

Kevin Brassard: EDUCAUSE and NERCOMP are two very valuable resources, I think, especially to schools our size, to be able to share and collaborate. Informal collaboration happens by default in our regions to a certain extent, but these organizations really help facilitate some of those conversations, like the one we're having right now.

Carol Thomas: Exactly.

William Anderson: So, Kevin and I have shared common vendors as well, but we no longer ... We're not Patreon partners anymore. Those kinds of things. So this is the venue that I have to see him and now Carol.

Kevin Brassard: Right.

G. Bayne: Well, that's great. I'm glad that we could end on a positive note about EDUCAUSE.

Carol Thomas: Yeah.

G. Bayne: I don't mind that at all, and I want to thank you guys so much for your time, this is very insightful.

Kevin Brassard: Thank you.

Carol Thomas: You're welcome. Thank you.