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Mark Roman on Creating a Seamless IT Organization

min read
The Integrative CIO | Season 1, Episode 5

Hosts Cynthia and Jack talk with Mark Roman, former CIO for Simon Fraser University, about shaping staff and processes to create seamless technology service.

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Jack Suess: Welcome to the EDUCAUSE Integrative CIO podcast. I'm Jack Suess, vice president of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Cynthia Golden: And I'm Cynthia Golden associate provost and executive director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Each episode, we welcome a guest from in or around higher education technology as we talk about repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner in support of the institutional mission.

Hi everybody. This is Cynthia Golden.

Jack Suess: And this is Jack Suess, and our guest today is Mark Roman.

Cynthia Golden: And Mark is CIO at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. And Mark, we're really glad you could be with us today.

Mark Roman: Great, thank you very much for inviting me.

Cynthia Golden: So to start off, why don't you spend a few more minutes and just tell us a little bit about your career, and how you got to where you are today.

Mark Roman: Yeah, sure. I love computers. I started playing with them when I was about 14. Now you have to remember that I'm a lot older, and so at 14, having access to a computer was a rare thing and I was really very lucky and I got very interested in computers at a young age, loved playing with them. And so, I ended up getting a computer science and math degree as an undergrad. And what I found interesting after I graduated was that I was working for a bunch of people that didn't understand computers. So I thought, and they all had MBAs, so I thought, well, gosh darn, I better go get an MBA, because I don't think these people are running the IT department properly.

So I went back and I got an MBA in finance management and I've been managing IT organizations ever since. I think the first part of my career was interesting because it was in financial services. And in financial services when you're running IT, it's kind of easy in a way. People come to you and if they don't like your desktop standards, or your servers, or your software, or you simply say to them, well, there's a lovely insurance company down the street, why don't you just go work there? The ability to put security in place and standards and things in a financial services organization is very different from a university.

Now I've spent the past 20 years in higher ed, and it's a much different environment. It's a much more exciting environment, there's greater diversity and there's way more fun. Plus I think when you're in higher ed, you feel like every day you come into work you're adding something more to society.

So that's my background, I've been CIO for several years. I've been CIO at a couple organizations in Canada, and was also the CEO of our research network, Canary, for a little while as well. So I've had a broad experience in the technical side of things in managing IT organizations.

Cynthia Golden: So I gather you're happy with your move from industry to higher education.

Mark Roman: Yeah, I don't think I'd ever want to go back.

Jack Suess: So Mark, one of the hopes of this podcast is to discuss the concept of the integrative CIO, and what it means to you, and how you think about it. And as background, I want to just sort of say to the audience, Mark and I have known each other for a number of years because our institutions were sort of founded in similar periods. They're roughly in the early fifties, in their age, they were roughly the same size. They were both in locations where there was another larger public that had been in existence for much longer, which had more notoriety. And so, we were talking about sort of strategies that happen within these midsize kinds of institutions. And I know you've done a lot at Simon Fraser, but just what do you think of the integrative CIO terminology, and how are you trying to think about what that means at your organization?

Mark Roman: Yeah, that's a really good way of thinking about it, and yeah, Jack, it's interesting, our institutions have such similar history, and you and I, I think have the same barber. We have the same haircut. For those of you who can't see us, we're both a little bald, so we do share a lot in common. I think the integrative CIO's a very powerful concept. In IT we're in a very unique position. We're probably the only organization in a university that sees everything. It's kind of like you're on a mountaintop and you can see where all the valleys are, you can see where all the rivers are flowing, where all the traffic is going. And you're the only organization that actually has access into the administrative side of the institution, in a very intimate way, a very close relationship with the research computing and the research side of the institution, and a very close relationship with the teaching and learning side.

And IT's involved in everything. So as a CIO, you have the opportunity to see everything. You sit on this mountain and you can see how everything's connected. And so the integrative CIO, the successful integrative CIO, is the one that leverages that vantage point. So if you can see how everything works together, you should be actively delivering systems that help things work together. And so, to me, that's the basis for the integrative CIO. And I think there are three components to it. Once you have this perspective, you need to think about your vision of what you want for IT. You need to think about how you're going to steward the resources, because you don't own them. You're a steward of these IT resources, the institution owns them. And you need to think about how you organize, because there's disparate funding sources and there's lots of IT in an organization. It doesn't all report directly into the CIO. So how do you structure an organization to meet those challenges?

Jack Suess: So Mark, as a follow up on that, I know that you've been undergoing a major effort, which I believe you call one IT.

Mark Roman: Yes. One IS.

Jack Suess: One IS. And so, could you talk a little bit about that and talk about how that came about? And also, in discussing this, I'd be curious, was this something that you started immediately upon arrival at Simon Frazier? Or did it take a few years to get to the point that this initiative started, and what were the necessary conditions to be in place for you to start thinking about this bigger vision that would be there?

Mark Roman: I did have a little bit of an advantage, I was running a small consulting business before I came to Simon Frazier, and I had done an IT review of the university. And I had done similar reviews for about 15 different institutions across Canada. And when you do a review, there's always something truly unique, a truly unique problem about any institution. And the interesting thing about SFU was that there were almost as many local IT folks and systems as there were enterprise systems. And there was a lot of history of no communication across the university, duplication of resources. There was an IT organization that was characterized to me as one that was busy spending more time building moats and castle walls than actually delivering services.

And so, when I got to SFU, I knew that we had this chasm that we had to cross and we had to find ways to bring folks together. And so, I spent some time we did a customer satisfaction survey and a follow up consultation as part of our planning process. And one of the characterizations of our culture, our IT culture, was that a senior individual at the university said, I'd rather stick shards of broken glass in my eyes than ever deal with your PeopleSoft.

Cynthia Golden: Oh boy.

Mark Roman: And so, out of that arose this notion that we need to think about how we're going to work together. And so, the vision of One IS, and we try to avoid the word IT because it's not about technology, it's about systems. So this vision of One IS is that all of our systems should work together in a seamless fashion. And all of the people who support those systems should work together in a seamless fashion. So nice, simple statement around what we mean by One IS.

And so, I've been here for almost five years and the evolution's been fascinating. The first step we had to do in this journey of One IS was to say, we need to focus on our external issues. We need to focus on creating a client service culture, we need to make major changes to how leadership functions in the institution. We need to focus on putting in project discipline. We have to fund the huge technology deficit. We have to reorganize in a way that makes sense to our customers, not just to the IT department.

And so, we started this path on all those dimensions and part of the decision making process we created this, what we call stewardship model. So as we introduced change, we brought a number of folks together in this, the One IS stewardship committee, that makes decisions about information systems for the university, and it's not the CIO making the decisions, and it's not the IT department making the decision, it's all of Simon Frazier making the decision. So this One IS stewardship committee would see large project charters, it would see policy decisions, it would approve the plan. So we would bring all the information necessary to make the appropriate decision with a recommendation to this committee, and then they would either approve it or make adjustments to it. And then we would execute on it.

So IT facilitated the process, or IS facilitated the process, but the university made the decisions. So all of these major changes that we made and this focus on client service and new systems that we introduced were university decisions. And that helped build a level, an unprecedented level of trust in the organization for how we were getting things done. But it also led to a lot of pressure in the IT organization. After about four years of delivering, delivering, delivering, we started to slow down and I started to see cracks in the organization. We started to refocus, and this started last August around our internal organization and how are we working as a group? How's IT functioning? So we started to focus on developing people, on evolving a culture that was more friendly to the individuals in the organization to deliver a more collaborative model and focus on operational improvement. For the past four years we had been the shoemaker's children. We had done a great job of delivering systems to other folks, but not to ourselves. So we needed to start focusing on our own internal processes.

And so, we've been at that. We've been at that for a little while. We've been using a model of appreciative inquiry, which has been really useful in bringing out an understanding of how we can make it a better workplace for our own folks. And the next step after we finish this internal development growth is that we move into what we really see as the digital transformation world where the Simon Fraser University operating model will change. And that every project at the university will be an IT project. And to do that, IT has to pivot without friction. So we have to have a frictionless organization that can support all these significant operating model changes that the university's going to be undertaking. So that's the vision of One IS where we are, where we're going, and some of the bumps on the road.

Cynthia Golden: So Mark, you mentioned that you're using the appreciative inquiry technique with your staff. Could you talk a little bit about what that is and how it's working for you?

Mark Roman: If we think about all the changes the university's gone through, we had lots of conversations about all these things that had to get fixed, and that comes from a negative place. And that's never productive in the long run. So, you can do a review, find all these problems, and say, now we got to fix them. And you can fix them, but it does leave a bad residue in the organization. It's a sense of negativity that, oh, we weren't very good. We weren't doing good work, and we had to fix all those things. And I think, as Western organizations, or as IT organizations, we don't focus enough on what do we do really well. So you need to start the appreciative inquiry process with some principles, and you say, you know what, we're going to change the shape of how we work together. So that's one. We're going to do it by dialogues and these dialogues are going to be based on strengths. So what are our strengths? And then we need to sit together and say, we're all architects of our own work experience. So we're all in this together. How are we going to make it better? And we want to create something that's meaningful, enjoyable, and then it's a satisfying workplace.

So if you start with those principles in mind, it's a very different approach than the traditional, just come in, find all the problems and fix it. This is saying we are going to base any change on appreciating what's already in place. And so, you start with a series of questions. So we had a town hall and this took up the entire town hall meeting, which was several hours, with only three questions that we wanted folks to answer. What do we do that works well? What do you really care about in the workplace? And then based on what works well, how can we improve it? And those three simple questions, we had breakout sessions, we had folks getting all excited about their answers, and it was a very surprising session for me, because I'd never really tried this approach before, and I couldn't believe the energy [inaudible 00:14:31].

Cynthia Golden: So you did this with the entire IT staff together.

Mark Roman: No, I did it with all of the enterprise IT that reports [inaudible 00:14:39].

Cynthia Golden: Okay.

Mark Roman: And all the local IT that doesn't report directly to me.

Cynthia Golden: Wow.

Mark Roman: And so, it was a real coming together of all the folks who do IT work at the university. It was about 400 people. Not all of them, of course, were in the meeting, but there's a total of about 400 IT people in the university who started getting involved.

Jack Suess: Wow.

Mark Roman: And so out of that, we asked for folks to join teams. And what are you interested in? We identified a series of things that we wanted to do. The four things were, how do we do quality work? So what does quality mean to us? How are we going to be more collaborative? How do we focus on developing the individual? And how do we get better at personal interaction? How do we improve our culture? What is our collective model for behavior? So those were the four teams, and we had tons of volunteers. They went off, and I said, so the next town hall, and town halls are every semester, go off and think about this. I'll come and join you for meetings. And we had a facilitator come as well. And if you have any questions, we'll answer them. But you basically want to go off, work on your own, and come back to the next town hall and talk about your results. Talk about where you're at.

And so, we've had the second town hall where all the teams came back and responded on their action plans and presented what they thought were good things they could do and improve in this area. And then after that, they had a lot of feedback from folks in the room at the second town hall, and now these teams are going away and identifying what are the one or two core things that they need to deliver.

And I'll give you an example, one of the things that's come out of this is a mentorship program. So we've launched this program where people in IT will mentor other folks in IT, whether they're local or enterprise. And I volunteered for this. I wanted to be a mentee, but they made me a mentor, but it's very exciting. And we've got a lot of folks, and this is all ground up. This isn't the CIO coming in and saying, thou shalt do mentorship. No, this is about folks in the organization saying we want mentorship. And the next step that's going to come after this is we want to do job shadowing. And so, there's this whole evolution of things that will come out of this. So the notion of appreciative inquiry has been eye opening for me. And it's been the beginning of a big change in our culture here in information systems at [inaudible 00:17:04].

Cynthia Golden: That is so interesting to hear about. I know that there are other CIOs who are fans of the appreciative inquiry approach, and I think this has really been interesting to hear about how it has worked for you guys.

Mark Roman: We're still a work in progress. And once you start down this path, you can't go back and you don't want to go back [inaudible 00:17:25].

Jack Suess: One of the things that this reminds me of, and I think it is Marcus Buckingham's book, One Thing You Need to Know, but I might be wrong on that. But one of his books talks about the fact that as you're working with staff, understanding their strengths and amplifying their strengths is so much more powerful than trying to correct their faults or their weaknesses, and I ended up having my team read that book and it sort of forced us to step back and rethink the way we were looking at employee development and employee management. And it sort of had a shift work into different buckets than where we might have originally thought about it, but it was a great way of sort of rethinking. You've taken that to a new level, I think with the way you're thinking about it, appreciative inquiries. So thank you.

Mark Roman: Yeah. You tend to look at problems differently. You look at people in a more positive light, and it's encouraging, and engaging for everyone. Yeah.

Cynthia Golden: And you were right, Jack, that was Buckingham's whole point was that if we tried to focus on people's weaknesses, we just spin our wheels a lot and really managing to the strengths is where we should be putting our efforts. And that's what I hear under what you're saying, Mark. So again, thanks.

Mark Roman: Yeah, it's a very positive approach and everybody feels better. And I think we're more productive because of it. So it's effective.

Cynthia Golden: Moving into some more leadership discussions. Mark, you have had leadership positions in the Canadian University Council of CIOs, and now in EDUCAUSE on the board. And I always like to ask people what involvement in these kind of professional organizations really has meant for you. And what's it meant for your teams?

Mark Roman: That's a really good question, yeah. So I've been involved in CUCCIO. We call it CUCCIO, Canadian University Council of CIOs. It's not an Italian business. And I've been there since it started. I've been a board member, I've been the treasurer, I've been the vice president, I've been the president. And it's just such an important organization for me. It's kind of like, we can talk about lots of lofty goals, but to me, the most important thing is that it's group therapy. I sit down with the other CIOs across the country and we share our issues. We realize we're not alone. We talk about the challenges of being a CIO that you can't have with anybody else in the organization. And those conversations start as group therapy, and then they start to move into other areas which you start to have conversations about what are the grand challenges that our presidents face, and how do we support those grand challenges? How do we look at new technologies? Does this new technology work for you? Does it not work for you? It's like a huge safety net. I come back energized, and I think the biggest issue is I come back with about 10 new ideas for my organization. So I think my staff kind of dread when I come back from a CUCCIO meeting, but in the end, it makes us a better organization, and it helps me as a CIO get through.

What we're seeing more and more is benefits to the teams across the country. So something that's really evolved to be a huge success is what we're calling special interest groups. And we've had one for years on security and it's been hugely successful and hugely useful for all of us. More recently, we've got special interest groups in communications, client services, project management, research computing. And we're seeing these as very productive. We're seeing that groups across the country are sharing coms material around security awareness month, we're seeing groups share project management templates, tools, and techniques. And we're sharing information about research computing in a way we never did before. So CUCCIO has become this this tool that brings everyone together in a way that makes all of us better. So it's just been a wonderful organization.

Cynthia Golden: Yeah. I think that professional organizations in higher education have really been useful to, certainly to me in my career and to my staff, and that's one of the things about our cultures that we do share.

Mark Roman: Yeah. We even share like how much we're paying for a particular contract and sharing things that vendors probably don't want us to share, but that gives us more negotiating power. And I think it lowers our costs overall for the whole country when we can do that.

Cynthia Golden: So speaking of professional organizations, you are an international board member of EDUCASE, and as part of being a board member at EDUCASE you have a role I think, in shaping our profession. And so, thinking about that, what are your hopes for the IT profession in higher ed, as we think about the future, 20, 25, and beyond that. And how do you see international collaborations shaping our community?

Mark Roman: Yeah, that's a really, really good question. I've had an opportunity to spend some time in Australia, and Germany, and the US, and Canada, and having conversations about IT organizations in higher ed. It's amazing what you can learn when you get outside your national boundaries. We get into a certain mindset, and certainly the funding models differ across the world. But because those funding models differ, people take different approaches to problem solving. And so you see all kinds of different offer opportunities, different ways of doing things. We all need to learn more about what other countries are doing. And I think that it's a spectacular opportunity to go and visit an IT organization, a higher ed or university IT organization in another country, and see how they solve problems differently. Going into some countries where there's unusual privacy constraints or cultural attitudes towards IT. It shapes and forms the approaches they take.

So when I'm in the US, I see a lot of use of cloud computing, and I am deeply envious, because some of the privacy issues that I face in Canada make that a little bit more challenging. And then I go to other countries where there's still a strong focus on open source because of cultural issues and similar concerns around privacy and sharing of data beyond national boundaries. There's so much that we can learn from other organizations and other ways of doing things. And until you get out travel and visit a different organization, you don't see your own organization in as clearly a light as you could.

Jack Suess: One of the things that as we've had these conversations with other CIO leaders, what we've begun to see is how important communication is. And one of the things I sense from you is that you're a great communicator. I also know you're very active in social media activities. At least I follow your Twitter stream quite a bit. And I'm wondering if you have thoughts of about one, the importance of communication and the tools that you use for connecting on campus and how they help you, or the subject in general of how to be a better communicator. So it was in those contexts, and I don't know, if some people just do it naturally, others are very directed in how they think about it. And I just didn't know if you had thoughts.

Mark Roman: So I have a student advisory council. And so, it's always good to ask students what social media, and what they think of social media. And so we've had some really interesting conversations with them. And it's funny, I had conversation with our communications group here on the university, the official communications group, and I was explaining to them that we have a lot of traffic on our subreddit around Simon Fraser University. And they were going, oh, no one uses Reddit. It turns out, I think it's the fourth most popular site in the United States right now. And they just weren't up to speed on what the latest fashion was. So if you think about social media as fashion, you've got to be on top of it all the time. We see Twitter declining, we see Facebook declining, but we see other ones picking up and it's really challenging to stay abreast. What I'm finding is, I'm following Reddit, I can keep track of all the complaints about say wifi on campus. And I can respond to them directly. That's a very high touch approach to responding.

But when it comes to communications, I get out, I walk around campus, I'm all over the place. And I spend a lot of time talking to folks. There's nothing better than actually talking to a faculty member about their problems in person, as opposed to responding by email. When we think about the kinds of changes that we've introduced over the past several years here, we haven't communicated any changes. We've socialized all the changes. So we create communities of interest. We talk, we use all the social media channels that are available, but we get out of our offices and we talk to people, and we have lots of sessions explaining things. It's a very high touch and high energy approach, but we are very successful in having people understand why we're making all of these changes.

Jack Suess: So, Mark, thank you. You've been wonderful so far in our questions. Before we go, are there any final comments, or anything that we didn't ask you that you wanted to touch on and share with the people that are listening?

Mark Roman: Oh gosh, I think that the integrative CIO is somebody who has to be very open-minded and self reflective at all times, and wants to have fun.

Jack Suess: So Mark your background in financial services and getting an MBA, probably makes you more astute in thinking about return on investment, financial management, than the average CIO. Any thoughts that you have as to how you're using that skill in your own organization?

Mark Roman: What a great question, because everything we do in IT is an investment. The university isn't about technology, it's about teaching, learning, community engagement, but it's not about technology. We're here to reduce the administrative burden or to deliver on the grand challenges of president sees. And so, we're an investment. And any project that we have over 20 person days requires a project manager to think about fit, utility, and balance. So does it fit with the strategic vision of the institution? Do the qualitative and quantitative benefits outweigh the costs and the risks, and are we putting a balanced investment portfolio in across the whole institution? So if you think about an investment strategy, every initiative requires that kind of thinking. And so we kind of plot our projects out on a grid that says, what is the risk versus the perceived return? And then we categorize and we think about projects that have a high perceived return and low risk. Those are what we call a clear way forward. We know we're going to do them, everybody supports them.

And then we have projects that have high perceived return, but high risk, and we should do them, but we need to keep a close eye on, because we have to pay a lot of attention to them. So we call those the high attention projects. And then we have projects that are low perceived return from the institution and low risk. And those are things like our cabling infrastructure here at the university was put in before 1989, or 60% of it went in before 1989. So that has to get replaced, and that's a four, five million dollar project. Because it doesn't seem to have a high impact to folks at the university, it has a very low perceived return.

And then we have projects that are low perceived return and also high risk. So implementing a new identity management system, which is something we have to do. Very risky and none of our customers really see it as a high return. The fact of the matter is, those ones that are low perceived return, low risk, I call them table stakes projects. We need to spend a lot of time, if you will, socializing across the campus, the investment in the business case for doing it so that they move into this clear way forward category. We all agree that need to be done.

And then these hard to explain projects like identity access, low perceived return, high risk. We need to explain and socialize why they're important, why it's an important investment to the institution and move them into this high attention category where we keep close eye on them, but we also have convinced the university that they're important to do. And so, that's kind of this portfolio approach to [inaudible 00:31:07] systems projects. We've evolved the organization that was, there's so many things we had to do, and they were very clear what were the first priorities to an organization that solved all those, the big glaring problems. I knew an organization that now has to prioritize all the demand.

So we've just begun to implement a prioritization process. We've matured to a place where it's harder to discern which is more important to do across the institution. So we have a model that we've put in place that's based on a capital asset pricing model where all our projects are scored. And we think about really 10 dimensions. What is the institutional strategic alignment? What is the quantitative value? What is the qualitative value? Is there an obligation to deliver, for example, legislative requirement? What are the project risks? So how risky is this undertaking? And we break that up into kind of qualitative and then quantitative aspects. And then what's the institutional risk if we don't do the project? How does the project fit into our standards? And how does it align with the vision of One IS? And so that scorecard is being used to rank all the currently active projects so that when new projects come in, we then take a look at that score and say, if we don't have resources to do this, can we bump something that's at a lower score, and those tough decisions and those tough conversations happen in the stewardship committee.

Jack Suess: Well, we've certainly had fun today talking with you, Mark. So-

Cynthia Golden: Absolutely.

Jack Suess: Thank you for joining.

This episode features:

Mark Roman
Former CIO, Simon Fraser University
Managing Partner, Info-Tech Research Group

Cynthia Golden
Associate Provost
Executive Director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County