Ed Clark on Digital Transformation [podcast]

min read
Community Conversations | Season 1, Episode 8 | Originally recorded on 2/8/21

John O'Brien, EDUCAUSE CEO and President, talks with Ed Clark, CIO and Chief Digital Officer at the University of St. Thomas, about digital transformation.

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John O'Brien: So welcome to Ed Clark from the University of St. Thomas, back in my old stomping grounds, in Minnesota. It's great to see you. And let's, let's just start talking. So Ed, in 2018, I think it was, I asked you to write something about digital transformation in EDUCAUSE Review. And you wrote a great sort of introductory piece to, to the idea of digital transformation, turns out to be one of the top 10 most downloaded articles in 2018. So what was it about that article that captured the imagination of our community? Do you, do you remember what you said?

Ed Clark: Well, I think in 2018 digital transformation was this, this catchphrase, where people were using it everywhere. It was kind of a murky topic. And so trying to attract people to conferences, salespeople were trying to sell their products. So, there were these things like buy Salesforce, and you can digitally transform. And so my goal at the time was, it was an attempt to provide some foundation to this discussion so that people would have this level playing field and start to talk about, well, what are the right things to do to promote this in my organization, in addition to, well what is it?

John O'Brien: So Ed, that was 2018. Nowadays one week seems like a year. So, so 2018 seems a while ago. So if you wrote the same article again now, what would change?

Ed Clark: If I were to write the article again today, some of the things I would change is, I had quotes early and late in the article about the organization's culture and mindset. And to me, what has really emerged is that, you need to have the culture and mindset there to really get to the transformation part. Over the last eight months, most of us were forced to adopt technology at a faster rate than we ever thought possible. And it turns out having the technology systems there and pushing the button was pretty easy.

And in fact, the change that in some of our faculty were scared of. This online thing, I don't know if it's good or bad or whatever. The change was much closer and more accessible than we were led to believe. And that means it was mostly a change initiative all along. But where do you get to that next part where you're saying, "okay, listen, we're just delivering our lecture online via Zoom, where are we really going to push forward on?" Yeah, we're actually aiming at a different experience for our students where we're focused on the outcomes and, in engaging in it beyond just a temporary switch in the way we deliver instruction. I think that it turns out to get there you're going to need this cultural change that is still needs to be there and may not be there at many organizations.

John O'Brien: So that seems to be the $100,000.00 question is, will it stick? We, we had this sort of feated crisis urgent transformation, but will it stick beyond the, when, when everything's returned to, I guess we're saying the next normal now, do you think it will stick at University of St. Thomas?

Ed Clark: Absolutely. I think, I think that many of these things will stick. And in fact, I have these notes and I was going to mention one of the quotes from my article before was Charlene Lee says "The biggest barrier digital transformation is culture and leadership drives the culture. So getting buy-in through the organization throughout the organization is critical to ensuring sustainable success". And so I would say that, in answer to your question, if you are a super elite institution, it's possible that you can get by without much change. I think that, people buy Rolls Royce because of the name Rolls Royce, right. But if you're in the middle tier of schools or the lower tier of schools, change and adaptability are going to have to be built into your business model or else you're just going to be left behind. And so I think that a change for most of our institutions is, is going to just be built in over the next decade and more.

John O'Brien: I agree. As I think back to your original article, I remember there was a chart. I don't know where you got it but it was a chart. And it sort of showed the different stages in digital transformation from not having any, any impulse to transform to designing. And then the next one was delivering and then scaling and such. And, and I remember you sort of placed University of St. Thomas right at the border between designing and delivering. So that was in 2018. Where, where are you now?

Ed Clark: I would say that where I am now, or where the University of St. Thomas is now, is between that delivering and scaling. It's a maturity, a continuum here. Getting to scaling and harvesting implies that your organization has bought into this, the change, the adaptability, the change management is there. And everybody's ready to become this new transformed organization. And that takes a little bit more, I suspect that this is a tough one for most organizations. I can't honestly say that our whole organization is ready to change overnight and do all these great things. But I think that this crisis, the pandemic crisis, did open a lot of eyes. And I can see that, in strategic planning right now, you can see that technology has risen to the top of nearly everybody's priorities about where we need to go next. So I think we're almost ready to start that scaling.

John O'Brien: Yes. And, and I remember in the original article you had right at the top of list of sort of characteristics or attributes for this thing that in 2018 was still somewhere between a slogan or marketing pitch so people were still trying to wrap their minds around it. But you had this list of institutional attributes that make up digital transformation. So do you think that, that COVID has, in some ways, kind of feated them into a top priority?

Ed Clark: Yes. I would say that. I mean the answers are different for each of them, but competition is certainly a yes. You can just simply ask "Is enrollment up or down at my institution?". And then, then you can see, well, what has happened? Right, where did those students go? And I think that competition has definitely become even more competitive at this point. So profit and efficiency, also yes. I have friends at a wide range of universities. And even at the elite ones, cost-cutting has become a thing because we're not seeing the revenue we used to. So that whole focus on profit and efficiency is certainly there. For agility, I would say, maybe. I would relate back to my previous comments. Is, is there a really culture change on your campus or not? Are you seeing this culture change? Are you just seeing the beginnings of it or is, at this point, everybody coming to your office and saying, "Hey, come on and lead us into this new future.". And I'd say that's why it's just a maybe.

And then finally, in terms of customer experience, I would also say maybe, but probably not. I don't think we've even had time to go in and ask students, "Well, how was that experience for you? What could we change about it? What new things could we try?" And that's just on the student side, same, same thing for the faculty and the staff as well. We've just been in panic mode trying to get everything going. And I think that getting in that customer experience takes a little bit more time than we've had to date.

John O'Brien: You know, it, it seems to me that for the last few years, there's been a sort of in, in every industry, a push toward putting the customer more and more in the center. And it felt like that was starting to happen in higher education. And then COVID kind of happened. And we see all this research about students lacking access to broadband and students struggling to to deal with income inequality and mental health resources needed and all of that. So in a, in a funny way, students are put in the center out of a sense of, of necessity. Is that what you're seeing at, at University of St. Thomas as well?

Ed Clark: Absolutely at St. Thomas, we are seeing all of those things. We are certainly worried about their access. We're worried about their tuition. We're worried about the technologies that they're using. And so we have gone through a lot of work to try to streamline things for them and make sure we have all these pools of money that we put aside and say, "Hey, okay, your bandwidth, isn't great from where you are. Can we fix that for you?". And so reaching out in a way that goes beyond our campus is I assume a lot of other institutions that are doing the same things, but yeah, that's definitely part of it.

John O'Brien: If you go back and look, there was a flurry of articles and talk about digital divide back in the early 2000s, and then sort of a patch where nobody was talking about it so much as if, as if we'd solved it. And I think to some extent, COVID proved that we didn't. And now they're coming right back to haunt us.

Ed Clark: And I think that the thing that is really starting to be highlighted is we've gone into this raw world. We pushed the button. The technology switch in a way was easy. You heard almost every university say, "Hey, we went to Zoom in two weeks or three days or whatever it was". And putting those technologies out there is just part of it. But this virtual environment is not the same as the face-to-face environment. And so our teachers had to get better in that environment, our students have to get better at learning in that environment. And we haven't had as much practice as we'd like. I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning where executives are debating whether we'll all go back to the way things were before. And half of them said, "Yeah, absolutely. Because this online thing is not as good as face-to-face. So this work world is more, is more, it works better when we're doing things face-to face".

I think that we've had decades to learn how to do things in a face-to-face format. And we've only had a little while to practice being in this virtual format. Over time, I think more and more organizations are going to say part of what we have to do is learn how to be effective in this environment. I think there's also been a lot of fear that has driven change at this point. We had to do something. And so we jumped there because of fear. And so people are working long hours. There are no boundaries. We're going to have to learn how to bring those things back into our daily practice and daily routines, even in the virtual world.

John O'Brien: So, Ed, I've been hearing stories from out there in the wild that go in a lot of different directions. Some are talking about the cuts in higher ed IT and the cuts they've had to swallow at their institutions. And that that's been difficult. I've heard other stories that during this crisis of, of the great pivot of 2020, that the influence of technology has increased a lot, that the respect for the work that, that IT leaders and IT professionals do has increased a lot. What have you seen either at your own institution or, or among your peers?

Ed Clark: Well, certainly at my institution, I am currently co-chairing our strategic planning efforts with a fantastic faculty co-chair from our college of business. I think, I'm trying to think in the past, I don't think would have happened as naturally. But now I think people think it is natural that I would be working on those kinds of questions on behalf of the institution. Also, actually deeply involved with the collaborative, comprehensive campaign process where we're building this new campaign that we hope will fundamentally change who we are as an organization. And so I think those are huge things that, that are different for me personally. And I remember I was at our board meeting this spring, I was introduced as the Chief Innovation Officer, which came as a complete surprise to me. I hadn't heard it. It still made me, I'm still the CIO, so I'm going to go with that.

But I think it reflects that people are looking to me and my organization for some leadership through, through these times. And I think I really like being in that role, of course. And more to the point, I have heard from my other colleagues that this same thing is happening at their organizations as well. In the strategic planning I've done so far, the community we've gotten 1700 responses. We have our Deans preparing plans or their next 10 years. And I can see technology is really core to what they think is going to be needed to be successful over the next decade. And I'm hearing from my peers and colleagues that it's the same at their institutions as well. So I'm surprised that other CIOs aren't seeing that kind of elevated role at this point.

This episode features:

Ed Clark
CIO and Chief Digital Officer
University of St. Thomas

John O'Brien
President and CEO

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Digital Transformation: What Is It?