An Era of Innovation in the Educational Sector

An Era of Innovation in the Educational Sector

By Loretta Early, CIO, The George Washington University

Loretta Early, CIO, The George Washington University

“Universities need to ensure an excellent employee experience so that they can deliver an outstanding student experience. Even with sufficient money and robust technologies at my fingertips, I can’t lead my organization to success if I don’t have the best people in the right jobs who are passionate about making a difference in our industry.”

Universities need to ensure an excellent employee experience so that they can deliver an outstanding student experience.

As CIO and the most senior level technology decision maker, Loretta provides executive leadership to critical areas of the university, prioritizes IT investments in collaboration with key constituencies, and leads GW Information Technology (GW IT) in the execution of strategic initiatives that are aligned with and advance the university’s strategic plan and goals. She oversees a wide portfolio of technology projects, all IT policies, contracts, vendor relationships, and the annual IToperating and capital budgets. In addition, she strengthens the university’s technological foundation and future state by managing IT’s five-year financial plan, achieving operational stability and service excellence, creating a data-driven culture, and managing and reducing risks to the organization and the university. Her strong leadership, communication skills, and technical expertise enable her to promote purposeful campus partnerships that build a foundation of trust and transform the university’s IT culture through innovation and collaboration.

What do you think are some of the major trends in the education landscape?

To begin with, I’d say that each higher education institution operates in ways unique to its culture and structure. However, if we delve deep into these institutions’ business operations, we can find that they share a similar set of challenges. One is the hardship often faced in finding the right technology that aligns well with current needs, while helping transform the way they do business for the desired future state. At the George Washington University, we leverage our technical expertise and industry experience to advise on strategic technologies that can spark significant disruption to streamline business operations and transform services. We continuously look for new ways to improve our operational processes to enhance our students’ educational and overall campus life experiences. With this, we are on a drive to improve our organizational resiliency, agility, and capacity forinnovation.

We have embraced a “Cloud-smart” approach that balances the benefits and enterprise risks to integrate technologies such as hybrid cloud, PaaS, and SaaS.Our teams have started strategizing ways to optimize what we have on-premise, what can move to the cloud, and where we can leverage software as a service. Another technology we incorporate into our service delivery design is a mobile-first strategy. By leveraging the potential and vast opportunities of mobile technology, we are on a drive to deliver apps that support self-service and a responsive consumer experience for our user communities.

Keeping an eye on use cases for blockchain, we continue to explore new ways to credential students and help them earn badges for appropriate course work while enriching their learning experience, and helping them stay on track to graduate on time. GW also aims to use predictive analytics, which can play a vital role in improving student retention and success.

We have piloted the use of artificial intelligence and chatbots to extend our service capabilities, particularly for students. By creating virtual agents powered by augmented intelligence, we have extended our capabilities for providing 24/7 service without increasing staff overtime and administrative overhead.

With the increasing number of “Internet of Things”(IoT)devices on campuses, it is important for us to proactively address the security concerns associated with IoT devices, and at the same time, leverage technology to meet increasing expectations for consumerization and personalization. Our research and expertise also extends beyond our campus to include work with the District of Columbia on Smart City initiatives and IoT design.

In light of your experience, what are some of the immediate predicaments that hinder the education sector?

Ensuring data security, privacy, and compliance with mandated regulations, often unfunded,are critical concerns for CIOs in the education landscape. In our efforts to balance the pace of change in our industry with the growing complexities associated with security threats, we manage cyber security from an enterprise risk management perspective. Secondly, higher education institutions should watch economic forecasts and the potential impact on future enrolment and tuition revenue.  CIOs can be valuable advisors on how technology can enable ways to do work better, faster, and at lower costs. With digitalization occurring across all industries, recruiting and retaining top IT talent and leaders is rising as a predicament for CIOs in higher education. Like all service businesses, universities need to ensure an excellent employee experience so that they can deliver an outstanding student experience. Even with sufficient money and robust technologies at my fingertips, I can’t lead my organization to success if I don’t have the best people in the right jobs who are passionate about making a difference in our industry.

Could you elaborate on the recent technological advancements within your organization? 

Innovation is integral to our operations, and we always drive toward enhancing our capabilities to stay ahead of the curve. For instance, we are researching use cases for robotic process automation (RPA) to redesign our business processes so that they can be streamlined and simplified. We also plan to integrate CRM capabilities into our customer service ecosystem, and have developed a holistic, enterprise-wide strategy that spans use cases across the university.

Industry research shows that modern workplace skills highly desired by employers include creativity, problem solving, teamwork, and coding – all of which are characteristic of gaming activities. We recently collaborated with our campus partners to host an eSports event for our students by which we aimed to provide easy access to technology and resources that students need to engage in these activities.

What would be the piece of advice that you give to your colleagues to guide them in building a powerful strategy for the organization?

Change is inevitable. There are a lot of changes happening in the industry, and that trend will continue. Therefore, my first piece of advice is to stay cognizant about the ever-increasing pace of change, digital disruption happening across all consumer service industries, and new emerging business models. Assess your organization’s readiness for change. Focus on People, Process, and Technology, in that order. Many leaders have heard about ‘culture eating strategy,’ and I feel fortunate to have university executive leadership who recognizes the significance of culture in achieving our aspirations and strategic goals. Often the task ahead seems daunting. Approach problems from a continuous improvement perspective to achieve quick wins and keep the momentum going, especially for multi-phase projects. We have adopted agile development and are moving from a projects to a product based methodology.

Most importantly, a CIO should be aware of their strengths and blind spots, and make sure they surround themselves with people who can complement their strengths.Pursuediversity, equity, and inclusion in filling these leadership roles. Empower these people to serve as strategic advisors to you. Learn about servant leadership and embrace the industry and organization you serve.

It is an exciting time to be an IT leader in the higher education space.

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