Cloud and SaaS-the New-age Mantra for Education

Chris Nash, CIO, Adtalem Global Education

Chris Nash, CIO, Adtalem Global Education

1. How would you describe the role of a CIO today?

In some respects, the CIO role is like an Olympic decathlete. Just like in the decathlon, today’s CIO is expected to excel at 10 wide-ranging disciplines:

1. Creating a culture of innovation and energy;
2. Attracting and hiring in a highly competitive talent market;
3. Motivating a diverse, and oftentimes remote, workforce;
4. Partnering with a variety of internal business leaders and coordinating their oftentimes competing priorities;
5. Networking with cross-industry peers;
6. Selecting and implementing the right technologies at a time when technology lifecycles are changing at unprecedented rates;
7. Delivering change at unprecedented speed using techniques like agile and extreme programming;
8. Driving efficiencies and managing costs through lean, six sigma and vendor negotiations;
9. Protecting the organization and people from cyber-risk despite all while SaaS and cloud are redefining what “the organization” is;
10. Deliver user experiences rivaling Apple or Amazon Prime type quality.

"The primary benefit to cloud computing is it allows the education industry to increase our focus on the needs of students"

Each discipline is in its own right and is extremely challenging to master. The good news is that CIOs do not need to be the very best at all 10. The challenge is that failing to perform just one at an acceptable level will result in failure.

2. How do you see the benefits of cloud computing for the Education industry, and how have you embraced it?

The primary benefit to cloud computing is it allows the education industry to increase our focus on the needs of students. Too much of our time can be spent acquiring, installing, maintaining, patching, securing and upgrading technology when that is not why we are here. By shifting this responsibility to those who specialize in these tasks, cloud computing allows us to increase our focus on our core competency, which is teaching. It also allows us to move more quickly and be more responsive to marketplace changes. For these reasons, we have moved aggressively towards cloud-based computing. SaaS and cloud hosted solutions make up the majority of our technology portfolio.

3. Universities and Colleges have lots of information but cannot use it effectively to drive business. Data is both difficult to access and needed by more applications. How do you examine the effective and proactive use of data— how to consolidate, integrate and use it to drive business?

It is true that we are in what I would describe as a lag period when it comes to data. According to IBM, we have produced more data in the past two years than in the history of this planet combined. It is clear to me that we have disproportionally invested in technologies that generate data, while technologies that help us access and make use of this data are struggling to keep up. The good news is that useful, but rigid, technologies of yesterday, like data warehouses and cubes are being complimented by new, more flexible architectures. In our case, we are using capabilities like data lakes, cloud computing, data appliances, machine learning, API platforms, predictive analytics, optimization algorithms, and improved visualizations platforms to better use our data. This in turn drives improvements in how we teach.

4. What are some steps universities/ colleges can take to foster innovation and/or growth?

Many people smarter than I am have struggled to define and pursue the concept of innovation. Ask 10 people what innovation is, and you will likely get as many definitions. My belief is that the recipe to innovation is simple but the realization is difficult. I believe the recipe consists of talent, inspiration, experimentation, determination, collaboration, time, risk, and resource. Put these together in the right measure and you will create an environment that fosters innovation and growth. The challenge is that, so many other daily priorities claw and pull for those very ingredients. Acquiring and defending these needs is the trick. In the end, leadership becomes the central ingredient.

In my opinion, universities and colleges have both shared and unique technology areas they need to follow carefully. Obviously, we all need to follow technologies that help us develop and support our faculty and teach our students. Technologies at DeVry University include adaptive learning, gaming, simulation, virtual and augmented reality, content curation, video production, mobile delivery, distance-based learning and many others. Unique needs will often arise based on the university or college. For example, career-oriented institutions might focus on different technology areas than a research university would.

5. Over the years, we have witnessed a massive change pertaining to the role of CIOs depending on the organization, the industry, the business strategies, the prevailing market conditions and the financial climate in terms of business value. How would you describe your own role as CIO has changed in the past couple of years?

In some respects, the role has not changed; it is still about being a tech decathlete we talked about earlier. However, with overall U.S. higher education enrollments peaking in 2010, and nearly 450,000 fewer students attending college, I would say the partnership with the CMO is more important today than it was a couple of years ago. Additionally, with data breaches littering the headlines, the increased sophistication of advanced persistent threats and rise of nation-state sponsored attacks; our focus on cyber-risk is much greater than a few years ago. My CIO role has taken on a more international focus with our acquisitions of educational institutions in Brazil, adding more than 79K students to our roster.

6. The opportunity and disruption in the education market requires business transformation at a swift time-to-market pace. How has technology and your initiatives helped your university/ institution to excel or keep pace with the change?

We hold quality and security as table stakes, but “speed to value” has been a standing priority for our technology teams for the past couple of years. In our case, we find speed in the white spaces. By white spaces, I mean the lost time that falls through the cracks when work is handed off from one team to another—the hour or the day of lost time while teams wait for a decision to be made or an email to be responded to. The week or month, it might take to get contracts and statements of work that has been finalized. The time spent waiting to ask for help or to escalate a problem. With our focus on speed-to-value and minimizing the white spaces, we deliver approximately 250 projects and 1,200 enhancements each year, resulting in a 39 percent decrease in average project duration. This acceleration in time-to-market allows our institutions to offer students the technology-enabled services they need and expect.

7. Higher Education CIOs have seen the onslaught of both digital content and mobile devices and need to ensure their infrastructure is ready. What needs to be done in the area of infrastructure investment?

The first thing that needs to be done is adopting a welcoming stance. Digital content, streaming media, large file downloads, heavy wireless traffic, and students with three or four wireless devices are the new reality. Embrace it all and find ways to enable and support it. Second, be proactive. We all know the future is defined by “more” bandwidth, more storage, more computing, more flexibility, more security, and so on. I am not sure there is such a thing as future-proof, but CIOs need to find ways to anticipate additional needs. Too often, we are on our back foot playing defense. To get the resources we need, we need to describe the heavy expectations our current and future students have when it comes to technology and what we must do to remain relevant. CIOs must understand their audience and deliver their messages in the appropriate form. They should be able to use faculty experiences and student outcomes in certain circles and business cases and risk management in others.

8. What is your advice for the upcoming or budding CIOs?

Be a tech decathlete. I have known too many people in my career who have tried to take shortcuts or rush their career along. In doing so, they failed to develop the skills and experiences in one or more disciplines. As a result, their careers stalled or their big CIO assignment ended abruptly. To become good at all of these disciplines takes time, effort, diverse experiences and, most importantly, others to learn from. Like athletes, CIOs need coaches and mentors to help build on our strengths, develop and improve areas of weakness, and help identify and correct the blind spots we all have. Being self-aware of how we’re performing in the 10 disciplines will help you know when you are ready, it will help you excel when you are promoted to the next level, and ultimately, it will serve you well when you are given your shot as CIO.

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