Technology + change management + communication = transformation
- Frequent training and constant two-way communication are key to managing change
- Formal change management workshops go a long way in keeping staff together on change initiatives
- To serve students better, institutions need systems that give visibility to operations across the entire student lifecycle
A CIO on how his institution handles a massive digital transformation
SUNY Empire State College is currently engaged in an astounding amount of technology implementations—ERP, CRM software, document management, degree-planning tools, and more—effecting transformation in nearly every aspect of campus operation that supports the student lifecycle.
To enable strategic use of all this new technology, the institution is adopting new best practices, hosting numerous staff and faculty trainings, internal marketing and communications plan, and revising countless longstanding processes and roles.
Ellucian spoke with Christopher Markham, SUNY Empire State’s Associate Vice President and CIO to bring to light how Empire State is accomplishing such a massive transformation.
Q: How did Empire State College initiate a large-scale digital transformation?
A: The change initiative started in the president’s office, with leaders agreeing that something was wrong with the institution’s process for attracting new students, serving and retaining them, and setting a goal to make better, more data-informed decisions on administrative cost control, service excellence, and enrollment management lead generation.
To improve teaching and learning and to serve our students better, we needed systems that could give visibility to operations across the entire student lifecycle.
Visibility means data, outcomes, and efforts shared up, down, and across every functional and academic office in the college, from the president down to departmental faculty, and back up the ladder. For each campus operation, that visibility enables leaders to make data-informed decisions, but it also enables collaborative flexibility and communication the campus hadn’t quite seen before.
Q: Why is technology so integral the institution’s strategy?
A: The goal was to join the 21st century, SUNY Empire State was still operating administratively and digitally in late 90’s early 2000’s investments and improvements. Digital transformation was the way to drive the strategic vision of all the various college divisions at Empire State.
It’s one thing to embrace the notion that, in this era, change is constant, and another to embrace this much change as a constant. We’ve been able to handle all this change all at once because of our end-user-focused technology strategy, our campus culture, executive commitment, and our ability to communicate effectively throughout the change.
Q: What was the strategy for taking on such a big transformation?
A: Our transformation strategy focused on three key aspects, identified early on by leadership. And it’s not that the following areas should be worked on one at a time, or with completely different people working concurrently, rather that they need to be approached together but with independently outlined activities, some involving the same individuals, some not. The three prongs of this strategy are interrelated, but taking them on as one unified effort would mean too much for one team (even a large one) to take on.
- Modernizing the enrollment strategy. Modern enrollment technologies enable strategies and techniques for attracting students that traditional marketing and communication methods can't always support. Before enrollment leaders at Empire State can implement a CRM solution for recruiting students, it was important to rethink process, roles, and how work is managed. And this, of course, also means rethinking how connections are made and developed with today’s prospective students.
- Rethinking how the institution supports its students. What level of engagement should every student expect in terms of support? And how many services, and which ones, will the university provide? What processes need to be set up in order for every office and function dedicated to student success to coordinate and share data? What best practices already exist within or between departments? What early alert models will the institution create to identify and support students when they need help, or better yet, before they need help?
- Analyzing customizations, compliance, and best practices. Over the years, Empire State had so heavily customized existing systems—some from over 20 years ago—in order to make complicated, sometimes idiosyncratic, processes that worked for staff in the past but were now burdensome and incompatible with new standards for the flow of information on campus.
Now, our challenge is to redesign processes and systems so that they serve the student more than the staff, while eliminating time-intensive manual workarounds. That work inherently leads to updating best practices, as well as an opportunity to uncover and re-cover every aspect that must comply with State and Federal regulations, most importantly for financial aid.
Q: What aspects of campus culture help make digital transformation possible?
A: The governance culture here is supported and promoted by senior leadership, but it’s controlled by the faculty. The faculty control the governance culture. Not the other way around.
Much of Empire State’s governance work works because of strong, collaborative relationships between administrators and faculty, not all of the administrators being leaders either, many of them in staff positions in IT services and administration. While we’ve had this kind of culture for decades, sustaining it takes a level of trust and transparency that must be renewed and maintained.
For institutions that don’t already have such a culture, it’s not something that can be switched on overnight—of course, it starts with open communication that might make leadership feel vulnerable, and with leaders and faculty focusing in on common ground on serving the students first.
A lot of the organizational change management activities we’re doing probably involve more governance team members than any other initiative on campus. We would not be as successful so far if it were any other way.
Q: How have you been communicating the change?
A: I was hired in January 2016, initially as a chief technology officer, because I have a background in organizational change management. One of the things we did at the beginning of this process was perform organizational change management workshops with about 60 carefully selected individuals from each of our 35 campus locations.
We kicked off implementation for each technology, and the next step was to build process models for current- and future-state operations, to help illustrate all changes incurred and expected by the new technology.
To maintain transparency and staff training, we use practically every method of communication available—and the key is communicating consistently and constantly throughout the implementation. It’s a two-way, open communication strategy of taking questions and delivering training ops, webinars, website updates, and information sessions.
The month of May alone featured 17 trainings, which blended virtual and on-site sessions, train-the-trainer activities, and deeper dives into both the strategy and plan for each new technology. While that may seem like overkill in terms of staff time dedicated to training, the interest in taking on all the nitty gritty aspects of change is mutual between the leaders promoting the trainings and the folks attending them. We’ve leveraged our Educational Technologists and built an entire curriculum of training materials such as interactive videos w/summative and formative assessments and have scheduled college-wide trainings with these resources throughout the remainder of the calendar year in a flipped classroom model.
Q: What’s the impact of all that training and meeting time?
A: Engaging in such frequent training and communication activities helps to build rapport among leaders, faculty, and staff—change needs champions as much as general campus-wide awareness. I can’t tell you how many times myself and others on the president’s cabinet have been asked to host another webinar or to come to a town hall. We always get a lot of good questions.
Managing change means mixing in educational, informational, and project health-check communications. And while drumming up excitement for the change is key, myself and others leading the change are keen to make time at Q&A sessions where staff are encouraged to be frank and open about how the process is coming along and what specific needs they have.
Some siloes are harder to break down than others. Some departments really need the constant communication, some can pick up change quickly and lead the way with implementation, but everybody needs something different at some point.
Maintaining a smooth implementation that enables future success
Empire State recently went live with many of the largest pieces of their implementations, notably the enrollment and retention systems in their suite of CRM systems. Now, the ongoing tasks for each team involve building and hardening capacity among users of the new systems, with the execution of new or updated business processes in every division of the college.