Tuesday, July 8, 2014

From Farm-to-Table Technology Series: Back to Basics

"The phrase 'farm to table' is a buzzword referring to food made with locally sourced ingredients. Our society is in a rapid state of technological innovation, which means that we often compromise health and nutrition for the sake of convenience, hence the popularity of fast food and TV dinners. However, a growing number of consumers have started to seek healthier and more environmentally friendly alternatives to the processed foods that dominate grocery store shelves."

Before our current technology era, business ran smoothly. Primary differences involved basing next moves on general experience while running at a much slower speed. Suddenly, the business world was thrust into a continuous 'shock and awe' state where gadgetry and basic (insert any programming language here) knowledge ruled supreme. Today, technology is a given and we need to take a step back and direct our attention to: the business. Without the glitz and glamor but showcasing metrics, data and competition. The basics discussed around the big table - of which, technology is one. 

I always enjoy reviewing technology trends for the current year about midway in to the year. A great example of spot-on trends, and one that appears to be mostly mirrored across a variety of media, can be found here: http://www.pwc.com/us/en/advisory/10-business-technology-trends.jhtml. The top trends are business analytics, social media in business and the use of mobile followed closely by cyber-security. No real surprises here now in July 2014 and, frankly, no real surprises when released last December either. 

When I think of technology and business, my vision expands beyond the basic uses of technology to compliment a business. Yes there will always be a variety of ways in which technology will enhance a business, but beyond the reporting and marketing there’s a more primal and underlying current. Technology facilitates success. Period. There it is. Not unlike a great farm-to-table experience, there is very little more holistic, satisfying and effective than when technology is a priority from the boardroom to the wiring and every level in between and emitted outward. Especially when the end result is better performance (people, product, market), higher profits (sales, savings, efficiencies, revenue) and improved productivity.

Before one takes the ‘farm to table’ analogy too literally, this does not mean that all technology needs to come from in-house magic. This will be discussed more in detail in a future series entry.

For now, it's imperative to get back to basics. Get back to business. The primary difference is that pre-technology, technology leadership was not at the table. Today, technology runs from farm to table, a benefit every step of the way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's Not Me, It's You...Breaking Up with your Managed Services Relationship

One of my first charges upon joining my current employer involved in-sourcing a fairly significant faction of the technology department away from a 20+ year managed services engagement. This department-part needed to be hired, trained, and integrated into an existing department. Over the course of the 20+ years there may or may not have been finger-pointing outsourced v. internal staff -style, a perception of not high levels of service, a general confusion around who to contact for specific issues and project management that aligned perfectly with the timeline of the provider but not-so-much the university. Hiring technology staff for a specialized administrative system including systems and administration expertise...in the northeast...on a budget...in less than six months?

Allow me to eliminate any dramatic tension by saying right up front, it proved to be a seamless transition. Seamless and somehow refreshing. And not only was the transition seamless, service has improved exponentially and cost decreased even more over the course of the ensuing year.

Remember when to the untrained eye it made sense to outsource quite a bit of IT? "Well if we eliminate that payroll, we'll save the company/college a million dollars!" Have you ever heard anyone give an update a few years later on savings? Most likely, unless it was a very small, duplicative, tier-1-support-level area, you have not been wowed by followup reports on cost savings and service improvements. Why is that? Here are a few of my 'takes':
  • Third-parties do have a direct interest in budgets - their own. 
  • Technology sales teams tend to be the best I've experienced. They can absolutely show you a savings on salary. It's when you match up those savings with the variety of other line items that the savings disappear rapidly.
  • Sales teams get you 'in the outsourcing' door with a hook: I can save you 50% of what you're spending now. What they mean is, what you're spending now on what you're spending now. There will be other fees and charges, expenses and investments. It's all about business. Theirs. And trust you will likely pay more.
  • If a company can convince a leader - let's say a finance leader - to pursue savings by eliminating an entire high-level branch of technology, suddenly there are no pros in-house on that area, for example, networking. You are now chained to a company and trusting them to monitor systems for a fee - that you might already be monitoring in-house for free. (Trust me, this happens, I've seen it.) You already have that service. Now you're paying for it again.
In-sourcing in 2014 is similar to the year when everyone finally succumbed to doing away with their landline at home for good. We all got cell phones and dropped our landlines, then panicked (what about 9-1-1???) and reinstated our landlines until, finally, we realized we could save money and survive without the safety net of that landline. YES. You can absolutely save money and get better service by investing in qualified IT staff dedicated to one budget (yours) and one business (yours). It takes time, patience and energy, but in the long run, it's often (not always) the smartest choice.

What keeps you from ripping off the managed services bandage and investing - possibly re-investing - in your IT team? The fear of transition? The fear of failure? The fear of downtime? The fear of backlash? In most cases it's the fear of losing the convenience of just paying someone to do something you're not at all familiar with - and never plan to be. If that's the case - hire someone you trust with the promise that you will support them, listen to them and allow them to be integrated into your long-term financial plan/strategy. They need to be someone that speaks your language, that you are comfortable with and that you look forward to sitting around many-a table with, on the regular.

Come on - rip it off. You'll feel better once you do.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Nickel and Diming is Not Fun: Redefining Infrastructure in a Technology World

Budgeting for technology used to be so simple. Operational dollars went to all expenditures that were recurring in nature - licensing, maintenance, billing, warranties through staples, travel and training. Capital dollars went to one-time expenses over 2k. Easy-peasy.

Welcome to today's exponentially changing world of technology, where an issue surpassing actual FUNDING is the after-process of PAYING.

Today let's take two scenarios.
  1. Building a new lacrosse field including renovating a stadium to make it 'high tech'. Clearly a capital project. The project is complete and a folder with the words 'Capital Project' written on the outside shields $10M worth of receipts for project expenditures. Your finance department receives the folder and stamps a big, green 'APPROVED' across the package and begins to process. No questions asked.
  2. Your IT department is leading a charge to upgrade the wireless infrastructure on campus. This is a one-time total overhaul of the core network, access points, hardware, wiring, and pipes, all in preparation to pump significantly more bandwidth across the campus. The project is complete and a folder with the words 'Capital Project' written on the outside shields $2M worth of receipts for project expenditures. Your finance department receives the folder and - - - the process begins. The next several months are littered with communications from Finance to IT questioning tens of expenses. Example: email received from Finance noting a receipt contains a line item for $30,000 involving wireless access points. There were 100 purchased, but the access points were $300, so that $30,000 needs to be moved to operational dollars. Each access point was under the 2k limit. Hmm. Well, this was funded as a capital project and IT doesn't have 30k in operational dollars. Every expense is scrutinized and presented as 'operational' instead of capital.
Please note: In scenario one above, there is a line item for $12,000. For 40 of the exact same wireless access points in scenario two. $300 x 40 = $12,000. ESPN has certain technology requirements for bandwidth and accessibility to even show up for a big game. Not surprisingly, the lacrosse field renovation passes without a second glance. Because it's a standard capital project.

Infrastructure is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly".  Herein lies the problem. Most look at the introductory definition without reviewing the second definition that has been added more recently. Infrastructure is also defined as "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)" - BINGO.

Infrastructure is infrastructure. A hurdle we need to overcome involves re-associating 'building' with objects beyond bricks and mortar. Foundations don't simply refer to poured concrete. Foundations are also physical networks. As some invest in IaaS (infrastructure as a service) while most kick it old school with wireless in conjunction with physical networks, suddenly we're also defining intangibles (you can't touch a wireless network) as infrastructure. Mind blown? Let's stick with today's new normal of plain-Jane physical and core network infrastructure.

For now, the hurdle is helping to redefine infrastructure beyond buildings. Tomorrow is associating capital with invisible service. How can we best approach this? Real question.
This is a topic for all universities and businesses alike to minimally be aware of, preferably get some education on. As technology evolves, more focus will shift to smaller integrating with smaller. No more large chunks of heaping technology. Agility, scalability and integration will be key. IT will rally for the funding. The last hitch should be spending most of everyone's time explaining every single piece of the purchase. The right leader will know what is capital and what is not and should be more than willing to vouch for each expenditure - from the $300 wireless access points purchased Costco-style (in bulk) to the $800k virtual infrastructure block. It's all brick and mortar to us. Technology is infrastructure. The computer refreshes of yesterday are the total network overhauls of today, on set cycles to keep up with the pace of technology. Each are capital projects made of capital expenditures.

Fun times ahead!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It’s Like Christmas in April: Focusing on Efficiency and Improving Process/Procedure (PART ONE FAIRFIELD UNIVERSITY – LIVING A STRATEGIC PLAN REFRESH)

Fairfield University is undergoing a campus-wide effort to refresh the University’s Strategic Plan. There are ten task forces and what level of nerd am I that I am thrilled to be the chair of one; specifically, the Back Office Operations Task Force. As a Chief Information Officer, often a meeting mogul and business case provider, the opportunity to lead a charge identifying areas of improvement for the institution that should lead to a more efficient, more streamlined, and less duplicative environment is exciting.

Why would anyone not in higher education have an interest in this journey? A campus is similar to a business in that we have a comprehensive ERP system, rely on reporting/analytics, have customers (students), overhead and competition. In addition, the charge of this particular task force is: To leverage best practices and technologies to streamline and modernize our back office operations and lower our costs. What if, just imagine, our experience here in Connecticut elicits an ‘a-ha!’ moment for you directly or indirectly? No harm done, possible applause from your boss on recommending a cost-saving efficiency out of the blue. Worse things have happened.

We have a great group of collaborative, forward-thinkers on our task force. We have been assured no one’s feelers will get hurt if we point out that their area needs an overhaul. This is about identifying pathways to improvement, not rehashing past actions and deficiencies. Two meetings in and we’ve added three new members, agreed upon recurring no-pressure meetings, found several reports done by other institutions on similar projects (one in particular is spot-on), and dispersed a link to an online survey requesting input from the entire campus population. We are storing the responses in a database and will categorize them by the labels ‘Student Operations’ (think ‘Customer Operations’, my corporate friends) and ‘Business Operations’. A pervasive concentration spanning both labels is ‘Our People’ supporting training, professional development and continuous improvement efforts to build confidence and knowledge within our community.

Examples of Student Operations include Registration, Financial Aid, Residence Life, Bursar’s office. Examples of Business Operation include General Budget Strategies, HR, Procurement, Facilities/Energy Conservation, Printing, Duplicated Efforts, and Technology. More will come, some might drop off. In general, the only steadfast rule is absolute transparency.

We are now in the process of compiling and categorizing submitted ideas (including our own), preparing for the next meeting when we will start prioritizing and assigning a measurable (cost, time, savings) to each. This will inevitably be captured and live/breathe within an Excel-like environment so if you’d like to play along at home, use your white board to nail down the operational structure at your place of business, start brainstorming and identify labor- and/or time-intensive processes, high-cost areas, software or systems that might be disparate and duplicative. Jot this all down. Then stay tuned for next steps!

This is an update on the housekeeping phase, dealing primarily with logistics, structure and a loose, malleable plan that will most certainly morph into our final deliverable slated for December 2014.

You’ve completed the first installment of our experience. More shall come as we progress.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Value of an Arts & Sciences Foundation to a CIO

The university where I serve is currently undergoing a comprehensive strategic planning effort. With some embarrassment I admit I love the process of working on strategy, goals, long-term, big-picture, therefore I need to forewarn that in the coming weeks there will likely be numerous quick, 'lightning bulb' posts coming your way. They might have zero to do with technology.

You've been warned.

Yesterday at the university we had a guest speaker who was pretty fabulous. He has a history with The Chronicle and is an author with insight on higher education. The overarching question throughout the workshop seemed to be - Considering the current climate, to remain sustainable and competitive, what do we as an institution need to focus on? Which led to a plethora of topics, ideas, questions, and serious 'thinking cap' moments for me.

There has been much discussion and press on the topic of traditional education - affordability, sustainability, accessibility, what does the future hold? There has also been in the not-too-distant-past a laser-like focus on trade- and professional-concentrations which often made my mind wander to, "But what about the Arts and Sciences?"

In total disclosure, I didn't necessarily have a traditional college experience. I took a couple of years off to 'find myself', live life, struggle and eventually come to the realization that, wow, I need to finish my education. Which possibly made me appreciate it more. As an entering freshman, I immediately found myself drawn to the Communication department. Did I want to go into Media? Journalism? Broadcasting? Unsure. But I knew I'd found my home the minute I entered the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR. The rest is mostly history, but how does this even make sense? I'm a Chief Information Officer.

People sometimes look perplexed when they discover my undergraduate degree is in Communication as opposed to something computer- or technical-related. It never phases me as my confidence in the value of the Arts and Sciences degree, specifically Communication-based, could not be higher.
How did I end up a CIO? Fresh out of college I never imagined my life would take me toward the field of technology, but in hindsight the years feel like a natural progression. A path that I followed with interest. My mind hasn't always been open to change and growth and risk. It is plausible that my early college experience and exposure brought that out in me. That, in my opinion, is the intrinsic benefit of an education in the Arts and Sciences. Your most formative (and freeing and mind-blowing) years are your college days. Whether you are in a residential situation or a commuter working full-time, your undergraduate 'career' is a time of reflection, immersion, and introduction to every side of every coin, not just what feels 'comfy'. You're thrust into situations that knock the wind out of you. By design. You are forced to ask the questions that hurt a little which inevitably lead to answers that change your outlook and tolerance and appreciation.

Kind of like - your professional career. And adult life. As a technology leader, the pace of technology sets the pace of the leader. I need to be able to forecast, respond, formulate, process, manage, envision, troubleshoot, communicate, implement, and guess which part if often missing and most appreciated - the communication piece. Technology without communication is acronyms and a language few understand and, more importantly, care about. These days technology is social and sales and marketing and driving and championing. Those high-touch skills? Required in Arts and Sciences. Daily. With every assignment. I remember my first controversial speech (terrifying) and the applause that followed (awkward). Nonverbal communication, inter- and intra-personal communication skills - I still use this. I apply these skills every day and my guess is, anyone in any field, could benefit from these skills as well.

College exposed me to the world outside my own mind. Arts and Sciences catapulted me outside my comfort zone. Communication forced me to be a player and an active participant in life. Never underestimate the power of a liberal arts college experience. Open your mind first. You have plenty of time to find your area of focus. Enjoy your journey.

Show me your future and I'll share with you the power of Arts and Sciences. It really is the perfect base to your next life tier.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Online Learning Selectivity: The 'Whole Hog' Approach Isn't for Everyone

This goes for the learner and the educational institution.

As a learner, a fully online program requires an inner drive, innate or learned, that isn't an absolute necessity in face-to-face classroom programs. Fully online degree programs require a dedication to attendance, participation and individual coursework that is often bolstered in the traditional experience by requirements to physically 'be present' by a professor. Mental presence in the classroom is also judged by a professor. If you aren't mentally there, a teacher will notice this and demand an active presence. Via the computer? Not so much. A learner typically needs to check in a set number of times over the course of a set number of days but, let's be honest, those participation check-ins can be at times mindless. Thus the inner drive requirement for success in fully-immersive online learning.

As an institution, the focus is on the educational climate. Higher education appears to be struggling to recruit students now more than ever. Why? There are more options. Our nation has morphed a bit into a nation of convenience. Do we give in to the convenience factor as an inevitable be-all-end-all? Do we stand up tall, dig in our heels and insist quality over convenience? If you consider 'The Joneses' to be Phoenix.edu, suddenly all focus becomes 'how do we get everything we do online'.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, I have two favorite words heard repeatedly and pervasively: lagniappe and mélange.

Lagniappe is defined as, "An extra or unexpected gift or benefit" [http://www.thefreedictionary.com/lagniappe].

Mélange is defined as, "A mixture" [http://www.thefreedictionary.com/melange].

My recommendation for any institution not currently offering fully online programs is, first and foremost, take a deep breath and let the panic attack subside. My next recommendation is to pursue a little something extra, a mixture. At the end of the day, is being the next Phoenix a strategic outcome or goal of your institution? Sure we all want bankrolls, but is that your mission? Don't lose sight of what makes your college or university inherently attractive, forest for the trees and all that jazz. Develop an infrastructure that supports technology and infuses your campus with innovation. If you already have that platform, use it. It can be baby steps and it certainly doesn't need to be a 'whole hog' approach. Find your early adopters or integrative thinkers and supply them with the tools while you respectfully educate them on trends, examples of usage, successful student response, and similar. If the hybrid classes evolve into something more, something program-y, let it naturally evolve. If not, keep it flipped and engaging.

A recent article shows that online growth is slowing [http://campustechnology.com/articles/2014/01/15/report-online-enrollment-growth-slows.aspx], but still growing at a rate of 6.1%. Online learning enrollments are still surpassing that of traditional enrollments by leaps and bounds.

Now is the time to play around with flipped classrooms, lecture capture, and other hybrid offerings. Technology will continue to play a vital role in education. Although scary at first, once a faculty member successfully plays around with technology in the classroom their mindset oftentimes makes a complete 180 in reference to the importance of the online experience.

The need for those who teach will sustain. The need to attract students will sustain. A nice blend, or mélange, of tools in the classroom toolkit will attract, will engage and will educate our nation's students and reinforce the importance of academics. If all higher education institutions dropped current goals and focus to chase after the for-profit, 'big box' online education providers, what happens to the traditional university experience? There is something to be said for 'the college years'. Replacing that transformative experience for everyone with a fully-online convenience would be a true loss for future generations. Our population needs to be educated. We will never be a one-size-fits-all population. My Nola background will continue to scream 'variety is the spice' in education.

Explore the red cup. 
Encourage the red cup.

Monday, December 30, 2013

You're Killin' Me, Drones

Admittedly the Amazon Drone hype [http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/12/01/amazon-bezos-drone-delivery/3799021/] is not aiding my exhaustive (and likely exhausting) 'doing it right is light-years better than doing it quick' diatribe, but I still stand firmly by that mantra. It's not petulance talking, it's experience. However this is the population we serve. A population that seems accepting of the possibility that they, within the next few years, might very well lose an ear from walking directly into an octocopter's blades. For what, you ask? Simply put, to receive their new razor, dog food or box of k-cups delivered to their doorstep within 30 minutes. Instant or near-instant gratification is our population’s expectation. This is the same public who expects that should, say, oh I don't know, a promised website not work up to par upon rollout that the 'fix' needs to be immediate. 

So our public accepts technology. Our public expects technology. Our public relies on technology. However, our public for the most part has no idea what goes on behind the scenes in technology. And that’s OK. Technology should be easy for the end-user. That’s pretty much the point of technology. But when technology breaks down, our users (the public in general) need to understand that it’s almost never as simple as switching out a battery. That’s why technology efforts like web sites and apps need to roll out right, the first time.

Fade in on the twelve minute video titled "Why Healthcare.gov came out broken" [http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/3/5169196/why-healthcare-gov-came-out-broken-video] to the vice chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee hammering in on identifying who is responsible for the website issues plaguing the Obamacare initiative, ready to point a finger, almost frothing at the mouth to single-out one individual to blame. Three immediate reactions from me. First, it's too soon for this. What professional in their right mind, with any level of business sense, needs to focus now on who failed. First priority? Fix it. Minutes equal tax-payer dollars when indulging government officials in their hasty, nonsensical lines of questioning. My second reaction, spot on. Great explanation featuring government red tape stymieing each step of the process up to and including the vice chair’s diatribe. And my third reaction, man, the United States needs to hire a PR firm to represent technology. 

Since I’ve been out of college, technology has been on an image roller-coaster ride. What started as a mystical, uber-nerdy field slowly evolved into a valued partner relationship with nearly all fields in supporting efficiency efforts and, finally, technology is so used and so integral that a consistent history of exponential deadlines being beat like a rug has created a user base with oftentimes impossible expectations. I get it. Yes. By all intents and purposes what we do in technology appears to almost be magic. So much so that our users sometimes forget technology is, in fact, not magic. The lines of code behind every application haven’t decreased, they’ve increased. In many instances, we have mastered the art of never recreating the wheel to a degree that sometimes even developers forget how massive each simple application is. So, now what?

I spent five years serving an institution I felt so strongly about that I morphed into a technology marketer, innovator, nationally-recognized song-and-dancer advocating for technology respect at every level, including state and local. I served on boards to (a) serve but also (b) to bring focus on technology. Yes, people now ‘know’ about technology, but it’s time to truly educate our nation on the amount of craziness that goes on behind the scenes in development and production. With increased respect and use of technology comes a natural increase in risk and loss. Downtime now equates to rapidly lost funds. The future is exciting for technology and sometimes it feels like we are living inside the movie Total Recall, but we need to remind everyone that this is real life. And our real life for near-2014 includes comprehensive impact with even a hiccup in technology delivery. 

This is not Total Recall. Despite the coming onslaught of octopods.