University CIOs are on the front lines of a battle to liberate and leverage data trapped in siloed IT systems that have grown like weeds across college campuses over the past 30 years.
Susquehanna University CIO Jennifer Servedio talks to EAB’s Danielle Yardy about how to bring order to this chaos through a more enlightened technology strategy, and how to gain buy-in among key campus stakeholders to approve the associated costs. Ms. Servedio also shares her top pieces of advice on how to prioritize and wring the greatest value out of every IT investment.
0:00:12.4 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. EAB's Danielle Yardy returns to the podcast today to talk about her work helping university CIOs bring order to the chaos of disparate IT systems that exist on virtually every college campus. Danielle is joined by the chief information officer at Susquehanna University to talk about this challenge and about how to gain buy-in among campus leaders for the kinds of new IT investments that will help them tame the digital sprawl. Thank you for listening, and enjoy.
0:00:53.0 Danielle Yardy: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Danielle Yardy, and I'm a research director here at EAB. In practical terms, I spend most of my time working with university CIOs and other tech leaders, helping them wrap their arms around the enormous data repositories on their campuses. My goal generally is to help them bring order to the technology chaos and enable their leadership teams to access key insights trapped in their data to inform strategy decisions that impact every single aspect of university life, from enrolment to DEIJ efforts, to advancement and even academic resource planning. And I'm joined today by a CIO who is working with us to do exactly that. Jennifer Servedio, who is the chief information for Susquehanna University, welcome to the podcast.
0:01:36.7 Jennifer Servedio: Thank you, Danielle. I'm happy to be here.
0:01:39.1 DY: Fabulous. Now, Jen, I know that Susquehanna is in the middle of a huge digital transformation effort, and I want to hear more about that, but before we dig into that specific strategic initiative that you all have ongoing at Susquehanna, I did wanna set the stage by talking to you a little bit about the disconnect that I see between campus IT leaders and university presidents when it comes to conversations around IT investments and IT strategy. So I saw recently an article in the Wall Street Journal, that we're seeing in industry, the majority of CEOs will commit to their CIO, their IT leader, as the most indispensable business partner that they have in their work, when they think about strategy. I think it was something like 40% among the C-suite would say that the CIO was their most strategic partner, with the board coming in second. And you and I have talked about this before, it's not necessarily always the same way in higher education. So I'm curious, would you mind sharing a little bit about your perspective on this gap or this disconnect? Could you describe a little bit about how a typical conversation might go in higher education, when campus IT is trying to talk to the rest of the folks on campus, whether it might be around an investment or just broader strategy?
0:02:48.8 JS: Sure. It's tricky, right? It's a huge challenge. You're talking to such a broad array of people, from university presidents to senior staff and trustee. And so many people are technology-savvy today, and we take for granted that maybe they're not, right? So we start really, really over-simplifying things in layman's terms, or just the opposite, right? Where we're just throwing a thousand acronyms at people and they're just glazed over, and sometimes afraid to say, "What do you mean?" [chuckle] Right? So you want to find that balance and you really wanna know your audience. A lot of the technology that we pitch for, huge, huge investment are items that are intangible or things that they're not gonna see a benefit for a number of years. So I was really fairly new to the university, at the point where I was pitching some of these ideas, and my boss would say, "Jen, you need to learn how to speak Susquehanna." And that's exactly what he meant, was finding that balance and really being able to have a productive conversation with your audience.
0:04:07.3 DY: Right. So it's about lifting ourselves out of the alphabet soup that some of us stay mired in most of the time, and thinking about how to turn that into, as you were saying, the benefits, whether those are near-term or hidden. How do we translate those? And I know that that's something that you obviously have a lot of experience in, so maybe it'd be a useful exercise if you give me a bit of an example about how you might translate some of that techno speak, that alphabet soup, into something that folks like your president can appreciate.
0:04:35.5 JS: Oh, absolutely, I have the perfect example. So in August of 2020, Susquehanna was awarded $1.3 million TRIO grant. The TRIO grant is a federal program that's designed to identify and provide services for students with disadvantaged backgrounds, so for example, low-income, first-generation individuals with disabilities. And these grants are awarded by the federal government, the Department of Education. So in 2019, just to submit the application for this grant, our institutional effectiveness person [chuckle] spent about 120 hours just collecting basic data across campus that was in three separate siloed databases. Now, no one single person has access to all this data, which is... That's relatively normal. So this person had to rely on the individual offices to pull the data for her, and then she would clean it, collate it, and reconcile it. And this was just to provide basic statistics for this proposal, 120 hours. So once the grant was awarded, it then takes this office that we set up, this TRIO office, 20 plus hours every semester to continue looking at our student population to see who's eligible, so that we're sure we're meeting the guidelines.
0:06:16.4 JS: And just because of the nature of student enrollment, it's a moving target. So although the tons of people who are involved in getting this data to the institutional effectiveness staff, and working with it, they were very happy to do that, it's the way that they're used to working. It's not, "Oh, this is a nuisance." They know it's a nuisance, but it's just the way they've become accustomed to working. And that hidden cost, showing that hidden cost to senior leadership to say, "This is huge. These are hours that these staff could be spending working with our students."
0:07:00.3 DY: Well, and I think there, Jen, one of the things that's interesting to me is that, for some of our most senior leadership as well, a lot of that integration and work that happens, running around with several different Excel spreadsheets and with 18 different windows open on your computer while you try and collate a lot of that information, there's no reason that folks on our cabinet would know that that was happening, because it's not within their view. They can click their fingers and say, "I need to know this particular answer to this question," and then they might be aware that it takes, like you were saying, what is 120 hours? Three weeks at least, if nothing else is going on, to have that answer come back. But they don't see all of that happening in the background. They might see the difference in timeline, and they might make assumptions about why that's happening, but recognizing that it is a product of the ecosystem, it's not a product of poor planning on behalf of the people that are trying to do this, I think making that known and making that very transparent is really helpful.
0:07:57.0 JS: Exactly. And also, this is just one example, but really a lot of the reports that senior leadership or... That are provided to the trustees, behind the scenes, the work that has to go into massage the data, so that we are sure that the information we're giving is what they're looking for, just a tremendous effort behind the scenes.
0:08:22.5 DY: And I know that Susquehanna is just... You're not alone in that particular disconnect around just even how people are spending time when it comes to data, but even in the disconnect of being able to understand the difference between how different leaders on campus are thinking about these issues, and how they perceive and experience these issues, in which ways they frustrate them. I'm just thinking back through all of the different work and the research that we've done here at EAB through our IT forum, if I think about the topics that IT leaders ask us to look at, it's always centered around how to help them better communicate with other parts of campus.
0:09:01.0 DY: We've done work on cyber security, on data governance, on enterprise architecture, on IT governance, all areas of work and focus for IT leaders, where it's about improving the relationship and understanding between IT and the rest of campus. And I don't think it's an accident that people ask us to study that, it's because it's what's really difficult. It's a constant struggle and a frustration. And I don't know, I kind of feel like maybe it's a general trend of IT having been a service organization in the past, or they think of themselves more as an order taker in the history of the way that IT has worked on campuses. There's always been exceptions, of course, but I think traditionally, that's what we've seen. But I do think if you think about it through that lens, and if that's why we've seen that disconnect driven, I do think that some of what's happened through the coronavirus has been a bit of a silver lining for IT.
0:09:52.0 DY: We've seen a natural uptick in people coming to the IT organization of their own volition, to ask for advice, to ask for support, rather than working directly with cloud vendors or whatever it might be that was pulling them away from that relationship. And I think even EDUCAUSE has seen, in some of that data, an uptick in people saying, "I've been requested more and more by business leaders, to be a part of that conversation," which I think is something that plays into what you've seen, Jen, at the time that you've been at Susquehanna, which I think has been almost entirely defined by the coronavirus, right? You started there maybe...
0:10:27.4 JS: Absolutely.
0:10:27.5 DY: Two years ago. So yeah, what were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered then in terms of the IT infrastructure or just the organizational structure, as it existed when you arrived?
0:10:37.4 JS: Right, right. Yeah, November 2019, five months before the pandemic and the shutdown.
0:10:42.2 DY: I saw your eyes widen there as well, like someone who's been through trauma. You know the day, you know when it happened.
0:10:48.3 JS: Throw me right to the lions. Even during my interview, I heard a lot of things from people across campus about the lack of IT governance, the lack of data governance, so many siloed systems, siloed data. Not only was the data siloed, but it was almost like the departments were siloed because they got so used to working in their own best of breed programs, and working with our student information system, it wasn't really easy to bring data back in, push data out to the other systems, but bringing it back in centrally, is really a struggle.
0:11:29.0 JS: IT was sort of centralized, but not really, so there was a hunger on all levels of the organization for change in these areas. And I came from an organization where we had a structure for IT governance and data governance, and we had a data warehouse, so I really felt comfortable and confident that this was something I could bring to Susquehanna. I started the conversation in, I think it was January of 2020, about bringing our data together in some fashion. And at that point, there were so many competing priorities across campus, that breaking it down and starting somewhere, I had support for IT governance at that point, so I focused on that, and had that implemented by the summer of 2020. But of course, COVID derailed everything.
0:12:24.5 DY: You mean that wasn't the number one priority, coming up with data definitions while everyone was being sent home from campus?
0:12:30.8 JS: Right, right. I wish. [chuckle]
0:12:34.8 DY: No, I think it's absolutely right. Those smaller projects and those little pieces where you can really move the institution forward in little ways that actually make a big difference in the way that folks are spending their time. I think there are amazing trust-building exercises across campus, and they start to build all those bridges that you do need when you have those bigger opportunities coming along. I know that you talked to me before, Jen, about the work that you did to partner with your student success organization to make sure that students felt connected through that time. Do you wanna tell us a little bit about that process and how that tied into some of the longer-term efforts that you are putting in place around data?
0:13:13.1 JS: Sure, the partnerships as well as the digitization was expedited. I felt like... I feel like I've been here 20 years, not two years, because I feel like I know everyone on campus, which is wonderful to have that happen in such a short period of time. But focusing on how we can really connect with our students, keep them engaged while supporting our faculty during such an uncertain time was really, really challenging. I think that people were able to be a little more vulnerable and have a comfort level with that, which was really nice. We were able to implement some tools to help our faculty with their remote teaching, and recording their lectures and just making things much more available, and being supportive. We're a very small IT team, we are under 20 people, and to support everyone remotely, and hybrid, and everything else you can throw at us, was amazingly challenging and rewarding at the same time. People were more open to come to us and ask about things that they would have been reluctant to ask for in the past. So we opened a lot of doors and created a lot of really sustainable partnerships in a short period of time, and I hope that that really does continue to grow, and we don't go back to exactly what we did before. That's my goal.
0:14:47.1 DY: Yeah, well, and I think we've kind of seen it already happening at Susquehanna. So you have Susquehanna 2.0, which is this broad digital transformation effort that is tying together the idea that the student experience should shift in the wake of what's happened through COVID. But in addition, the administrative efficiency and some of that TRIO grant process that you were explaining, has to go away in tandem to make that possible, to bring that to life. And those relationships that you were just sharing have really fed into that, from what I understand, so being able to understand from all of those different corners of campus, where there were those unifying opportunities that could be used to help something as critical as improving data infrastructure was only made possible because you started to have those conversations. So I think it boiled down to no longer being about data governance, but it was about retention, the way that you ended up starting to frame that discussion of needing investment there. I don't know if you wanna say a little bit about the flip there, or how that change happened.
0:15:50.9 JS: Oh, sure, sure. So my focus was more IT-minded. My focus was data governance, centralized IT, wrangle all these things in. And after, I would say it was fall last year, our senior leadership started looking at lessons learned from the pandemic. We don't wanna go back to the way we did things. We have processes in place that were put there 50 years ago, and our students just simply do not work in that fashion anymore, and we all committed to changing the way that our students experience campus, and we wanted students walking, stepping foot for the first time on campus, fall 2021, to be a completely new experience. So we committed to this Susquehanna 2.0 initiative, which has been just an amazing transformation from where I sit. Everyone on campus really stepped forward with ideas, and how can we... We had so many focus groups, and how can we do this in such a short period of time. It was the end of October when it was announced last year, and we were ready to roll September 2021, when the semester kicked off. And a lot of the things we put in place, was again, the digitization; we had to make sure everything was available online. And of course, that's what I pushed.
0:17:16.7 JS: And other parts of campus pushed a physical, in-person one-stop in our student center. We call it the Hawk Hub because we are the Susquehanna River Hawks, and it's just such a welcoming space. Students walk in, they can ask anything that they want, and they get help right there, or they get directed to where they need to go, or our digital piece of that that we're getting ready to roll out now, is the AV student navigate app. That's gonna be their digital one stop for everything they need to do with their to-dos, and it's just, again, the collaboration, everyone on campus now knows that students are gonna rely on the Hawk Hub and this app, for where they go for all their needs, and it's a huge difference from what it was in the past. And a lot of people had to let go of the paper forms and things, and really open their minds, and it's been a tremendous effort.
0:18:22.0 DY: Yeah. And I think the thing that really stands out for me in the work that you've done at Susquehanna, is that it was all framed around the students. So I think that it's so often that we do have IT organizations that get stuck in advocating for certain products because it's gonna make IT's life easier, and I think that's a noble cause and we should be investing in things that make IT's life easier, but we shouldn't be surprised if nobody else on campus cares, because we're not here to run a really great IT organization, we're here to help students get an education and enjoy their experience and get the support that they need as they move through, so that means having the right applications for them, it means having the right applications for our staff who support them, it means having the right infrastructure to support IT to deliver all of those things as well. But the framing, it has to be around the board of mission, because it's difficult then for people to turn around and say, "I don't support this investment in our students." It's very easy to say, "I don't support this investment in IT because we're a higher education institution." And so for me, that kind of flipping the script is just so important.
0:19:29.0 JS: Absolutely. And metrics surrounding the student experience, so once I reframed my ask to focus on student retention, you can assign almost a dollar figure to that, to say, "Okay, if we retain X amount of students, I know it's gonna be this much revenue for the university, and that would pay for this," and then we'll see the benefit of these changes as we look back on the data and our ability to track what is happening in our Hawk Hub, the ability to track how many students are asking questions in our Res Life office, and really to look back and say, "Okay, this is where we need to make improvements in the Hawk Hub," so that these students are not going to Res Life, they're going to their centralized place. They're not going directly to the Registrar, they're going to their centralized place. And the way we're doing that is bringing all these departments into the ticketing system that we use for IT, so that we can look at the metrics and make improvements as we go. So that's another important piece.
0:20:36.4 DY: Yeah, it's about treating the whole campus as one, and so that ties into everything, from the way that students experience the campus to the way that you all deal with issues as they arise on campus, to the thing that you and I had collaborated most around, which is the bringing of data to the entirety of campus. And we started our conversation today thinking about why it's so difficult for IT leaders to advocate for some of that, and I do think, in part, it's because there are pockets of campus that are tussling to be the most important, they're tussling to be the thing that gets done first or the thing that takes precedence over everything else, and it might lead folks into making investments that don't necessarily talk to each other, and create more of a frustration than they do a solution to the problem that folks are trying to address if everyone gets more and more entrenched in their silos.
0:21:27.2 DY: So obviously, with Edify and the work that we're doing there around the data platform, we are breaking down those silos. But in order to move that forward, we had to break the silos down in advance and get people on board to support that. So I'm just curious, in that work that we did, in the way that we started bringing folks together around those ideas, what was most surprising to you about the work that we'd done there in terms of breaking down those silos and getting different departments to buy in? Were there any sort of shock supporters or detractors that you encountered along the way there?
0:22:01.4 JS: Interesting enough, everyone has been really cooperative and willing to participate, and I attribute that to a silver lining with the pandemic. People saw that we could do things differently, firsthand. I think a lot of people also like the ability to work remotely. [laughter] And hey, if I go back to the way I was doing things before, that sort of cancels out that opportunity, if it would exist in the future. They see that there is... It's much easier to be able to share our data and get good results, and make the decisions that need to happen, using it. And it's not valuable at all if I just hold on to it and keep it to myself.
0:22:56.4 JS: They're seeing that they can branch out from their offices and work in matrix style teams to understand the way things work. COVID, you would think there were many more boundaries with everybody sitting in their homes, in their own little world, but it really broke down those silos, because in the Zoom world, everybody's there. We're all together, we're all working together. When the campus launched 2.0 and talked about it, everybody was, I think, a little bit taken back, and a little scared, but as the conversation started, it really showed that a lot of the stuff that we needed to do was already being done as part of going remote.
0:23:42.8 DY: Yeah, it's interesting, I've heard that in other places too, that there was sort of this great equalizer that was putting everybody, from the President to the folks working on the front line supporting students, in the same sized little Zoom box, and having the conversations in that way, actually did level the playing field a little bit and create this more fertile opportunity for a very collaborative environment. So if I try to bottle, I think, Jen, what you were just saying, it is, act now. Now is a great time to be working with different parts of campus to be moving things forward, not least because we've seen the amazing things that can be done when everybody collaborates. I think there were many people who were shocked at how quickly higher education institutions were able to shift through the pandemic, and then shift back and be kind of agile in a way that we would never have assumed to be possible.
0:24:31.2 DY: And so you have that precedent, but you also have the goodwill of having cooperated, of having been there for these folks, that you can use that to your advantage in a way and help them build more of a vision of the future. So that's kind of my bottling, I think, of what you were sharing there. But I'm sure you obviously, as someone who lives this every day, has your own advice. I'm curious, what are the best things that you would wanna share with other campus leaders, either inside or outside of the IT department, about how they should be thinking about investing in IT right now, or making the most of the dollars that they can spend.
0:25:08.9 JS: My advice would be... Digital sprawl can get out of hand very, very quickly. Use a data platform to tame that sprawl. Get a handle on things, get people involved and get them on board. And break those tech silos down; they do not need to exist. I know I had mentioned our student information system is not really easy to pull data back into it. We can share data, and then getting that centralized is not so easy. So I know everybody wants their best of breed platforms. Find a way, like Edify, to bring that information together in a way that it's useful to everyone. Save the time. We all always have staffing crunches in higher ed. Save the time to let your people focus on building their skills, being happy with their...
0:26:09.6 JS: With the work that they're doing, and being innovative, and spending time with the students, and helping with retention, and... Use IT smarter so people are looking to do things that are better accomplished by software. Have them come to IT Centralized, and have those conversations, and try to condense all of the stuff that you have on campus into systems that are much more usable and can be shared across departments. Innovation, it should be student centric. Look at the way your students work. We have students coming from high school into college, and we're expecting them to completely transform the way that they do things, old school. [chuckle] They're already used to doing things in this manner. Let's continue that momentum as we go forward. When you're pitching to an audience for...
0:27:12.4 JS: When you're pitching to people for an IT purchase, for something that's gonna be a big investment, but you see big return, know your audience. Make sure that they have all the information that they need and that you're giving it to them in the right way. So that they can digest it and they can be on board with you. And something I did, I had one meeting that I was going into, and this was the most stressful thing. It was the very last meeting before I got permission to move forward with Edify. I had five minutes, and all I could think of was, if someone asks a question, I'm done. No one's gonna know anything about this and I'm gonna be back at square one. So I prepared materials, sent them in advance, gave people the opportunity to digest that information, gave them a way to contact me directly for questions, and then when I went in and did my five minutes, it was easy. So, do the work. Don't be afraid to reach out to people on your campus for support. They're there. Whether they know it or not, this is something they want.
0:28:22.0 DY: I love that. And I love making the most of that opportunity. Even if it's five minutes, there are ways that you can prepare yourself to communicate your needs to frame it in a way that's gonna make sense, and to make sure that folks understand the value for the students, for the institution, for everybody involved around the things that you're talking about. Well, I guess then, Jen, speaking of being out of time, being asked a question and being done, I think this is all fantastic advice that I couldn't have said better myself. Anybody who's spoken to me knows that I could stay on my soapbox shouting all day about how IT is so critically important for campus strategy, but this is probably as good a time as any to wrap up today's conversation. So thank you, Jen, for joining me, and thank you everyone at home for listening along with us. We hope to see you here again next time for Office Hours at EAB.
0:29:16.0 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our guests examine different ways that universities are replacing test scores in their admissions processes. Until then, thank you for your time.
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