Higher education: Innovation and digital transformation

Lisa Davis, CIO at Georgetown University, explains how colleges and universities must adapt to the changing landscape of technology in education.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Our exploration of digital transformation continues with a conversation about higher education. Colleges and universities face a combination of forces that require rethinking business model; re-considering relationships with constituencies such as faculty, students, and administrators; and understanding the rise of technology as an enabler of change.

Lisa Davis, CIO, Georgetown University
Lisa Davis, CIO Georgetown University
image courtesy of CxO-Talk

For a report I wrote with colleagues on innovation in higher education, we interviewed 10 higher education CIOs and one CTO. These executives focused on business issues such as:

  • Student retention
  • Student recruitment
  • Fundraising
  • Reduced costs and higher operational efficiency
  • Greater classroom innovation

These business issues represent points where schools must evaluate current approaches, to keep up with both innovative peers in other institutions and the activities of private companies. Startups such as Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy pose a significant, long-term competitive threat to established brick-and-mortar schools.

The CIO of Georgetown University, Lisa Davis, was among the CIOs we interviewed for that report. Given this history, it was a pleasure to welcome her as a guest on CxO-Talk. The conversation focused on innovation and transformation in higher education and the role of technology in driving future changes.

You can watch the entire discussion and see the short, summary video embedded below.

Much of the conversation with Lisa centered on digital transformation – how Georgetown thinks about a future mediated largely by technology and what the institution is doing today to prepare. Here are edited comments from CIO Lisa Davis on these topics.

On business model disruption: How we structure things across the University is changing. Georgetown has been experimenting with an initiative called technology enhanced learning, where we had faculty submit proposals of how they would embrace and leverage technology in the classroom.

There is also another initiative, designing the future university, not at the course level but at a curriculum level. A lot of data shows that a three-year BA is imminent. How do we change what we do, structurally, to support changes in a traditional curriculum, which required four years to get a bachelor’s degree; can we do it in three years? Can we do a three-year BA/MA?

If you think about the structural changes necessary to allow that curriculum to change, that’s where the impact is. [We have had] a lot of discussion about online learning, adult learners, and the revenue model.

On generic vs. unique institutional competencies: MOOCs [massive open online courses] showed us what parts of our curriculum were generic and interchangeable; also what could be pulled out and delivered at a lower cost, such as Intro to Statistics, Intro to Biology, and 100 / 200- level courses. It forced all of us in higher education to think about how we would embrace and incorporate that as we start making curriculum changes and building our universities for the future.

On cloud, social, and mobile: Our students expect that intersection of social and mobile now. You know, I think I saw a statistic from last week that students check their mobile devices 43 times a day. Even although students are still bringing a laptop to campus as the number one device, we’re still seeing a growing number of mobile tablets being brought to campus today.

So absolutely, I think it will change the business model, and it’s forcing institutions to think about how we embrace it. It goes back to those structural changes that we need to make – how we do business, how we think about the business, what curriculum that we offer. It impacts the cost of the education.

On competitive advantage: When we develop our services and capabilities, modernize our applications, and build our mobile platforms, [we consider], “How do we enhance the learning experience for our students? How do we personalize that experience?” I think that’s where you’ll see institutions go more and more, and what will be a different differentiator.

At one point, maybe technology gave you a competitive advantage. But, technology today is table stakes, even to be relevant and competitive with the top 25 institutions that we like to compete with. Technology has to enhance the learning and the academic missions of the university.

On digital transformation and cultural change: I don’t think we can talk about digital transformation without thinking about cultural transformation, because I believe they go hand in hand. When I came to Georgetown, two and a half years ago, we had zero mobile presence, which was hard to believe. Today, we have 35,000 students, alumni, and faculty engaging on a mobile platform.

Innovation occurs, first and foremost, [when] you deliver and show results and provide the basics. I’m a big believer in first things first, to make sure that IT delivers – whether it’s keeping the networks running, delivering Wi-Fi services, making sure that our applications stay up and running – to build trust that IT is no longer a service provider but a partner.

I don’t think you can talk about innovation or digital transformation until you’re doing the basics right. We focused a lot on doing the basics and building upon those successes and delivering a record of results and performance.

On partnering with the business: We have very strong academic partners; technology cannot do this alone. We’re a partner and an enabler. The academics have to figure out how to infuse technology into our classrooms and our curriculum. So, I don’t want anyone to think that technology does this alone, and we absolutely need strong partnerships to be able to do this on our campuses today.

On the CIO’s role: I think the role of a CIO has changed dramatically; we are no longer the chief infrastructure officer.

To be a successful CIO today, you have to play many roles and wear many different hats. Maybe that’s a chief integration officer. You’re the chief innovation officer; the chief digital officer. You have to understand and know these technologies and you really have to grow with those partnerships, with your stakeholders across your companies and institutions.

IT is not just a service provider; IT today is a broker and partner.

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Lisa Davis is one of the top Chief Information Officers in higher education, with a significant focus on using technology to drive innovation. Georgetown has adopted cloud applications such as finance and human resources, with Workday, and Lisa recognizes the importance of exploring new business models that respond to changes in the education environment.

Be sure to note her comments on the role of MOOCs in helping expose aspects of the curriculum that create differentiation for Georgetown. Organizations moving to the cloud must consider which processes (or, in this case, student courses) are unique or generic. Many executives fall into the trap of thinking all their processes are unique and different from competitors; in reality, core functions like accounts payable, for example, rarely create meaningful differentiation.

When undertaking digital transformation and moving to the cloud, therefore, dispassionately evaluate processes to determine which add distinct value and which can remain generic, undifferentiated from standard industry practice. Distinguishing between innovative processes and generic processes will help focus the organization to invest more heavily in those areas providing the greatest long-term value.

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