Howard Miller, CIO at UCLA, shares how the CIO role has evolved from being the most technical person in the room to the role of key business partner—and how COVID-19 has accelerated that process.
I think the transformation from the CIO having to be the most technical person in the room to being more of a business partner evolved over the last 5–8 years. Many organizations who are interested in that new model have the CTO running the operations component of the program rather than the CIO. And that is not to say that the CIO shouldn't pay attention to the technology and operations, but now anything in business is going to have a technology component to it, so the two have to go hand in hand.
The pandemic upped the game for all of us that much more. I don't think in a lot of cases, the business really knew how dependent it was on technology until they had to shift to work from home and execute their business model remotely.
A lot of the conversations I was involved in before the pandemic were operational, even though I was trying to keep them strategic. I had to keep reminding the business that they need to have a strategy and that governance plays off of strategy. With finite resources, it's really important that the way in which resources are allocated ties back to something that business is doing.
I've been in higher ed for eight years, and most of my career prior to that was actually in pharma and life sciences, with a brief stint in a Corporate Finance department. What I learned in every other organization I've been in is that the CEO has goals, and then those goals cascade down to direct reports. It doesn't really work that way in higher ed so much. Aligning the technology to the business strategy and being part of that conversation really was starting to change, but it changed in earnest once the pandemic hit.
I don't think our business really knew how much they depended upon us and how much value we really added until we had to do what we did back in March. We took a hundred-year-old institution and digitally transformed it in about a business week (that's a little oversell, but it's not entirely untrue). We had a small footprint of students (Fully Employed MBA's, Executive MBA's) who were taking classes in a hybrid format and employees that were working remotely, but if the pandemic hadn't hit, there would've been no incentive or impetus to change how we do business. What we found out was kind of fascinating. It's opened some doors while it's closed others.
One of my proudest moments was when Zoom went out for a couple hours on a Monday. It was out for a couple hours, and my business actually said, "Hey, wait a minute. We're using Zoom for teaching. What happens if we can't use Zoom? What are we going to do?", and I'm like, "Oh, this is great. This is Business Continuity 101. Thank you! I was waiting for somebody to get there.” Then they would say, “Can we use teams? How do we set up teams? Can we test that?" and I’m like "Wait, you want to do a tabletop? Really? Okay, cool!" It's all these great check marks along the way, because they're thinking this way now, and that's great for us.
The narrative has entirely shifted, and in some cases we got lucky, or we were able to predict some things, but in many cases we already had the technology, just nobody wanted to, was prepared to, or thought they needed to use it.
There are some components of our current technology posture that we'll probably keep if we ever go back to “normal,” because there have been some good learnings from it. In higher ed, student satisfaction was actually higher in some cases while we've been teaching all classes remotely. The students still complained about not being able to be with each other, but satisfaction with education delivery was higher. We'll probably have more people working from home. We in higher ed are very traditional. We have leaders who want to see people onsite and we have a lot of staff who want to come to campus and work, yet people are enjoying the fact that they don't have a hellacious LA commute and that they have a better quality of life. So I think we will see some loosening up around having to physically be here everyday 9-5.
Previously it was harder to get a particular speaker for an event because they wouldn't or couldn’t come to LA. Now you can get them because you can put them through remotely.
Now that we've proven to everybody that it can work, there will be future opportunities there.
Almost 100% of the students wanted to come back at first, now it is closer to 40% or 50% that want to be on campus. Our students who had to travel from other locations to come in on weekends are just saying, "I'm not going to do that now." So even in some of our hybrid scenarios, it may be a class full of students and the faculty member is still remote. We're trying to work through all the iterations of what that's going to look and feel like. It may not be the core education experience, but other derivatives of it that can be done or that are served well using this type of technology may flesh themselves out as new business opportunities.
In the higher ed industry, we know at the end of the day, the students want to be with students. My student population is a little different than the four year undergraduate experience, but part of why they pay so much money for the education is the networking experience with their peers and the alumni network to get their next job. We know that they want that.
We tend to have older faculty who are not necessarily as technologically savvy. They've not used the tools before and may be set in their ways. To teach in this manner is harder in some ways. I've heard the faculty are working 2-6 times harder, because they've had to change the way that they've done business, even for stuff like final exams. I was on a call with another peer recently who said, "I gave my midterm and it was 25 multiple choice, 15 short answers, and two essays." He said he'd never do that again and his final is just going to be all multiple choice. So it's been a heavy lift on the faculty side of things to change their business, and students are the first ones to say, "Yeah, this prof doesn't get Zoom. They just don't know how to teach this way," which is fair.
One of the roles I created was a business relationship manager to take on that lift. Another thing I did reasonably early on was a reorg, where I was really trying to figure out where the pieces fit so we could align ourselves into an agile or product-centric focus. We try to align each function to lines of business and specific products where we have that expertise. Then those managers that are in charge of those functions can carry on those business conversations. I had to sell my team on the vision, but I also took time to sell the business on that vision, and that went a long way. Everybody appreciates the fact that you have a plan. If you don't have a plan and you can't tell people where you're going or what you're trying to do, it doesn’t work.
I think they should, because the CIO doesn't have to be the smartest technical person in the room anymore but you have to be able to explain technical things to business people in non-technical terms. Additionally, the qualities that CFOs are looking for in a CIO come down to trust and credibility. That's not just the technical credibility, it's also the financial credibility. It comes down to dollars and cents. If you haven't taken basic financial accounting and you don't know how to be financially or fiscally responsible or credible, you're doing yourself a disservice. So having that MBA, it just gives you a leg up in those regards. It's harder to play catch up without it. It's not impossible. Plenty of people have figured it out, but it gives you a solid foundation on which to build.
I was taking some classes at Columbia before I made it out to UCLA, and there was a book that I read called Political Savvy by a Columbia professor named Joel DeLuca, and it really sort of highlighted the value of office relationships and identifying the different people along the way so that you can influence decision making. You may not be able to directly influence somebody, but you may have some pull with somebody who knows someone who knows someone, and then you'll be able to influence it in a transitive, as opposed to direct, way.
So when I first got to UCLA I brought an IT vision and roadmap with me. At the top of that roadmap is "business strategy". Right below business strategy is the business relationships. The key to success is the way in which you manage those business relationships. I spent the first 3–6 months on this job not talking about the technology, but just building those business partnerships, and I can't tell you how well that served me now during the pandemic. You have to build those bridges and you have to start those relationships. Our dean of career services said to me about 2 months in, "You know, I've never once had a CIO come over and talk to me in my office,” and that sounds so obvious, but nobody did. I'd been handed a big caseload on Salesforce when I walked in. I brought all of the senior leaders around the school who had skin in the Salesforce game around the table and said, "All right, what are we going to do here?” They replied, “Oh, this is great. We've never had one of these meetings before."
You just sit back and think how is this possible? This just doesn't sound logical. But you kind of have to be able to understand all the individual pieces, then put it together. Then once you do that you can actually start to move the needle and deliver on things. You've built the credibility, you've delivered something, and the business sees the value in it. It’s one-on-one building those relationships and then also building them upon each other so that you can get value for the whole organization. People are always going to think myopically, because they're always worried about their function first, but you've got to convince them at a macro level, for whatever it is your business is trying to do, that there's value there and you're helping to put all of the different pieces together. I tell my staff our goal is to facilitate business conversations, because it almost seems that the business doesn't talk to the business, and we can at least facilitate those conversations, and there's power in all of that.