Mind-numbing Strategies to Extend Product Reach

Dr. Eric Hawley, CIO, Utah State University
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Dr. Eric Hawley, CIO, Utah State University

We were, as I wrote this, struggling with a possible “known defect” in a critical piece of software that directly affects the customer experience. The software manufacturer can’t seem to track it down, and we have spent months working through ineffective suggestions and denials.   

“Through our actions, are we building vendor-customer relationships full of demands or partnerships full of trust” 

Yet, the same company is always simultaneously expressing their desire to become more strategically involved with us, and to extend their product reach. It’s a mind-numbingly easy answer if you are a CIO.  Yet, how often do we find ourselves doing the same thing?  Wondering why we aren’t getting invited, as we push to be “at the table” and “more strategic.” 

Let’s get back to basics.  Ever had a friend?  Like a real one, the kind you could trust for anything? (Even though you know they aren’t perfect and can’t do everything.)  It’s a pretty great place to be. 

What words come to mind in such relationships? Empathy, understanding, willingness, confidence, reliance, connection, focus and trust. They listen, confide, commit, believe, allow, warn, entrust, and enable.  

It’s the Holy Grail of relationships, and I would note, it only happens between people. It's not corporate trust or institutional trust: it’s individual. It’s personal. 

Nobody trusts IT.  IT is a thing, a construct. It cannot be loved or return love. But in IT, we have some pretty great people and, therefore, capacity for creating excellent and trustworthy relationships.  

In the world of higher education, as a technology leader, who have you become a trusted friend to? Someone who feels they could call you about anything. Can you name names? What about each person on your teams? Those are hard questions. 

Thinking back, my first ever job at a university  was custodial work. That’s right, scrubbing toilets.  I am now CIO at a Carnegie-Extensive research university.  How did that happen?   

Cleaning toilet jokes aside, it happened because of individual relationships built on trust. Confidence built day by day, project by project, never asking or demanding the next step up in responsibility, but handling some basics well enough in my little spheres that when other needs became apparent, someone would invite me to help rather than show me the door. And together, we created great outcomes. 

When we are good at what we do and what we do helps someone get what they need to do, we get invited back to the table time and time again.   

Not as a servant, but as a guest. 

Speaking of servants, something unfortunate starts to happen when any of us treat or gets treated as an anonymous cog in a machine, a faceless consortium, a “customer,” or yet another student.    

Inter-relations become automated and mechanical. The dreams and desires that motivate get lost. Relationships are forgotten and policy, process, and procedure reign. 

Through our actions, are we building vendor-customer relationships full of demands or partnerships full of trust? I am not saying vendor-customer relationships are bad, I just know as a CIO how it often feels to be on the “customer side” of a relationship with a vendor that’s always pushing to be “strategic.”  Might our “customers” in IT feel the same way sometimes? If we are a true partner we are not there for the paycheck, the job security, or the organizational turf. 

When we collectively do the basics well, when we are trusted in the foundational pieces that are expected for IT, when we build partnerships, we get natural opportunities to stretch a little further. 

Of course that’s all fine and dandy -- motherhood and apple pie.  But reality eventually hits.  No matter how good you get or how expansive and talented your team, you can’t do everything for everyone.    

So, Focus. 

Imagine the friend you call up who is always busy, or worse, says they would love to join, but then never show up, or when they do, are often late or unprepared. Eventually you will stop calling. 

A good friend of mine, Eric Denna, asks this governance question:  “Whom do we serve and what do they need to do?”  If the answer to this question is everyone and everything, we are doing it wrong.  

In the central IT organization I support, I also ask this question: “What are the things only we can do?” Things that if we don’t do them, they turn into bottlenecks for others. 

For example: “Anyone” can develop a web app. “Anyone” can go buy a cloud application. “Anyone” can buy a hard drive or access point.  Not everyone can create an expansive, capable, secure, and efficient end to end access-layer like we can. Not everyone can consolidate and tackle core institutional data like we can. Not everyone can integrate systems, data, and cross-institutional process like we can. 

What could we enable for the “anyones” at the institution if we focus first on the core: the things that in our position, only we can do best?  Build and maintain a strong and responsive reporting system and web-services API with an efficient governance process so anyone can leverage and gain insight from institutional data 

Get a strong authorization and identity management system in place so we can effectively provide access to diverse content and systems anywhere in the globe quickly. 

Of course deciding what to do is often not as easy as deciding what to get out of or how to get out of it. What should we say no to?   

We have a list of software requests and customizations hundreds long. But we never really dare say “no,” because that’s bad customer service. So we say we will get to it. Then we don’t.  

The tendency brings to mind one of my favorite C. Northcote Parkinson quotes:  “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.” 

Maybe our focus isn't building and supporting any infrastructure or custom app anyone can dream of at our wildly diverse institution.  

But maybe building and supporting a rich platform that our wildly diverse institution could securely leverage in ways unimaginable to us is. 

Motivation.   

Where to from here? 

A story is told about a CEO who, after a long work day, would regularly head out to the train station, park her car, and watch the trains roll out. When asked why she did that so often she replied, “It’s so refreshing to see something move out on its own power without me having to get out and push it!” 

There is something to be said of a person who doesn’t have to constantly be reminded, perhaps even prodded, to get in and get something done. 

Need trust?  Drive it. Do something trustworthy and reputation building on an individual level towards a common, non-technical, objective. Challenge your staff, each of them individually, to do the same. 

Need focus? Drive it. Don’t wait until your units are spread so thin that quality and reputation drop through the floor without you hearing it. 

Want a strategic invitation?  Do that, and then keep your ear to the track.

Your train is coming. 

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