How has the pandemic changed the perspective of Ed-Tech Industry?
Technology is transforming the way we work, eat, entertain, think, and live. In terms of scale, this transformation is not only driving the most all-encompassing social and cultural revolution in human history but also the most rapid. In the midst of this transformational moment humanity is experiencing one of the worst pandemics in modern history. Unsurprisingly, the transformative technology and the global pandemic have combined to create new paradigms for education. Mitch Davis, VP and CIO at Dartmouth College is at the leading edge of defining and implementing these new paradigms. For over twenty years Mitch has promoted organizational change, growth, and innovation to help educational institutions adapt to emerging information technologies. In the face of the COVID pandemic, Mitch’s leadership role expanded as he worked tirelessly to increase faculty and student engagement in online classes. We asked Mitch how he has combined his leadership in keeping Dartmouth at the forefront of the light speed changes in information technology while continuing the delivery of the highest quality educational experiences and keeping the Dartmouth community safe in an unprecedented pandemic. The questions and answers here are adapted from and expand upon an interview we did with Mitch earlier this year.
1. How have the rapid and dramatic changes in information technology combined with the COVID pandemic to challenge the education space?
The education space has witnessed an exponential increase in the availability of information technology tools over the past several decades. As mind bogglingly rapid as those increases have been, the COVID pandemic has accelerated them even further, a change that was acutely felt at Dartmouth. Prior to the COVID pandemic, Dartmouth had chosen a traditional path to education with the consequence that when the COVID pandemic struck it not only lacked infrastructure for online education but also lacked the staff and professional culture to support this educational tool. As a result, we had to go from ground zero to full digital learning. And, we had to do this with lightning speed and across every Dartmouth department. What was unique about the way we addressed the COVID pandemic compared with how most of the rest of the world did was that we were determined not only to stay safe and keep the institution functioning, we were also going to do our best to turn a potential catastrophe into a positive experience. In so doing, we learned that our information technology at Dartmouth, and Dartmouth itself, are agile, and that we had made the right decisions in building flexibility and adaptability into the Information, Technology and Consulting Department so that it could pivot quickly enough to respond to this and future crises. And, we have continued to move forward with the positive approach that we refined during the COVID pandemic. Another vital aspect of our overall approach was helping faculty and staff become comfortable with accepting more risk in their professional lives regarding their decisions and then owning those decisions. We find that these leadership traits distinguish us individually and institutionally from other players in the educational space.
2. What are some specific organizational changes you have made to adapt to the COVID pandemic?
The COVID pandemic spread exponentially. We quickly realized what this required of us organizationally: we had to increase our system development and client response capacity exponentially as well. For example, when we first became aware of the COVID juggernaut that was coming we were methodically implementing various long-term projects that we had thought held great promise. This was about as far from exponential development as one could imagine. So, rather than pushing the solutions that we had thought were good, a bottom-up approach, we completely changed paradigms by asking our clients what they wanted and needed now, literally right now, a top-down approach. Having put ourselves in the position of having to deliver at warp speeds we had to morph our organization to be able to do so. The first thing we did was essentially “flatten” our organizational structure to remove hierarchical decision-making processes which were inherently so inefficient that they reduced information flow to an intellectual ooze. Our next step was to identify and eliminate organizational “silos” which locked up and slowed the flow of information. Once we stopped “siloing” ourselves we recreated ourselves organizationally into a series of interlocking matrices. In other words, we stopped locking up information and instead started distributing it. The advantages of a matrix environment were immediately apparent: people began talking to each other and sharing information like never before. To leverage what we were witnessing, we began creating what we called “tiger teams,” ad hoc groups assigned to particular projects. We then authorized and encouraged our tiger teams to create more tiger teams as they saw fit. The result was an organizational structure that was fast, agile, and sparklingly effective. And, perhaps most remarkable of all, the organization began running itself. We had responded to exponentially increasing demands for our services by creating an organically expanding and evolving organization capable of exponentially generating solutions. Applying performance metrics to these new structures we discovered that we were operating at a capacity at least one-third higher than pre-COVID. Though our nation is beginning to rein in the pandemic, at Dartmouth we are carrying forward the lessons we have learned from it. Moreover, our team concept is now expanding into other educational divisions, including research, teaching, and administration.
3. Do you think the pandemic has brought in a new perspective in the education tech space?
Like great numbers of other organizations, because of the pandemic we no longer ask our employees to come to the office to work. However, unlike most organizations so affected, we don’t plan on returning to the status quo of in-office workers. That said, we admit that we don’t know where we will ultimately end up. Perhaps surprisingly to some, neither do we find this a cause for alarm or lament. In fact, as a natural consequence of our existing change-positive culture we find ourselves embracing the opportunity for change and creative innovation. To put it another way, the pandemic caused many people to start living as if every day might be their last. In guiding my organization through the pandemic, I chose precisely the opposite approach. I persuaded my colleagues and staff to begin living and working as if every day were their first. While in no way denying the catastrophic losses caused by COVID, the new perspective that the pandemic has given us is that we are able to change our most fundamental paradigms, that such change can be wonderfully beneficial and that we are already rapidly heading into a future that will be vastly improved over the past. To put it even more succinctly, the pandemic has not unnerved us; it has empowered us.
4. What are some of the essential traits that senior executives and board members embrace to influence their subordinates?
There are multitudes of ways senior executives and board members (collectively “executives”) can influence their subordinates. For purposes of this interview, I want to focus on the single most important form of influence: trust. In our organization, and in any healthy organization for that matter, it is critical that executives trust the people they have hired. In practice this means that when a staffer says they are going to do something the executive must expect, must truly have faith, that this person is going to perform as represented. In instilling this management style in executives, I avoid being fooled into thinking that this will be easy for either the executives or the staffers. It is not easy. Executives must learn to accept having the leadership model reversed by encouraging their staffers to learn to lead. A corollary to this approach is that executives must learn to reward staffers for their accomplishments and focus less on how they were achieved. And when a staffer fails, and some will, successful executives don’t take them off the project. Instead, they allow them additional latitude to learn. Executives should be sensitive to the reality that many staffers will be unfamiliar with new leadership roles and may even find ownership of a project terrifying. Here again trust is key. Showing trust in a staffer can give them the confidence they need to lead and should they fail the confidence needed to try again. In teaching executives the importance of trust to the organization I explain trust in transactional terms. Executives who fail to trust their staff are often acting out of self-interest. They fear their staff will underperform and that the consequences will be to their detriment. Consequently, they self-protect by withholding trust. What they misunderstand is that withholding trust comes at a cost to the organization. A successful organization fundamentally depends upon both the existing and the learned organization-specific skills of its employees. A non-trusting, self-protecting executive at the least deprives the organization of the highest expression of existing employee skills and at the most the highest expression of even more valuable organization-specific skills. Teaching executives to trust their subordinates avoids skewing the employee-organization transaction against the organization and instead optimizes it.
5. How do you envision the future of the education tech space?
It is a safe bet that the future of the education tech space is going to be a combination of onsite and online learning. The less obvious, but nevertheless tremendously important, question is whether the education tech space will be able to achieve lifelong online learning. Despite the importance of lifelong online learning, leaders in the education tech space have historically failed to achieve this goal. A likely cause of this failure has been the tendency of leaders in the education tech space to focus exclusively on the day-to-day aspects of online learning rather than developing a vision of broader and long term uses of information technology. As the CIO for Dartmouth it is no surprise that I am committed to creating and maintaining the most reliable, efficient, easy to use and inclusive education tech space possible. What some may find surprising is that I am also committed to expanding the education tech space to include lifelong online learning. At the heart of lifelong online learning is creating a sense of engagement among the individuals who constitute an academic institution’s online communities. Such engagement in turn engenders the culture necessary for lifelong online learning. People reach out to one another, they form wide-reaching networks, they exchange information more readily, and they form powerful and enduring support systems. In other words, when the academic institution delivers on engaging people in online communities people will respond by essentially connecting themselves for life. One of the most fascinating and promising aspects of lifelong online learning is that it naturally lends itself to inclusion of non-academic organizations such as businesses and nonprofits. For example, if a Dartmouth student is employed by a company or a company’s employee wants to pursue an advanced degree at Dartmouth the knowledge base and culture of the company could be integrated into a Dartmouth online community. This kind of online engagement could be leveraged into “customized” degree programs in which a company’s knowledge base and culture is literally built into the curriculum. Graduates of such programs would thus at the outset possess the knowledge and skillsets tailored to the needs of the company or the industry in which it exists. While I envision many iterations of these examples, let me come full circle with this prediction: it will be those academic institutions that engender, promote, and nourish lifelong online learning and do so in novel and inclusive ways that will thrive in the future.