Episode #4:
Milos Topic

VP for IT (CIO) & Chief Digital Officer at Grand Valley State University

A Visionary’s Take on Technology’s Contribution to Higher Ed

Miloš Topić, Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Digital Officer of Grand Valley State University (GVSU) shares why information technology deserves a seat at the executive table, why reducing friction should be IT’s primary objective, and why leaders who view IT as a cost center are missing the big picture.

 

If You Think IT Is a Cost Center, You’re Missing the Big Picture

“Technology, in my view, is the golden thread in the very fabric of our existence.”

Unfortunately, old attitudes run contrary to this view.

“I’ve had conversations with my colleagues. I would tell them when we asked for certain investments in technology. They said, ‘Oh, you know, you’re a cost center, right?’ 

“Their mentality is that IT is always asking for more money. 

“My response was, ‘Okay, so you’re running a division that has nine different departments. Name one of your areas that will perform better without technology than with it. I’ll wait.’ 

“Crickets.”

Only recently, information technology has gained a seat at the executive table in higher education. While organizations have been talking about “going digital” and substantially increasing their reliance on IT, the pandemic should have obliterated any doubts that IT is a critical business function.

“One of the things that I’ve brought forward multiple times across multiple organizations is that the need for technical solutions has drastically outpaced IT’s allotted budget. We have to face the reality that either 100% or 97% or 95% of faculty need technology to do their job, yet IT’s operating budget is only 3% of the total budget. At some point, we have to say, ‘Hey, there’s an elephant in the room.'”

All university departments, without exception, are reliant on technology. Technology plays a central part in solving several problems (including how we adapted to a pandemic). IT leadership should have a seat at the table–not report to other department heads, one or two seats removed–and offer insights.

What’s shocking is that some institutions are still holding out.

Many organizations roll IT up to the CFO or COO rather than the president. Miloš believes IT should roll up to the president and not roll up to the CFO for a good reason.

“A really good CFO and really good CIO are polar opposites. A CFO’s job is to be risk-averse. That’s their job. They must play it safe and be predictable, which is the complete opposite for a CIO. A CIO is supposed to come in and rattle the cage, flip it open, and see what falls out–they need to see what sticks, try some new things, and break some things along the way.”

If the CFO and CIO are not on equal footing, the two roles will not balance each other out. The person with more authority will always win out. To allow room for innovation, some risks must be taken.

COVID Has Proven Technology Opens Doors

Technology can do amazing things. It can unite people over great distances. It makes it possible for caregivers to have flexibility in their schedules. It can open doors for people interested in getting an education and introduce new ways to consume content.

“The pandemic really showed us that we can get stuff done without having 4,000 people drive an hour each way to commute from all over the place.” Miloš went on to say that allowing people to work remotely empowers parents or people taking care of elderly family members to have the flexibility they need.

“Think about the possibilities. Let’s say there’s a world-renowned speaker in some functional area — history, physics, whatever — but we can’t get them to agree to attend a public event because of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, we can’t bring them in because they charge $50,000 an hour. But they’ll do a zoom session for a class for $5,000. At that price point, we could even invite them to present as a recurring guest. Imagine the richness you’re now bringing to class. Imagine being able to connect to NASA or Princeton’s physics plasma lab or the Los Alamos lab where research is being conducted. 

“Those researchers are far more willing to speak to your class for 15 or 20 minutes. Getting them to get on a flight, get picked up, drive, and stay at a hotel just for an hour-long speaking engagement? Impossible. 

“Technology provides flexibility. It enables people to contribute from where they are. I get there are customer-facing service areas where you have to have a physical presence. But even then, there are things you can consider as you’re redesigning your organization.”

Flexibility Is Expected. Higher Ed Needs to Catch Up.

Higher education is not as accessible as it could be. Not everyone can adhere to the same timeline and finish their degree. Not everyone can afford to take on a great deal of debt. Certifications and trade programs, along with on-demand learning, can go a long way in equalizing the playing field.

“Let’s be more flexible. Let’s be more nimble. Why do people have to start in September? Why do we only offer key courses at certain times of the year? People are demoralized because they can’t graduate on time because the university made a decision not to offer a course. Why in the world would we make them wait another year?

“Think about how you live your life and then think about how you do things at work. Why do they differ so much? Let’s say I have Netflix, Hulu, or some other streaming service. I’m watching a show on demand when I want to watch. I can customize my experience and watch what I want to when I actually have the time.

“This is true in all walks of life. I have a barber. They have an app. My dry cleaner has an app. They can come to pick up the stuff from my house and then bring it back. My hour is worth a lot more than that extra $5 we’re going to pay in service or surcharge.

“Healthcare, higher education, and some other areas have been a bit slow to adjust and adapt. And I think this pandemic and what’s coming over the next two to three years is going to inspire many to either act quicker or decide to ride off into the sunset, retire, and have somebody else innovate for them.”


Listen to the full podcast for more great insights from Miloš Topić on topics such as how IT should be structured, how IT leaders should be an agent for change and more. Check out his articles here.