University of Pennsylvania CIO talks IT in academia

A university environment is as complex, if not more complex, than private enterprise. Learn how Thomas Murphy, CIO of the University of Pennsylvania, took the lead in changing the way information and technology are used to teach, learn, and support the university business model.

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Credit: University of Pennsylvania

You might think an experienced CIO who is looking to slow down would jump at the opportunity to take the top IT spot at an Ivy League school. After all, who could resist the opportunity to glide into retirement with a job that lets you meet and interact with the academic elite from around the world while on the IT side focus simply on existing student applications and other basic university systems like email, payroll and billing? Sounds like a dream job compared with the same position in the private sector, where business unit executives constantly shift priorities, demand improved services, want to incorporate the latest and greatest technologies, and lose patience when IT budgets are cut and project delivery dates get pushed out.

Well, guess what? Universities are as complex — if not more so — than private enterprises. Just ask Tom Murphy, vice president and CIO at the University of Pennsylvania. "Universities are like mini cities," Murphy says. "They have their own police force, transportation service, hotel rooms, restaurants and sporting facilities. Add to that the various schools within a university, each with its own leader, P&L, technology requirements and, last but not least, a student body that uses social media 24 hours a day as their prime communication medium."

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Murphy, who enlightened me on the complexities of leading an IT organization in a university environment. He shared how his early IT role at Marriott led to his CIO roles at Omni Hotels, Bristol Hotels, Royal Caribbean, and AmerisourceBergen, and how his experiences at these diverse companies positioned him to take on his current CIO role at the University of Pennsylvania. His goal at Penn is to take the lead in changing the way information and technology is used to teach, learn, and support the university's complex environment. And, as I found out, he's accomplishing his objectives in unique ways. Here's an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: During your years at Royal Caribbean and AmerisourceBergen, the competitive landscape went through a transformation. The iPhone, developed in 2007, is now the ubiquitous device. The consumerization of IT is completely changing the dynamics in the business enterprise. Having lived through this paradigm shift, how do you now see the role of the CIO and the ways it has changed?

Tom Murphy: The changing role of the CIO depends largely on the organization and the arc of maturity of the organization. There are CIOs still today who are tactical, and that may be appropriate to the industry or the life cycle of the company they work for. In general, though, it is hard to imagine any industry that has not been touched by the strategic nature of technology and the ability of technology to significantly change the dynamics of competition.

The challenge for CIOs is to perform well at both the strategic and tactical role. At the strategic level, CIOs are collaborating with business peers to develop solutions that achieve significant business outcomes. Executing at the strategic and tactical level is not easy to accomplish as a CIO. I know this may sound self-serving, but it's the hardest job in any company, because while we make the shift to the strategic side, we may take our eyes off the ball in terms of the trains running on time, and if that happens, we lose all credibility. The really successful CIOs execute well in both worlds and elevate beyond the normal CIO role to make enormous differences in their companies.

Another important factor is the ability to really understand how the business operates. Strategic CIOs have the ability to look across the entire landscape of the organization, understand how the processes work, understand the hot buttons and who the people are that get things done. Those relationships are so important. We've talked previously about the importance of "emotional quotient," the EQ elements, the soft competencies of leadership that the great CIOs have. That ability to connect to people is so important, to get people to follow you when you don't have direct authority over them.

There are definite signs that our role is in fact becoming strategic. CIOs are joining more boards of directors. Reporting relationships are shifting from the administrative and financial area to the chief operating officer or the CEO in many cases, all of which are good signs.

I interviewed many CIOs for my book, The Strategic CIO, including CIOs from higher education institutions. It's been very enlightening. Many think that the role of a CIO in higher education is less complex than in public or private sector. I always thought that the CIO of a university focuses on maintaining a few critical applications such as email, registration systems and financial systems. I now realize that the role is much more complex. Help us understand this complexity at the University of Pennsylvania.

The CIO role is very dependent upon the culture of the institution. The University of Pennsylvania is a highly confederated environment, and I use the word purposefully.

Every school — we have 12 schools here — has its own IT organization. The deans and vice deans run their schools as their own independent business. Within each of those schools, faculty members, who are essentially independent entrepreneurs, work on their research and academic focus with some regard to the school administration, and with little regard to the administrative support staffs like IT that support their endeavors. I shouldn't speak in broad generalities, but that is largely the case.

We have over 200 centers where IT functions are performed, and none of them report into me. In higher education, certainly at the University of Pennsylvania and most of the larger private schools, there is no administrative staff that mandates anything. You don't mandate. There's very little governance. There's no prioritization of supply and demand the way that we know or think about it from a corporate setting. Getting things done requires a lot of hard work, building alliances and convincing people to follow through collaboration and collegiality techniques.

What we think of as rational arguments for doing something — ROI, ROCC, supply and demand, value for investment, and so forth — those don't matter as much in a university. What matters is the mission. Creating and disseminating knowledge, the academic mission, academic freedom, research — these are the important things. Value for investment, returns on investment — they're not going to move the ball. That's a big shift in terms of how you have to think about getting things done from the private sector to the university environment.

Then, as you said, these are small cities. This makes the CIO role very complex. Royal Caribbean gave me a good foundation for this. Those ships, which move all over the world, are cities. We have power generation plants and waste treatment systems. We have police. We have hotels. We have maritime ... the people who pilot the ships, and incredible life safety responsibilities.

At the University of Pennsylvania, we have the same. We have an incredibly complex facility environment. We have students. We have dormitories. We have hotels. We have public sporting facilities. It is an amazing place, but every constituent has a different set of requirements, different drivers, different motivations — and they seldom line up very well.

The university hired you as CIO because it wanted more strategic leadership for its IT organization. I'm sure there was some apprehension moving from private sector to higher education, and you probably received advice from some colleagues who said, "Tom, what are you thinking? Why the change?"

For me, personally, I've never been hired somewhere where the executive team wasn't looking for something specific. Although nobody said it — there was no mandate to effect change — people don't hire me if they want status quo to continue. That's just not my background. That's not my history.

I assumed coming in that there was at least a soft mandate to effect change. The IT organization had perhaps lost its way a little bit. There was some question about alignment with the institution as well as what the institution's needs were versus the IT organization's ability to deliver. There was also some question about relationships and collaboration and collegiality and so forth. Coming in, I knew that there were many opportunities.

I conducted a classic listening tour, which is something CIOs do whether you're in private sector or not. Here, it's really, really important. I had a couple of things in mind. I wanted to understand from all of my different constituents — and I have a lot of constituents — what is working and what's not working from their point of view. More importantly, I wanted to get the message out and diffuse the fear about a corporate guy coming in because there was the buzz that there was going to be a centralization play.

As I said, the University of Pennsylvania has a confederated operating environment that has worked very well for 275 years. There wasn't any reason to think it wouldn't work well for the next 275 years. If I tried to change that, and there was no mandate to change that, there would be rejection very quickly throughout the university.

I wanted to diffuse fear and let people know I got it. There was a lot of listening that went on. I talked to over 100 constituents. When you think about my constituents, I have faculty, I have researchers, I have administrators, I have staff, I have students, and I have alumni. They all have different expectations, different needs. Then multiply that by 12 schools and 200 centers. There are many people to talk to and many opinions.

I spent the first 100 days understanding how people felt, diffusing fear, and then working within my own organization to compare and contrast what I was hearing from the external constituents and from internal IT team members. We then went through an exercise to try to figure out how to filter all of this input and come up with an action plan.

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