by Marcia Bohannon

School IT Chief Learned From Listening to Users

Apr 01, 20046 mins
IT Leadership

When I joined Jefferson County Public Schools as CIO in mid-2002, I knew I was walking into a troubled situation. My predecessor had been asked to leave amid allegations of poor fiscal management. IT’s reputation had taken a huge hit. There was so little trust in my department that the only goal identified in the 2002-2003 district strategic plan for IT was to end the year within budget. There were no stated service or performance expectations and certainly no expectations of strategic input.

There was also the matter of a multimillion-dollar deficit that had to be paid off within two years, higher than normal public scrutiny and an IT staff that believed it had paid with its own blood for management’s indiscretions.

On top of all that, the CIO position, which used to report directly to the superintendent (equivalent to a company’s CEO), now would be reporting to the COO. I knew my path would be a lot smoother if I had direct access to the superintendent and her direct reports, but it was no surprise that my superintendent was now organizationally shielded from IT. Jefferson County Public Schools was truly an organization that felt it had suffered greatly at the hands of poor IT management.

Because I was new to the district?and to K-12 education in general?I knew I had much to learn. So I began my tenure by meeting with people across the district. For several months, I did nothing but listen and ask questions. On more than one occasion, I was told that my predecessor had reorganized IT within weeks of his arrival. This was related to me with such distaste that I knew a fast turnaround plan would not work.

It quickly became apparent to me, however, that some immediate reengineering of both information technology and districtwide processes was necessary. I decided to look inward first. During my discovery phase at the district, I uncovered a few ahas that identified areas for potential improvement. One was budget management. The previous IT organization had four separate departments, and their budgets were not managed in any coordinated way. So I encouraged the use of standard reporting tools for monitoring and reporting actual expenditures versus budgeted amounts. And I provided consistent training in the use of these reporting tools. I also now require each manager to estimate expenditures remaining for the year so that we can more accurately predict year-end results. Although we’re still working on this, the budget process has improved by leaps and bounds. We ended the 2002-2003 fiscal year with enough surplus to pay off the technology deficit a full year early.

When I first came aboard, I discovered that we had more than 100 projects going on within IT, with only 75 people in the department. We had no formal process for initiating, planning, monitoring, measuring or even terminating projects. So I introduced a project management office to add structure and discipline to the management of projects and initiatives.

I also reorganized my production areas to align with customer needs. Where before my departments were segregated according to product expertise, we now have teams of product specialists grouped according to the functions they perform. We also now have a new position focused solely on managing all customer-facing personnel. The infusion of new ideas and new team arrangements are promoting cross-department communication where it did not exist before. But cleaning house internally was just the beginning.

Those of us leading enterprisewide IT initiatives understand that IT can’t work in isolation. Good relationships with business departments are critical to IT’s success. Here again, my department’s reputation was poor. Business users told me that during a recent ERP upgrade, IT had made decisions about functionality and rollout logistics without consulting users. My staffers told me that they had tried to ask the users for input, but the users either didn’t know what they wanted or couldn’t understand what they were being asked about. Clearly, we had a glitch in communication.

So one of the first things I did was add a staff member who focused solely on client communication, bridging the gap between technical and business language. Although one person within an organization of 12,000 employees cannot interpret all customer needs, she has already made tremendous progress in improving interaction between the instructional departments and IT personnel. For instance, my new teams now give users a head’s up about planned outages and what kind of downtime they might expect. I consistently receive appreciative feedback from business managers about this improved communication.

In 1998, the school district implemented PeopleSoft in both HR and financial systems. When I was hired in 2002, it was clear that the district had not yet achieved enterprisewide collaboration as evidenced by the high number of point applications still in use and the many piecemeal customizations needed to maintain existing business processes. This shortcoming offered me an excellent opportunity to make a real difference. So I created an interdisciplinary executive steering committee made up of the superintendent and her business unit leaders to help with decision making on the PeopleSoft implementation. This group reviewed and approved all customization requests and made the major decisions about the project. Not only did the formation of this committee move the burden of decision making from IT to the business where it belonged, but it had the added benefit of educating business leaders about IT.

My next step was to broaden the committee’s scope. Approximately six months after the committee formed, I changed the scope of its responsibilities to cover all IT initiatives. Its existence has improved communication between IT and business immeasurably.

One of the first challenges for any CIO, of course, is getting a seat at the CEO’s table as an equal member of the executive team. To address this, I began one-on-one meetings with the superintendent. Luckily, my manager (the COO) was not threatened by these meetings, which introduced me to the superintendent’s style of decision making and helped me to understand what was important to her. It also gave me a chance to explain my approach and how IT could help the organization. Establishing this contact has been very important for both of us to build much-needed trust and respect.

I try also to meet with individual department heads as much as their schedules will allow. Each time we meet, it offers another chance to share ideas and concerns. My experience with similar situations in the past has taught me that patience is critical. Listening and learning has helped me build credibility faster than any quick turnaround strategy ever would have.

I still have a long way to go. And I accept that IT may never find a place at the superintendent’s table. If you find yourself in this position, the key question to ask is: Am I upset because my place on the org chart is damaging the business or throwing up roadblocks to my department’s success? Or is my dissatisfaction just a matter of wounded pride? Either way, I counsel patience. Perhaps one day, you and I both will be able to pull up a chair at the executive table.