If there’s one consistent area of focus for IT professionals, it’s commonly some version of: How are we partnering with the business and helping to create new opportunities, not just serve as a help desk?
In education, that theme is no different. On this episode, Principal Consultant, Ryan Moseman, talks with Casey Gordon, CIO at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, about the role of IT in education and how she’s worked to get others in the organization to think of IT differently. Casey has a great take on how to look at Security and some insights on how she was able to get her team involved in some revenue-generating opportunities for CSBSJU.
This episode is included in our Copilot Series, where we invite a customer, industry leader or trusted consultant to share their journey toward digital transformation.
This episode is sponsored by:
This podcast content was created prior to our rebrand and may contain references to our previous name (OST) and brand elements. Although our brand has changed, the information shared continues to be relevant and valuable.
Lizzie Williams: Hey, everybody. Today, we have another episode in our Copilot Series where we talk to customers and experts in the field to hear more about their digital journeys. On this episode, we talk with Casey Gordon, the CIO at College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. OST Principal Consultant, Ryan Moseman, talks with Casey about the changing landscape of technology in universities and how their IT department is finding ways to create revenue and opportunity. Enjoy!
Ryan Moseman: On your LinkedIn page, you have your photo. There’s a massive globe that is right behind you, and I’ve been wanting to know where is that from? And really how big is that thing?
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Casey Gordon: That’s actually from the Yacht Club in Disney World. There is an IT symposium—Gartner has a conference every year down in Disney World and it’s in October every year. And it’s this huge event for higher ed leaders and actually across the sectors, so there’s higher ed and there’s the government sector and there’s financial and there’s food. I sat down next to the CFO for Cliff Bars one time and we got to talk a little bit about the technology that it takes to make Cliff Bars. So it’s a really good place to go and talk about leadership. And so every year we go, my husband and I, he goes to the parks while I go to the conference. And they have this giant globe right in the lobby, and that just happens to be where we took that picture.
Ryan Moseman: Wow. That’s a great photo. And I saw that globe and I was like, “Wow, that is a cool thing. I want to know what that is and I want to see it someday.” So maybe if I get down to Disney—Disney World, you said?
Casey Gordon: Disney World, yup.
Ryan Moseman: Disney World, yeah.
Casey Gordon: It’s at the Yacht Club Hotel.
Ryan Moseman: Okay.
Casey Gordon: But it’s a good image, I think it, and that’s why I put it on my LinkedIn, right? As we are global CIOs and it is something where we may be in a region of, you know—and for us, we’re in central Minnesota and it can feel somewhat isolating sometimes, but I think that’s the fun thing about going to those big national conferences is you really get to see how many similarities there are across the nation and in some cases international, too. And you also get to hear some of the differences, too, and the uniquenesses in the regions.
Ryan Moseman: Right. Very cool. Thanks for sharing. So I gotta ask you one more thing though. So you went to Minnesota Morris, so you’re a Cougar.
Casey Gordon: Yup.
Ryan Moseman: Then you went to U of M Duluth, so you’re a Bulldog. And you also got a little bit of Nebraska University in there, too, so you’re also a Cornhusker. So who do you identify most with?
Casey Gordon: Definitely don’t call me a Cornhusker, unfortunately. My husband’s from Colorado and he would just die.
Ryan Moseman: Oh he would? Ok.
Casey Gordon: Yeah. He always says that the N in Nebraska is for knowledge. ‘Cause there’s a lot of competition, of course, between Colorado and Nebraska.
Ryan Moseman: Yes, there is. Yeah.
Casey Gordon: I think I’ve always lived in Minnesota, and specifically central Minnesota, so I feel a deep affinity for the University of Minnesota and all of the Minnesota schools, whether it’s the MnSCU schools, because I worked at St. Cloud State University or whether it’s my own institution obviously is St. John’s and St. Ben’s, too, so I really resonate with the Minnesota schools for sure.
Ryan Moseman: Cool. Great. Awesome. So, we’re going to kind of get into some of the digital transformation stuff. And it’s kind of a sexy, cool topic that’s out there. Got a lot of buzzwords around it. And I think a lot of times, I’ll say executive leaders may hear that and think that just means that we’re going to a cloud, right? And that’s not really what that really means. And there’s a lot more to that. So I just kinda want to break down what are some of the big topics from your perspective that make up kind of a digital transformation journey? I have some that I’ve already put together a little bit. But I also want to hear from you and we can kind of have a little collaboration on that real quick.
Casey Gordon: I think you’re exactly right. When people think about digital transformation, the first thing they think about is the technology. And actually, for me, that’s the last thing I think about. The first thing I think about is the people. It’s the mission that we’re trying to achieve: how does that look in a digital environment? The people that are executing on that mission. So all of our staff and the people that work in our institutions and also our customers as well. What does their experience look like in a digital transformation?
And it’s so much more important to focus first on what that look and feel is. What’s that outcome? What do you want to achieve? And then you can talk about the technology and say, “Now, how do we get there? What are the different ways?” And it might be a cloud strategy. It might be a hybrid strategy. It might be something else entirely. There’s so many options in between. But if we don’t start with the people, we will never have the right digital transformation.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah. I think that’s so true. And I’ll break it down and want your thoughts on that. So I got people, skills, partner, you got the user experience, but then there’s the business alignment, I’ll call that, and then you also have, from what I just heard from you, a kind of a perception and a cultural thing, too. Then there’s the technology, clearly, and I think there’s another element there that people sometimes kind of gloss over and that’s security. And that actually brings me to something you wrote. Actually, I think your dissertation back in 2015 around security, I think it was addressing security risk of mobile devices with higher education and what leaders should know.
So let’s start there, with that topic. If we go from 2015, a lot has changed. And we fast forward to today. How do you feel about the security risks and concerns that you described back then and that you were able to research and identify, and are things the same? Are they different? Have they tempered, are they exacerbated? Tell us about what your thoughts are from a security landscape.
Casey Gordon: Yeah, that’s a great question. When I started my Ph.D., it was in higher education leadership. And I knew right away that I wanted to tailor my dissertation on security, because what I was finding was this huge gap between how IT people were talking about security, and how leaders in higher ed outside of IT were understanding it. There was a gap there. There were things that people were saying in technical ways that leadership just really didn’t resonate with. And so I wanted to bridge that gap and that was the goal of my dissertation. It wasn’t to focus in on what are the most technical ways that we should handle security with mobile devices in particular. It was: how do we talk about security to leadership in a way that they can understand and will help them take action on those things? What are some manageable things that we can do? And I think that regardless of what technology has changed between now and 2015—which is a lot as always—some of those things still resonate. We still have to be able to talk in ways that they can understand. We have to talk about the mission. And security for me is all about balance—especially in higher ed—where access is so important, particularly for research and for students to be able to do research and faculty as well.
So because of that access and that balance between risk and access, we’re constantly moving the dial. We don’t want to be all the way on the side of security. We don’t obviously want to be all the way on the side of openness. We’ve gotta be somewhere in between. And I think that’s a conversation that really resonates with leadership because when you say, “These are the things we need to do to secure the environment,” and you talk about the mission along with that, they really start to understand.
I think one example of that is we’re actually rolling out Duo right now. Duo Two-factor is obviously something that a lot of institutions are rolling out, not just higher ed, but across the board. And the goal being: let’s provide another factor that helps to secure our devices and our accounts in a better manner than we’re doing today, right? But what you often find is now with that extra layer of protection, there’s sometimes could be a barrier to people who may need to do certain things. So making sure that we take that into account when we’re designing all of our rules: How do people gain access? Where are the points where we’re really concerned about, like off-campus or remote when they’re from home? Versus, where are the places where we can make it more seamless and easy for them that supports the mission? If they’re in the library on a university-owned computer, do we need to do that second factor? You know, all of those are questions you have to consider. And when you think about the mission first, that’s really when you start to get the right balance of security versus openness.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah, that’s great. I think that’s so true. I see a lot where if it’s too closed, then you almost create a deviant culture where people start to go outside of your own boundaries.
Casey Gordon: Absolutely! If you make it too hard for people to save files into your own file storage system, people are going to start to use Box and they’re going to start to use Dropbox—and with their own personal accounts, I should say. And so I think that’s something that you have to be aware of. Policy only does so much.
But I think the bigger thing is just really about how do we make it the right mix for people? It’s the right thing to do. If we lock everything down and we make everyone’s day so miserable, have we really helped move the mission of the institution forward?
Ryan Moseman: Yeah, that’s a great question or a great point that you made. And I think that goes into what you talked about just a few minutes ago about the user experience, right? I think my perception and perspective has been that it’s a challenge to identify what is that user experience. What does it mean to look like and feel like? So how do you, and how have you gone through that in your own transformational journey to identify that user experience and make sure that what you guys are creating and designing is going to be a benefit and value?
Casey Gordon: I think it’s a constant challenge because user experience is subjective. In my current institution, we have obviously the students and the faculty and the staff that we deal with. We also have monks and nuns who live on our campus. And the user experience that’s acceptable for an 18 to 22-year-old student in college is very different from a user experience that would be acceptable for a monk or a nun who might be elderly. And so when you think about that, we often have to have a lot of conversations about what would that look like. Sometimes we call them user stories. What’s a user story for someone in that role? How does their day look? What would this look like if we implemented this technology for this person? How would it look for this other person? And when you talk through all those different experiences, that’s when you start to arrive at how could we design something that works for those experiences, so I think that’s certainly one way. Not to bring everything back to people, but for me, it really does go back to talking and building relationships.
A lot of times, if we don’t have those conversations, we are producing a tool that isn’t as good as it could be if we had them. So going in early and say, there’s something that we’re rolling out to faculty, having those conversation for ahead of time is really the goal in designing something that will eventually have a good user experience.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah, very true. Thank you for sharing.
Switch gears just a little bit from the user experience. Perception and culture is a big piece, and this is what you’ve been talking about as far as reaching out and talking to folks. A few months back, I think it was October, we wrote a blog about the four different CIOs that are out there. We see that there’s four different CIOs that have emerged over the last 5, 6, 7 years or so. On one spectrum you have this oppositional CIO who is resistant to change, doesn’t want to push the boundaries, and is really happy just keeping the lights on and making sure that the businesses is functioning. And then on the other end of the spectrum is a CIO that’s really opportunistic that’s driving and creating value. But in the middle, that’s the weird yucky area, right? And I think that’s where perception and culture start to have an influence. So for the CIO, that is in that middle space, a lot of times what I hear from them saying is, “I want to drive and create more value.” And I ask them, “Well, what’s holding you back?” And they say, “We—as an IT organization—aren’t respected. We’re not understood. We’re challenged in that we’re bringing ideas and we’re just not taken seriously.” How big is that perception in an organization’s ability to actually execute—successfully—digital transformation journey? And what are some of the things that you see out there that a CIO that’s in that middle ground could glean from and use to help move forward?
Casey Gordon: When I started at St. John’s and St. Ben’s—I’ve been there for four years now—and the institution really looked at IT in that very traditional way, right? We were the internet, we were the network, we were the computers, the hardware that was in the buildings, and we were email, right? Very transactional, I think. And it was a service—almost like you would call us a utility in some ways. And there were pockets of folks who’d integrated on academics and there were pockets of innovation, but overall, I felt like we were highly regarded in our service level, but we were seen in what I would call kind of a “box,” right? And so, coming from my days at St. Cloud State, that’s not really the way I perceived technology and that’s not really how we position the institution there. So I came in with a really different perspective. IT is part of everything. We’re part of the academics. We should be partnering at every level of the institution to drive the mission forward. That’s our role. So that was really different for a lot of the folks around the community, but not different in a bad way. For them, they were excited.
My internal staff were excited because they’d been wanting to do some of this more innovative stuff, but not really sure how. Without those relationships how do we connect with people? How do we make sure we’re working on the right things? They were kind of looking for that guidance. And on the exterior side, folks were looking for someone to help guide them through these technology decisions.
So both of these areas had these needs, and I felt like it was a good position to be able to come in and say, “Let’s join these things together.” And it started with going out and helping people understand that my vision for technology was very different than the traditional IT environment.
I saw us as partnering and Gartner has this list where there’s the transactional CIO and then you move up to the partnering CIO, and eventually, you move up to that what I would call your goal, which is trusted ally, right? And so in the first few years, building all those relationships really helped me to move our IT organization from transactional to partnering. And we’re on the way to trusted ally. It takes some time to get there, right? But as you have those conversations and you build those relationships, you actually start to find people coming to you.
So one of the challenges we had before I came in was projects would just happen. They would spin up and all of a sudden a tool would be bought, and the IT department would be like, “Oh, I guess we have to implement this. It was already purchased.” So that was a challenge. But I found that just by building those relationships and letting people know that our vision for technology was different and that we were going to be partnering with them, they started to bring projects to us ahead of time and ask for our expertise. So that’s huge because when you start to think about planning out your year’s worth of activities, knowing about projects ahead of time is absolutely critical to the success of everyone. So we saw small and big wins, but it really all comes from reaching out. You have to reach out, do presentations, talk to people individually, and present that vision. Tell them what you think an IT department should be and tell them how you’re going to help them, and they will respond—at least that’s what I found in my experience.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah, that was great. Because you were new to St. Ben [and] St John’s, was it easier to kind of change that perception and that culture because you were new? Or do you think there’s some challenges with that?
Casey Gordon: Yes and no. When you have a new position, you get to go out and meet people, so it’s a really great opportunity to have that first conversation and set the stage. So I would say yes from that perspective, but also when you’re new to an organization, you don’t necessarily have the credibility of a long-term position either, so you have to kind of show them who you are.
I think in the beginning, people would hear me and say, “Well, yeah sure, you say you’re going to partner with me, but are you really going to?” And then you have to prove it. You have to actually continue to meet with them and continue to involve them in the conversations and make sure you actually execute on what you say. So there’s a pro to having long-term relationships.
So if you’re a CIO and you’ve been at your institutional really long time and you want to move from transactional to partnering to trusted ally, you can still do it. You just leverage different things. You leverage your relationships that you already have and you set up those meetings and you start from that position. But you can also do it as a new CIO. I think it’s possible either way.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah. And you’ve been with St. Ben [and] St. John’s for coming up on four years now, right? Next month I believe so?
Casey Gordon: Yup.
Ryan Moseman: Happy anniversary next month.
Casey Gordon: Thank you.
Ryan Moseman: So for the CIO that’s been in and feels like they’re in a rut that is stuck, what kind of tidbit or a little piece of advice would you provide them who’s saying, “You know what, I’m not new. I don’t come with fresh set of eyes. I need to somehow change this past perception of me because I have fit this more menial, keep the lights on role.” How would you suggest that?
Casey Gordon: I think two things. The first thing is that no CIO does this alone, right? So it’s not like I came into this organization and did all this change, right? I came in and started some conversations and shared with my team what my vision was. And my team really helped to build that mission across the institution and they bought into it and they wanted it to. And in fact, it wasn’t even just my vision, we created the vision together. So I would say, one of those first steps would be to involve your team.
Have some conversations, maybe it’s a strategic retreat. We do one of those every year. And we talk about what are the things that we—together—want to achieve? And we come to some agreement on that. And I help set some direction, but they also do, too. I think I’ve never worked with an IT team that didn’t have phenomenal ideas at every single level of the organization. And if those ideas are built-in, then what you get is this plan that’s stronger because of all the ideas, but you also get the entire IT team as evangelists for the new mission. So it wasn’t just me meeting with people and building relationships. Every single person in our department knows that they can go out and build those relationships.
I have associate directors that go out and have meetings with department chairs and with others across the campuses. So it really becomes a whole group mission. And I would say that would be one of the first things is don’t try to do it alone. Bring your team in, set the stage, get them involved, and share that.
We’re going to change. This is the goal. We want to be partnering and we want to be a trusted ally and we want to help move the mission forward. Help me. Help our entire institution do that. I think that would be one of the first things.
The second thing I would say is to share that mission with your leadership, whether it’s your presidents or your VPs or wherever that is, you can just share some of that and say, “I’m working right now to figure out how we’re going to match our IT mission with the way that IT is changing in the world. And I want you to know that we’re going to be coming up with some ideas and some of them may seem strange and things we haven’t done before, but come on this journey with me and we will be somewhere better.” So you kind of have to involve all levels of the organization.
Ryan Moseman: Excellent. Thank you.
So along those lines of reaching across the aisles and having conversations with folks, in one of the elements that we identified just early on here, how we talked about security perception of culture and alignment, but now there’s this business vision, oftentimes, I’ll hear CIOs or even other executive leaders say to me, “You know what, I’m really frustrated. I’m challenged with the fact that I feel like we in the business or we in IT are speaking different languages. We’re not saying the same things and we’re going in different directions.” From your perspective, how critical is having a business alignment or alignment of business vision in order to execute that digital transformation?
Casey Gordon: I think it’s absolutely critical. I mean, if you’re not clear on how IT is going to bolster the mission and align with the business vision, then you’re not going to succeed.
It’s important for those types of conversations that happen at that leadership level, they have to carry down and they have to carry down into, not just the CIO’s role, but also into the rest of the organization. So from an IT standpoint, when I’m coming back from strategic planning meetings or meetings where we’re talking about things that we might shift: how’s the budget looking, what are some things we might invest in, that has to be shared obviously as much as you can without breaching confidentiality, but sharing the core of what’s the direction. And the more that you can share that broadly with your IT staff, the better everyone will be able to see how their world or their piece of the world fits into the bigger business picture.
Ryan Moseman: You guys are working in some data analytics projects today. How was that identified? What was the idea behind that or who created the impetus and how did you get the sponsorship to move forward?
Casey Gordon: So the state of data and analytics is kind of in several little buckets, I would say, in our organization. I think when I came in, I came from an organization that had an entire apartment focused on BI. And so coming to our institution, I think I immediately saw the need, right? We had pockets of data and analytics happening in different areas. So we had a department that would do some analytics around institutional research. We had a different area that did things related to institutional advancement, which is our donors and alumni giving all that kind of stuff. So we had all these different areas and everyone was kind of doing it in a vacuum. And so one of the things that we’ve been trying to do—and it’s a work in progress—but we’ve been trying to get our handle around what does that look like across the entire institution? What are some things that we can share and do together? What are some things that still need to be unique to those individual areas? And it’s not just because my previous institution had a BI department, it’s also because when you read anything from EDUCAUSE or Gartner or any of the CIO’s newspapers or things like that, what you find is research that shows that when you have data and you use data to make decisions, you can drive much more successful outcomes. And so it’s all about making sure that we have a cohesive structure and can provide some of the necessary data so our organization can move forward in the right direction.
Ryan Moseman: What’s the next iteration of that or evolution, and I’ll let you maybe provide a leaving question to it and that is: with the challenge around tuition freezes, I see that there’s a great challenge with bringing on students and retaining them, right? And helping them through their educational journey, because, as we know, that if there’s a dropout rate that is greater than our tuition or onboarding rate, then we’re going to start losing revenue. So, from your perspective, how can IT and data analytics actually identify patterns and trends and actually create revenue versus lose it?
Casey Gordon: Well, there’s actually two parts to that. Right now we’re actually bringing in a tool to do what we would call “student success,” but it’s really focused around how do you make students academically successful and how do you retain students, right? So it’s all a lot of data about student behaviors, what events might they attend, and we don’t have all of this built out today, but the goal, the end game we’re in the process of is: what are the things that they’re doing? Do they visit advising? Are they going to the tutoring center? Putting that all together and then saying these students are likely to be successful in their courses because they have these behaviors that this great system knows about and have the ability to say these are more likely to succeed in your institution and that what you end up with is some students who may be flagged more as at risk. And those are the students you reach out to, right?
You create what we call interventions and you say, “This student should meet with an advisor,” or “we need to reach out from the counseling center because of faculty has raised an alert that the student might be in trouble,” or “they haven’t paid their tuition yet and we’re concerned that they might drop out because they can’t pay tuition, so someone from financial aid reach out and check in and see if they need help.” So all of those interventions happen with the goal of making sure that the student is able to succeed and persist at the institution, thereby driving revenue, right? So it’s all a great curve when you have that data and you can put that together.
So we’re in the process right now of implementing that and we’re still in what I would call “pilot phase” where we’ve got a handful of faculty using it, our advising office, and some other areas. But the potential is huge to really change the way that we do business.
Prior to that, what was really happening was we were using email and we were talking and we were saying, “I think the student might be in trouble. Could you reach out?” And so it’s all very unscientific. And when you put this together, you get a better picture and a better ability not to let students slip through the cracks.
Then there’s the other side of it, which is the financial side, too, which is also an important point where: how do we determine where our costs are and where we can drive costs down? Are there things we’re doing in certain areas that are costing more than they should, programs potentially that we could streamline, or different things like that? So there’s data across the board that could help with both of those conversations.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah. Great insight. Thank you.
Well, our time’s wrapping up here, so I’ll leave with one last question. If you were to go back to your first day on the job, go back four years ago—since your anniversary is coming up here—what would you tell yourself? What insight, warning information would you give to help set yourself up for greater success?
Casey Gordon: That is such a good question. One of the things that I did when I first came in was I had a lot of things that I wanted to tackle, right? A lot of changes I wanted to make, I wanted to meet with everybody.
Ryan Moseman: Came in with a baseball bat swinging.
Casey Gordon: Right? Yeah, it was really good. And I think within the first year, we had so many projects on the docket because I was out talking to all these areas and I was partnering, right? And it was great momentum. And about that year mark, I noticed that my team was getting a little stressed out with the new stuff that was coming in. And that’s when we really took a pause and I said, “We’re going to take a semester and we’re going to just take very minimal new projects and everybody’s going to have a little break.” And they needed it mentally. And it was good. And if I could go back, I would tell myself to maybe take a break a little bit earlier just to help everybody out.
Try not to tackle everything all at once. It needs to happen in phases. And I think we’ve reached a good balance now where we’re finding that, but I certainly would warn myself to just make sure that we’re taking our time. Change does not happen overnight.
Ryan Moseman: Yeah. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
Casey Gordon: Right.
Ryan Moseman: So, last and final fun little anecdotal question. So OST’s corporate offices in the farmer cookie game factory, they built a lot of wooden games like Cribbage, and Backgammon, and checkers, and things like that, but out of wood from way back in the day. So one thing that we like to ask folks is: if you were to pick a game that you would identify with or that you would be, what would that be?
Casey Gordon: Well, I think my favorite game that I played when I was young was Rubik’s Race. And I don’t know if you’ve ever played this before, but you know what a Rubik’s Cube is, right?
Ryan Moseman: I do. Yeah.
Casey Gordon: So Rubik’s Race is a flat board and then there’s a little box that you shake, and there’s little colored discs. So the top looks like one side of a Rubik’s Cube and it’s basically like a puzzle—you can Google it. If you move the pieces around, in like a puzzle shape, then you have to copy the pattern that is displayed on this box that you shook, but there’s an opponent across the way with you. There’s two of you and you’re racing. So the goal is: solve the puzzle to make it look exactly like the pattern on the box, and then you drop the center thing down when you’ve won. So you’re basically competing against the person across from you. It’s my favorite and I’m not really sure why. I love puzzles. I like solving problems and so that’s probably why it was fun for me. And then there’s that little competitive nature where you have to do it first, so that’s of course always fun.
Ryan Moseman: Awesome. Great. Thank you.
Lizzie Williams: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to ostusa.com/podcast.