Continuing with confidence during emergencies—and beyond

Four ways campus CIOs can support the success of their faculty, staff, students and institutions
By: | April 2, 2020
(Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash)(Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash)
José Rodriguez is the chief information officer for Rhodes College in Tennessee. 

José Rodriguez is the chief information officer for Rhodes College in Tennessee.

A few weeks ago, our provost asked me if I thought we could fully transition all of our spring semester courses, faculty and students to remote learning, online, within a week. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes.”

Soon after, we discussed sending most staff home with what they would need to work remotely. Our communications division worked swiftly to create a new web resource dedicated to our COVID-19 response: “Continuing With Confidence.”

My Information Services division mobilized quickly to refocus technologies and library resources on remote learning, and to create a weeklong training schedule for faculty instructors, to increase cloud resources and to work with our academic deans to provide information. Like many schools, we were essentially creating a new campus—off campus—to continue teaching, learning, working and connecting.

A frequent question I have received is about how we’ve been able to shift and pivot so quickly. I believe the fulcrum is in the continuance of what Rhodes College in Tennessee and its Information Services division has always done well and is always pushing to improve, regardless of whether we are in a stable state. This is what I’ve suddenly realized is not just business continuity, but intrinsic business continuity—always positioning ourselves for the next major need for the institution, whether it’s within sight or not.

As a chief information officer, here are the four principles I have always adhered to but which now shine brightly as the most valuable things I have learned to do to support the college and make us successful, both on a normal day and during a crisis.

Nothing proved to be more critical or beneficial during the technology shifts brought on by COVID-19 than the cohesion and reinforced gratification of my team.

1. Support your staff

In my mind, I sometimes like to pretend that a staff member is looking for a better job and then I work to give them what they need to get it. Does that sound self-defeating? Interestingly, the result is the opposite. Providing challenges, ownership, flexibility and opportunities to learn and grow gives individuals much more of what fulfills them and the freedom to rise from where they are.

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In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2011), Daniel Pink challenges the notion that money is the greatest motivator. In fact, he suggests the greatest motivators are “autonomy, mastery and purpose.” Nurture your team as if you were helping them to move on and move up. Nothing proved to be more critical or beneficial during the technology shifts brought on by COVID-19 than the cohesion and reinforced gratification of my team.

2. Establish a broad service portfolio and continually assess it

I often think of information services as a kind of botanical garden. I want to make sure that we have service “species” that will not only cover the full range of current needs, but also grow beautifully into the future. I think about the height (specificity), breadth (applicability) and textures (functionality) of the services in our landscape. I think about hardscaped boulders, bridges, waterfalls (infrastructure) and seasonality (what services are most critical at what times of year). I think about repetition (redundancy and backup) in this environment as an essential part of our information landscape design.

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But I also step back often to evaluate what’s working, what isn’t working, and what should be moved or maybe taken out altogether. What do we need more of, and what do we have too much of? To achieve this, we assess our project work constantly. Twice per week, the entire division interrogates each other’s project work—status, effort, communication, completion and value. And we make adjustments to keep the college agile and keep our landscape thriving.

3. Believe in strategy and partnership vs. utility and service

Information services are like air and water. They are vital components of life, but we give them little importance or thought until they are disturbed in some way. CIOs are known to build strong partnerships with senior leaders, but often we perceive other campus interactions as more of a service or transaction. I have learned that treating every interaction as an act of partnership creates trust, investment and support of information services as a strategy for the college, and not merely a utility. That belief has positioned my staff as a key partner in this crisis.

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4. Talk, talk, talk

In the last few weeks, I consistently heard how helpful and important it was that I was keeping the campus informed. Communication is key—a well-known tenet. But too often, we focus only on the what and not the how. I have found that knowing your audience (and that you have many different ones) and crafting information specific and nuanced for each is essential for successful communication. And as for when to communicate, I try for a delicate balance between far too often and always.

As I shelter in place at home during this pandemic, I find myself weighed down with the anxious questions we all have of how this will play out. At the same time, I’m comforted in knowing that the mission of Rhodes College can persevere, and that we have planned and worked for what was needed then as well as what might be needed next. Even in the unknown, it gives me the hope and the confidence to continue.

José Rodriguez is the chief information officer for Rhodes College in Tennessee. 

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