Voices in Tech: Transitioning technology operations when higher ed institutions merge

Q&A with a campus CIO who successfully managed the challenges when his university merged with another

Higher education mergers involve myriad challenges. At UB Tech® 2019, Nassar Nizami of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia offered suggestions for successful mergers by discussing the process of how Thomas Jefferson and Philadelphia University combined in 2017. Nizami came to Thomas Jefferson University two months after the process began, with previous experience taking part in systems integrations during consolidations of large academic medical centers.

Nizami also has operations expertise in instituting successful IT governance and structure programs.

During the 18-month integration process at Jefferson, Nizami learned how to successfully manage change in higher ed, and identified staff retention and communication strategies. “I can’t emphasize the importance of communication enough,” says Nizami. “You need to highlight all of the values and advantages of your merger to staff.”

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What was the most challenging aspect of integrating the technology at the two universities?

Integrating technology was the easy part. Managing expectations was challenging. The belief was that students, faculty and other staff would have similar technological experiences at both campuses once the merger was complete. For example, we thought that students would be able to use their badge or to access library resources immediately. But that wasn’t the case.

What did you do to ease the transition for employees?

We recognized that their top concerns were about their roles and responsibilities. We were transparent in our communication with employees. We assured them that there would be no immediate plans to consolidate locations or to change their overall work structure. This allowed staff to continue their jobs while they learned about each other’s culture, technologies in use, organizational structure, partnerships with vendors, and strengths and weaknesses.

What suggestions for successful mergers can you offer other higher ed institutions from your experience of identifying what to share or consolidate?

There’s an expectation that institutions can consolidate IT resources quickly and leverage their scale to be more efficient. In reality, it takes time to understand different technologies, IT architecture, stakeholder expectations and vendor relationships. For instance, school leaders should realize that consolidating IT contracts takes much longer than is usually expected. This is especially true for multiyear contracts in which vendors don’t have any incentive to change. So be mindful of actual savings.

Related: How edtech leaders deal with change and higher education mergers

First, focus on consolidating back-office technologies, such as Enterprise Resource Management, since they have the least amount of impact on students and faculty. Next, consolidate the assets that have more of an impact on them, such as student information and learning management systems.

What might you do differently if you are involved in future higher education mergers?

First, I would start the due diligence and planning process much earlier. It’s better to understand that there are limitations to what can and cannot be discussed during different phases of merger and acquisition activity.

Second, even though we made sure to communicate with employees, in hindsight, we could have done more. We did all the right things, including communicating via email, posting regular updates on websites, organizing town hall meetings, and scheduling regular team and one-on-one meetings. However, we could have communicated more about the advantages of consolidation and standardization, such as more opportunities for upward career mobility and new options for various types of training.

I would also clearly communicate the importance of blending the two university cultures so that the combined product is stronger than the previous cultures.

Lastly, I would focus more on staff retention. Team members have ample opportunities to go elsewhere for employment. Make sure you’re keeping the talent within the organization by providing more opportunities.

Steven Blackburn is associate editor of UB.

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