ITS Strong

I’ve been at UChicgao for long enough now to really know about our organization. I often tell people one of the perks of being in the CIO chair is the opportunity to learn the organization in a very complete way. Having to help the leaders across ITS solve problems has made me learn the complete functioning of the team and it has given me a very good idea of who we are as an organization. I’m sure most of us can talk about what our make-up is — we know we are 265 or so people who work together. But I wonder if we actually know and understand that we are also much stronger together?

Yesterday I was at a session at the EDUCAUSE Connect Chicago event where the presenter was talking about how he had implemented a skill inventory for his organization. What was interesting to me is that he went further and added the idea of an “internet inventory” so people could indicate how interested they were in various skills. It produced some interesting results and lots of good follow up conversation. When I asked how big his group was he told me it was under 25, so naturally my next questions was how does it scale to something like ITS’s size?

I asked that not to make sure he knew our organization is bigger than his, it is because one of the things I see everyday in ITS is that we so often don’t take advantage of the intellectual strength we have as a collective. What I mean is that I see parts of our organization struggle deeply with solving a problem or delivering a creative solution because they think they are going it alone and they don’t know there are people in other parts of ITS who have the answers to their own questions. We have to stop that and learn about our collective strength, not just our individual skills. We need to lean on that.

Related to the skill and interest assessment question is that in an organization the size of ITS I do not believe members of our team really know about other parts of the org. For example, I could easily see someone rate themselves very highly as a developer, but have little interest in applying it in the context they are currently in and getting down and frustrated not knowing they can apply that same skill in a totally different part of the organization. You need to take the time to know what we do from one side of the house to the other and understand that there are novel contexts to do your work. If you don’t know what someone in ASTS does, take a minute and find out. One, you may realize you want to do work in an area that focuses on something different. And, two, you might find the person who will help solve that next problem you are going to encounter.

I feel like ITS is at its strongest when we learn enough about each other that we are willing to lean in together. And leaning in together often means leaning on someone to get to where we need to be.

Being a Customer Service Company

I drive. A lot. I commute in the wonderful Chicago traffic five days a week, twice a day, covering about 45 total miles. Depending on the time of day I can make it in to work in 40 minutes if I am lucky, but it is closer to an hour going home if I leave at a respectable time. That has proven to be the single biggest change for me personally in making the move to UChicago. What it really means is that I have to fill up that time with some degree of productive activity.

On many days I schedule phone calls that let me extend the day while in the car, but other times I listen to podcasts.I have a ton of subscriptions that I listen to using Overcast on my iPhone. Quite a few are by Gimlet Media. They exploded onto the scene with a very unique show called, “Startup” that originally chronicled the creation of the company itself. Since then they’ve released a ton of exceptional shows that get me through the week.

my podcasts

But, there is one podcast that I love to listen to as soon as a new episode is available, “How I Built This” from NPR. It is a radio-style show where it is a well produced interview with founders of companies about how they built their companies. There are excellent ones about Airbnb, Instagram, Samuel Adams, and more. But the best one I have listened to was this morning with the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh. I am not going to describe it as it is an absolute must listen, so please do that … I stopped short of sending out a mandate to listen as it is that good.

It resonated with me for so many reasons, but the thing I took from it that I want us to own is when Tony says something to the effect of, “Zappos isn’t a shoe company, it is a customer service company. We want to be known as not selling shoes, but selling great customer service.” Right there it is for what we’ve been talking about — us all owning great customer service. Yes, we are an operations organization, but we are also a customer service organization. I think if you put those two things next to each on a balanced score card, I believe being a customer service company comes first.

Customer Service Mentality

Just prior to the end of the year, I wrote an email to share some thoughts with you regarding customer service and its primary role in our work. I want to follow up with more on that message and also to provide information on an executive director search and additional changes and next steps.

I began the note sent at the end of November with the following:

Service to and for our customers—whether faculty, students, staff, alumni, or any guest of the University or member of the broader community—is paramount. It is, in my estimation, the single most important focus underlying all of our work.

It has been encouraging to receive replies and feedback indicating this message resonates with many of you. Emphasizing customer service and reinforcing a “customer first” organizational mindset isn’t something that is good simply to say, I believe it is the right thing to do and also something we must do.

We must make it easier, not harder, for our customers to connect with technology; leverage technology to advance their work and their research and academic pursuits; and feel especially positive — delighted — about their experiences using technology and in working with those of us in IT who support that technology.

To move us toward achieving this goal, a customer service review was conducted at the beginning of December. A small team of higher education colleagues came to campus to assess IT Services’ customer service organization and overall approach to customer service. The team provided recommendations regarding the ways in which we can better support and serve our customers.

Figuring out what is next.

Some of us have started to work through the recommendations from the customer service review. In the coming weeks we will begin discussing the recommendations more fully with the ITS Senior Leadership Group (SLG) and the staff in our Solutions and Service Management (SSM) organization, as well as with others throughout ITS.

To summarize just a couple of the recommendations broadly applicable across ITS:

  • All areas of ITS and all ITS staff need to own “great customer service,” not only the SSM organization.
  • Service owners throughout ITS need to have documented service level agreements and must strive to always meet those agreements.

One highlight of the customer service review focused on the TechBar, which was viewed as a center of excellent customer service within ITS. Because there is a natural connection between the work of TechBar and the SSM organization — and to better leverage the best aspects of TechBar throughout the SSM organization — TechBar will be moved out of Academic and Scholarly Technology Services and returned to SSM. While this realignment won’t immediately change the operations of the TechBar, it will provide more opportunities for future expansion and diffusion of the TechBar model.

Within the next two weeks, a national search will begin for a new executive director for Solutions and Service Management. This executive director will report to me and directly oversee the customer service organization within ITS, as well as lead efforts to transform the overall customer service approach across ITS.

Until the new executive director for SSM is hired, we will continue to work with our existing team to provide leadership for SSM. Staff are being asked to identify and, where appropriate, execute on any opportunities to immediately begin to improve our customer service approach.

A few other customer service-focused efforts currently in flight include:

  • A series of Lynda.com courses on customer service are being reviewed and will be added to playlists made available to all ITS staff. Once available, I will ask you to complete those courses as part of our collective professional development and consider how you can incorporate the lessons into your work.
  • By the end of January, a plan will be drafted to establish a roadmap that will evolve the service desk, housed within SSM, to be able to provide tier one support for the services offered by ITS.
  • In February, Apple has invited me to bring a small group of UChicago staff members to attend a special training opportunity at their Michigan Avenue store. There, representatives from Apple will walk us through their approach to customer service and discuss ways we can improve our approach.

As I reiterated in my November note and as I’ve said many times before, our aim is and should always be to delight our customers. We have a good start, a great team, and the beginnings of a plan to be even better.

Please do not to hesitate to reach out to me with any questions or feedback. As always, I appreciate your engagement on these important topics.

Suneetha Vaitheswaran Appointed Executive Director of Business Information Systems

suneethaAlthough in my March “Update on ITS” email, I wrote to you recognizing Suneetha Vaitheswaran’s talents and my decision to ask her to report to me and become part of the ITS senior leadership group (SLG), I’d like to take this opportunity to formally recognize her contributions. Suneetha has accepted the role of Executive Director of Business Information Systems within IT Services. While the role is fundamentally similar, this change in title and reporting to the SLG salute her strategic contributions and the institution-wide impact of her team’s work.

From the point of my arrival, Suneetha has impressed me with her consistently thoughtful engagement in key campus and business initiatives. Because I strongly believe that analytics are strategically important in making appropriate and effective decisions, the work of her team is of the utmost value to the institution’s senior leaders. Through her actions I have recognized how the professionalism and performance of her team serve us all through providing essential business data analytics and services.

I’ve observed Suneetha’s engagement with her team, noting especially the interest she shows in each individual. She was equally engaged as a member of the OLG. These important things I wish to recognize and reinforce by her migration to the SLG; the engagement and perspective she brings to the SLG have already moved us forward. Surely, my repetition of the phrase, her team, isn’t lost on you. I’m confident you natively recognize how, for ITS to do productive work, we must be engaged. Like Suneetha and her group, that means working well together within and across our units and fully acting as part of a whole.

You can review the responsibilities Suneetha holds with this role and the path she’s taken to this point in our ITS About Us pages, at https://itservices.uchicago.edu/page/suneetha-vaitheswaran-executive-director-business-information-systems, where you will see such terms as “establish and deliver on a cohesive strategy” and “deliver self-service access to analytic applications and ad-hoc reporting functionality.”

These tie directly to what Suneetha brings to the job from other realms of her life. When Suneetha performed for us at the Holiday party (shout to Oren Sreebny), I was blown away by her versatility and mentioned it to Barry Johnson. Barry told me that Stan Kenton described jazz as a mindset. “A session in jazz is comparable to an open forum where theories and opinions are discussed openly and freely … Speeches with words of various inflections and insinuations are replaced with a flow of melodic, rhythmic music.” We agreed that Suneetha brings that mindset through the metaphor of jazz – that wonderfully expansive and inventive way of thinking about that which otherwise seems ordinary – to her work.

I’ll close with one final highlight which points to her focus on serving broader communities: Suneetha was a founding member of the Higher Education Data Warehousing group, a body of more than 1500 DW professionals from more than 500 institutions across the US and abroad.

Please take a bit of time to introduce yourself and riff with her on the various opportunities that lie within IT Services. You’ll be engaged.

Cubs Day

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a Cubs home game against the Brewers. What made it extra special was that it was an outing with a bunch of people from the UChicago ITS team. A colleague of mine had purchased a block of nose bleed seats that were to be used as part of a CIC meeting. Too bad for him that the original game got rained out so we were “stuck” with a group of tickets. We decided we would raffle them off to people in ITS.

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What I was struck by, other than the beauty of Wrigley and the Cubs outstanding play, was just how much fun we all had. It was nice getting to sit together as a group and laugh and talk for a few hours. In a lot of ways it was like an extended Coffee with Cole. I got to know some of our staff better than I would have otherwise and made some really meaningful connections. I honestly think those who could make it were extremely appreciative. It has me thinking that we should do this as an entire group next year if we can pull it off.

Marcus P. Robinson named Executive Director for Engagement, Alignment and Strategy

Marcus P. Robinson, an accomplished IT leader, has been named Executive Director for Engagement, Alignment and Strategy for the University of Chicago’s Office of the Associate Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO).

Since 2009, Robinson has served as Communications Director and Senior Advisor for the Vice Provost for Information Technology at The Pennsylvania State University. At Penn State Robinson championed and supported a broad portfolio of community building, engagement, organizational change, staff development and communication efforts. Prior to joining Penn State, Robinson spent eleven years at the University of Dayton, where he conceived and led numerous strategic projects involving web and emerging technologies for academic and administrative areas throughout the university.

Cole W. Camplese, Associate Vice President and Chief Information Officer notes, “We are so excited to have Marcus join the IT Services team. He brings with him a diversity of skills that will help us advance our goal of providing world class support and services to the University community. I will be looking to Marcus to immediately offer insight into how we continue to grow campus-wide engagement strategies and to take a lead role in bringing all of IT at UChicago closer together.”

At UChicago, Robinson will provide vision and leadership for a wide range of community engagement and communication efforts, establish and guide IT governance activities — including the formation of an IT-wide leadership council — and facilitate strategic partnerships that strengthen the ability of the CIO’s office and the overall IT enterprise to serve the University and its mission.

“I’m thrilled to join such a strong, dedicated team, and to have the opportunity to contribute to the thriving academic community at the University of Chicago,” Robinson said. “The UChicago IT enterprise is taking significant and important steps to strengthen its ability to support the University — I am excited to help enable that good work.”

Robinson’s appointment is effective Oct. 3.