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Thinking in a “systems” way: faculty information at UCLA

Topics in Higher Education

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This is an occasional interview series conducted by Andrew Rosen, Interfolio’s CEO, with institutional leaders in higher ed to discuss the most pressing topics in faculty-focused technology and the future of higher education.

Meg Buzzi is the former Project Director of Opus, UCLA’s faculty information system, and now Chief Strategy and Information Officer of the Geffen Academy at UCLA. At OPUS—and previously in a similar role at Ohio State—Buzzi pioneered one of the first homegrown faculty information systems along with a team of engineers, designers, and business analysts. She’s also a certified coach who helps individuals and organizations manage change.

She recently sat down with us to talk about faculty buy-in, change management in technology adoption, and what’s required of higher education in a data-driven future.

Andrew Rosen: What are some of the challenges faced by a large, “Research 1” institution when implementing a technology project of the scale of OPUS?

Meg Buzzi: Because university processes have been predominantly manual for so long, one of the biggest challenges is getting folks to imagine a world where things are easier. When you say to Deans, for example, “Wouldn’t it be great to be able to look across your faculty and see salary trends? Where they graduated from? What other organizations they’re a part of?” The response I often get is gleeful disbelief. It’s kind of like, “That’s magic. That’s something that would never happen here.”

AR: What helped you to get some of the buy-in with faculty?

MB: One of the changes we had to make early on when communicating with faculty was to use higher fidelity prototypes to illustrate our ideas. We also noticed there was a real difference between how people interact with technology within work and outside of work at UCLA. They may use Amazon and Zappos at home, but when they came to work, they only expected a mainframe. The challenge was trying to bridge the divide and show them that this stuff is available in their work environment as well.

AR: How do you measure the impact of faculty technology on campus?

MB: One piece we try to effect is the breadth and depth of participation. It’s a large institution and very spread out; it’s also a very decentralized environment. Every school has its own culture and processes for doing things. Most faculty are very comfortable going to their local administrator; they aren’t necessarily going to call us [the institutional OPUS office]. We’ve really concentrated on how to keep the administrators happy and feeling like they are fluent in the system and addressing their specific needs. We want to make sure the local support people are up-to-speed and feel comfortable.

AR: What was it like taking a big step forward with a big group of faculty?

MB: When we built the core application, the primary users were our administrators. They were key in supporting all of our faculty, so we concentrated on the core data and processes necessary for administrators to be successful in their work. We looked at a variety of business engines to try and figure out what would match our environment and none of them worked.

One challenge was that the data landscape was nonstandard and distributed across multiple networks. Just to display health sciences and main campus faculty appointment and salary data on one website took two years—because it took numerous data experts to match up the fields. It wasn’t regular mapping. There was a lot of forensic data work and cleanup in the interim.

When we came across Interfolio, and we looked specifically at workflow solutions, it was the best by far that we’ve seen in usability, a simple approach, and low maintenance in terms of engineering. We knew that we had a great team, but I just had to make the call that we could not spend more time creating things from scratch if we found a product that matched our requirements.

AR: What keeps faculty up at night? And can technology help?

MB: Our faculty run the gamut from junior faculty to the other end of the spectrum. What keeps assistant professors  up at night is, “How do I get more funding? How do I balance my course load? How do I balance the work it takes to achieve tenure?”

A large percentage of our faculty have been there for more than 20 years. For them, the concerns are very different. “I’m past tenure. Why do I have to deal with technology—ever?” Generally speaking, it’s hard to create incentives unless a faculty member has their own interest in technology.

There are certain perceptions of issues like privacy and security that come up with respect to technology. “What if somebody finds out what my grant proposals are? What if somebody sees a paper I’m about to publish before I’m ready to publish it? What if someone sees the confidential letters I wrote?” I think those are still valid concerns even if you’re far along in your career. There’s a little bit of a what-happens-if-technology-fails scare. Academic review is a process that is very personal to them. It is important to be transparent about the security and privacy considerations, and to balance the personal concern with the requirements of a public institution.

There will always be a tradeoff. Let’s say you give someone a smartphone who has never used a smartphone before. It’s super convenient, but you have to put in all the settings and your personal information. It’s super easy to order things, but there’s a learning curve associated. The change management piece at an institutional level is the same as when you give someone a new piece of technology. It’ll make your life easier, but there’s also these costs associated with it. Those costs and considerations scale with the size of the institution.

AR: How is this work related to the really big challenges facing higher education today?

MB: Data management and curation is a large-scale problem. The full lifecycle of data—from the way it gets generated it to the way people steward it, to the way it does or does not get integrated, to how it is protected. While the model of the early 2000s was to furiously build databases and applications, it resulted in lots of bespoke, siloed systems. In this decade, I believe the challenge is how to integrate these localized systems when ripping them out and replacing them is usually not a feasible option.

There are also basic business-model challenges in higher education. No more money is going to come from the state or federal government, so we are going to need to innovate deeply, because we can’t just continue to raise tuition or enrollment infinitely.

AR: Will higher education continue to solely rely on revenue?

MB: My personal opinion is that at every level of the organization, we have to get more entrepreneurial and clever. University/public employees have to be given the bandwidth to allow them to think in this way. I think if we want to face the challenges head on, we have to grant ourselves the permission  to think differently and challenge old models.

AR: Do you have any suggestions for technology partners selling to higher education?

MB: Sales folks often go directly to the executive and tell them how their products will solve their problem, but fail to explain the complexity of deployment. It’s not as simple as plugging something in. Talk about what it looks like to have the product at the institution—not your product in isolation. Talk about your product in this environment, and know that you’re not installing this product in a vacuum. Taking an ecosystem perspective—there are always going to be touchpoints to other things. I think that candor is incredibly important.

I would also say to institutional project managers that it’s important to bring their peers in. There are a lot of connections that can be missed if they don’t bring other people into the room. Get to know what’s outside your immediate scope. Keep in close touch with your peers. I believe that relationships are how things get done. Even in the biggest organizations. The lines of power in an institution reflect friendships that have been operating for many, many years—that’s how things get done. Things get done because you establish trust with other managers.

AR: What are some of your takeaways around the ecosystem and buy-in?

MB: My hope is always for humans to think bigger than themselves, think in a “systems” way. How do you train your users to be a better systems thinkers? That is a 21st century competency, but there are a lot of folks who don’t have that skill set. It’s now becoming a real problem. When you want to get buy-in, but people don’t understand the framework, the interdependencies, the relationships—that can be really challenging and that’s something we’re working on now. How do you invite people to start thinking differently?

Read more about UCLA’s adoption of Interfolio here.

Special thanks to Meg Buzzi for sitting down to talk to Andrew and our staff! Look out for more interviews with leaders in higher education in the months to come.