Mark Stone has been the Chief Information Officer for the Texas A&M University System since 2013.  Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss with Mark how he develops and implements the IT strategy for a highly decentralized IT organization like the A&M System which consists of 11 universities, seven state agencies, two service units and a health science center. It was interesting for me to learn that this is also Mark’s first post in education.

The A&M System could have easily hired someone with extensive experience in education but there is an interesting parallel between disrupting the status quo and hiring someone who may not fit your exact mold. Even Apple’s slogan is to “think different.” Mark initially credits networking to learning about the CIO job post but elaborates further: “I also had all of the qualifications, character and skills they were looking for, except for education.”

Mark is experienced with running and growing large organizations. He was previously the CIO of Safety-Kleen Systems and Zale Corporation. So what’s it like leading technology for the fourth largest university system in the United States? “We operate as a federated system. There are CIOs for each member. Each member has its own IT budget. All of which results in fragmented decision-making.” For example, the central IT group at Texas A&M’s flagship institution is responsible for only 35 percent of the total IT spend at the university. Each school within the university has its own individual IT systems and services. While there are a couple of System-wide solutions (e.g., payroll and general ledger), most of the IT spend is outside the control of central IT at the university. How is it possible to provide leadership in such an environment?

One of initiatives to address the fragmented nature of decision-making in the A&M System was the creation of a Digital Center of Excellence. This center shares best practices and lessons learned across the entire System. The objectives for creating this Digital Center are to:

  • Present a unified digital experience for the creation of online sites, mobile sites, social presences, and marketing campaigns in the System.
  • Streamline the process for publishing content, moderating social communities, measuring marketing campaigns, and acquiring new tools and services.
  • Create cost efficiencies across the entire university.

The story of digital transformation journey within the A&M System has been mixed. Some members are on the cutting edge and leading in the transformation, some are far behind, and some are in the middle. A centralized knowledgebase and a center of best practices like the Digital Center of Excellence helps to bridge this gap. The Center officially launched at the end of 2015 so there is still a lot of work to be done. The goal is to get all members in the A&M System to standardize on a small number of contracts, leverage shared services, and share best practices.

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Many technology solutions in higher education are commodity offerings (e.g., payroll, learning management systems, student information systems). Many of these solutions are a good 10 to 15 years behind similar solutions in the private sector. The good news is that much progress has been made in communications and social media because more than 98 percent of college-aged students use social media, according to consumer insight service Experian Simmons.

There is also an interesting dichotomy within the A&M System when it comes to distance education. The flagship campus has so many applications each year for its open seats that there is little need to be on the cutting edge of distance education. The regional institutions, on the other hand, feel a lot more pressure to offer distance learning options to remain competitive. While there is no university-wide mandate at Texas A&M to make investments in technology for teaching, I predict this will all change when elementary and secondary education teachers increasingly pivot to digital and distance learning methods.

According to Mark, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have been looked at by some of the thought-leading members. The high cost and complicated nature of this discipline has slowed the adoption rate. Yet, in the engineering and health care-related fields, the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality is growing. A great example is the cutting edge Virtual Reality BIM cave. This cave is a fully immersive room of 36 monitors where construction science students, enrolled in the building information model class, present their project renderings -- allowing the class to walk through these building design renderings in real-time.  

For now, the Board of Regents is pushing the A&M System towards standardization, consolidation, and simplification. This push is intended to lower costs, increase efficiencies, lower risks, and increase funds for digital transformation. Mark is attempting to balance the difficult charge of balancing operational change and supporting technical innovation across the A&M System.

Photo Credit: Texas A&M University, Julian Kang and a BIM rendering of Kyle Field.

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