02 Feb CIO Leadership Series: Ed Meachen, University of Wisconsin System
Madison, Wis. – Ed Meachen has an interconnected vision for the University of Wisconsin System, one that would be impossible to imagine and execute without technology.
Meachen, associate vice president of learning and information technology for the UW System, envisions students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior someday signing up for and taking courses offered by the system’s flagship university, UW-Madison.
And why not? Through the magic of the Internet, UW System schools already provide distance learning opportunities, particularly for adults in career transitions, so why would it be out of the question to connect traditional students from across the state?
“They are students in the UW System,” he noted, “so when we make decisions on a large [technology] system, what we have in mind is how the system will enable that vision.”
It’s the kind of vision made possible by a collegial environment. The difference between the CIO of a business and Meachen, who oversees technology adoption on two doctoral campuses, 11 comprehensive campuses, and 13 two-year campuses, is one of authority. With autonomous CIOs at each campus, everything Meachen does, outside the small staff that runs internal IT operations, must be handled with an amiable flair.
His personable approach is right out of the Dale Carnegie school, and he considers it essential when trying to maintain a robust communication network and when working with different administrations on large IT implementations.
“There is absolutely no way I can tell my fellow CIOs in the UW System, or other people in the UW system, how I want things to run,” he explained. “Things tend to be more collegial, and one has to work by offering a vision and then convincing people, rather than telling people what to do, and what they are going to do – at least from my position.”
To Meachen, a native of Canton, S.D. who earned a Ph.D. in history from Emory University in Atlanta, CIO Leadership has three components: a fundamental understanding of the core business, a technology vision, and the willingness to take risks.
In the UW System, the core business is educating students and supporting faculty research, and Meachen tries to keep those priorities in mind as he makes IT decisions and deals with the same issues his private-sector counterparts face: security, identity management, and large enterprise applications that serve 163,000 students and 28,500 faculty and staff with with e-mail, calendars, and personal Web space.
“You really have to look at value on investment,” he said, “and value is translated into how to enhance the educational and research experience of students and faculty.”
Secondly, having a vision and the ability to sell it to staff and administrators is every bit as important to Meachen as it is for the CEO of a company. So when he writes an IT plan, it has to be carefully linked with the business plan for the UW System, and it has to be mindful of where technology is headed, both short and long-term.
Finally, he doesn’t believe one can be an effective CIO without taking some calculated risks, even with scare resources. An example of applying scarce resources, and taking a risk, is the commitment Meachen made to the UW System’s Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab, where staff is working to develop electronic games that foster collaborative learning. He’s a firm believer that massively multiplayer online games, and the web of relationships they create, are an excellent way to teach teamwork skills for the work environment, but establishing the Co-Lab required believers outside the university.
According to Meachen, it was necessary to take risks by anticipating income through grants and contracts, not state tax dollars. “You scale that thing up, and then based on sizing up the environment, you hire people and you anticipate that you’re going to get income to support it because there aren’t any [state] tax dollars to support it.
“That’s been working now for seven years, and it’s a constant risk.”
For Meachen, innovation is not necessarily something he fosters, but actively participates in through his own expeditionary force. Expedition is the term he uses for long-term projects with an identifiable outcome. As part of the PK-16 Initiative, a collaboration of the four sectors in Wisconsin education – the UW System, the public schools, the Wisconsin Technical College System, and the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities – the UW System is trying to help teachers comply with a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Under the law, all public school teachers must be certified as an expert in their subject field, and they are required to pass a high-stakes test called the Praxis exam. Those who fail the exam, which is focused on testing teachers in various subject areas, cannot get a license to teach in those fields.
The test is not only expensive, it means that teachers have to go back to school and take math classes that may or may not prepare them for the test. To assist teachers, Meachen and Dr. Francine Tompkins, director of PK-16 initiatives, have created online modules to help them “remember math.” The modules are reverse engineered from the tests to figure out which math concepts the test covers, and to develop ways within the module for students to remember those concepts.
“Everybody has taken math by the time they are a freshman in high school, but they can’t remember it,” he noted. “I dare say, I’m one of those.”
The modules are still being developed into courses, but early assessments indicate they are effective. Meachen is determined to proceed because he hasn’t found anything satisfactory on the market, and he knows his constituency extends beyond colleges and universities.
“We look at education as a K-16 enterprise because we depend on K-12 to feed us,” he said.
At the moment, he’s also focused on IT’s role in the UW System’s growth initiative, part of which is to build an IT infrastructure that meets the UW’s future business needs. The effort is under the direction of a Common Systems Group, which is comprised of senior administrators, just below the level of chancellor, from each UW campus.
At the end of the process, Meachen wants to see more robust course management, human resource, financial, and student systems. Under the growth initiative, the UW System has a portfolio of projects that cost $13 million a year and are paid for entirely by the campuses through the reallocation of funds.
“We’re seeking to create integration and interfaces that allow us to do good work flow and add value,” he explained. “What we’re doing is preparing for growth, and part of that growth will come through non-traditional students, and non-traditional students have to be reached virtually.”
In many organizations, private and public, the technology revolution has taught some expensive lessons. For the UW System, the biggest lessons have come from the aborted Lawson software project, which was scrapped after five years and $26 million.
One of the practical lessons from Lawson pertains to lines of communication, Meachen said. There was no chokepoint to head off trouble, and from now on large IT projects will engage executive leadership across the UW System, as well as a subset of the UW Board of Regents.
In addition, the UW System has directed the Common Systems Group to monitor the spend rate on projects, and it mandates project management experience or certification on large IT endeavors.
The Lawson project was governed by an executive steering committee, but in many ways the committee was divorced from the chancellors, the system president, and some of the vice presidents.
“This incredible disaster got us to think through the executive leadership role in this, so we will not forget that one,” he said, “and I think all the literature on implementing these enterprise systems talks about that.”
• UW System says goodbye to Lawson after 5 years, $26 million
• Report gives nod to controversial Lawson project
• UW working to salvage multi-million HR software project