10 Sep CIO Leadership Series: Durso moving UW-Parkside toward strategic IT phase
Madison, Wis. – After four years at the helm, Ann Marie Durso is still champing at the strategic bit.
Durso, chief information officer for University of Wisconsin-Parkside, gradually has been nudging Wisconsin’s self described “university of access and student engagement” toward more of a strategic mode, one in which information technology can be leveraged to drive business objectives – rather than merely keep the lights on.
Armed with a wealth of experience in the private sector, where she was in a position to innovate and think strategically at almost every turn, Durso estimates that 80 percent of her time at UW-Parkside is spent on tactical, day-to-day matters. Considering what she inherited – technological obsolescence, expired maintenance contracts, and (thankfully) the early stages of a PeopleSoft ERP implementation – that still represents progress.
However, Durso knows the real value of a CIO is to use technology to contribute to an organization’s strategic direction. “We need to be proactive and influential,” Durso said. “That’s when we’re more strategic.”
At UW-Parkside, Durso strives to provide business value to advance the mission of a small but unique university. The regional institution, located one mile from the Lake Michigan shoreline between Kenosha and Racine, enrolls 5,000 students – many of them first-generation college students from low-income families. They need a little bit more care and feeding than students at UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee, and although the university has established a tutor-tracking system to monitor the impact of mentoring on metrics like the drop-out rate, Durso would like to apply technology to an even greater extent.
While she doesn’t yet have enough time to put in motion most of her strategic ideas, that doesn’t stop her from envisioning them. One of her strategic visions is to mine student data to generate intelligence and provide better insight on successes and failures. To Durso, who authored a portion of the 1993 publication “Handbook on Data Management,” data mining is one of several ways that IT can enable better classroom teaching.
“That’s the real opportunity – getting to a point where we’ve developing reporting and analysis for targeted information, so we can develop strategies,” she said.
Durso figures she needs three things to happen before strategic visioning comes to fuller fruition. First, the university must continue to invest in stabilizing its technology environment, building on upgrades already made to networks, servers, and security. Second, she needs to build a staff of people she can delegate to manage the day-to-day operations and free up time for strategic planning. Third, she needs Parkside’s senior administration to invite her to the table and encourage such collaborative, long-term planning.
Some innovation already has taken place, allowing Durso to provide a glimpse of what IT can do for Parkside. One stroke of innovation is a custom-designed, automated process for transmitting e-mail distribution lists to different constituencies – users, faculty, and staff.
As part of the process, which was requested by faculty, users simply fill out a criteria-based form, and the inputs are automatically generated. Several hundred of these lists have been created and are available to faculty and staff, and Durso said it has been widely used.
“It’s all parameterized, where we `interrogate’ the data in PeopleSoft, and we generate these automated lists so that faculty can send targeted communications to their majors, their minors, their concentrations, incoming freshmen, etcetera,” Durso explained. “We’re driving a lot of the interaction, and that was a huge gap.”
Yet the basic stabilization work continues. Parkside, which still has operating systems from Windows 98, recently procured 500 new computers, and Durso still is trying to reduce the cost of ownership.
Her training, which includes an impressive list of academic and industry stops, should help. It includes the International Executive Education Program at INSEAD University in Paris (1998); an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Executive Masters Program (1996); and a bachelor of science degree in business administration from DePaul University (1975).
Durso, a frequent guest speaker before corporate and industry groups, has a list of career stops that include Visiontek (Gurnee, Ill.), Brunswick Corp. (Lake Forest, Ill.), S.C. Johnson in Racine, and Kraft Foods (Northfield, Ill.)
With a modest IT staff of 20 people and an equally modest annual budget of about $3 million at UW-Parkside, she looks forward to the day when she can get out of firefighting (reaction) mode and into a proactive strategic implementation stance.
For the time being, she stretches staff productivity through cross-training, which also helps with distributing the workload in case people get overwhelmed, and for succession planning. Rather than a large staff, she would rather have fewer and better people who have made a commitment because as the university automates, the IT staff will be able to do more with less.
For her most deserving IT staffers, she uses processed job reclassifications – based in part on skills gained via cross-training – and mid-year market adjustments to bring them financially closer to their peers.
Parkside has every system UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison have, so there are a basic level of resources needed no matter the size of the student population. In wooing IT talent, Durso said it’s difficult to compete with private-sector perks and certain benefits like stock options or bonuses. IT salaries in the academic setting are on the low to middle end of the range, so Durso has to appeal to job candidates on a different level – including simple, team-building things like birthday celebrations and quarterly potlucks.
“I tell them don’t come here for the money,” she said, “come for the benefits and the stability.”
Over the course of her career, Durso has learned to encourage active end-user participation in IT implementations, take the emotion out her decision making, and perhaps most important of all, have a vision.
“It’s vision that endures as people and technologies come and go,” she said. “People will rally around a vision and invest in it.”