Mitch Davis has been CIO for ten years at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “I’ve never lived anywhere in my life this long and never thought I’d be here this long,” he says. Previously, he was the executive director of IT at Stanford University. He attributes part of his success to reading a lot. “Most CIOs read a book a year,” he says. “I read three to five a month, plus 40 periodicals and blogs. It’s a learning process, a constant one.” In April, he’s scheduled to be one of the first CIOs from higher education to go through the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program, which has typically been focused on business, government agencies, and nonprofits. ” Being one of the first education CIOs to go through the HBS 8-week leadership program says that after ten years, Bowdoin believes I have a lot more to offer the college,” he says.

Information Week, among others, has called you “disruptive” and “iconoclastic.” How did you get that way, and how has it served you in being a CIO?

I guess the reason I get called all those things is I don’t accept the status quo. No matter how good things are, I always think they could be better. There’s a constant shifting, getting better, questioning, looking at how we operate, at the skill sets and how we work together. When I go to a meeting, most people are happy with the status quo, and I start asking questions. Why are you so happy? There are things you haven’t taken into consideration. Are 100% of your clients happy?

Many IT people don’t determine success by client satisfaction. They determine it by the number of servers or percent uptime, and then you go out and talk to their clients and they’re hated.

IT creates a culture that’s change-resistant. You have to manage clients to create a change-positive culture, so the client believes they’re getting what they want. And I pre-sell everything. Bowdoin just launched a new Banner Student Information System ERP admissions solution. At convocation, IT and our business partners (such as admissions, the registrars’ office, and the Academic Dean’s office) received a standing ovation from the faculty and students for a job well done. I challenge anyone to come up with a business application where the clients stood up and applauded. That’s what I look for.

I try to create people who are inspired and communicate. They have the ability to deliver, not just on average, but on their inspired solution, which I can’t even see. Everyone has a leadership responsibility for the organization. Outside the company is a can on the ground. When everyone walks by and says it’s not their job, the CEO walks by and picks it up and throws it in the trash. I want everyone to be the CEO.

You increased IT satisfaction from 10 percent to 95 percent at Bowdoin within two years. How did you do that, and what recommendations can you offer to other CIOs to achieve similar results?

There’s a standard model. You start with hope, move into credibility, then trust, then leadership. It’s a systematic way of moving people along from change-negative to change-positive. I was a consultant for nine years. You wanted the IT group thinking more about the company than about technology.

One of the things we do a little differently from a lot of people in higher education and business is the “80-20” rule, where 80 percent of a project is done by consultants. We’ve flipped that. IT does 80 to 90 percent of the work on major/minor projects from project management, design, installation and training. We use consultants to teach and help out in specific areas of expertise. IT does a business process evaluation with the business partners to determine what could be streamlined and who needs to be part of the project.

Once that is done, our deep tech guys design a solution and then together we answer the questions: “How does this project impact the business?”

  • What can be done to make this project a more positive experience for our clients?
  • How do we use this project to create a more change-positive client culture?
  • What are we giving our clients to make their lives better?
  • How does our communication highlight the value of a project?

The vendors we work with usually say they’d never seen the idea of building a change-positive culture so deeply ingrained across a whole IT organization.

If you focus on building exceptional solutions and create communication that excites and engages your client or customer, you can over time create a change-positive culture that speeds up how quickly an organization will adapt to and adopt new technology and change. A lot of colleges have decision cycles of two years for small decisions. The fastest cycle we ever had was switching from cable to satellite. We managed to go from the problem – our provider doubling our rates – to the solution in about a day. Businesses we worked with never saw that. We once had to get a PO for $400,000 in four hours – we got it in 35 minutes, handwritten. The vendor said they hadn’t seen a handwritten one in ten years, and they didn’t believe they’d get it in higher education.

We’re very open to risk, but intelligent risk, calculated risk. We recognize that we’re all really talented, that we can recover if we go on if there’s a problem.

At Bowdoin, you also have the marketing and social media responsibilities under you. How did you come to make this move, and how has it worked out? In general, what can you say about the whole CIO/CMO tension?

If you look at the failure of IT, it’s not the technology, it’s the inability to communicate effectively with clients. IT people shove technology down clients’ throats rather than create an opportunity for the client to pester them for the service. If the client isn’t actively asking for the service, then you’re probably in a situation of high resistance.

What’s the time between when the software gets launched and when it’s operational? Typically, it’s a long time. With our admissions software, our admissions department was using it that day. They had their training, and they were eagerly waiting for it. Two days later, they sent out an email message to all the people who’d applied to Bowdoin, saying “Here’s this stuff you can do.” And when they started getting responses back, they were all high-fiving each other.

It’s making the client part of the process, part of the success, and getting buy-in is a marketing and sales job. You are a master salesman, and coming up with the message is part of your responsibility. What I wanted to prove was that IT could be run successfully for less and in a different way. Change does not happen without conflict. How we manage the conflict is where the success will come from.

There is no one CIO for everyone. You can retool IT to match your skill sets, or you can develop the skill sets. I read tons of books on marketing and took classes online, until I got comfortable. I really am the CMO, though I don’t use the title. IT has separated out CMO, separated out CDO. Why is that? It shows you that the role of CIO is changing. All these little titles are cropping up because of the CIO’s inability to move through those spaces. Push them all together and what you call that person is semantics.

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