Leading digital transformation efforts in higher ed

Eric Satterly, CIO and Associate Vice President for Digital Transformation and IT, at Bellarmine University,

Kentucky is home to universities that are leading the pace on digital transformation in the enterprise. We sat down with Eric Satterly, CIO and associate vice president for digital transformation and IT, at Louisville-based Bellarmine University, a private higher education institution. We talked about today’s digital transformation efforts inside the enterprise.

Satterly is an IT evangelist with more than 20 years of experience in leading and aligning IT efforts with institutional direction. At Bellarmine, he is credited with improving data center and core infrastructure on campus, as well as deep integration with key cloud service providers to allow maximum flexibility for their IT initiatives.

How do you define digital transformation in the enterprise?

Satterly: Digital transformation is really a re-thinking of people, processes and technology and how they work together, given the proliferation of all the cloud applications and services available. We’ve come to a time where there’s a cloud solution for seemingly everything. Business users have become like kids in a candy store. But going all in on this approach to digital transformation can be shortsighted.

At Bellarmine, our biggest current challenge is that we have so many cloud applications. We’ve reached a time in every enterprise that IT may not even know that you’re using a particular cloud service and might not be able to corroborate that there is value in your new cloud application. For digital transformation to be meaningful to IT teams, we need to help the business realize the value in their cloud services.

Where’s the digital transformation revolution going?

Satterly: Think of it this way: From central IT, we’re trying to conduct a symphony, but someone just bought a better violin and needs to tune it and break it in. That’s great, but we’ve got to now support that new violin and still make sure everyone is still playing the same piece. As an IT department, we’re charged with taking the steps to sustain the organization. Business types see new tech and want to embrace it, often believing it alone will get things done. Understandably, they don’t want to wait for IT prioritization to fill the gap, so they take an action step and get a new tool.

I feel like users in an organization used to believe that whatever IT teams were doing, it was magic. Now business people want to take over that work, because the cloud has demystified some of the magic that IT used to deliver. The thing is, it wasn’t smoke and mirrors; the IT functions still have to happen. It’s just that they’re happening somewhere else. It seems like the business has more control. In some sense, however, we’ve all really lost control.

As a result, IT teams are becoming more invested in creating and implementing policies focused on vendor management. It’s as if business and IT workers are, in effect, doing each other’s jobs. This calls for a new style of oversight, leadership and management.

Are you expecting that the ways that IT teams operate are going to pivot?

Satterly: We’re moving from hierarchical management styles to what McKinsey & Co. has named the helix organizations, where you may have a capabilities manager and a value creation manager. The value creation manager knows what work needs to be done and pulls the teams together. No more dotted lines.

At Bellarmine, we’ve begun to embrace this in IT through segmentation. It’s the way of the future, and it gives autonomy to IT breaking away from micromanagement that historically focused on measures — such as the total number of hours worked. The pandemic has empowered IT workers — really all workers — with more flexibility and autonomy. We need to be embracing this shift in order to recruit and retain talent.

Where has digital transformation been most useful at Bellarmine?

Satterly: During the pandemic, Bellarmine’s entire COVID-19 response was done with Microsoft 365, mainly within the Power Platform. Development that used to take months to plan and years to implement, can now be done in days, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. We were able to pivot the entire institution in four days to a remote environment in March of 2020, and we didn’t miss a beat.

We’ve carried that transformative momentum forward. We’ve found that the shift in the paradigm of work has begun, and we need to be more outcome-based in our thinking. Some people like remote work and some don’t. So we must be reflective and honest about what’s working and what’s not. As IT, we are stretched in new ways.

Change comes more rapidly now, and we can’t tie ourselves to what worked 10 years ago. What we’re seeing in IT are more microservices, like platforms-as-a-service. A new trend is AI-as-a-service, and it’s going to make artificial intelligence (AI) more available to everyone to analyze what works. The term shadow IT continues to crop up as an area to watch — there are trade-offs in every organization.

How do you and your team keep up with what’s next?

Satterly: I tend to look to podcasts for the latest conversations around digital transformation. Microsoft Research is a good podcast that shows where that company is thinking ahead. Microsoft’s WorkLab podcast shares their findings from telemetry data from Teams. I also look at the Data Strategy Show, where there are great conversations on how to manage data.

How is digital transformation influencing workforce development today?

Satterly: I’m very interested in workforce transformation. We do want to raise people up economically into tech careers, but not everybody has to be taught Python or Javascript. Think about what would happen if we trained everyone to be more proficient at Microsoft Excel and in an understanding of data hygiene. In Microsoft Excel these days, you can implement any type of algorithm in the framework now. It’s not just a desktop toy.

There’s a conversation among IT and C-suite folks that 95% of all business intelligence is trapped in spreadsheets. Maybe we just need to think about to be practical [in our approach] to introducing and sustaining digital transformation by using some of the obvious tools that are right in front of us already.