CIO Leads Transformation at Denison University

In her role as CIO of Denison University, Dena Speranza leads a team technologists in support of all campus technology, infrastructure and services. She provides overall vision and leadership for the development and implementation of offerings that support the college mission and strategic goals. Her team manages college-wide information systems and services to provide effective educational technology, administrative systems, and student computing. The team works to build partnerships with colleagues across campus, at peer institutions, and with key vendors to facilitate the liberal arts experience at Denison.

The Technical Services team supports a campus infrastructure consisting of more than 100 virtual and physical servers, more than 1,000 access points, 40TB of storage, and over 300 switches.

Peter High: What are your strategic priorities for the foreseeable future?

Dena Speranza: Earlier this year, the university launched core strategic priorities that are focused on deepening student learning, continuing our strong recruiting of a diverse student body, and positioning our graduates to successfully transition into the professions. These institutional priorities inform the planning and decisions we need to make in our infrastructure and the long-term roadmap for information technology services. I am working with my team, colleagues across campus, and our advisory committees to develop an IT Strategic Plan, which supports the university’s strategic priorities.

This is a transitional time for higher education, as people question the value of a degree and traditional delivery models. In this challenging environment, Denison University is recognized nationally as a healthy and forward-thinking liberal arts college. The faculty and administration are thoughtfully addressing the needs of today’s incoming students and are creating new programs and interdisciplinary offerings that deliver a world-class education with strong mentorship and vigorous career support to our thriving students.

Our strategic priorities in Information Technology Services are being updated in support of recently released institutional strategic priorities. We are assessing the need to become more agile in our delivery models and are developing an infrastructure that is scalable and secure. As a core service provider for the university, our priorities are focused on improving student and employee engagement through an institutional approach that strategically leverages technology. We are expanding transparency into technology decisions, improving communication, increasing collaboration between teams, and identifying needs across multiple constituencies.

Change management is often a challenge for IT organizations, and the continued rapid pace of technology advances makes it even more critical to have open and effective lines of communication between IT and every constituency we support. We are committed to building a culture of trust, information transparency and shared decision-making with a delivery model of excellent customer service.

Strategic initiatives in the foreseeable future are focused on improving service experiences for our primary constituencies including prospective students, current students and their families, employees, alumni, and friends of the college. We look to improve self-service models for workflows and more mobile-friendly experiences. We are developing skill sets around integrating systems and identity access management.

We are implementing tools for organizational effectiveness, and we are focusing on improving administrative business processes, along with increasing access to tools for reporting and data analytics to support decision-making and analysis. We also will continue and expand focus on compliance with regulatory requirements, accessibility, and security. More effort will be devoted to security awareness and digital literacy for both our staff and our students to promote safe practices, reduce risks and maintain compliance.

We have achieved efficiencies by leveraging virtualization and cloud-based technologies over the past few years and will continue to monitor advances in secure and scalable XaaS (Anything as a Service) models to improve our infrastructure and to become more agile to meet growing needs.

Five year strategic technology plans are no longer effective with today’s pace of change and planning processes must evolve into a more rapid update cycle. IT organizations must find ways to scale to needs and stay adaptable while maintaining effectiveness and efficiency. This environment also places stress on existing teams to continually develop skills and to find ways to sunset legacy systems and processes that are draining resources.

Our strategic priorities must also include building risk-tolerance within the organization for innovative solutions that are exploratory and potentially transformational to the liberal arts experience. We also must maintain core services, control costs, effectively prioritize ITS resources, develop talent and plan for succession within the IT organization.

Peter High: Has it been difficult to attract IT talent to Granville, Ohio?

Dena Speranza: Yes. We are in a very competitive market located just outside of Columbus, a vibrant and growing center for major technology employers. Higher ed often struggles to keep pace with pay scales in corporate America, but those who are drawn to colleges like ours find a rich and rewarding environment that has much to offer beyond compensation plans. Denison University overlooks the quaint New England-style village of Granville with great shops, restaurants, museums, and recreational opportunities. Our employees are engaged in the mission of the institution and are passionate about their jobs and the direct impact they have on our students’ success. Many on our team develop mentoring relationships with students who work for us and engage with them long after they have graduated. Denison also invests in the development of our employees and in our institutional culture. Higher ed is going through transformation and is becoming more agile. All of these attributes combine to make working at Denison an exciting and fulfilling career opportunity.

Peter High: You have made a push toward modernizing the University’s technology infrastructure. How have you gone about that?

Dena Speranza: Modernizing our technology infrastructure has benefited from strong planning, governance, and funding models.

Fortunately, unlike some of our peers, we have been able to maintain regular investment in replacement cycles for our infrastructure. This has helped us keep pace with growing demands. We have continued to upgrade and expand our wireless network, deploy virtualized servers, and have moved services to the cloud. We constantly monitor network performance and bandwidth utilization, along with regularly surveying our campus to assure quality experiences. Last summer we deployed secure wireless by joining the global eduroam network, which improved our security on campus and gave students, faculty and staff the ability to securely connect to the internet while at other eduroam institutions across the globe.

Adoption of collaboration tools like Google Apps for Education has positioned us to take advantage of integrating additional cloud-based services to improve our operations and workflows. We are currently mid-flight in deploying Dialpad, a cloud-based communication platform. We are helping employees envision improved collaboration and the “work from anywhere” capabilities of the system. We are just now starting to realize some of the benefits of this modernization and are excited for the possibilities yet to be uncovered that will ultimately support our strategic priorities.

Another project we are currently engaged in is the deployment of a next-generation social learning platform to replace our old learning management system. This is a huge undertaking and has a large impact across the institution. These next-gen platforms incorporate the social aspects of our digital-native students, while preserving the relational nature of our liberal arts pedagogical approaches.

Peter High: Have you achieved cost saving for having done so, and, if so, how have you invested a portion of the savings?

Dena Speranza: We have been able to offset some operational budget increases through cost savings achieved. We expect to realize additional savings through moving to future cloud-based SaaS and IaaS solutions. Some costs may be avoided by re-tooling staff positions to meet the shifting skill sets of a blended on-prem/cloud model. Along with the scalability of our cloud-based services, we are also uncovering hidden costs of our legacy systems, such as under-utilized fax lines and phantom phone extensions that are no longer needed.

Peter High: How do you foster productivity and collaboration across the University?

Dena Speranza: With an eye on serving our students, we continue to look for ways to partner with our academic and administrative units to find ways to streamline services and business processes. Digital natives, and their parents, expect to be able to easily navigate through the college lifecycle with a very personalized, mobile-friendly user experience. Schools like ours are challenged to become more agile in adapting legacy systems to meet those expectations while maintaining cost controls and sustainability.

We are taking advantage of secure and scalable cloud-based solutions as a way to help introduce agility into our IT ecosystem. We are moving to a digital workplace through use of collaborative tools like Google Apps for Education, Dialpad cloud communications platform, and Notebowl social learning platform, and are helping employees migrate to this new model.

The move to a digital workplace that leverages the use of technology to enable new and more effective ways of working has increased opportunities for collaboration. We are expecting an increase in employee engagement and response, and are facilitating seamless global connections. Helping our workforce embrace these collaborative tools to enhance our highly relational culture is a key part of this change initiative.

We recently co-developed an exciting internship program with Dialpad to employ students as ambassadors during our project roll-out. This has been an excellent real-world work experience for the student ambassadors and has provided more personalized support for employees as they embrace this modern communication platform.

Denison is a very relational campus. Our small faculty to student ratio, residential campus experience, and co-curricular and extracurricular activities encourage all voices to be heard. Our IT governance model helps to provide visibility to the different populations we serve and creates a communication channel for us.

Everyone on campus, especially faculty and students, are extremely busy. Our governance committees help us engage with faculty, staff and student representatives. They help give us a better view into their world, the demands they face, and envision together how we can help to meet their needs in a way that also serves the broader institutional mission.

As it has been said by many, “change is the new normal.” We are working in ITS to improve our change management practices to help people navigate what can sometimes be disruptive and unsettling transitions from the way things have “always been done.” We are fortunate to have great partnership across campus and expect to make exciting, transformative breakthroughs as we deploy modern solutions.

Peter High: How do you plan for the increased use of technology by the digital natives who are your students?

Dena Speranza: Industry reports have been forecasting explosive growth of mobile devices for years and research has shown that the majority of students are arriving on college campuses with at least two (and often more) wireless devices, along with expectations of engaging with those devices as an integral part of their college experience. At Denison, we have invested heavily in shoring up our campus wireless network to keep pace with the demand on this service. We have excellent wireless service in our residences, academic and administrative buildings, and worked this summer to expand wireless in our green spaces across campus.

Our educational technology services team is working closely with our faculty on building engagement in the learning experience through a variety of technologies and pedagogical methods. We invest in development of our staff to expand their skill sets and partner in faculty research.

We are planning for a mobile-friendly user experience and are retooling our public websites and intranet to support improved digital engagement. As we do this, we need to encourage digital-first thinking when designing solutions and work to improve digital literacy across campus. Our web strategy envisions a streamlined experience through the entire lifecycle of a student with the institution. This experience depends on collaboration and integration of many physical and digital touch-points.

Peter High: What other technology trends particularly intrigue you?

Dena Speranza: As more devices come online through the internet of things, I am intrigued by the potential to enhance the teaching and learning experience through access to real-time data. Smart watches, fitness bands, beacons and sensors, and augmented reality devices all present interesting opportunities for digital engagement. These also come with increased privacy and security implications that will need to be addressed.

Innovation labs and makerspaces also present exciting opportunities for our students and researchers. We are finding ways to facilitate these types of creative and collaborative spaces on campus and are looking for ways to enhance interdisciplinary discovery through technology resources.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book is Implementing World Class IT Strategy. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs


Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. He speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.


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