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Episode 32

transformed: Balancing Complex Forces in The California State University System

Higher Digital has just published the next episode of its podcast, transformed. Every other week we interview experts on higher education, digital transformation, and the challenges and promises represented by both.

In this episode, Joe Gottlieb, President and CTO of Higher Digital, sat down with Michael Berman, CIO of the California State University System, to discuss how large state systems can balance common standards with proactive IT service leadership to achieve digital transformation at scale.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:02)

Welcome to transformed a higher digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows in Higher Ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence. Culture strategy and tactics planning, and execution of people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s, what’s required to truly transform. Hello and welcome to transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows and Higher Ed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, president and CTO of higher digital. And today I am joined by Michael Berman, CIO of the California State University system serving nearly 500,000 students with over 50,000 employees at 23 universities in California. Michael, welcome to transformed. 


Michael Berman: (00:58)

Thank you, Joe. Glad to be here. So what do you wanna talk about today? 


Joe Gottlieb: (01:04)

Well, glad you asked. I’d love to talk to you about the complex balancing act that large state systems in Higher Ed must perform the function, let alone transform, but first, tell me a bit about your personal journey and, and how it shaped your perspective and passion for all this work you’ve done in public service at this scale. 


Michael Berman: (01:22)

Well, thanks, Joe. I started out as a software developer, um, but quickly became a faculty member, got my PhD in computer science and I was a faculty member for a number of years. And then this thing called the internet happened and my campus was behind on it. And I was trying to figure out how to get better connectivity to my campus and how we were gonna stand up in ethernet and all these things. And that really pulled me into the it services area and ultimately became a CIO and been in CIO type roles at five different campuses, mostly state campuses, um, both in New Jersey and California. I was at one private campus as well, and I’ve been a lot of different scales campuses from a couple thousand students to over 20,000 students. And so I’ve seen the, the life of a campus CIO on a lot of different campuses and that really prepared me well to come to the chancellor’s office of the Cal state and work with all the campus CIOs to deliver services to their students. 


Joe Gottlieb: (02:27)

Excellent. Okay. So you’ve, you’ve seen, you’ve seen things happening at the campus level and in your role as CIO for the Cal state system, you’ve been very much focused. I know, on, on the things that could be shared by the system. Yes. And, and so I, that’s where I’d like to really dive right in and, and talk to you about how to, how to balance this notion of shared services versus the autonomy of the respective campuses. We all know that in higher ed, the spirit of higher ed is often, you know, embodied in each, each campus’s unique fingerprints on the education they’re delivering and academic freedoms and, and, and what’s happening in campus life and all those things come together. Right. So have you thought about shared services and how those are appealing, how they fit into that autonomous, uh, that autonomous scenario of the typical campus? 


Michael Berman: (03:23)

Sure, Joe, well, we don’t typically think in the chancellor’s office, especially in it about making changes that are going to affect what happens in the classroom directly, or, uh, the things that make a campus special, which could be about the programs they have, it’s location particular aspects of the culture of the campus. We’re really looking at where can we enable campuses to be more focused, more on the things that make them special and spend less time on the commodity services that all the campuses have to provide. So we like to say, we’re trying to innovate at the center, so the campuses can, uh, so the campuses can innovate at the campus. We innovate at the course so they can innovate at the campus. Um, we wanna take the burden of providing services off the campus is where it makes sense and where we can do it at scale so that they can focus on reaching their students and, um, providing things directly to their students that are really gonna make a difference in the classroom. Cause we’re not doing that. That’s the faculty and the staff on a campus that are having that relationship with the students. 


Joe Gottlieb: (04:32)

That makes a lot of sense. So, so those utility services that, um, really a lot of infrastructure and a lot of things that can very well be shared, but they’re gonna be underpinnings to the student experience. Uh, that’s gonna be delivered by the campus itself. Makes good sense. So then what about in shared services then we’re dealing with the notion of standards and the, and, and with standards comes a level of discipline and with discipline and standards and, and things that are the same. You, you, you, you have to figure out how is this gonna be adoptable by the individual campuses and that takes some time, right? So let’s talk a little bit about the timing aspect of, of the discipline and the standardization vis a V. Everyone’s always trying to go faster, right. And if you’re in the utility business, it’s what have you done for me, you know, yesterday 


Michael Berman: (05:30)

Right. Well, we have to look for opportunities where we can provide more consistency and more standards while simultaneously providing more value in, in higher speed. So the, we certainly have worked in some complicated projects that take a very long time to complete. Those are really tough. And, um, it’s sometimes hard to measure the ROI if you’ve been working on a project for a very long time. Certainly my strategy is looking for where can we make changes that make us centrally more agile, make campuses more agile, and where can we use transformation? The transformation that takes place sort of in the back end in the infrastructure that then enables campuses to move faster, to provide digital transformation directly to their, to their students and to their faculty and their staff. So, you know, our cloud, journey’s been a lot about that. So, um, I mean, there are all kinds of good reasons why today in most cases, providing service through the cloud is gonna be a better, long term strategy than purchasing infrastructure. 


Michael Berman: (06:37)

But it’s also enabled us for example, to do much more with automation. So as we’ve moved to the cloud, we’ve automated the heck out of things. Um, and so it’s, man, we’ve been able to take processes that took, that took two weeks down to two hours. So when we can do that for a campus and we can say, look, you can do. Now what it, you had to request something, it took two weeks. Now it takes two hours. Then they’re gonna be much more amenable to, um, following along and doing things the way that, uh, in a way that’s uniform and standard across campuses. I mean, when, when standardization means we’re gonna slow you down, we’re gonna require a lot of bureaucracy. It’s gonna take you longer to get done what you wanna do. Um, it’s no wonder that they’re not happy to go along with that. Sometimes we’re put in a position where that’s what we have to do. Um, just because of the bureaucratic demands of a large complex institution, but that’s not, that’s not the space that I wanna work in. 


Joe Gottlieb: (07:34)

Got it. So you look for you look for things where you can capture, leverage either via, uh, cloud efficiencies or other aspects of automation that then, um, can overcome some of the, some of the, the slowness of getting things right. For, in a standard, right? So there is a little bit of that overhead, but if you can capture other gains and if, if, if institutions are adopting this at their respective points in time, what they see is stuff showing up and it looks like it can make things go faster. And maybe if you’ve done it without a lot of the bureaucracy, you’ve just gone and done it. Um, yeah, that’s their experience, right? So these things are showing up and if you can string them together, they’re seeing this continuous flow of value. Is that, am I, am I putting words in your mouth or is that the sort of pattern that you look for? 


Michael Berman: (08:25)

That’s absolutely what we’re trying to do. I don’t know that we are successful all the time, but that’s, that’s very much the goal. And I’ll, I’ll just mention an example. Um, you know, when we rolled out our, our, um, service to track student, uh, uh, and, and staff vaccines, you know, we were able to deliver this to campuses in about three weeks and we were able to deliver it in a way that was flexible. So there was a standard offering, but there was also ability to customize the offering via APIs. And overall the campuses were very happy with it and it meant, first of all, it was something they didn’t have to do. So we were able to do it once and stand it up for all campuses, but we were respectful of different campus strategies. So some campuses were using, um, uh, um, electronic health records systems to, to, to track some campuses were using student portals and through an API strategy, we were able to allow campuses to customize it so we could provide the best standardization and customization and provide it quickly. So that, that was a real success. Um, and you know, my hats off to my, the folks on my team that, that made that possible because it doesn’t just happen. It’s a lot of work. 


Joe Gottlieb: (09:37)

Interesting. And so then when you, in that case, I imagine you had a, you had a pressing event, uh, in this case, the COVID 19 pandemic, and that must have shown up as a very, um, a very well received utility that you had people had options to run with. Right. Um, I know also you’ve done work on, on, in the identity side and with APIs in general. Right. And so tell me about some of those where you’ve said, okay, in the case of identity, for example, there are standards that can be applied and even with some variants, right. Depending upon the systems that are involved, there ought to be a singular identity, right? Yeah. So I think that’s, that’s always been a fascinating one to me, I’ve done some work in the identity security world. 


Michael Berman: (10:22)

Well, you know, the, I was around in the initial days of our E R P strategy across the system, which, you know, I think is actually been a huge success overall. And, and, um, it’s one of those things where, whatever, somebody doesn’t like about it, they point to that and say, say that it’s bad. But I think if you look at it from a macro level, it’s been hugely successful. And we were talking about other systems that are now trying to go back and, and, and provide, uh, cross campus services where they have different, um, student information systems and it’s incredibly difficult. So that decision was made. And we actually, the, the 23rd campus just went live on our, on our system, uh, this year. So, um, we now have all campuses on one student information system. And, 


Michael Berman: (11:11)

Uh, but the, the decision was also made not to reconcile identities. So there were 23 different instances of the student information system, 23 instances of the HR system. So in theory, one individual could have 26 different identities, uh, 46 different identities. And we, we know, cuz we, we looked in, we saw people with eight and 10. I, I’m not sure I heard what the largest was, but because you could have two or three student identities and two or three staff identities easily across campuses. We know we have lots of faculty over the course of their career will teach at many different campuses. Many of our part-time lecturers will teach at many CSU campuses. So we made the decision a few years back. Well, we knew we had to reconcile identities for HR. Cause we were looking, working on this large HR consolidation program, but we decided, okay, we’re gonna go ahead and do student identities too. 


Michael Berman: (12:03)

And we didn’t ask for permission. We were able to do it within the resources that we had. And so we now have running live a system of 6 million identities that are reconciled across all the campuses. So we know to a reasonable degree of certainty and all also systems are guaranteed to have some errors in them, but we know to a reasonable, uh, a level of security, if there’s a Joe Gottlieb in the Cal state and we have 6 million people, I guarantee there’s a Joe Gottlieb. There’s probably more than one, but we can, we can identify that the Joe Gotlieb who’s associated with, uh, Cal state east bay is the same. Joe Gotlieb is associated with Sonoma state. And we use standard tools. That industry understands very well. Cause this is a problem that, you know, every retailer and every large corporation does mergers and so forth deals with this is not a new problem outside of higher ed. 


Michael Berman: (12:54)

Um, we’ve used standard tools that are, that are industry standards, and we’ve done that reconciliation now and we’ve got processes in place to maintain it over time. So that means that in the future, as we look at the a student’s path across campuses, we’re going to be able to accurately, um, keep track of a, a student’s path that may spend multiple campuses. Um, and, um, we think this is gonna provide a lot of value. We, we know that over time there’s gonna be in more and more for example, use of our processes for online learning between one campus and another campus. Um, right now we just create new IDs across campuses, but we’re not gonna have to do that anymore. And, um, it’s gonna give us better data. It’s gonna give a better, uh, uh, uh, user interfa user experience for the student. Um, and it’s gonna make it easier for students to get services from multiple campuses. So 


Joe Gottlieb: (13:51)

I, I would imagine that it also is going to translate, you mentioned automation earlier, but it’s gonna, it should translate to a lot of saved time with navigating duplicate records, right. And, and trying to consolidate, uh, records as you have more cross campus, um, services and, or, um, you know, student journeys, uh, that you wanna support and reconcile. Right? And, and it strikes me that particularly in higher ed, this is true of all industries, but in particularly in higher ed, we are really at a time right now where, where anytime we can save departments time, therefore letting their teams be less overwhelmed and able to focus on the most strategic possible things they could be doing in the department. Yeah. Right. That, that translates to immense value is that that’s been your experience. 


Michael Berman: (14:40)

Absolutely. And we know that when you, when you go to that department and say, um, uh, we’re here to, he, we’re it, we’re here to help you. And we just, you just need to go through this system transformation. And when you come out, the other end, life’s gonna be better that we get a lot of skepticism, cuz that hasn’t always been the case. Usually we undersell how hard it’s gonna be to meant to make the change. And we oversell how hard it’s gonna be to live after the cha uh, the value that you’re gonna get afterwards. But to the extent we can do things, um, in the back end that are gonna make those things easier for the campuses and for the individuals on the campus. It’s a, it’s a really good investment. Um, and, and we know that, that the staff across our universities just like most across the United States are overtaxed. They’re working very hard. We have a lot of vacancies and, um, it’s, it’s a real challenging time, uh, to, to be working in higher ed and we do the best we can to actually, um, make their lives easier rather than to make their lives harder. 


Joe Gottlieb: (15:44)

Do you tend to find when you, when you, when you target a service, like in this case, the identity, uh, reconciliation capability that you, you recently been working, um, do you, do you work with some leading edge campuses that have been particularly vocal about the problem and, and work, you know, with them to get the, get the requirements sorted and get the thing tested and then put it on display, so to speak and do some marketing across the system? Is that just, 


Michael Berman: (16:11)

Yeah, we, we do a lot of piloting and working with campuses and co coalitions of the willing, um, and looking for early adopters and they can be different for different services, but absolutely we do that. We look for campuses that are influencers and individual CIOs or, or registrars, um, or, or associate provost who are influencers and will adopt a product and then be willing to talk about the benefits to other campuses. So that’s, that’s very much part of our strategy. And, and that’s why I think for anybody in a system, or even at a large university, because a large university in some ways is a lot like a system because you have a lot of autonomous services that are provided by different colleges or schools within a large university spending a lot of time building relationships, um, and understanding who the influencers are, uh, at different levels is a really good, a necessary investment in order to be successful. 


Joe Gottlieb: (17:09)

Yeah. It makes a lot of sense. I agree with you that these large systems are so extreme. They act, I think they’re forced to figure out how to sort through these forces and make, make progress. And therefore there’s a, they’re a bit of an acid test or an acid demonstration of what even a large institution that’s, doesn’t have the same level of complexity, but has a lot of the same factors at work. Right. Uh, they can be very instructive. Interesting. Um, let’s shift gears then. And I wanna talk a bit about how, how you think about vendors and relationships with vendors, uh, when you’re operating such a large system and, and, and what has been your experience, um, with that balancing act, uh, in, in search of value while maintaining leverage? 


Michael Berman: (18:00)

Sure. I, you know, I think that on the one hand, nobody wants to feel they’re at the mercy of a vendor, um, or an outside supplier or a vendor partner, whatever you wanna call ’em. And so, uh, for all your essential services, you would, you, you feel like you would like to have the team in place that can handle things on their own, but for so much a technology, certainly if you’re, if you’re a large institution you’re operating a scale, or if you’re a small institution where you have a small staff, it’s just not feasible to do everything anymore. And you need to look at what are your core functions that are ongoing, that you need to provide or things that perhaps are very close to have a high degree of relationships with individuals, so that it’s worth investing in having an inside team, um, and things that you can hire and retain for. 


Michael Berman: (18:48)

Right. I mean, there are functions that are getting just about impossible in California, in many parts in the country to hire and retain, um, within the constraints we have as a state institution and how we pay. Um, so you, you have to get good at building these strategic relationships with, uh, third parties. Um, it’s not always easy and it doesn’t always work. And, um, boy, when it doesn’t work, it takes a lot of your time and effort and it can be very frustrating. Um, but when it works well, it can be great. And, you know, we’ve got a 20 year relationship with uny on, on our systems. And I know a lot of the history of it. I don’t think that either us or uny would say it was great all the time throughout that entire time, but right now it’s really firing on eight cylinders. 


Michael Berman: (19:37)

Um, and, um, they’ve really helped us move faster and, um, they understand that we don’t want to be beholden to them. So there’s lots of documentation and information transfer that. And, um, we really work as one team on a lot of these projects, um, and, um, retain the intellectual property and the knowledge that we need to, if we decided down the road to work with a different supplier, we could do that. Um, but, um, we just couldn’t move at the speed. We, we need to move out without some of our, uh, core suppliers. We have one on the network side, too. Deloitte it’s been a in the past we had at and T and both those, we had great relationships on the network management side. So, um, that’s been essential. We could not do what we do without them. Um, and we would need a much larger and higher paid, uh, team that we probably really couldn’t even hire because we just wouldn’t be able to get the expertise that we need. 


Joe Gottlieb: (20:36)

So in this case, you’ve been able in, in, in large areas, like, so in the I, in the case of uny, I imagine it’s a very large part of your overall service delivery footprint, uh, in the case of the networking example, similar for the network services side. Yep. Um, and, and in this case, am I right in understanding then that, that the best practice has been for you to take advantage of their ability to rotate skills as needed for your organization and its roadmap, uh, while being a, a more likely sustainable career provider and employer of those players, right. Um, even though there’s a slight premium, you might pay under perfect conditions, but guess what, those perfect conditions don’t exist, I E your ability to attract, retain, pay all those things. 


Michael Berman: (21:31)

Yeah. I mean, there’s right. There’s two things. I mean, we need certain types of high end engineering skills that we’re probably just not gonna be able to find or retain enough people. We may have some, but probably not enough to provide the services we provide, but there’s also things that are, that are time based. So, you know, we talked about the, um, the work we did on, on, um, on, uh, uh, identity reconciliation. And a lot of that work was done internally, but we had third parties assisting us with that while we’re done with the main reconciliation. Now it’s a maintenance problem. And so you need different people with different skills. Um, we’re, we’re, we’re making huge leaps and bounds in cloud transformation, but when we’re done, it’s, it’s it, it’s gonna go to a, more of a steady state and we’re not gonna need as much effort. 


Michael Berman: (22:18)

We’re not gonna need certain types of architectural development that we have going. Now, we’re gonna need to have, um, people internally who understand what we’re doing. And, um, and we’re investing a lot in training and support for those folks, but, um, some of that works gonna go away. So thinking about where it makes sense to do it in internally versus externally, and doing that within the constraints of, in our cases of, uh, um, a collective bargaining environment and a state environment, and staying within those rules and those agreements, and continuing to make good, maintain good relationships with our bargaining units, it takes a lot of skill. It takes, we’ve got some very skilled managers that have to navigate that world and they do a fantastic job of it. 


Joe Gottlieb: (23:06)

So it sounds also though that one of the, the other part of the best practice is you mentioned making sure that you do a good job documenting things so that you’re not beholden to the vendor, you are able to lay behind, uh, new services what’s needed for you to operate them as an example. Yeah. That sounds to me like product management is that, uh, we’ve talked a little bit about that. Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and does it translate to, for example, you, for sure, having on your core team folks that are acting like product managers, leveraging partners to get all the wrenches turned and those wrenches different over time, depending upon the different projects, but these, these product managers and air quotes, if, if I may, or maybe not, um, they’re the ones that know that know the system that know your constituencies that are seeing the patterns they’re in and are helping to make these services more sustainable. Is that part of the approach? 


Michael Berman: (24:03)

Absolutely. Joe, I mean, I, I want our team to be able to think like product managers, especially our, our, our senior managers, um, they need to understand what it is that how to deliver value to the campuses and then how to put all the pieces in place to deliver that value. Um, and, you know, there’s sort of at two extremes, you could take, uh, in, in, in being a central service provider, whether you’re on a campus or you’re in a system, and one is, um, you use the coul and you say, you have to buy the service from us. We’re the only one that can, so we’re the only supplier. Um, we’re gonna tell you how you’re gonna have to do it and just shut up and take it because we’re the big it. And, um, you, you have to do it our way. Anyone who’s tried to do that knows it’s a pretty unpleasant experience to be on either side of that. 


Michael Berman: (24:58)

And it often doesn’t work too well. And furthermore, it can make the central it organization complacent, like, well, if we’re the only ones that can do it, we’ll do it. However we wanna do it. And they’ve got no choice. They have to accept it. And the alternative is to think of yourself as striving to be a preferred provider as if you’re in a competitive world, which in some cases you are, um, the campus can do it themselves. They can buy it from someone else or they can accept what you have to offer. Um, and ideally you’re building the products that puts you in the position where you’re, you’re the preferred choice and campuses are saying, or departments or people on campus are saying, wow, I want what it has to deliver because I get the best value, the most agility, the best service, the best price, whether that price is free, or it’s a, it’s a, a cost recovery basis. 


Michael Berman: (25:50)

Um, I think that’s what a progressive it leader wants to be striving towards. And you can’t always do it. Sometimes you are the only one who can provide the service, but I’d like to think that, um, we’ve become over time, much more the preferred provider for campuses, uh, and that they choose to come to us and they say, wow, you know, I wonder if the chancellor’s office could do that. Um, because I can’t afford to do it myself anymore. People have left, it’s expensive, I’ve got these expensive providers. Um, I wanna turn to the chancellor’s office because the last time I did that, I got great value and great service. 


Joe Gottlieb: (26:28)

And that, that, that’s what that last bit is the, the relationship part. Right? Right. So there’s a, there’s a, you establish credibility, you start to develop trust. I like, I like the way that you phrase that, which is instead leaning on your ability to potentially, um, play the I central it card. You know, we, we got, we gotta be the ones that do it instead strive to be a preferred provider. Um, that’s gonna translate to trust more often than not. They’re gonna recognize that you understand their needs a bit better than someone they’ll just hire off the street. Uh, and even, even some vendor more often than not, you have the economy as a scale that you can deliver, that’ll make the cost to them lower. Yep. And that becomes this virtuous cycle, right. Where, where you’ve got a portfolio of those services that you’ve established, you’ve got a portfolio of relationships you call upon. Undoubtedly, you probably lean on folks, just like a vendor of would like to, as, as you have references, right. Hey, help me, help me talk this one up. Right. This is gonna be good for the system. Right. 


Michael Berman: (27:33)

And you’re not gonna hit every time, right? Just like if you’re running a business, sometimes you miss the mark, you know, you just, either, either you don’t design the right product and people go, eh, I, I’m not interested in that. You know, you thought you heard what they wanted, but somehow you didn’t, you weren’t able to deliver it or you go deliver it and you have a misstep and you don’t provide the quality of service that you intended to provide. And then you’ve gotta do the best you can to make it right. So it’s, it’s not that different from, you know, I, I, I have a lot of sympathy for the really good suppliers that we work with outside suppliers, cuz I see ourselves as being essentially in the same business. Mm. But I expect the same commitment from them that I would expect from myself. 


Joe Gottlieb: (28:15)

Sure. Uh, how it sounds to me like then another part of this that’s worth noting is when you do miss the mark, um, your ability to be open and transparent about that and communicate must also be an important part of making the most of that trust relationship. Right. And to just call yourself out sometimes, is that something you’ve done? 


Michael Berman: (28:40)

Yeah. I think you need to go in and you need to be able to go in and say, I’m sorry, but you also need to figure out how you’re gonna fix it. Right. Um, it it’s one thing I I’ve been in situations either where I, or someone else you keep going in and saying, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Uh, and you not able to fix it. Um, and that’s a bad situation to be on either side of, but I, yeah, I agree. Open and transparent are exactly the terms that I use and, and I think humble. Right. I mean, and, and, and saying to people, you know. Yeah. Um, if, if I were you, I’d be pretty upset with how that worked out. I get it. Um, and here’s what I’m gonna do. And then, but boy, if you say you’re gonna do something, you’re gonna change it. People wanna see change. Um, they’re not gonna just simply accept, I’m sorry, every, every month or two, 


Joe Gottlieb: (29:28)

Right. Stakes go up. If stakes go up, when you 


Michael Berman: (29:31)



Joe Gottlieb: (29:33)

Call out amiss and then offer to fix it, it’s gotta be fixed. 


Michael Berman: (29:38)

Yeah. And, and sometimes the answer’s gonna be, you know what we thought we could do it, but we can’t, let’s help you find someone else who can do it 


Joe Gottlieb: (29:44)

Right on. Okay. So last big topic here I wanna tackle. And that is now let’s look through the lens of, of budgeting and governance and decision cycles and the like, and how you’ve, you’ve navigated that complexity with some of these services we talked about. I think there’s two different types of services. There’s the service that can just show up and be obviously good intro budget cycle. And then there are these other things that need a business case and would be part of a budget cycle. But, but I know that you’ve got a, an approach there that’s pretty no nonsense in terms of, you know, here’s the logic for this ROI. Here’s why this is gonna be good for all of us. So let’s talk a bit about that. 


Michael Berman: (30:28)

Yeah. One of the things I’ve found most, the most success with, and I often, um, mentor other CIOs to do is look for things where you can make a short term investment. That’s gonna provide a long term benefit. Um, it’s, it’s, it’s very hard if you put yourself in the, in the seat of the, the, the, the chief financial officer in your organization, and people are constantly asking that person, I need more people, I need more money. I need more money to operate. Um, where can you find a way in your organization or with some additional resources that you can make a short term investment that’s gonna create, um, free up resources for you for the long term, so that you can build your own capacity rather than because we all know we’re constantly having to provide new services. We’re needing to bring in new skills, but there’s just, most organizations don’t have a, a limit limitless, bottomless pit budget where they can simply provide you with what you need. 


Michael Berman: (31:23)

So you gotta be looking for how can you stop doing things? Um, how can you create more efficiencies within your organization and occasionally, where can you make one time investments, um, which is harder in some ways it used to be, you would, you would make the investment of, uh, well, if we, if we can replace all this equipment, we can lower our maintenance cost and we can be more efficient and faster. And now that, that more and more we’re, we’re looking at cloud-based investments rather than, um, um, hardware. They tend to be more OPEX rather than CapEx type investments. So we’re always looking for where can we make a change where we, where can we, for example, eliminate some technical debt, where can we restructure a software license or do something where we can make a one time investment, um, that is, um, going to yield downstream reduction in cost. 


Michael Berman: (32:17)

And I think if you can come in in most institutions, if you can come to the decision maker that you have to go to, to get those resources and provide a, a, a really good evidence based argument for how making that one time investment is gonna provide a, a value stream down the road, a reduction in cost down the road, and then depending on your institution and, and your bargaining power and what other things you have to do, whether you then can reinvest that in your organization or you, or you say, okay, well, I’m gonna reduce my cost of, of operation down the road. You obviously, we usually try to recapture it with an it cuz we know we have needs. So, um, and we were able to do that in a large contract we had with major software vendor, um, where, um, we’ve now got a guaranteed, uh, fixed price annually for a very large software contract. 


Michael Berman: (33:08)

The vendor can’t raise the raise. It turned out that we did that well before it became clear, there was gonna be this big inflationary cycle. And we know with a lot of our, our software vendors, they’re looking to recapture their costs as costs go up and as their cost of, uh, their HR costs are going up, they are looking to raise their software costs when you can lock those in over time. Um, that can be very valuable. And, and as a large institution, we sometimes have the leverage to do that. It’s harder for small institutions, 


Joe Gottlieb: (33:39)

But I know that, you know, the, the system is large, but I’ve heard you describe the budget as relatively lean. So it’s not as if you have so much scale that you can throw money at the problem. I mean, is that, how do you, how do you, how do you, when you say it’s lean, how would you articulate that? What, well, 


Michael Berman: (34:00)

I think all across the CSU, it’s a lean budget. When you look at what we spend per student compared to some other institutions, we spend the, we spend a lot per Stu, less student than a lot of institutions charge the student, right? So, I mean, we have a, we have a, a, a tuition that’s around, uh, 7,500, $8,000 per student. Um, and what the state puts in on top of that is, is a little more than half that. So, you know, we’re, we’re spending on the, in the neighborhood of 13, $14,000 per student. I mean, there are K12 systems that spend more than that per student and yeah, that’s 


Joe Gottlieb: (34:35)

A good metric. 


Michael Berman: (34:36)

So, um, and, and that has to translate to it. We have to think about it the same way we, we, um, we, we wanna be, it’s not that we’re always thinking in terms of being a cost center, but we have to be very efficient, just like our colleagues across all across in the staff support have to be efficient. Um, whatever we spend, someone’s gonna tell us it’s too much. We understand that, but right. Um, we, we, we wanna make sure that, um, we’re, we’re being really good stewards of our students and the taxpayers money to the best of our ability. 


Joe Gottlieb: (35:13)

I think that’s a good point to land down. Um, so Michael, how would you, for the sake of our listeners, how would you kind of top three points you’d give to, to folks that are looking at whether they’re in a state system or anything that even approaches that scale? Yeah. How to balance some of these forces? 


Michael Berman: (35:28)

Well, I would say the first thing is when you’re looking at digital transformation and agility, don’t wait for permission to act. You need to anticipate what people are gonna need and put yourself in a position to provide it. So when they come and ask, you’re ready to go, or you’ve, you’ve already done it, what they’re asking for. Um, and that’s going to put you in a, a much better position. You’ve gotta be listening for what people’s needs are rather than what they tell they’re telling you their needs are, and that you’re going out and providing it in advance. So I think that not waiting for permission where you can and starting to transform your services, even before people know they need it is really important. Um, the second thing is that long term thinking is good, but you’ve gotta operate in a world where you’re acting quickly and iterating over time. 


Michael Berman: (36:19)

So you might have some idea of where you think you want to be in five years, but, but don’t build a five year plan to get there, ask yourself, how can you lean into that direction today and make a change in the next six months. That’s gonna put you in a position to, um, be where you think you want to be in five years, because I guarantee you a year from now where you it’s gonna be somewhere different. So, uh, be, be continuing to look for opportunities to move in that direction and then move quickly. Um, don’t handcuff yourself with long term plans and don’t, um, don’t do something over two or three years and then assume that, um, you’ve gotta continue to move in the same direction. You gotta be constantly reevaluating, iterating, and changing what that, what that goal looks like, because both your institution and the technology you’re gonna change so much over time and, and the higher education market. 


Michael Berman: (37:13)

So you gotta be constantly iterating. Um, and then last, we talked about this, I think thinking like a product manager and how you deliver value, um, don’t think of yourself as a service provider where you ask everybody what they want, and then you provide that you need to listen to what they need, not what they think they need, and then come out with offerings that, um, can provide what they want. Really the, the biggest win is when you say we can do this for you at this cost and they go, wow, you can, that’s fantastic. I didn’t know you could do that. That’s those are the really good days when you’re able to do that. Um, and you need to build that capacity throughout your team to be the product manager and the, the, the suppliers of choice to whatever institution that you provide. That’s the goal, and that’s where you wanna be moving towards, 


Joe Gottlieb: (38:09)

Uh, great summary, Michael. Hey, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for, for being unformed. 


Michael Berman: (38:14)

Well, thank you, Joe. It’s a pleasure and, um, appreciate the opportunity to, to talk about what we do for the, the CA California state university for our students. 


Joe Gottlieb: (38:23)

Appreciate it. And thank you to our guests for joining us as well. Have a great day, and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.


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About The Host


As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

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