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Episode 38

transformed: People-first Transformation

In this episode, Dionne Curbeam – Deputy CIO at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD – describes how a “people-first” approach to transformation requires up-front investment but is more sustainable and successful than alternatives.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:01)

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 people, process and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s, what’s required to truly transformed. Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for another episode of transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President, and CTO of Higher Digital, and today I am joined by Dionne Curbeam, Deputy CIO for IT Development and Innovations at Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland Dionne, Welcome to transformed


Dionne Curbeam: (00:55)

Thanks Joe. I’m so happy to be here. What do you wanna talk about? 


Joe Gottlieb: (01:01)

Well, I know that you are very much a proponent of people first transformation. So that’s what I’m really excited to get into today. But first, why don’t you share with our listeners a little bit about your personal journey and how it shaped your perspective for the work that you do? 


Dionne Curbeam: (01:18)

Absolutely. And first of all, thank you for the opportunity to join you today. I’m truly excited to talk with you today and just a bit about me. I’m a native Baltimorean and I’m proud to be a native Baltimorean. I was raised in a single family home with my mother, and when growing up, I knew I wanted to go to college, but I never knew about college. My mother God rest her soul. She did not have the opportunity to go to college as a traditional student. So, and I wasn’t around a lot of people who could tell me about college, but fortunately I was able to meet some mentors who taught me about college. And, and I truly must say that my career path has been God ordained. I must admit that I knew I always wanted to help people. I knew I loved education, and I was able to be placed in situations where I could hone my skills in communication, hone my skills in technology, hone my skills in education. 


Dionne Curbeam: (02:20)

And I just had a perfect marriage of different skills that positioned me to be in a place that when Coppin State University a position opened for a technologist, I was able to bring those skills there. I continued to use technology to do, um, support of faculty of students then went into in instructional technology later, became a director of instructural technology. And now I’m a Deputy CIO of Innovation Development, innovation at Coppin. And it’s great because again, I get to use my passion of helping people of education, of seeing students like me, black and brown students that are first generation growing up in the inner city, making a difference to those people. And I get to use technology. I mean, it’s dream I than that, you know, I get in my, I love so much. 


Joe Gottlieb: (03:18)

Aw, that’s um, I don’t know that it gets better than that. So hats off. Um, and thank you. It’s, it’s, it’s wonderful to have that energy and that, that story be part of what we’re doing here at transformed. So to dive into this topic, you know, this is a theme that gets a lot of names, gets a lot of labels, gets a lot of lib service, to be honest, and I love the way you phrased it. And I think it’s a play. You can tell me if I’ve got this right. I’ve heard of mobile first design. I’ve heard of API first architectures, but you’re talking about people first technology. And I just love that juxtaposition is that all what you intended it to be. 


Dionne Curbeam: (03:58)

It is. And, and lemme tell you why, you know, mobile first is great. API first is great. I’m not knocking any of that, but if you want your organizations to change, if you want transformation, it takes the people to ultimately have a mindset shift and to actually enable the change. It takes people to have the buy in to the technology and it takes the people to do the work. So in order for there to be true transformation, we have to throw away the bits and bites. We have to throw away the ones and those, and putting those first, we have to think about the people and starting with the people at the center, then ignites a fire that helps to transform everything within that institution for the technology. And I think that, and you know, this I’m a tech head and I, and I say, this lovingly, I’m a geek. 


Dionne Curbeam: (04:53)

And I, and I love to say that I’m a geek, my team members, we’re we’re geeks and that’s in love. And you know, sometimes we geeks, we like to have our head downs. You know, we like to do like this and maybe look up a little bit when we come back down. And sometimes we forget about the people and we are so excited when we have something that works, we built something and we say, okay, here it goes. Here’s technology. And if people are like, this is not what I need. This is not suit my needs. I don’t know how to work this. I don’t wanna use this. And then you feel some kind of way, because all the hard work you have done as a, as is a developer as a technologist, that people aren’t gravitating towards it. But if you start with the people and say, well, what, what’s the problem that you’re trying to solve? 


Dionne Curbeam: (05:38)

What are your needs? How do you use things? What your day to day coming from a business perspective or a student perspective, and then using it from that perspective, you’ll, you’ll see a difference. And we’ve actually noticed a difference. It was a time at Coppin. We would tech first, you know, we would, you know, just say, Hey, here’s the technology, the old model, set it and forget it. And we just thought people would use it. We were like, OK, what’s going on? But we discovered how it’s important to introduce people into the process. Use some change management principles, think of it as a process, not just a product that has a continual cycle and you continue to work with the people. So it’s really important factor for me. 


Joe Gottlieb: (06:24)

Well, I imagine you mentioned how you used to do it, right? And, and I’ll, I’ll try to relate and see if it was true for you. But what I’ve also often heard is that being people first takes more time. 


Dionne Curbeam: (06:38)

It does. 


Joe Gottlieb: (06:39)

And when you’re under the gun to deliver value, and let’s just say, this is not rocket science, this is not anything new. There are a lot of it organizations that were organizationally insecure, that a lot of ’em still are, and they, they feel a need to please quickly. And that sometimes flies in the face of their ability to do what they know is gonna be the better way, the better approach. Sometimes it’s slowing down. Uh, uh, one of, um, Paul Butler is a CIO that I’ve, um, I’ve had on the show and he likes to, to talk about slowing down so you can go fast. 


Dionne Curbeam: (07:18)



Joe Gottlieb: (07:18)

Right? Yes. So is that true? Has that been true for you guys? 


Dionne Curbeam: (07:21)

It has. And, and it takes, and it you’re absolutely right when you mention, it takes a lot more effort, a lot more time, a lot more patience when you have to put people first. And, and when you think about it, you’re either going to pay for it in this matter of time, on the front end, by slowing it down and doing it right. Or paying for it on the back end when people are disgruntled, when they’re angry, when they’re confused and you’re trying to rewire or to reverse and do some different things. And when you do it on the latter end, it becomes more toxic and more taxing and potentially more detrimental. Because by that time you have decreased morale, you have made people angry, you have turned people off that they do not want to adopt. They don’t wanna try versus if you do it at the front end and you do the investment there, you have the buy-in of people as you start through the process. And when you start with one person and they enjoy it, people tend to tell other people, so you ignite and you have a ground swelling. And that’s how you build the people that go along and you can produce a greater adoption, greater innovation and things of that nature. 


Joe Gottlieb: (08:41)

So this is the easy thing to cite then would be haste makes waste. Yes. And this is the obvious alternative to that. And what I’ve heard you talk about now already is not just your organization being willing to take the time to do it right the first time. Yes. But to maybe even get to a place where the people you’re serving would rather see you get it right the first time and take a little more time. Yes. And that requires a, that’s even a broader collective of alignment. And I have to imagine this all gets a lot easier when the person you work for gets it. 


Dionne Curbeam: (09:23)

Yes. And you know, and I am truly, truly blessed to have a vice president in CIO who understands transformation, who understands technology and who has enough wisdom to understand, you know, importance of getting it right to slowing down so that we can do it right first time. And, and he, one thing about it, I, I appreciate about my boss is that he gets transformation and that he understands that sometimes you have to have the ebbs and the flows of transformation, that sometimes things are gonna be slower, but they will eventually speed up that things. Don’t always go lockstep in a sequential order that sometimes, and this is the reality that you have to take three steps forward. Sometimes it’s four steps back. And this is why having that people first mentality having them at the beginning, cuz then they’ll understand that when they’re these small challenges, when they’re their bugs, you have built their trust. You have built their confidence and they they’re your partners. And they’re not seeing it as an enemy or somebody that’s giving these top down mandates of this is how you’ll use the technology and you’ll do it. Cause I said so, but because we’re a partner and we’re partnering for progress to do things, to help to advance the mission of our institution. 


Joe Gottlieb: (10:51)

Yeah. It would seem to me that again, it helps with everyone to get it. 


Dionne Curbeam: (10:56)



Joe Gottlieb: (10:57)

But oftentimes when we’re fixated on speed, it often forces us to ignore new information. So let’s say, you know, it might be that we’re, we’re, we’re rushing it out, but we’ve already learned that there’s gonna be a miss, but you know what, we’ve kind of already set this expectation. We’re gonna make good on the deadline and we’re gonna throw it out there. But like you said before, the toxicity of that outcome, doesn’t stop with the fact that it’s a mismatch on requirements. 


Dionne Curbeam: (11:28)



Joe Gottlieb: (11:29)

You lose trust you, you, you, you get people angry, you get people frustrated that makes it that much harder to get their attention the next time. Uh, and so there’s a, there’s a credibility issue that is all balled into there. And so it’s good to hear that you have, um, a boss that gets it. 


Dionne Curbeam: (11:48)



Joe Gottlieb: (11:48)

But now let’s break down. How do you and your boss work together to build relationships of trust so that you can get more done? 


Dionne Curbeam: (11:59)

I am very thankful that my boss and I have a great synergy and that synergy has expanded to the campus. My boss, as the vice president and chief information technologist, I mean officer, excuse me for the campus. He deals a lot with the executive level. So he deals directly with the president and the other VPs. He also deals a lot with external funding and helping to do a lot of those things. I support him in that effort, but then I consider myself the boots on the ground person. That I’m the one that gets the energy that I build relationships with people. I I’m old school. I go to someone’s office, I’ll sit, I’ll talk. I’ll say, Hey, let’s go to the cafeteria, let’s have a conversation. Right. And we actually have these conversations that I seek to understand and I seek to be understood. Mm-hmm . So with him working his magic with the cabinet, with the executive leadership, with me being the boots on the ground, working my magic with the faculty, with the staff, with the students, we can then come together and see transformation happen on all different levels. And it’s just not lopsided that there’s a, a, a spirit of transformation within the faculty, but there’s no spirit of transformation within the executive community of our campus. So together we get to have that unified effort of transformation. 


Joe Gottlieb: (13:24)

So that makes a lot of sense. That’s great for, you know, dividing and conquering, so to speak. Although it’s not quite the right analogy, this is a lot more, uh, uh, nurturing than that. Yeah. And, and, and, and trust building, um, in its orientation. But let’s talk a little bit about those people that you reach out to, because it, it seems that for every cabinet member, they have a few people, they trust the details too. Yes. And if those people are involved in a change effort and they’re actively engaged and, and they are reporting upstream that, you know what yep. Our, our requirements are being heard. Our needs are being heard. I like where this is going, cuz it’s gonna fit more collectively with a broader whole, that this effort is addressing. And so even those cabinet members, peers on the cabinet are having the same experience. Is that, is that, has that been your experience? Are those the people that you target? 


Dionne Curbeam: (14:28)

Yes. Yes. And it’s really helpful. And um, and I know I’m gonna use your analogy as well, divide and conquer because once that chain level happens and one thing, and you being a higher education, you understand this, that we’re a complex organization, that every unit doesn’t operate the same, but in spite of every unit not operating the same, there is one common denominator that they all respect the VP of that division or the executive person of that division. And there is some level of, if you will, um, communication top down or middle down, however you want to do it. And to be able to have that come from my boss, to talk to his peers. And then it’s that lineage of going up and down. And then I come, if you will, from the side angle, it just, it works. That spirit works. And then also throwing that into the mix, our shared governance groups that we have a student advisory council mm-hmm that we work with, we have a faculty information technology committee, we have staff support. 


Dionne Curbeam: (15:37)

So we get it from all angles and we build that trust and we’re continuing to build that relationship. And, and that helps us to be transparent that we’re not doing anything in the dark to show people of what we’re trying to do. And we also align it to their needs of, you know, again, going back to that communication of different channels, sharing with their VPs or their needs that we can say, oh, well, you definitely have expressed that this is a concern. This is a pain point. This is how we can help you. Um, through that, through a technology innovation and initiative, 


Joe Gottlieb: (16:12)

I imagine all that effort on relationships not only helps the organization stay better aligned, but it also helps. I imagine when there’s bad news, right? I mean, because there’s always bad news here and there, right? 


Dionne Curbeam: (16:26)

It does it, it does. And you know, and, and the reality is, and we understand this as much effort as we put into technology and we think it’s going to be great. Sometimes it doesn’t work the way we think it’s gonna work. And, and I can say this for a fact, because we have built relationships and we have built that circle of trust. I have seen faculty members, students, staff members that have come to our defense to say, well, you know what? It doesn’t work this time, but that’s okay. They’re gonna get it right. They’ve done this right before. This is just a blip. And they have been vocal and been evangelist on our behalf when things that may have been bad news or things haven’t worked the way they wanted to work, because we have put people first, but can can’t imagine if we didn’t consult people. 


Dionne Curbeam: (17:15)

If we didn’t put people first, they would’ve been bad mouthing us. They would have been ready to throw us into the fire, throw us into the water and just kinda leave us out there to hang. So we are partners. We feel that we’re truly partners with our campus and that we’re not the it enemy. I’ve talked to several colleagues and, and sometimes they’re, they’re seem like they’re the big, bad Wolf on campus and that they’re the enemy. But because we have built these relationships and we have established buy-in, we have a great group of people that we can rely on for support to help us when things don’t always go right. When they’re bad, when there’s bad news and just align with us. And it’s great to be a partner instead of always fighting with someone and try to get something done, it’s a difference. 


Joe Gottlieb: (18:01)

Right? Well, it must be a lot less draining. The job is hard enough as it is, right. There’s, it’s, it’s intellectually demanding. So is the emotional component of, of always working those relationships. You also get a great return and that is as you, you feel better about how it all goes. Yes. Um, here’s a question then. 


Dionne Curbeam: (18:23)



Joe Gottlieb: (18:23)

Do you find, are you able to utilize shorter iterations than maybe you remember in past history so that you can course correct more effectively using that, that network of trust and open communication and transparency, those shorter iterations, right. Are, are the way we’re breaking things down, breaking projects down and getting feedback and, and then adjusting based upon what we’re learning as we’re going. And I would contrast that with, and by the way, this isn’t just about pure agile. Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a broader con extension here for how we approach big projects. Right? We absolutely, they were more, they were more monolithic and, and, and prescribed when we started versus thematically driven through iterations and constant course correction. Is that happening for you? 


Dionne Curbeam: (19:16)

I would not say they have been shorter, but I think it’s been easier. And the reason why I say that is because working in higher education, particularly if you’re working with faculty and certain areas, certain staff areas of the campus, they don’t always understand agile. They don’t understand sprints. So how we may develop a project plan in two week sprints and so forth, we have to recognize that, okay, faculty are also, and we want their buy-in. We want to work with them. That faculty are teaching classes. For course loads, they’re doing research, they’re doing advisement. We have offices that might be short staffed that might be working a lot with students. And for us to try to say, okay, we need you to do this in two weeks. This is our project plan. They’re gonna look back up and say, uh, do you know that I teach four classes, 30 students, 40 students, 60 students, do you, you know, want this committee? 


Dionne Curbeam: (20:13)

And we get pushback. So it might not necessarily be a shorter duration, but, and I’ll give you an example. When we had to do the website redesign project, which we did a couple of years ago, that we met with the faculty, we had our stakeholder groups and that we showed them what we desired to be the project plan. We took into consideration things such as spring break, midterm exams, Thanksgiving break, and all those different elements. And we tried to structure it based upon that, they looked at it, they, they had some concerns that, well, you know, that we have convocation this day, grades are due this day. So things are due. So we kind of had to push things around. So I would not necessarily say that is shorter, but we get better. Buy-in and they do it within a regular time. Instead of us knocking on the doors and emailing say, Hey, don’t forget about me. Hey, don’t forget that you do that because we have built in together when we’re doing that project plan. So even though we would like ideally to be two weeks, we recognize sometimes it always can be two weeks when it comes to faculty, when it comes to staff, if it’s homecoming time, nobody’s gonna do anything. 


Joe Gottlieb: (21:20)

Right. No, that’s a good clarification. I didn’t mean to suggest that you’d have all of your stakeholders actively engaged every two weeks, if that’s your sprint cycle. But in fact, you do pick those times that fit well with their, um, the, the academic calendar. Yes. And the rhythm of busy times versus less busy times. There’s probably no, you know, you’re never UN busy, but 


Dionne Curbeam: (21:43)

Of course it’s higher, you know? Right. 


Joe Gottlieb: (21:46)

So you’ve got that mechanism working, you’re cross, you’re cross informing across your individual teams, perhaps with that frequency. Yes. And you’re utilizing what times they have available to check in, but because you have that shared trust, that works. Um, so yeah. I like, I like the way you you’ve, you’ve articulated the, the, the example there, the details you still have to fit into. Yes. The realities and the constructs of an academic year. Right. You’ve got deadlines. You’ve got things that are gonna work or not work in time for yes. The new registration period or what have you. Um, but underneath that you can be working it more iteratively and utilizing new information to achieve the best yield. Right. 


Dionne Curbeam: (22:31)

Absolutely. Absolutely. 


Joe Gottlieb: (22:34)

Excellent. You 


Dionne Curbeam: (22:34)

Said it perfectly 


Joe Gottlieb: (22:36)

well, so then let’s move on to another topic, uh, since we’ve got that one tied up with a nice bow. So more broadly at cop state, you have some new leadership, um, uh, I believe a new president that came on two years ago, right. In the middle of coding. Yes. I imagine a new provost. So talk to me a little bit about how you’re building on this, this network of folks that get it, that will allow you to have even more impact going forward. 


Dionne Curbeam: (23:05)

Absolutely. Well, for, it’s just exciting to have leadership that gets technology and to have a provost to come in to say that, oh, I understand technology. I, I believe in it, you, in the back of your mind, you’re just doing cartwheels and you’re doing flips. Like yes, she gets it. So that in itself, because the mindset is there, that, uh, technology is already important that already smooths the pathway. You know, being able to understand, to have a relationship of a regular meeting schedule, to talk about the technology, to demonstrate the technology, to showcase it, it just, it just makes it so much easier. And then going down, going back to the shared governance piece of the faculty, I’m using that from the provost perspective, that also gives us if you will, and end to help support that relationship with what we are doing with technology, um, and pushing it upwards to the provost to say, well, you know, this is definitely something the faculty want, this is definitely something the faculty are supporting. 


Dionne Curbeam: (24:10)

So it makes it a lot easier. And making sure that we show that the things that we have done in the past, you know, always use the analogy of babe saying or paraphrase is that yesterday’s home runs, don’t win today’s with tomorrow’s victories. But nevertheless, it does give us a, a, a history of showing what we can do, what we have done and to help build some trust in new leadership, because when new leadership comes on board, you know, you, you really don’t know what can, can, they really do what they say they wanna do, but showing that we’ve had that leadership going back to the people first, having the faculty talk on our behalf to say, oh yeah, it they’ve done this. They’ve done that. They helped us with this. It makes it so much easier to build that partnership. And she’s so excited. We actually had a meeting with some of the leadership within it and the provost, and she just had all the idea shes. Oh yeah. Well, let’s talk about what we can do. Let’s talk about how we can transform the student experience. And that just energizes us because we, we have somebody that gets it and then wants to partner with us again, not being enemies. We are excited about moving things forward. 


Joe Gottlieb: (25:20)

Right. So that’s, that’s very exciting. What do you, in a prior conversation, you shared with me that you keep the, uh, the strategic objectives, uh, uh, printed out on your desk in handy. Tell me a bit about that and tell me a bit about how at state, this is evolving to allow you to be more aligned and, and more, more pragmatic about achieving progress on strategic plans. Cuz oftentimes they’re too lofty. They’re not specific and you work hard to pretend that you’re making progress, but they really were espoused, you know, to, to feel good. And they weren’t always translated into hard action that your finite resources were being directed to complete. So is that evolving at common state? 


Dionne Curbeam: (26:17)

It, it is, it is one of the things that we have always done within it. We always have goals, objectives, key performance indicators, and ways of how we’re gonna measure. And we come back quarterly as a leadership team to look through our goals. Our president has devised, um, five strategic priorities for the university moving forward, which includes becoming a university of choice, becoming a great university at which to work enhancing our teaching and research excellence among some other priorities, how we organize what we do within it. We look at the priorities that the president has outlined. And then we look at the projects and initiatives that we want to do and we align them. And this is very important to know that we are helping, it shows, first of all, the campus that what we do in it is critical to the strategic priorities for the university. 


Dionne Curbeam: (27:15)

It also gives the message that this is how it supports the vision of the campus and supports, advancing the mission of the university. And just so we within it, what we know is that, okay, we are helping to meet the goals of the university. So what we are doing is purposeful is not something that, and I say this lovingly, because we are geeks that which just not sitting down and doing something because, oh, we think it’s cool. Or we think it’s great because sometimes as geeks, that’s what we do. Mm-hmm but to show how getting them to think as technicians, not just thinking bits and bites and not just thinking ones and zeros, but thinking about the larger student experience. So it helps them as it professionals to shift the way they think and to think about their work differently. Not just, I’m just creating, um, a new dashboard or I’m just doing some new patches and fixes. But what I’m doing is I’m stripping the brand of the university. What I’m doing is enhancing the research excellence of my university. What I’m doing is building the brand is making sure that we’re a university of choice. So it brings a different meaning to the work that they, 


Joe Gottlieb: (28:34)

I love the way you said that. That’s awesome. So thank you. Let’s um, what I love to do in closing is, is, uh, let’s summarize three takeaways that our listeners can can think about when contemplating people first transformation. 


Dionne Curbeam: (28:50)

Okay. So if you’re contemplating people first transformation, of course, it starts with the people, meaning that talk to your people. And it’s interesting. And I know, and I’m not gonna go over time. I promise. I won’t you’all I promise. Yeah, but I, I see this in the newer generation that we like to text. We like to, I am, but sometimes you have to get in front of a person, even if it’s virtual and have a conversation, have a critical conversation, understand the demographic of people that you’re serving, understand their needs. And then once you understand the people, they will, you build trust and it makes it so much easier. Another thing that makes it easier is having leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership, it matters so much. And sometimes leadership. Um, they often think those who are not technologies that, oh, I have to understand every little bit, every little bite, every little nut, every little bolt, but that’s not true. 


Dionne Curbeam: (29:57)

The important thing as a leader is to make sure that you understand the broader vision to make sure that you understand what is being done and to make sure that you are visible, available, and accessible, and that you are modeling the behavior and championing the technology because the campus gets the cues from the leader. So the leadership matters. And then also making sure that, to know that transformation is like the wind. Sometimes it goes back and forth on the ocean. You ride, you hide your low it’s episodic. Sometimes you go through changes, you have your pain points, you have your, your pitfalls, but that does not mean that you stop. That means you work through it. That means you’re transparent with the people to say, Hey, you know, we had a little back, you know, a slow setback, but this is what we are doing to fix it because that builds to trust. You fight through the pain points. You fight through the circumstances and knowing that transformation is on the other side and you build those bridges to so you can get from that vision to reality. 


Joe Gottlieb: (31:13)

Love it. Dion. Thanks so much for joining us today. Wow. 


Dionne Curbeam: (31:17)

I here. Thank 


Joe Gottlieb: (31:21)

You. Bet. You’ll you’re you’re gonna be welcome back and thanks to our guests for joining us as well. I hope you all have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.

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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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