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Episode 33

transformed: Transforming the Student Experience Through Evolved Governance, with John Rathje

In this episode, Joe Gottlieb, President and CTO of Higher Digital, sat down with John Rathje, Vice President of Information Services and CIO at Kent State University, to discuss how a continual ‘readiness for change’ mindset combined with mission-driven governance can produce transformational value for the student.

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 people, process and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s, what’s required to truly transform.

Joe Gottlieb (00:34):

Hello and welcome to transform a higher digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows in higher ed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President and

Joe Gottlieb (00:44):

CTO of Higher Digital.

Joe Gottlieb (00:45):

And today I am joined by John Rathje, Vice President of Information, Technology and CIO at Kent State University serving over 34,000

Joe Gottlieb (00:54):

Students across eight campuses.

Joe Gottlieb (00:57):

John, welcome to transformed.

John Rathje (01:00):

Oh, it’s great to be with you today. What would you like to talk about?

Joe Gottlieb (01:05):

Well, I’d like to talk about transforming the student experience through evolved governance, but first, why don’t you tell me and our listeners a little bit about your personal journey and, and how it shaped your perspective and passion for the work that you’re doing?

John Rathje (01:20):

Thank you. I, my personal journey is one in which I really think about how to help others be as efficient and effective as they can be. Um, and that started out actually as a software engineer first, uh, developing applications that provided some value to either individuals or organizations and that moved its way into other areas of technology and technology leadership. But in all of that, Joe, what I found to be true and a common theme through all of that is that people simply want to be able to do what they need to do and do it well. And over the last few years, there’s been an emergence of digital ways to do that, which can in some cases create confusion, but in other cases, um, when done well can create a great outcome. And so when I’m, when I think about all of that, um, my career really has been around helping people and helping organizations do just that.

Joe Gottlieb (02:26):

Well, it’s a great kernel service to start with if you will, right? Like if you really get down to one of the most basic principles of well change, for sure is just making sure that people have what they need to do, what most individuals want to be able to do. They wanna do their part and contribute to a whole were social animals, right? And, and generally speaking challenges emerge from sort of disturbances in the structures that we, that people find themselves in that get in the way of doing what they want to do as a contribution to something that is, is, is all agreed. So that really brings us right to the heart of what I think, many, many organizations, higher ed and, and otherwise Russell with in terms of technology, right? How do you, how do you really make this thing go and help people align around what’s needed how to prioritize, what are the rules?

Joe Gottlieb (03:29):

And so all of this of course occurs while you’re trying to achieve business outcomes. So let’s talk a little bit about, I know we talked at, at, you know, Mimi, the topic of this, you know, evolving the, the student journey or transforming the student experience. Um, a lot of institutions talk about that, and I know there are various relationships with how that’s going in, let’s say the rest of the institution and all the departments and how technology is working to serve that enhanced student experience. So maybe we should first start off by, you know, in, in, in your organization, how do you distinguish those two? How do you think about those two in their relationships?

John Rathje (04:14):

Well, I think the digital side of things is really a contributor to the overall experience and Joe, the, the experience that somebody receives can’t be judged by me. It has to be judged by them. So people know when they’ve had a good experience and our goal is to really provide the types of digital interactions. And in my role, um, we play a, a critical part of ensuring that the interactions with Kent state are done well in a digital form, in a digital format. So that those that we serve can receive the sort of services that they need, the value that they need in a timely way. That’s personalized. That means something to them and it’s consistent. So when we think about experience, there is a range of things that go into it and what we are focused on through my division and across the it enterprise is ensuring that that digital form of experience is the best. It absolutely can be.

Joe Gottlieb (05:22):

Can, can the digital experience be ahead of the ultimate student experience? I would imagine, right. It’s great to have a very thoughtful it organization that’s doing just that, right. Delivering a very, very holistic set of digital experiences where you’re zooming out and seeing the whole, not just the individual parts, but you’re also doing that in the context of various departments and, and where they are on their journeys in delivering their part of the student value. Right. And so those things have a relationship, I imagine, too,

John Rathje (05:57):

They, they absolutely do Joe. And part of the, the benefit that I have in my chair is being able to see the entire university. I mean, we, we integrate into every component of the university’s mission in supporting it, enabling it, protecting it. And so we do see what organizations are looking to do to provide, or, or departments within our organization, what they’re looking to do to provide a great experience. And we offer the engagement and the type of support that helps them think about that. That helps them look at ways in which that flow can happen well in the interaction with a student, with a faculty member, with an external constituent and say, what if we did this to improve that would that make sense? And in some instances that’s about process. In some instances, it’s about process and data and people and technology coming together, uh, to really do something well for the outcome.

Joe Gottlieb (07:00):

I love that because then with some rhythm, what that allows you to do is in effect, help the organization evolve to a state of, of really learning from, from foraying into new digital experiences, as part of the overall student experience. And maybe some of that discipline even, even is admitted outside of the sheer digital construct, right. Where it’s like, ah, okay, consistency are some of the tenants that we have in, in delivering good digital services in a holistic fashion could ultimately help a broader organization, even with the way they’re, they’re thinking about all student communications, for example, and that’s not always limited to digital, right? So I think to me, that sounds like you’ve achieved a very strong rhythm, uh, with, with those different constituencies,

John Rathje (07:50):

Joe, and, and think about this way too. We, we have indeed created a, a great partnership throughout the entire university, but there’s an expectation that students are bringing to the university. And that expectation is that they can take advantage of what digital natives want to take advantage of. And that is access to things that they need in a digital footprint, in a digital form. And we have some data that’s come our way through, through different commissioned, um, activities that suggests students do care about technology. When they’re considering the university that they go to. Uh, in fact, over 90% of students indicate it’s very important to them to have a good digital infrastructure. It helps them make a decision. It isn’t the sole decision making attribute, but it’s important to that. They also want to have an experience when they’re at a university that doesn’t inhibit them from doing what they to do.

John Rathje (08:55):

Doesn’t create more confusion, more complexity. Uh, it actually flows with them, uh, based on what they might need at any given time throughout their tenure or their journey with us. And right around 70% of students expect that within an organization that that’s done well. And so when we think about those things, we know that while digital isn’t, everything, it’s becoming more of the thing that is expected. It’s like plugging something into electrical socket and expecting to be able to have power generated the use of technology. The applications that are presented through various forms of technology are all important and they need to work in harmony with one another. And that’s part of our job is to architect that and do that well.

Joe Gottlieb (09:45):

And yet, yet these students with what we would have to describe as an increasing appetite for effectively consumerized technology technology that works in intuitive fashion, the, the, the standard has risen there. These students are not all the same. So I know you have a catch phrase over there. Tell me what you mean by being student ready.

John Rathje (10:10):

Well, thank you. Um, and actually student ready is kind of hooked into the first part of our strategic priority and our first strategic priority simply states this students first. So as we decision, as we identify opportunities, as we identify direction, that’s at the centerpiece, uh, in driving our behaviors, our investments, our approaches being student ready means that there isn’t a, a single template that students come here with. They come with different experiences. Some of them are first gen student. I, I was a first gen student many years ago,

Joe Gottlieb (10:53):


John Rathje (10:54):

<affirmative>, but there’s still a large percentage greater than 30% of students coming into universities that are first gen students. And we have to recognize that we also have to recognize that there’s increased pressure on time that some students may have, um, a, a significant percentage over 10% between 10 and 20% of students have either a part-time or a full-time job that they’re navigating the same time they’re working to advance their, their skills and their formal education to help them advance that in many other attributes, suggest to us that we need to look at the student as a person and recognize we are here to help them not expecting them to adjust to us. So that’s what that means, Joe. And we could talk for great length on that because we’re passionate as a university to ensure that every student has access to an education and is able to complete that education at Kent state.

Joe Gottlieb (12:02):

Fascinating. So then, okay, given, getting back then to this rhythm, you’ve been able to create within the it organization and how it serves its stakeholders at Ken state university did get to that. How did ING would never be over and, and it would be constant, but that, that important fundamental

John Rathje (12:32):

Interesting, <affirmative>, that’s an interesting word. Isn’t it? Joe transform, you know, we think about that word, uh, it’s heavily used in many different contexts, um, but we’re shying away from using that word specifically and really thinking about transformation in, in these two categories, one looking at our workforce and helping all of us be continually ready for change. Right? So we’re developing, um, we’re developing teams and thinking about a, a person-centric approach that helps us all learn in an agile way that helps us recognize the value that we provide in enabling and protecting the mission. And so the first thing is all about people. Um, people are critically important and our first priority, but then we think about the things that we do, the technologies that we deploy and in order for us to do well with our technologies, we think about continually modernizing the technologies rather than transforming.

John Rathje (13:39):

And again, going back to something, we just talked about that harmony harmony with people and process and data and technology really coming together. It it’s about that integration. It’s about all of them working together in order for us to achieve these outcomes that we know are so important today for us to be, um, an organization that differentiates an organization that is globally ready, uh, an organization that makes an impact in our communities and in our region and across the nation, that is at the centerpiece of what we would, I guess, commonly refer to as transformation, but it’s never done, right. It, it’s always looking at where we need to be recognizing what’s important at the moment. Um, but adjusting for what, what issues, what challenges, what opportunities may be presented at any given time.

Joe Gottlieb (14:34):

I like it. I like it very much. So then, you know, I, I, I made the presumption in introducing this podcast that, that delivering or transforming the student experience, as we’ve talked about through this, this layering, if you will, of the broad experience as supported by the digital ballistic digital experience. Now I made the, I made the presumption, perhaps that you’ve done that through evolved governance, but maybe, maybe it wasn’t so much as through evolved governance, but you might have been doing some of these things at the same time and may yet still be looking for some of the patterns and the causality that, that, that may be of interest. So I’d like to, I’d like you to share a little bit more about how, what you did to evolve the way governance was occurring at Kent state, at least governance of digital services, but in the broader construct of the way an institution is trying to govern itself. Right?

John Rathje (15:34):

Yeah. So when we think about governance, um, I think you and I would absolutely agree it is essential to have governance. And so when you talk about this transformation, um, one of the things that is amazing about our organization here is how much has been done without a formal governance structure in the enterprise, it realm. And so our cabinet and our president supported me and, and charged me to develop that. So when I think about governance here today, I think about it as the, the centerpiece for us to, um, enable and protect the mission mm-hmm <affirmative>, and we’re maturing that. And if we were to talk a year from now or five years from now, Joe, I would probably say to you, we’re maturing that. And it’s it governance serves so many different purposes. Um, what I mentioned earlier about enabling and protecting the mission, but it also gives us the opportunity to come together as an organization and really think about what’s best for the organization and how we approach doing the right things for the organization. Because much of what organizations similar to ours have encountered is something drove a decision. And then somehow that decision begins to own, or that something begins to own the pathway. And we want people to own the pathway forward. And we want people to be in an informed position to do the right thing. And governance gives us that platform. And, uh, I’ve really enjoyed working with my peers at, at the executive level to do just that here.

Joe Gottlieb (17:33):

Well then it, I, I like the way you phrased that, so that it is you don’t let any one decision then start to become the owner of future decisions. You want to keep coming back to the overall mission, the portfolio of change, it has to happen to serve that mission, the potential for alignment and misalignment of all the things that are going on in that portfolio. So what strikes me that, you know, what this yearns for as an element of governance is ways of, of capturing what it is that we’ve prioritized, what it is that we’re committed to, how those things going and in effect, it’s a system or strategy or plan of record. And we keep coming back to that and making sure it’s the right set of things. And we incorporate new information that comes from those things themselves and other things, other sources, right? But if you to come back to your point, the people in their respective roles that the, that the institution has asked them to play, they need to keep owning it and keeping owning it and doing it in an increasingly mature form, feels like it’s gonna, it’s gonna have this construct in place. Is that something you guys have done there?

John Rathje (18:56):

It’s something we’re doing. Uh, no question. And so, again, coming back to the student experience, uh, let’s do just a little bit of a history lesson just to kind of set the context for why governance is so critical and why working together and having informed decisions is so important. I’ll just say a number of years ago, let’s say a DEC a couple of decades ago. Yep. We talked about applications, centric approaches to providing value. You bought an application and it did its thing that evolved into a system. And, and a good example of a system might be an E R P where you have different business context within the umbrella of this system. Well, Joe, we’re a system of systems today. And in order for us to understand that a system of systems have to work in harmony, have to work in concert in order for the experience to be great.

John Rathje (19:54):

We have to do a great job as it leaders understanding what the objectives of the mission are first and foremost, and not putting technology in the position of driving the outcome, but putting technology in the seat of supporting and enabling and protecting the outcome to ensure that the mission isn’t limited, but also to ensure the mission understands what the capabilities might be for us to leverage the system of systems. So we not only need to have governance in place to do that, to help make good informed decisions, underst understand downstream, upstream impact of the decisions we made. We have to have good architecture. We have to think about how these elements of our digital footprint are working together in order for us to create the most effective, the most efficient outcome we possibly can. That allows us to grow. That allows us to be flexible in approaches that allows us to be ready for anything that may come our way. Um, that’s a new opportunity or maybe a new regulation or something that we may not have anticipated when we first designed it. But the design stands the test of time. A because there’s a group of people who are thinking about the mission and governance and B, because our thinking about the architecture creates that scalability, that flexibility, that extensibility, that is so important in the way we’re advancing today, the way we’re moving today,

Joe Gottlieb (21:39):

You know, what’s fascinating about this, John is that like we talked about earlier where the effort to deliver holistic digital experiences as part of the broader effort to deliver a great student experience that involves many departments, many teams, and sometimes different states of maturity, different states of rhythm. Uh, and as a portfolio might be a little bit of a jumble sometimes. Well, just like the process of delivering that holistic digital experience might help that jumble to become more coherent and may actually emit rhythms that are useful at the broader level. So is true. I think also of the rules established in governance when you’re cracking the code of the technologies, right? Like, okay, we gotta, we gotta figure out how to make some sense of all this. We have to keep maturing our ability to grapple with these different things and not let any one of them overtake the rhythm, but instead impose the discipline of what will serve the mission as the rhythm and in its own.

Joe Gottlieb (22:49):

Right? Therefore I think the, the institution might be able to evolve, apply governance, let’s call it, let’s call it applied governance. If we wanna distinguish it from governance, that’s fine. But I see this connection, right? This, this, this dynamic and the, I I’ve found that the best it organizations that have the best rhythms end up helping their organizations to achieve better, better business rhythms, where they might otherwise have struggled to transcend all the complexities facing many business challenges today. And, and frankly, every industry does that. And I know you’ve got a part of what you, how you’re doing. This is, you’ve got a bit of a lean practice driving this flow throughout the organization. So is that playing out?

John Rathje (23:31):

Absolutely. It, it sounds strange sometimes when I go and communicate across the university, that I’m not talking about technology first, I’m actually listening to what our objectives are. Then I’m asking questions about how do we achieve those outcomes. And Joe, I think you’ve probably heard this before, too, in, in your tenure. Um, sometimes people will talk about the outcomes by the name of the technology or the name of the vendor, and I’m like time out. Um, what I’m really after here is what are you looking to achieve? Because we can then layer in the technologies. We can then work with our partners in the vendor space to really drive the value of that investment, to, to the outcomes that we need within the organization or that we aspire to in the future. So it really is first about thinking, did we create a process years ago that was somewhat, um, boxed in by the investment we made in technology, because that was the only way to do something.

John Rathje (24:43):

And have we taken the Liberty? Have we been given the permission to think about how we would do it differently or would we do it the same? And that is where I’m seeing us really take great steps coming together as a group of leaders across the university, in the different academic and business units, to look at the experience that we’re providing to look at the value we’re providing and trying to recognize part of our earlier conversation, that the digital footprint, um, needs to have some common tenant to it in order for it to achieve the outcome, which is helping people and departments and different parts of our organization, do what they do well, and not only do what they do well, but it gives them the opportunity to think into the future and to take advantage of opportunities that, that come their way.

Joe Gottlieb (25:50):

I like the way you wrap that up, that last segment there, John. So what we like to do at the end here is just for the sake of summarizing, what three takeaways would you offer our listeners on the topic of delivering holistic digital experiences in support of the broader student experience with the help of evolved governance?

John Rathje (26:10):

Well, three things I would have us all think about are in kind of bringing transformation to the forefront rather than talking about transformation in its purest definition, really focus on continual readiness for change, and that’s kind of a people thing and then continually modernize those things that we have at our disposal. So that’s how I would approach that. Number two is in order for us to be ready for change as an organization, we do need to have governance and we need to have an architecture that really understands the flow of data and how processes are constructed so that technologies can perform in the way the university requires. And then maybe the last thing important for us is to, to think about how we represent the services that we provide and, and reshape the, the conversation from one of a service to one of what is the experience that somebody receives and what is the value obtained by those that we’re serving

Joe Gottlieb (27:23):

John great summary. Thanks so much for, for joining me today. It’s been a fun, fun chat with you.

John Rathje (27:29):

Uh, it’s been my pleasure, Joe, and, and thank you to our guests who have joined us as well. And I hope everybody has a great day.

Joe Gottlieb (27:35):

Thanks to all. 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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