Rebuilding a Technology Program

The 52-Day, -Week, -Month, -Year Project
Jul 25, 2016
by Gabriel Lucas

This summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in stunning come-from-behind fashion, beat the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA championship. In many ways, the team’s victory was the culmination of a 52-year rebuilding project for a city that had not seen a professional sports championship since 1964.

 

Rebuilding is not easy. It requires time, passion, and commitment. More importantly, the path to rebuild often takes unexpected turns. In the Cavaliers’ case, for example, its franchise player, LeBron James, had been with the team for five years before a bitter exit to a rival team, followed by a surprise second stint with Cleveland just two years ago. Certainly, rebuilding via a senior leader’s glorious arrival, ignominious departure, and unforeseen return is unlikely to be the blueprint for any organization — whether it’s a sports team, corporation, or school.

 

So what are best practices for rebuilding, particularly in education? Is every situation unique? Is the path necessarily a blind one? Rebuilding a department or program within a school is complex, but closer analysis uncovers certain patterns.

 

Over the past year, I’ve worked with more than a dozen schools around the country, all of which were in the process of rebuilding; specifically, they were engaged in a technology-focused transitional pivot. I use the phrase “transitional pivot” because it underscores the notion that not everything should change. Sports teams understand this concept well as they retain certain players, executives, or systems — and rebuild around them via the draft or free agency.

 

The following case studies from independent schools offer insights into the nuances of successfully pivoting a technology program. While each situation is unique, common threads can be found across the three schools.

 

 

Case 1: Suburban high school

 

School No. 1 appointed a new head of school a few years ago. Upon arrival, the head realized that many areas, from declining applications to a stagnant academic program, needed addressing. But the technology department was the poster child for community frustration and mistrust.

 

The school’s director of technology, who had originally been its only computer teacher some two decades ago, became a senior leader of a large department as the school invested in technology. Over the years, the previous head’s hands-off management approach left the technology department unaccountable. Systems went offline repeatedly and unexpectedly, deployed computers regularly failed, and end-users perceived technology as unreliable. The new head took stock at the end of year one. After determining that the director of technology would be a roadblock to change, the head reassigned the director to full-time classroom technology instructor.

 

Faced with a leaderless department entering a new school year, the head decided to hire an outside, interim leader before searching for a permanent director. This bought the school time to unwind from the previous chapter and determine the right path forward.

 

The interim leadership period ultimately lasted six months, during which time the interim director focused on four areas:

 

1. Resolving immediate crises

2. Ensuring a smooth launch to opening days of school

3. Assessing, evaluating, managing, and refocusing the staff

4. Implementing new procedures and processes

 

What’s notable is what did not happen. First, the interim leader did not stay so long as to become a quasi-permanent external contractor. Second, the interim leader avoided major purchases and did not sign long-term contracts. As much as senior leadership wanted to fix long-standing problems with end-user devices, network hardware, and meeting space AV, the interim director counseled school leaders to leave those decisions to the eventual permanent director.

 

Instead, the focus during the interim period was on putting out obvious fires — and not-so-subtly lighting new fires under a few technology personnel. This ensured that a new permanent director would not start from a blank slate on day one. Since the new director started, some staff members quickly moved on, while others are blossoming in new roles with expanded responsibilities.

 

The head of school oversaw this transition and was determined to maintain an aggressive pace of change. The idea was to align the technology pivot with other areas of transformation, including school culture and pedagogical philosophy. As the transition unfolded, the head included two other departments for restructuring: Library and Registrar Services. After hiring a seasoned director of technology, the head consolidated those three areas into a single department.

 

Around the same time, several leadership changes occurred within the school, including the sudden departure of a senior academic administrator. What could have been another crisis became the opportunity of a lifetime. The new director of technology, who has a background in academic management, absorbed many of the responsibilities of the departed academic administrator. It was a perfect solution for a school seeking to authentically connect educational technology and its core academic program.

 

After two transitional years, the school boasts a stronger technology department that is better equipped to support all facets of technology operations and oversee faculty development and curricular innovation.

 

Case 2: Urban elementary and middle school

 

School No. 2 has a long-tenured head of school who challenges and inspires the faculty to creatively explore the broadest definitions of educational technology: classroom integration, coding, tinkering, art and design, and applied engineering. The similarly long-serving director of technology, who recently moved on to another school, was both an agent of change for many of these initiatives and a polarizing figure who frustrated many administrators and faculty.

 

The head of school has overseen the entire technology pivot, which is now moving into phase two. Not wanting to rush into a hiring process during an off time, the head sought interim technology leadership. Unlike School No. 1, the head turned to several internal staff members, who have since received external professional coaching. One will serve as interim IT manager; the other two, who are faculty members, will oversee Ed Tech strategy.

 

This temporary arrangement accomplishes three things:

 

1. It buys the school time to figure out the right permanent move.

2. It provides growth opportunities for mid-level staff wanting more leadership responsibility.

3. It allows both the head and those interim leaders a chance to see whether their new roles could be a long-term fit.

 

In year two of this transition, the school will reexamine its technology strategy. Like many schools with a robust offering of dedicated technology classes, this school wants to examine three aspects of its technology program:

 

  • whether more traditional educational technology support is needed for less tech-savvy faculty;
  • how to better connect successful interdisciplinary STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art, and math — initiatives to core classes; and
  • whether the model of separate technology classes is still appropriate.

 

Other senior leadership positions are or will be in transition. The head of school is savvy enough to see these openings as a blessing, not a curse. They give the school flexibility to consider a variety of leadership models that include different degrees of intersection among business, technology, advancement, and academic departments.

 

Although the school typically embraces new initiatives at a rapid pace, this transition will be more methodical, to allow for both creative brainstorming and an unwinding from a politically charged situation. Unlike School No. 1, this school is not addressing its overall work and teaching culture, but additional changes will most likely happen in the 2017–2018 school year.

 

Case 3: Rural high school

 

School No. 3 has a long-tenured head of school. In this case, the head delegated the technology pivot to a recently appointed dean of teaching and learning. Two factors triggered this transition. The first was a series of difficult and, in some cases, unsuccessful systems migrations and implementations led by the director of technology. The second was a desire to provide educational technology support for faculty, which until now has been no one’s job. The new dean, who had not managed technology before, has received some professional coaching and support to manage this transition.

 

Not filling a new ed tech support position or a recently vacated library director position was a blessing in disguise. These openings allowed the dean to imagine a broader technology leadership position. This new role could oversee not just core technology services, but also library, registrar services, and future programs, such as computer science and a maker lab. The role of the long-tenured director of technology may change as new educational technology leadership comes on board.

 

This multiyear transition, now in its second year, is proceeding at a methodical pace. The school leadership is conscious about not moving too quickly to make changes to the technology discipline, which was previously tangential to its academic program.

 

The school typically runs a lean administration model, and no urgent situations require interim senior technology leadership. However, the school needs interim technology support staff for two areas: to help the faculty explore new educational technology opportunities, and to keep the trains running in various departments, particularly the library. At the same time, the dean of teaching and learning will lead the charge to hire a new senior technology and innovation leader for the 2017–2018 school year.

 

What’s Pivotal: Flexibility, Ownership, and The Long View

Whenever I work with a school considering a transition, I tell administrators that the more variables in question — people, positions, or programs — the better. This does not mean that everything should change, but rather that various items could change. I often liken pivoting with no transitional flexibility to solving a sliding puzzle game with no open square.

 

Then I give three pieces of general advice:

 

1. Take the long view when it comes to transition.

2. Make sure only one person in your organization assumes ultimate responsibility for the transition process, with a team of colleagues playing supporting roles.

3. Never underestimate the value of interim staffing — whether in leadership or support.

 

Chances are that your school’s transition period won’t be 52 years as was Cleveland’s. On the flip side, don’t expect it to be 52 days or even 52 weeks. Be patient, embrace the pivot, and see every crisis as a catalyst for change. With a little good fortune and a lot of hard work, you’ll eventually spend a summer celebrating your accomplishments — just like the Cavaliers are probably doing today.

 

Gabriel Lucas is cofounder of ATLIS, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, and principal at Educational Technology Recruiting, a consulting firm that helps school administrators navigate the turbulence of challenging educational technology situations.