Episode 3 – with Phil Komarny

May 29, 2019


Terri Givens: Hi, this is Terri Givens, the CEO and founder of the Center for Higher Education Leadership, and today I’m talking to Phil Komarny, and Phil is one of my favorite people because we always have fantastic conversations about higher ed and the future of work and block chain. So today we are going to have a very wide range in conversation, but I think it will be a great interest to higher ed leaders. We have a lot to talk about, in terms of what’s going on with educational technology and Phil is a fantastic person to talk about those issues with. So Phil, can you give us a little bit of your background?

Phil Komarny: Wow thanks Terri, thanks for having me, really beautiful introduction, I appreciate that. You’re one of my favorite people too, I love our conversations. Yeah, a little introduction, I’ve been in the education space or ed tech space for about 20 years, I started out as a CIO at a small university out in western Pennsylvania called Seton Hill University, where we were the first university in the country to do iPads for everybody. So I’ve always seen emerging technology as a catalyst, not to just create a shiny object or just a quick solution, but how can you use those moments in technological history to kind of reshape the way the business could function, the way we could really interact with our students, so we use that, bring your own device difference, to kind of shape that learning environment at Seton Hill, and it was really great outcomes from that.

I moved on from there and was the CEO of a small, well now kind of large, mobile application development company named Robots and Pencils. Started their U.S. operation with two offices, one in Colorado and one in Austin, Texas. We did a lot of work with the University of Texas around the future of learning with the institute of transformational learning, and delivered an application that allowed existing technologies like Canvas, and the things that we have in our world today, to be used in a way that would give a competency based system, and allow the BS in biomedical sciences agreed to be consumed in a different way. There is a great outcome data we could talk through there. And then I actually moved onto the UT system as their chief digital officer for awhile at the Institute for Transformational Learning, and now, the Vice President of Innovation and SalesForce, where I’m kind of focused on innovation across every market sector. But I really love education, I love the state that the industry is in right now, I think it’s an opportunity to really advance it and shape it into a way we can reach it to about 44 million more people with this, with higher education. So that’s where I’m focused right now.

Givens: That’s really great. And it’s really interesting because I talk to a lot of people who think that higher ed is in decline and things like that, and the reality is, if you look at the other side of it, there’s all these people who may even have a degree already, and yet they need to re-skill. And you know I was at ASU GSV, we both were, and there was a lot of discussion about the future of work, and how we can really up-skill people even after they may have gotten a degree, and how colleges can use things like block chain technology to focus more on skills, and badges and things that can help people show potential employers what they really learned along the way and beyond college.

Komarny: Now I think again, we have a catalytic moment with technology now around integrations, and I think the way to integrate technology is becoming more, I want to say, democratized, it’s a loaded word but we are seeing a lot easier ways for CIO’s or technical leaders on these campuses to not have to really invest in one vendor’s product, but really think about when we invest in a vendors product, just one product to solve one problem, it’s like they’re putting that technical leader the conductor of a train, and there’s rails that are delivered by that vendor and allow you to go faster or slower, and you really don’t have much opportunity to really shape this digital transformation. I think we’re in that state right now, across every industry, about how can you get closer to your customer with technologies and make it more seamless and more integrated. So this is an opportunity to not be a conductor of a train, but be a conductor of a symphony, and have integrations that bring all that music together to really service this, and make beautiful music for your customers. I think that analogy has been really a way to kind of a way to convey the difference in thinking about, compared from platform thinking to product thinking, and I think if you’re really concerned about digital transformation or really using these technologies in the future, technical leaders across every sector are really thinking integration first, or thinking cloud first when they’re really getting into these transformational with their businesses. So I think education’s in that same space right now.

Givens: Absolutely. Can you break that down a little bit for us Phil? Because I think sometimes for those of us who are coming from a non-technical background, it’s a little hard to grasp, what does that integration look like.

Komarny: Sure, so the best way I can do is I can talk through actual ways that I’ve done this before. At Seton Hill University we were Jenzabar customers so big ERP in the space, Jenzabar’s one of them, and we had LMS’s like Canvas and Blackboard, had multiple LMS’s, most campuses do have a lot of these systems, these enterprise systems, student information systems and learning management systems. And then they have different things for career services, and coaching, so all of these things have the students best interest at mind. But it’s a really bifurcated experience, it never feels cohesive. So trying to really own that experience, there’s really nothing in the market you can buy and go I want this experience for my students, and really can’t just go purchase it.

So how can you take the data that would really service that experience, and be able to move into a place that would service that student? I think that’s a CRM. Because when you start to think about relationship management, you have to have that really great data set up, that profile learner to interact with them in a very cohesive way instead of very point solution way. So taking that data in service of a learner, and building a profile of them, is the way we were able to take a very different approach with mobile devices in 2010 and ‘11, now it’s commonplace, but back then people were kicking these iOS devices off campuses because they’d see problems and they were so new, and BYOD was so new. But instead of kicking that off of campus, trying to use that to allow that to be the place where your students interacted with you. So now we had a profile and had all this data flowing into to build this representation of who we were working with or who our students were, and then being able to have that data in one place, and have all these experiences come to the student, instead of them going to the experience. That’s about as esoteric as I can put it without getting more technical.

But now I think with block chain and things like that as we move forward, it’s the next big catalytic moment because it starts to speak to trust, and how can we trust that the information that we’re seeing is true and valid. If we think about block chains and it’s such a loaded word because there’s so much confusion in the world around cryptocurrencies and things like that. When I say block chain, I like to talk about an ethical way to use consented data, that’s what block chain means to me. Is if we have a way for students to have a network that the validated data is in their control, and it can’t be changed, so it’s a way to trust it, I think that’s the next big catalyst that we’re going to use to shape this industry with, or shape the way we can reach more people or make it a more equitable future for learning. I think we have to if we want to succeed in this future.

Givens: Right, because I really think rather than, despite the fact that you can look at the demographics and look at the potential college students ages 18-24 declining, I think the actual number of learners is increasing. We’ve got so many people who need to get better skills and to get that validated like you’re saying with block chain and all types of badges and so on. I guess one of the issues though for people in higher ed is kind of a lack of focus on that integration, that data transformation that will allow for, because we see all these colleges that are closing, and the question is why can’t they get this figured out, what are some of the hurdles you’re seeing out there besides just lack of knowledge, that’s keeping campuses from being able to create this expansion?

Komarny: You know what, there’s a lot of reasons. From the technical aspect, I think it’s a lot of data silos. We just keep installing them left, right and center on campuses, like there’s a really great solution for this. It works great for one department, and it really might drive their success for that department very well, but I think today, leadership has to think very strategically about what this means and ]what data ethics means long term, and how we can use these new methodologies and new protocols to kind of shape the way we can interact with that data.

It’s not a time for point solutions, it really is a time for platforms and that’s why I’m happy, I love my job, I love where I work, I love our company because of the way we think about platform and the way we empower customers in communities to use this kind of technology and this communal way to use this technology to come together and start to solve this at scale, not for one university, but this universal. This record we’re working with Arizona State, they call it universal learning, Michael Crowe’s very famous for coining that phrase, and trying to say what would that record look like, what would it contain? Not just what we would capture from learning and what the outcomes would be, but what is the aspirational journey look like? How could a student or a learner say this is where I’m at but this is where I want to go, and be able to make that computable. Today we don’t have that ability. I think that’s very in our near term future we’ll be able to model that in a way that allows that data to be transient with the learner, and that will start to destroy some of these data silos we have, and I think that will get us into a place where we could reach more people.

Givens: Right, I agree, and I think the cloud is obviously the place where this is going to happen. It’s really interesting because when I was a provost at Menlo College, my big frustration was, I mean SalesForce wasn’t a frustration, it was just we had SalesForce as our CRM, and then for the registrar’s office we transitioned to Jenzabar, and then for development we transitioned to Blackbaud, and each step along the way, it was just a lot of work to get that data cleaned up and transitioned properly, and we’d lose data all the time. And so I think some kind of solution that allows one to have from the minute you contact that student, as a potential admitted student, there’s one record that follows the student all the way along. And to a certain extent that reaches all the way back to high school, and why shouldn’t that record be started for that student in high school. The interesting thing to me is that for so many kids who may want to do something other than college need that too, because you know if they go to community college or technical school or go to a boot camp, whatever it may be, we really need to find a way that is verifiable that this is what they’ve done and so on, and make that something possible for them to move along the way.

Komarny: And that’s the second part of the proof of concept we work with Arizona State on around this universal learning record they call it, but what’s the high school component about? What does that look like? So when we talk about lifelong learning, we need to really think lifelong. I always reflect on that famous quote from Toffler that says, “21st century illiteracy is defined by the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn, not by the ability to read and write”. We really have to get into that mindset where it’s a constant learning cycle, even when you’re in your role someday in your career. I constantly learn, I learn things constantly! We have to just be okay with that. I think we can start to set up systems that make that way less friction full and start to show that value, not just to the student but to the university and to the businesses this is actually going to effect someday. That’s where I think this all comes together.

Givens: Yeah I think that’s definitely the direction we’re going. I think the issue of silos is a big one. I think it comes back to, for example, the way we budget things. If academic leaders could start thinking more broadly in terms of breaking down the silos between departments, and colleges within big universities. You know we were both at the University of Texas, I was at the University of Texas at Austin, and one of the challenges I faced there as the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Curriculum and International, was being able to get people to be able to talk across, and it’s very possible, we were able to talk across those silos when it came to things like collaborating around international activities. One of my favorite things I did when I was as UT Austin, was I actually got the assistant deans of each college to talk to each other about curriculum changes so that when it got to my office the issues were already dealt with. Those are the kinds of things that people get concerned with these administrators, but you know that’s the administrators job, is to make sure that people are talking across a campus, and this era of data transformation, it’s one of the most critical things that’s happening on college campuses right now, is this process of figuring out what to do with student data. There’s a whole other area of assessment that I won’t get into right now, but actually what we’re talking about in terms of universal lunar, and the data record that goes with each student will be critical in our assessment processes going forward. Being able to figure out are our students learning what they say they’re learning. This has implications for so much of what we do day to day on a college campus, including developing and defining curriculum

Komarny: That’s such a great point Terri, that’s exactly why this isn’t something that is not about technology, it’s about the institution visioning this future state together. This isn’t something that can be done out of admissions, it can’t be done out of retention, it can’t be done out of curricular design or the provost office, it has to be done as a team but thinking that your star has to be that lifelong learning record or that lifelong learner. How are you going to support that? I’ve worked on a small liberal arts institution, I’ve worked at the UT system as well, so it’s big differences there, but like you’re saying, even the big 40 acres that you’ve worked on, and you know I was blessed to work there as well in Austin, just to see how much goodness is there, everybody there to serve those students. There I know the kind of technological infrastructure that’s there and I understand how that precludes them from doing certain things. I think that’s all across our industry today, that’s not just one thing at UT Austin, that’s everywhere. Now the people that are succeeding, that I see succeeding in this space, that are really coming at it with a very cohesive idea or strategy, like Hunt Lambert at distance and community continuing ed at Harvard, where he’s thinking about this as a lifelong journey with education and really changing the dynamic there about this 75-85%, we call the “non-traditional market”, these adult learners he’s servicing, is really not traditional but the majority of the market today, and he’s finding little ways to service them. Not by taking what he inherited 5 years ago, but really taking what he inherited, and using CRM to really augment the way he’s really reaching out and interacting with what he’s saying a lifetime, or 60 years. It’s such an opportunity for leadership today. Everybody it seems like is scared stiff around having this conversation, but it’s such a great conversation to have and it can be solved in many different ways, but it does bring the leadership together and have a conversation that starts with lifelong learning, not 4 years and we fire our customer. You know I’m talking from the students perspective, that’s what I hear from them, is how they feel about it. So that’s the challenge and the opportunity in front of everybody.

Givens: Well it’s not only firing them after 4, or sometimes 6 years, but we’re expecting them to give back. And I think that if we change the mindset, it will also help students understand why it’s important to give back. It’s not only the students coming after them that are going to benefit, it’s also they will benefit by helping to support their institution, because someday they’re going to want to come back.

You know Stanford has a lot of continuing education programs and so on, but you know I’m a Stanford alum, and I’ve gone online and checked out some of their design thinking stuff, but you know it would be great because I have the time now to go take a class on marketing, I’m running a new company. There are things like executive education and so on, but I think what people are really looking for, I know for me personally, it would be nice to have just really compact programs and some of these do exist online, but that was actually connected to my Stanford degree.

Komarny: Yeah wouldn’t that be nice? We’ve heard that across the industry too. We have these conversations, I’m blessed to be able to have these conversations of leadership. A lot of our customers are thinking this way. A lot of schools are taking this tack and thinking customer 360 or learner 360, and what does that look like. I think just around that concept alone, there’s so much opportunity to again, not just while your students are with you, but over their lifetime, and how can we get that open loop of education to happen where they’re always coming back to you. I worked with some folks on my team who are MIT grads, we talk about this internally a lot because we love to talk about strategy, and when my friends basically say MIT asked me for a lot of time, mentorship, money through being an alum, wouldn’t it be great if I could just get journal reviews before their peer reviewer, or as their being peer reviewed as a resource, because I’m a graduate, as a community member. Those cords aren’t being played yet, but I think we have a way to do that, and show that it’s more aligned to the, we think, the future of their careers, that’s something that’s not just going to stop there, it’s going to constantly be reengaged there. I think we’re starting to model some of that with MyTrailhead, this learning platform that we have at SalesForce, we train our own ecosystem with for free, it’s a system that’s online, there’s probably 13 million badges that have been issued, where our own ecosystem needs a lot of talent in it, so we’re training them for free. Now businesses are using that same interface to up-skill or re-skill their internal workforce.

Now I also think that provides a bridge for educators to think, wow okay there’s this new modality we have inside of businesses that we’re already working with up-skilling, re-skilling, offering them continuing education programs. But how can we make that more tailored to a business, or make it more contextual to a business? I think those types of interfaces and those types of bridges, we’re going to see those being built in the very near term future, we have one of them, there’s going to be many of them. But even with the announcement at ASU/GSV with InStride and ASU and the Rise Fund, when you see that kind of focus and that kind of money and that kind of attention being paid between, that space between academia and industry, I think that’s where this real innovation lies and how is it going to affect both sides of that chasm. I think we’re right in that conversation today, and that’s why I love what you’re doing with your organization, you know instantiating and allowing these conversations to start and start to really gain momentum. That’s what we need more than technology, we need conversations to happen with these kind of catalytic moments, and we all want a lifelong learning journey to happen for folks, we all want to do this.

I think we all have to come together and understand that some of this underlying technology is going to be open for all of us to use, I mean it has to be that way. Just like the internet started, Vint Cerf never patented TCP/IP because look what it gave us, it gave us this unbelievable thing because nobody ever owned it. I think we’re in that space right now where this trusted network we’re calling, this trust network where validated data lives in service of learning, and that person can consent to the use of it, and we, as an industry, can start to use it more ethically. When it gets down to the very lowest end of this, I think ethical use of data, it’s in our world today, but we’re not solving for it, this is one solve for it through an academic sense, that would really give us one vector of a digital self, that we would be able to use for our future.

Givens: Yes, absolutely and I think that part of it will be that sharing between industry and higher education and K-12 frankly because I’m seeing a lot of potential use of these kinds of things in K-12 as well, and with the student populations that I work with in my community or with the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula, we see a lot of need for these kinds of solutions, and it’s going to be really critical for higher ed leaders to jump in and really start working on this in a very substantial way because it’s really critical for the future. Especially given the way the student populations are changing, not only in terms of lifelong learning, but also just the demographics and the needs of the students. I really appreciate the fact that Salesforce and you are really taking a lead on a lot of these issues. We’re going to continue this conversation at some point, because they’ll be lots of new ways to look at it.

So Phil, we’re at 30 minutes here. We could continue talking I’m sure for another couple of hours.

Komarny: That’s usually how our conversations go, so I can’t believe we kept it to a half an hour.

Givens: Yes, indeed! So thanks so much for this conversation and I really do want it to continue, I’ll check in again. Just as always I get really excited when I talk to you about the future of higher education and the future of work.

Komarny: Same with you Terri, you’re an amazing leader and I really respect what you’ve done with what you’re doing today, and I think it’s so necessary, and I’d love to help you out in any way I can. So as you guys start to grow and gain that momentum, I’d love to be involved.

Givens: Fantastic. Well, thanks again, and for those of you here listening, don’t forget to check us out at www.higheredconnects.com for our newsletter, and www.higheredleads.com for the Center for Higher Education Leadership. Thanks again, and have a wonderful day. Bye bye!

Komarny: Thanks!

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