Driving Technology Transformation
In this episode of The Higher Edge, we had the opportunity to speak with the Chief Information Officer at Butler University, Pete Williams.
He shares what he’s learned about servant leadership, how he manages Butler’s venture fund to gas pedal innovation, and how he helps give others “The Higher Edge” through mentoring.
From Dentistry to Butler University's CIO
Founded in 1855, Butler University is a private university in Indianapolis, Indiana, recently ranked number one as the regional university in the Midwest for the academic year by U.S. News.
Williams’ road to Butler was winding. With both parents being business owners and an aunt and uncle who are both serial entrepreneurs, Williams was surrounded by the entrepreneurial spirit at an early age.
Though he spent most of his college career as an undergraduate pre-dental student, he found a calling in technology. His graduate program in information communication sciences took him through multiple tech-heavy industries before he made his way back to higher education as Butler’s CIO.
How Pete Williams Built His Role as “C-I-E-I-O”
“I take pride in the fact that I kind of built myself as a non-traditional higher ed CIO,” said Williams. “I’ve worked in consulting, healthcare, finance, IT and for financial firms, student lending … any time I had an opportunity to get on a new project, work with a new technology, a new system, and learn a new business.”
Before working at Butler University, Williams helped co-found multiple companies. At Butler, Williams wears hats in entrepreneurship and innovation fields as well as manages a venture fund in the technology space.
(Or, as he explains the role while joking around with his children, singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” Williams says that he gets to be Butler’s Chief Information, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation Officer, or “C-I-E-I-O”.)
“Butler has allowed me to sort of color outside the lines of traditional CEO responsibilities,” Williams said, “with a venture fund, making strategic investments in other companies, and in projects that help bring new money to the table to produce huge results in retention, student success, and recruitment.”
How Data Impacts and Serves Organizations
Data is currently found in nearly every industry where people are interacting with one another. Just about every college, university, and large or small business collects, analyses, and uses data to spur innovation and enact change.
Williams tells us that data is extremely important in higher education as it helps with enrollment, student success, and retention.
“The technology thread through it all is a great way to serve,” said Williams. “If you want to impact change and you want to be a leader with innovation, then technology is required.”
Williams tells us that the venture fund he manages is used for anything that can be used to improve the student experience.
“We have a fund invested in several things—our projects, other companies, and companies we want to create—we get to work with some phenomenal talent that can gas pedal our initiatives,” said Williams. “And our revenue model has progressed faster than we anticipated.”
“I could go through a list of examples where it's put us five, ten years ahead of where we would have gotten on our own if we did not have these kinds of partners and relationships.”
Williams said that three “mechanisms” are used (or questions asked) when utilizing the venture fund.
- Can we gas pedal some stuff we need to get done and do it in a great way?
- Can we awesomely impact students and help their success?
- If we can, can this help us make some money?
Through this venture fund, Butler University has been able to help its students through special projects like ClearScholar.
ClearScholar’s Development as a Value Proposition for Students
In 2015, Butler University created an app that would help strengthen communication with students called ClearScholar. It would allow the university to send out communications to students in a medium that was convenient and accessible.
“If we called students on their phones, they were probably not going to answer, and we knew they didn't read email,” said Williams. “So we had a reason to figure out what would be the best way to communicate in a way they preferred.”
Williams’ team worked with many companies, including Venture Studio and High Alpha, to create an app based on what students said they needed. An initial 100 students provided a lot of the initial data on the value components that would be used to create the app.
Just shortly after its release, over 90% of the student population at Butler University from first years all the way to graduate students were using the app even before classes began in the semester.
“It was a new day for us to think about how we might approach communication with students and have curated content on top of that,” said Williams.
During the early launch phase of the application, Butler had a few hundred students actively using the app.
At this time, the President of Butler University, President Danko and his wife hosted a Halloween party at their home on campus. Students were invited to come by, chat with the president, and socialize with other students.
Using the new app, Williams and his team sent out a notification 30 minutes before the party reminding students about the party.
A week later, President Danko told Williams’s team that the recent Halloween party had turned out to be one of the highest-attended events they have ever had.
“We were able to confirm that when we communicate in the way the students wanted and where they'd read it, that they would take action,” Williams said. “We thought we were onto something at that point.”
Failures Lead to Growth
Williams told us that though risks can lead to failures, failures can be good, because they allow for growth. Learning the wrong way to do things can be the best way to lead us down the right path.
“You have to get out there, engage, and put some risk into it. I mean, if it's calculated right, you're usually successful. But you will still fail,” Williams said. “We once made a bet on a product that we thought was headed in the right direction. It turned out that it was riskier than we thought, and the product failed.”
After this, many were afraid that the failure was the end of the road and quite possibly the end of their career. But Williams took this failure as an opportunity.
Instead of admitting defeat, his team built on their momentum to pivot toward a new solution. They were able to move quickly and smartly, save money, and finish with a better product at the end. This new solution took half the time they had put into the failed product.
“When failure happens, it's all about that learn, unlearn, relearn in that pivot,” Williams said. “Continue moving. That’s how you grow from your failures.”
The Higher Edge
To learn more about Pete Williams and the work he does as Butler University’s CIO, listen to the full episode on The Higher Edge podcast. Available on Apple Music, Spotify or on our website.