Students-first mentality drives IT innovation at Athabasca University

CIO Brian Stewart put students first in an overhaul of IT systems at Athabasca University. Read more about this IT Leadership Awards finalist.

Our SearchCIO 2013 IT Leadership Awards recognize the contributions and innovations of IT professionals within enterprise companies. We put out a call for nominations for individuals who have excelled in six categories: cultural innovation, technological advancement, business value, green IT, IT engagement and customer experience.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart,
CIO and vice president of IT, 
Athabasca University

Brian Stewart, CIO and vice president of IT at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, headed up a series of IT initiatives aimed at making his organization a game changer in the higher education marketplace. The innovative project highlighted in Stewart's nomination was the Contact Centre Modernization (CCM) program, funded under the Knowledge Infrastructure Program that's part of Canada's Economic Action Plan. The initiative seized on the concept of "students first," making Athabasca University a forerunner in improving student experience and student relationship management.

Prior to the CCM program, Athabasca University had been losing nearly one out of every three phone calls that came in due to long wait times and students' frustration with the menus. The university was at risk of losing prospective studentsand annoying its current student base. Since implementing this "students-first" approach, service levels have improved by more than 50%, lost calls have decreased to less than 10%, and the institution has recognized savings through the implementation of Voice over Internet Protocol and increased analytics. 

Read more about the Stewart, a finalist in our customer experience category, and how he presides over a hub of innovation in this Q&A.

Number of years in IT: 15

Revenue: CDN $130 million

Number of employees in the company: 1,100

Number of employees in IT: 100

Educational background: Master's degree in business administration, master's degree in economics, Project Management Professional, Information Systems Professional

First job: Printer

LinkedIn: Brian Stewart

Twitter Handle: @13bstew

What's the best advice you've ever received? Listen, and don't ascribe motivations without fully understanding where they are coming from.

From the judges

"Disruptive innovation in a controlled and managed environment should be considered a model for all of us to look at and learn from."

In the movie of your life, who would play your character? Henry Fonda. He played characters that wanted to make things better and worked to a higher purpose.

If you could have just one superpower, what would it be and why? The gift of common sense. So many issues and problems arise because common sense wasn't applied.

What's your favorite app on your smartphone or tablet device? The podcast app. I listen to podcasts when exercising, travelling and between things. They form the background to my day.

Where do you fall in the iPhone versus Android debate? I don't -- they are tools and should be chosen based on their fit for the need.

Describe the best technology decision you ever made: There have been quite a few, and choosing one is a little difficult. Some decisions were good because they moved the organization forward, while some were really beneficial in improving performance. If I had to choose only one, it would be from a while back, when we deployed a file server in a printing company I was working at. It had a dramatic impact on productivity as it freed up individual desktops for file access and operation.

Was there ever a technology that you thought was a gimmick but now couldn't live without? I thought email was silly when it came out, as you could just phone or drop in to see a colleague. Now I am addicted to it and need a hit of email or SMS apparently every few minutes. Not sure that is a good thing.

From the nomination

"Brian is an exemplary IT leader simply because of his vision, foresight and his ability to act upon the same. He is a leader because his team is motivated to follow. He is a leader because he will follow through with his vision, even if it is not always the perfect one. He is a leader because he is the right mix of pragmatic and idealistic. "

What's the biggest challenge you face in IT today? To be seen as relevant and strategic. IT has enormous potential; however, it requires a leap from IT practitioners to assume the leadership position. Traditional skills of managing the infrastructure, hard as it is, are necessary but not sufficient. Significant upgrading of strategic management skills is needed.

Which role and/or internal partner do you rely upon the most? For a CIO, it is generally your director, as they look after the day-to-day and help keep things moving forward. But at specific times, there is always an individual who steps into the breach to provide a critical role. That people are prepared to take these roles on is essential to the functioning of a department.

What's your prediction for the next big technology? No big news from me on this one. Big data and analytics will be used with increasing input from the social sciences to provide ever deeper insights into our behavior. They will direct technology and service provision in the future, enabling us to provide increasingly responsive services that are tailored to the context and the individual.

What's your favorite nonmonetary benefit or perk of your job? Working with really smart people that have expertise in areas you can barely spell. It is such a rush to discuss solutions with peers and to learn so much [that is] new.

What is the biggest problem you see with corporate cultures today? Companies don't use the information and knowledge they create effectively. We are in the knowledge economy where know-how is the competitive advantage. The complexity of today's business environment requires the increasing use of knowledge both individual and pooled. And companies need to significantly improve their capabilities in this area.

Describe your leadership style. Don't treat IT as an end in itself; it's an enabler of the business. Focus on the external environment and see where IT can help. Learn to work with non-IT people and to communicate its benefits; you will then be seen as someone that helps rather than limits.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Wendy Schuchart, site editor.

This was first published in May 2013

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