The Crucial Role of Technology Leadership: An Interview with Donna Orem

The Crucial Role of Technology Leadership: An Interview with Donna Orem

Earlier this year, ATLIS Executive Director Sarah Hanawald sat down with NAIS President Donna Orem to talk about the role of technology leaders in independent schools today. What follows in this candid interview provides insight into how technologists can help move other school leaders move toward innovation in the face of disruptions and struggle to adapt to the changing world around us. -- SD

[15-minute read]

On April 16, Donna Orem, NAIS President, will give the keynote address at the ATLIS 2018 Annual Conference. Titled “Innovating in the Fast Lane: The Role for Technology Leaders in the Coming Decade,” her talk is sure to inspire and inform the audience.

Sarah: Thank you so much for joining us today. We are so excited to have you at ATLIS 2018 that we declared that Monday “Bring Your Head of School” to ATLIS day. Attendees may bring their Head of School with them at no charge to hear your keynote and join in the other Monday sessions.

Donna: That is a great idea!

Sarah: What are you reading and thinking about these days?

Donna: I’ve been studying the Jobs to be Done framework as it is explained in Clayton Christensen’s recent book, Competing Against Luck. The Jobs to be Done framework puts forth that most people will stay in a status quo situation until something pushes them to make a change. This push is usually in the form of a struggle. Eventually, people look for a product (which may or may not be tangible) that helps them overcome that struggle. Christiansen goes on to explain that “understanding someone’s struggle is the root of all innovation.” Well-positioned schools are exploring the solutions to these kinds of struggles, ideally even before they are completely revealed to the families experiencing the struggle.

Sarah: What do you think will be the next aspect of education to be “disrupted” by technology?

Donna: The interesting thing about disruption is that it isn’t a single event. For example, the music industry has been disrupted more than once. Single songs came before albums, then digital downloads combined two features: (1) perfect copies and (2) inexpensive technology, and took us back to the single purchase. Now, streaming services put together the idea of a bundled purchase, but now the bundle is determined by the consumer, not the producer. There are multiple options for bundling, whether it is by genre, artist, or another theme. The question is, will education follow a similar path of unbundling, then rebundling information in order to better serve constituents? That is a path that independent schools may well follow.

And, one thing we can’t say is that we didn’t see it coming.

Sarah: What do you see in the larger community that calls for greater awareness from technology leaders?

Donna: There is no aspect of a school that isn’t affected by technology. This means that a technology leader can’t work in a box, whether that box is created by the technology leader or the school’s leadership structure.  The lines between the various areas of the school leadership are getting blurrier and that is not going away. The technology leader who wants to stay in the box is not going to succeed.

SarahWhat positives happen when boundaries get blurred as you’ve described?

Donna: When leaders work together, and I’m a big believer in distributed leadership, they move into a co-creation model. The “unicorn hero leader,” who has a single area of expertise, is a thing of the past. Schools, along with all industries, are increasingly complex in multiple areas. That move towards complexity isn’t going to change, and the technology director who doesn’t acknowledge blurred lines will become less and less relevant.

Sarah: What advice do you have for someone considering a career in technology leadership in an independent school?

Donna: Technology leaders in school can play a crucial role in helping the rest of the leadership team move forward. They are particularly well-positioned to help heads understand how the disruption going on with technology might affect us. Technology can get caught in the loop of “tradition bearer” vs. “crusaders,” and leadership teams have to be in continuous conversation to ensure they are aligned in their desired outcomes. The thing we do uniquely well as humans is be in conversation and make sense of our world together.

Sarah: ATLIS is a younger association, what thoughts do you have for us on how we establish our value?

Donna: Associations serve a function of helping professionals acknowledge that if we co-create together on projects, such as best practices and outcomes, we go a lot further than we would if we went it alone. The idea that a single individual “owns” the expertise in an area is a limiter, for the individual and for the organization they work with.

Sarah: Thank you so much for joining us for ATLIS 2018. We are thrilled to have you with us.

Donna: I’m looking forward to it!

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