This post is part two of a four-part Speaker Series focused on sharing learnings from presenters at FETC 2017. If you’re attending FETC, be sure to stop by the Startup Pavilion and say hello to your Permission Click family. Attending in spirit? Send us a message on Twitter @PermissionClick and let us know what you thought of our FETC Speaker Series!
Jim Bennett’s path into education was unique to say the least. Focused entirely on using technology to create operational efficiencies while minimizing expenses, Jim crafted a very successful 40-year career in the private sector.
Quickly discovering retirement didn’t suit him, Jim made the decision (with some helpful prodding from his wife), to apply for an opening with one of the province’s largest school divisions. 10-year detailed strategic plan in hand, it wasn’t long before Jim had officially made the switch from private to public sector.
While the learning curve was steep (at some times, completely vertical!), Jim was able to adopt his private-sector learnings into a new and innovative mindset for Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS). His focus on culture and creating the right team first propelled GSCS into the forefront of technology awareness within his province and around North America.
Today we share with you Jim’s challenges, successes, and how he built in a “magic bullet” for his team: a culture of collaboration.
PC: After 40 years in the private technology sector, you were convinced to come out of retirement and join Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools (GSCS). What was the biggest shock moving to the public sector?
It was definitely a vertical learning curve! The education environment has challenges we don’t see in the private sector: many different stakeholders, limited professional technology knowledge outside of the technology team, supporting thousands of users on a very finite budget, it’s very unique. In the public sector, you can’t just ramp up sales to increase revenue if you want to start a new initiative. You have to be creative, Lean, and constantly focused on how to do more with less.
In most school systems, their existing architecture has grown organically – usually an employee with an interest in technology built the base architecture in the 80’s, and the district has added to it as necessary over the years. Often this means that we have to spend more financial and human resources on unwinding the previous architecture before we can start to think about putting in something new.
Unlike the private sector, where branch offices are smaller, content sharing is minimal – in education, everything is about content sharing. The bandwidth requirements alone are a large expense that is unique to education.
”You have to be creative, lean, and constantly focused on how to do more with less.
PC: Architecture limitations, financial limitations, human resource limitations – how do you work within these constraints to make sure your students are still getting the best exposure to technology possible?
Our focus always has been, and always will be, 100% on improving learning outcomes and graduation rates for our students. We make sure to use technology intelligently. BYOD or 1:1 might not be in the framework for the next few years, but we ensure technology is accessible to our students. Using my background in Lean Six Sigma, and some creative thinking, we’ve come up with many different options. Some classrooms have “pods” where students work in a team on group projects – which has the benefit of teaching them to share technology and resources, work together, build off each other’s strengths. It’s been a very successful model.
PC: When you started at GSCS, there was no Education Technology (ET) team, and a one-person Information Technology (IT) team. What culture challenges did you come across in this model?
Culture can be a huge challenge in any division. Professionals in IT may not come from an education background, and might not understand what it’s like to be in the classroom. Likewise, educators often don’t have a professional IT background, so there’s a lot of misunderstanding that can happen. Teachers have good and wonderful ideas, but sometimes it’s hard to understand the cost and resource requirements of implementing those ideas. We don’t want teachers to be frustrated because they think we’re always saying no. We want to be able to understand both sides.
You have to have buy-in from everyone, but especially the team who will be involved. From the highest-level superintendent right down to the part-time office folks. They need to understand: this isn’t going to cost them their job, it’s going to make their job more enjoyable.
PC: How did you bridge that gap?
Building an Education Technology (ET) team is vital. But, it has to be the right team. I’ve witnessed at many districts that the relationship between IT and ET is almost 100% confrontational. Nothing gets accomplished this way. This is why we’re having a session about it!
We took time to find the right people for our ET team. Teachers who understood the classroom, but who also understood IT, with team player personalities. We need to be able to work together, not be adversaries. Once our team was in place, we focused entirely on open dialogue. We have monthly meetings, shared goals, it’s very collaborative. When everyone is working towards the same goal, we’re more able to succeed.
“Teams are stronger when they grow and experience hardships together.”
Our ET team was built out at the same time as our IT team. I came into the position new to Education, and the ET team came into the position with no expectations of working with me. We were all learning together. We went through all the typical team stages: forming, storming, norming, performing. We learned to trust one another because we grew, learned, and fell together. This is one striking similarity between private and public sector – teams are stronger when they grow and experience hardships together. Had we built this team under different circumstances, I don’t know that we’d have been as successful.
PC: A teacher in GSCS has a cool edtech tool they want to try out. What do they do?
Teachers bring the tools they’d like to implement in their classroom to the ET’s, and the ET’s do an excellent job of vetting them. They compare the tool against our 5-year plan, check for security and privacy constraints, make sure it will work with our existing architecture. If the tool passes, the ETs bring it to our monthly meeting, and we go through the same vetting process. This works well because everyone understands our common goals. If we have to say no to a new tool, there’s an excellent reason as to why that is, and everyone understands it. Our constant dialogue allows us to always work together – we’re very team oriented.
”We all face challenges. The key is understanding, learning, and improving because of them.
PC: Tell us about your 5-year plan. How can you build a 5-year plan for GSCS when the future of EdTech is always changing?
Coming into this position, I was hopeful we would be able to create a long-term plan with structure and vision. In the private sector I lived and died by 5-year plans. This can be tough to do in any sector, as the target is always moving. Doubly so in education. While we do have a 5-year plan, and we do follow it, we are also aware that things change, new technology comes available, priorities shift. We have to adapt, change, and be agile. We review our 5-year plan every year, so it is more of a rolling plan. What did we knock off this year? What are we adding to the end? It is our meter stick with which we evaluate new tools and make decisions, but it is not drawn up in stone.
”Without a vision that you’re constantly rowing towards, how will you know when you’ve reached your goal?”
I am a great believer in agility, being Lean Six Sigma and Scrum Certified. Agility is just as important as planning: but without a vision that you’re constantly rowing towards, how will you know when you’ve reached your goal?
In our presentation on Thursday, we’ll be showing you exactly what our 5-year plan looked like in years 1 through 4. What our ET team looked like, how we worked together then, how we work together now, and what we learned along the way. Lean Six Sigma is not new to the private sector, but it is new to Education. I look forward to sharing this with attendees, as it has helped us alleviate a lot of our pains, and understand the ones we went through together. We all face challenges, the key is understanding, learning, and improving because of them.
PC: Where does a teacher start? They see the adversarial relationship between IT and ET in their district, and they long for a better process. What are the first steps to take?
That’s a tough one because to be perfectly honest, there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all”. Across each school district you’ve got different cultures, different administrative structures. Every district is unique.
The one biggest change we found – the closest to a silver bullet – was ensuring that the ET and IT teams report up to the same Superintendent. In most school divisions they operate on completely different teams, under different managers. How can you work together if you’re not invested with the same interests and goals, from the same management structure? Ensuring that both teams reported to the same manager expedited our team and trust building, encouraged an open dialogue and collaboration.
For teachers who feet that IT and ET are not working together in their district, this is the first thing to look for. If they’re not on the same team, it is unlikely they’ll reach a true level of success.