Rod Houpe – Cleveland Metropolitan School District
On-time and under budget—what’s that, you say? It’s a concept that can be rare in the private sector; even more so in the public realm. And ultimately, it’s just one of the ways Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is differentiating itself when it comes to IT.
Under the direction of CIO Rod Houpe, the Ohio school system has attracted attention and accolades for its efficiency and innovation, and it is being recognized as an IT leader, not just in the education space—but across the board.
“It’s focusing on how do we get better, how do we change and how do we adapt?” says Houpe, who has been with the district for just about four years. He adds that, “I’m a change agent—that’s what a CIO really should be.”
IT as a ‘consultancy organization’
In 2014, Houpe joined Ohio’s second-largest district, comprised of 105 schools serving around 39,000 students. His first order of business? Overhauling its legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) software which was 20 years old and outdated. The district opted to go with Workday’s cloud-based platform, adopting its “full boat” of ERP offerings—from financials to human capital management—and launching in December 2016, explains Houpe.
The undertaking attracted attention to CMSD’s ongoing ahead-of-the-curve work; it was named 2017 “Project of the Year” by the Northeast Ohio chapter of the Project Management Institute. The award is given out for the successful implementation of a “large and complex” project delivering “superior organizational results,” according to the Institute.
As Houpe notes, CMSD was the first public sector entity to be awarded the prize—and it beat out such corporate giants as General Electric, to boot. In addition, the project was named a finalist for the 2018 “Best Use of Tech for Social Good” award through the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
Meanwhile, there are numerous other initiatives, including a VOIP revamp—accomplished three months ahead of schedule—and the school system has greatly benefitted from new WAN and fiber network systems set up throughout the city, Houpe says. CMSD is also developing a security awareness program, as many schools have done since a series of high school shootings nationwide. Meanwhile, Houpe has plans to go far beyond the usual 1:1 initiative.
“My vision is to offer 24/7 year-round availability to everything,” he says, stressing the ability of both teachers and students to have “access to materials from anywhere, anytime, from any type of device.”
The district is also working on machine learning capabilities with Microsoft Business Intelligence; the goal being to have the ability to sift through school data and delve into predictive analytics. Along with that, Houpe says, the IT division is increasingly working with solution and enterprise architects and business analysts to establish itself as more of a “consultancy organization.”
Buy-in builds success
All told, the strong focus throughout has been on honing a philosophy around better communication. Because it’s not about having the greatest and slickest new tools, Houpe notes—rather, it’s being “grounded in processes and people.” Begin with the people, he says; listen, share, be transparent, explain the whys of change—then find the tools to best match the culture.
“I spend 80 percent of my day selling ideas, making sure people are buying into the philosophy and vision,” he says. “People are actually embracing it, understanding it.”
It’s also essential to ensure that IT remains visible—meaning workers are not tucked away in a back office somewhere hunkered over their keyboards. To that end, the 41 employees in Houpe’s department volunteer by helping with tutoring and participating in career days.
The latter has a double benefit in that it allows kids to explore career opportunities they might not otherwise know about. “It’s not all about 1s and 0s,” he says. “It’s about how we can actually contribute to the educational process.”
All this fits into the overarching Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, which was adopted in 2012 while the district was facing insolvency—more than half of its schools were in crisis, and enrollment was declining.
Houpe was recruited by CMSD’s CEO Eric Gordon, based on his previous work helping to transform Columbus City Schools. “We thought it would be a good match—my skill sets and his vision,” says Houpe.
Today, as the district continues to make significant strides, he says he feels “fortunate” to serve in his role.
“When I go into a school and have the opportunity to mentor students—that keeps me going,” he says. “It’s living in that moment to see what they need and what they want, exploring ways to create better opportunities and help them get access to great thinking and minds and leadership. That gets me excited; it’s why I do this work.”
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