How the University of Miami's IT team tackled COVID challenges and still kept ahead on innovation

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan August 14, 2020
CIO Ernie Fernandez on how the University of Miami's IT team has taken on the COVID crisis and seen leadership step up to the mark.

Miami University

The University of Miami last month kicked off the start of Phase 3 trial for a COVID-19 vaccine, one of 89 sites across the US to be participating in this front in the fight against the virus. Elsewhere on campus, the University’s IT department - UMIT - has been engaged in its own pandemic-related leadership activities, as CIO Ernie Fernandez discussed during the Work Different event hosted by Qualtrics this week. 

UMIT has a clear mission statement articulated on its website as: 

To be the best information technology organization in higher education and healthcare; recognized for strategic leadership, innovation, and collaborative partnerships in achieving the University of Miami's academic, clinical, and research goals….to provide innovative, secure, and reliable solutions in collaboration with our stakeholders that enhance teaching and learning, enable cutting-edge research, advance the clinical enterprise, and enrich the core business infrastructure. 

Fernandez, formerly General Manager of IBM’s US public sector business, says that while COVID-19 has brought about its own urgent operational changes, there had been a deliberate cultural shift underway anyway: 

Back in the Fall of last year, we wanted to instil in our people a customer-first mindset. So we developed a workshop that was modelled after a program that was very successful at Vanderbilt University. And it was modelled around three mindsets that we wanted everybody in new UMIT to embrace. The first is that feedback is a gift. The second is to take ownership of the customer's experience. And then third is continuous improvement, both as an organization and continuous improvement as an individual through professional development. 

To meet these three objectives, UMIT rolled out content over roughly three months to around 20 people at a time. Fernandez says this was intended to be a very interactive process: 

We put ourselves in the shoes of the customers that we serve - students, faculty staff, researchers, - with the intention of thinking about what are the behaviors we want to exhibit, to live out these mindsets. I've been so proud that when COVID-19 hit and we had to do things at an unbelievable rate and do it with quality, to see how these mindsets translated into actions.

He cites a number of examples of how this could be seen in practice, including UMIT’s own version of curbside pick-up, something that numerous retailers have cited of late as a COVID-driven innovation in their own operating models: 

We knew that global supply chains were going to be challenged, so we wanted to have an inventory of laptops to be able to give to our constituents. Several of us went to Best Buy and we loaded up pick-up trucks with pretty much all of the models that we could find that met our specs. We also ordered some through our normal suppliers. 

But while we were there, we noticed that they had just developed a drive-up service for people to pick up the equipment. And one of our clever staff said, 'Hey, why don't we do that?'. And so, very quickly, we developed a process where anybody who needed a laptop could send us a request. We would load the software that they needed on the laptop. When it was ready, we'd send them a text with a time to collect it. They would drive up, they would call a number  and someone would run out and deliver laptops through their [car] windows so that they wouldn't have to enter the premises. 

Another example of the new mindsets in action relates to people resources: 

We knew that we were going to have to shift a lot of people to areas that were understaffed. We were struggling with how to do that when [some] faculty members, not even a member of UMIT, volunteered to help. So someone had the idea of why didn't we create a volunteer corps and say, 'Here are the skills we're looking for and if you have skills in these areas, we could really use them for the next six to eight weeks'. We put out a call and before we knew it we had 60 people that had volunteered. 

We quickly trained them up and they were able to provide training for others on how to use these new digital tools. So faculty member members were trained on how to use Blackboard. Students were trained on how to use technology that they'd maybe used in a lab and they were now going to use remotely on their laptop. It proved to be incredibly successful. 

So much so that the actions of the IT team went viral (in a good way!), he adds: 

As we were rolling out these trainings, people saw what we were doing and it started to spread around the university. We had requests from our HR department and other areas to attend so that they could begin training their own people. It's just been terrific to see how this culture idea of putting those you serve first can start and then spread and then the impact that it can have on moving really fast, but with quality and ensuring that you're hitting the mark. 

Tackling COVID re-opening

On an equally challenging note, the University of Miami, in common with other academic institutions across America, has to face up to the task of facilitating a safe return to campus for its staff and its students. UMIT has played its part here with the development of an online health screening that faculty staff have to pass before coming back to campus. 

Working with Qualtrics, it’s also developed a daily symptom checker for use by staff and students alike. Fernandez explains that the first users here have been student athletes and athletic staff: 

These were the first people that were returning to campus after we sent everyone home in the spring. That was in the June time. We started to have local athletes come back to do workouts, working with athletic staff. We wanted to make sure that there was a safe environment for them, so we created a daily symptom monitoring check where they would use the app, answer a set of questions and then at the end get a QR code that would say,' Hey, you're clear' or 'No, you need to be contacted by student health'. We put three different ways that students or staff could access the app - either through the UMiami app or scanning a QR code or visiting the website. Then we created a better flow where an iPad could read the QR code behind a plexiglass shield so that there was distancing between those two individuals. 

It's just been working terrifically well. We started doing contact tracing earlier in the spring. Ninety-six percent of the people that are contact tracers we were contacting were agreeing to participate. We really didn't want that part to be technology-first; we wanted to be human-first, but where the technology could help us scale what was in front of us. 

Fernandez has also been pleased to see that despite having to shift resources into tackling the COVID crisis, there has been business-as-usual to a large degree: 

One of my concerns was that as we shifted so much of our resources to these new things that we were having to do, that current projects would slip. What we found was just the opposite. We're implementing a new admissions system. We're working with our Admissions Office on our new system for student financial aid. We're implementing new technology around our One Stop Shop that’s going to open up in August.  We were able to continue some of the innovation projects that we had underway. We developed an innovation lab that was creating AR/VR applications, working with students. They were able to continue their great work. 

It’s another example of the oft-cited COVID phenomenon of decisions and actions moving at a much faster pace than they did pre-pandemic: 

The concern was that all these things might slip, but we found just the opposite, that they were in fact ahead of time or hit key milestones on time or ahead of time. This collision of digital technology and a global pandemic has enabled us to move at speeds we've never thought were possible before. I think we're going to be able to leverage that as we return to a new normal. 

Fernandez also reckons that the crisis has brought out the best in leadership among UMIT and the wider University: 

It's been inspiring to see how leaders at every level have really risen to the challenge of leading us through a hard time, but with hope at the end, knowing that we're going to come out of this, and we're going to come out of it stronger than then we entered it. Leadership, I think, shows in a time of crisis and we've seen it at the University of Miami where across every level, we've seen people step up to the call of leadership in in amazing ways.

And then [there is] just this importance of having a culture of serving others. I've seen so many examples of sacrificial service in support of the mission of the university. Again, I'm optimistic that as we come out of this, that kind of spirit of serving each other is going to prevail, and we're going to be a stronger university, but also a stronger society.