Workday Podcast: Higher Ed CIO Rick Merrick on the Healthcare Model of Shared Services for Higher Ed

When a billionaire announces during a commencement speech that he’s paying off the student debt of all the new grads in front of him, the generous act deservedly makes headlines. But paying off the student debt of a graduating class doesn’t address the underlying problem: the cost of higher education is leaving some students in crippling debt.

Enter the higher ed visionaries trying to address the root causes by either reimagining their existing institutions or launching new ones. Rick Merrick, CIO of TCS Education System, joined us on the Workday Podcast to talk about how his institution is lowering costs and better serving adult learners by adopting the shared services model often used in the healthcare industry. Take a listen.

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If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.

Josh Krist: Even the name of the school where today’s guest serves as CIO says a lot about its mission. The Community Solution, also known as TCS, is a nonprofit system of colleges in the Chicago area. It has a fundamentally different operating model than many other higher ed institutions. Here’s something on its About Us web page that really stood out: “Leveraging our shared vision, scale, and cross-college collaboration, our student-centered system has the power to change the world. And we anticipate that more like-minded institutions offering education grounded in social justice will join our ranks and further expand our reach.”

I’m Josh Krist. And today on the Workday Podcast, I have the pleasure of hosting Rick Merrick, CIO of The Community Solution. Thanks, Rick.

Rick Merrick: Thanks, Josh. Thanks for having me.

Krist: Can we talk a little bit about the mission and the operating model, which are sort of intertwined?

Merrick: Sure, absolutely. So TCS Education System is a system of colleges really focused on two things: student success and community impact. In 2009, when the system was formed by Dr. Michael Horowitz, he was the president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. And he grew that school from just a couple hundred students to close to 3,000 students, and he did it by focusing on a couple of different things—one being the adult learner, in particular. And so at the time, when traditional higher ed was not paying any attention to the adult students, he had the foresight to understand that adult students would be the student majority of the future in higher education. So he focused on those students, and he went out into the communities to try to understand what it is that they really need in these communities.

He was able to grow that school tremendously. He wanted to take that idea—focusing on communities, focusing on adult students—and really expand that to other disciplines beyond just psychology. So he formed The Community Solution in higher education. And today, we have five colleges that are part of this system. And  each college has very similar missions around student focus, community impact, and international and social justice.

They’re graduating psychologists, they’re graduating lawyers, nurses, teachers; professional disciplines. Our average student is 35 years old,so it’s really about focusing on that adult learner.

Now the operating model: it’s most often compared to a hospital system. Every school has its own independent board of trustees and its own president that focus on the success of the college and the academic quality of the college. But when it comes to the backend systems—the IT systems and backend processes and operations that need to happen—that’s all done centrally through the system. And the idea around that is that if we can bring all of us together to attain a certain scale, we can lower the cost for all of the colleges. It’s about sharing services, driving down costs, focusing on the student, and professional degrees.

Krist: That’s really interesting. And there seems to be an emphasis on making a difference in the community.

Merrick: Absolutely. One thing that we truly believe is that we need to understand what the communities need. So when we’re graduating our students, they can go back into the communities where they were taught and make a difference.

Krist: So as CIO, what gets you up in the morning? What motivates you?

Merrick: It’s our innovative model that really motivates me—knowing that there really isn’t another system quite like TCS in higher ed. You know, rising tuition is a major, major issue for young students and for students in general. The cost of education just continues to go up. The fact that we’re trying to do something—a new innovative model that no one is doing—I think that’s really exciting, and it’s something I’m happy to be a part of.

Krist: And how long have you been there?

Merrick: I’ve been there for seven years.

Krist: Okay, so for a while.

Merrick: Yeah—TCS has been around for 10 years. So I came in soon after it started.

Krist: And what has the technology journey looked like since you’ve been there?

Merrick: It grew really fast. There are now multiple institutions in multiple locations around the country. The college system’s IT did not keep pace with that in the early years. And so when I was writing the first strategy around what we were going to do about technology, I focused on a number of areas. I focused on the cloud. I focused on mobility. I focused on delivering agnostic platforms that I knew people wanted. They wanted to be able to use their own technology when they came into the workplace.

I wanted to break apart this idea that there needs to be command and control centrally by the enterprise. I wanted to give people the tools they wanted to do their jobs, because I knew that if I gave them the tools they like to use, they would do their jobs better. We focused on cloud, mobility, learning technologies, what we were doing in the campuses, what we were doing around the classrooms. And so it’s been a great journey, taking it from that smaller shop and really bringing it into the enterprise world.

Krist: Right. What was the landscape when you started—and what’s it like now?

Merrick: It was all on prem. All of our major business applications were on premise. So we went to the cloud as quickly as I possibly could. I was looking at all the major business applications as well as our infrastructure. We did Canvas for our learning and management system. We did Salesforce for our CRM system. We did Office 365 for our platform. We did AWS. We did Azure for part of our infrastructure and hosting websites.

And I was looking at all of our applications, and the big elephant in the room was what to do with my student information system? There really wasn’t a cloud solution at the time. It was only by luck, as we were looking at our HR and payroll systems and what we were going to do with that. And so that’s when we started looking at Workday to solve our HCM and payroll. It was during that time I heard that Workday was working on a student information system called Workday Student. We got very interested in that. I talked to leadership internally, and we decided to join the advisory group for Workday Student so we could help shape the product as it was evolving and stay close to Workday.

That proved very beneficial. We’ve deployed Workday Human Capital Management and Workday Payroll. We’re currently deploying Workday Financial Management and Workday Student. So we’re spending a lot of time with Workday at the moment, but it’s been a huge success up to this point. People really, really like what we’ve done. And, we’re excited to see where it goes.

Krist: Great. And going from on premise to the cloud—although a lot of people are in the middle of that journey—I would imagine that each year you learn a little bit more. If somebody comes to you and says, “I want to do what you guys did.” Not, “Where do I start?” but, “What do you wish you would have known at the beginning that you know now?”

Merrick: Everyone has to prioritize change management in a way that might be different than how they’ve done it in the past when going from on premise to cloud, and particularly in such a fundamental way. Any large organizational change management involves a lot of communication, a lot of time spent telling people why we’re doing this, what’s in it for them specifically, why are we putting everybody through so much pain, and what the end result is going to be.

I was up-front with people in the very beginning, saying, “You know, your day-to-day life may not get any better, but the student’s life will. And that’s why we’re here—to serve the students and make their lives better.

Trying to get people to understand what that story is: There are a lot of people in your organization that are thought leaders. They may not have the titles, but when they speak, people listen to them. You have to understand who those people are. You have to and win those people over. Because if you can get their buy-in, they can become the champions of what you’re trying to accomplish.

It’s a lot of communication. It’s not just about putting in the technology. It’s about explaining why we have to do it, giving people a chance to be part of the decision-making. I’ve never decided for an organization, “You have to take this piece of software and it’s going to disrupt your lives.” I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Give them an opportunity. Give them some choices. Say, “We could do nothing and this is the pain that we’re in today and we’re never going to evolve. You’ve got all these ambitious goals and dreams that you want for the organization. Well, here’s some solutions that’ll get you there…” Explain why that’s important to them.

Krist: Yeah, it’s interesting. So earlier you had mentioned strategy, and just now you talked about storytelling and painting a picture and communicating and finding influencers. Why is it that the CIO role has become such a—or ideally, is—such a communicator and storyteller role?

Merrick: I think all leaders have to be storytellers. That’s important. I mean, the way that people communicate with each other is through stories. One of the most effective ways to get an idea across is to paint a picture and tell a story. So, I think a great leader needs to be able to do that. It’s easier to do than you think, because people want to relate.

No one can get anything done without technology today, right? Anytime anyone wants to do a big initiative or project or improve the organization, they’re going to need help from us on the technology. We’ve got to be able to communicate to the community how this is going to impact them, how this is going to change, why they’re going through the pain, and why the change is so important. And really, get them on board. Otherwise, you can’t get anything done.

Krist: Right. And when it comes specifically to your experience with deploying Workday, do you have any advice? I’ve heard before to really do a thorough integration inventory because you don’t want to build integrations for necessarily everything. Any other advice?

Merrick: If you’re going to go to Workday, what you have the opportunity to do at that time is really take a look at your operation. Things that you’ve done in the past may not translate to Workday and they may not be necessary. So take the time to understand what your business processes are, whether or not they’re necessary, and why you are doing these things. Sometimes, people start producing things, such as a report, that no one looks at. But, they’ve been doing it for years and no one’s revisited why—is there any business decision made off this report? Why are we producing it constantly? What’s the myth behind that?

There’s a lot of myths about why we do things, and you’ve got to find the answers. You need to decide if you’re going to rethink the department or the organization or operations; for example, if you were going to reprioritize what was important, how would you operate now? How would work get done? How would you communicate between departments? How is collaboration really done? Take the time to ask the questions—don’t just try to replicate what you have.

Krist: Right. What you said was really interesting—that part of figuring out your vision and business strategy is investigating what’s myth and what’s reality. That’s a really neat way to look at it.

Merrick: It’s really important, too.

Krist: Yeah. And what are you excited about as a CIO, especially about the future?

Merrick: There isn’t a better time to be a CIO than right now. With the pace of technology, the way things are changing, every day is a new day. There are new technologies that are coming out all the time. Some people are afraid of the change and say, “How do you keep up with it?” Yeah, it’s tough, but it’s a good time to be in technology, and that’s really exciting to me.

Krist: And what was your path to CIO?

Merrick: When I was going to college, I started working in the Help Desk. I stayed in IT after college. I did Help Desk. I did system administration. I did Windows administration. I did networking. I did datacenter operations, system engineering.

I dabbled in network engineering. I built call centers. I was a report writer for a while. I did almost everything in IT, kind of on my journey into management, and then I just  took over from there. But I always tell people—you know, there was a lot of help along the way. I had some amazing managers that invested time and effort in me.

I had a great set of mentors that helped me along the way, and I was very lucky in my career. Whenever there was an opportunity to do something, I always volunteered, which is why I had so many different roles in IT. because whenever there was an opportunity, when someone didn’t want to do something, I always volunteered, “Let me do it. Let me do it. I’ll do it.” That gave me a lot of experience, and then that helped me along the way. I can’t [understate]—just the amazing people I’ve had the chance to work with, too.

Krist: Yeah, I understand. There’s a saying that “enthusiastic people are lucky people.” And it’s true because when you’re enthusiastic, you will get those opportunities.

Merrick: A friend of mine said, “If you work hard enough, you might get lucky.”

Krist: All right. Rick, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in to another episode of the Workday Podcast.

Merrick: Thank you, Josh.