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Empower 2021 celebrates ASU’s IT boundary spanners doing the impossible

BY AFOSSUM – MAY 25, 2021

Motivated. Informed. Connected. These are a few examples of the participants’ responses to their experience at Empower 2021, the fourth annual gathering of ASU’s IT community. Throughout the course of the two-day virtual conference, over 600 attendees shared ideas and strategized plans concerning the future of innovation across the university. “This gathering is an opportunity to appreciate the trust that we’re building and highlight where we can improve,” proclaimed Lev Gonick, ASU’s Chief Information Officer. 

Special sauce: culture enabling excellence

ASU President Michael Crow opened the first day of the conference with a keynote focused on gratitude, thanking ASU’s IT professionals for all of the ways they are “empowering and enabling ASU to be a hyperfunctional, high-service teaching, learning and discovery institution.” 

“ASU is emerging as the progenitor, the single most rapidly-evolving university in American history,” President Crow shared. “It is the most representative of a new kind of public university: one that scales, one that focuses on learners of every age, one that has a student body that’s completely representative of the socio-economic diversity and ethnic diversity of the country.” 

Over the past few years, ASU has undertaken a comprehensive reconceptualization, in part through the intentional change to its organizational culture, to become a leading Fifth Wave University. These changes, driven by the ASU Charter, allow the university to break the mold of the previous university model. “We’re doing the impossible...scaling to enterprise level and personalizing learning through innovative technology and dedication to democracy-advancing, socially-transformative culture,” Crow explained.

Underlying all of these successes is the dedication of IT professionals who create and implement collaborative platforms, what Gonick referred to as “ASU’s special sauce.” The university’s ability to simultaneously “solve both business challenges and embrace pedagogical opportunities...through a remarkable engineering capacity allows us to make complex internet access as reliable and predictable as electricity,” Gonick said. 

This dedication to leveraging technologies that place students at the center meant that ASU experienced a relatively seamless transition to online learning at the start of the pandemic. My ASU, along with the ASU Digital Backpack and other innovations discussed during the participant-led sessions, set a “highwater mark for IT professionals,” Gonick said. He predicts that the experience will only lead to more challenges as hybrid approaches to learning (for example, ASU Sync, which provides synchronous virtual classes fused with in-person learning) become the standard. 

Boundary spanners: crowd-sourcing and collegiality 

Throughout the two-day Empower conference, participants drove the agenda. Spanning boundaries across the university, presenters came from numerous ASU units and colleges to discuss everything from using technology to humanize the consumer experience to the importance of responsible innovation, well-being and work-life balance. As CIO, Gonick was inspired by the “remarkable breadth in the IT community, from the most technical set of insights and playbooks along the full continuum of interest in community, flavors of trust, culture, equity and inclusion.”

On Day 1, 16 colleagues from across the university shared their passions, pursuits and projects while attendees conducted a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) analysis. Unlike a traditional SWOT analysis, the SOAR framework “sees weaknesses and threats as opportunities,” stated UTO Chief Culture Officer Christine Whitney Sanchez, who hosted the event with the support of Events Manager Erin Morrow. “Weaknesses and threats shut the brain down, while opportunities are life-giving,” Whitney Sanchez continued.  

According to Dr. Jackie Stavros, originator of the approach and the keynote speaker for Day 2, SOAR “is a framework and a metaphor — people will be empowered. Strategy isn’t just for senior leaders and directors, it’s for all…SOAR is about conversations. Through our words we create our conversations, and those conversations create our moments that influence the world we live in.”

During these collegial conversations using the SOAR framework, presenters gained a new perspective through the eyes of those outside their scope of work. According to Whitney Sanchez, these “boundary spanners are Renaissance people who bring that expertise and heart into IT…[they] are natural ambassadors of culture that is carried out across the rest of the university.”

Co-creating the future: equity and open space

Collegiality and sharing continued through the second day with Open Space discussions. Prompted by the participants’ interests, attendees chose from close to twenty different breakout sessions to freely discuss topics ranging from broadening student access to data, championing a concierge-level of service for consumers, using storytelling to advance product development and more. Director of Analytics Brandi Falls, who spoke on behalf of trust-building, praised the completely online format of this year’s Empower because “it allowed for more inclusion of voices.” 

During a lunchtime Powerhouse Panel facilitated by Samantha Becker, Executive Director of UTO’s Creative and Communications, panelists Donna Kidwell, ASU’s Chief Information Security & Digital Trust Officer, Jess Evans, Chief Operating & Digital Trust Officer, and Leah Lommel, Associate Vice President of EdPlus and Chief Operating Officer of ASU Online, shared their experiences as women in IT

Discussing the ways in which the landscape of IT has evolved throughout their careers, Kidwell mentioned, “I’m not surprised by the narrative of my career, but I never would have guessed it. The roles available to the next generation are being co-created right now.” Evans added that technology is involved in every industry “so the opportunities are infinite,” and Lommel concluded that we are “never too old to change our perspective. You have to pay it forward no matter where you are in your career.”

SOARing into the future

More than 600 Sun Devils left the conference empowered, connected and ready to SOAR! As Gonick reflected, the strength of this year’s gathering was “the expression, the space that was created for people to share. I think we’re much better off for it.” Throughout the inspired sharing, critical collaborating and joyful networking, ASU IT’s community aspired to generate client-centered, Charter-driven solutions to current and future problems. 

Going forward, remember Evans’ advice: “You are only bound by the limitations you place on yourself!”

If you missed Empower 2021, check out the following highlights on ASU University Technology Office’s YouTube channel:

Empower 2021 Playlist

Dr. Crow Keynote

Empower Welcome

SOAR Framework – Keynote

Powerhouse Panel

Gallery Walk


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