Northern Arizona University: The Quantum Future of Education

Northern Arizona University: The Quantum Future of Education

CIO Steven Burrell explores the quantum leadership principles pioneering a purposeful new relationship between people and tech in higher education

Northern Arizona University (NAU) is home to 30,000 students, creative thinkers and exceptional minds. It is a higher educational institute that embraces difference and celebrates what makes it unique. The regional public university’s faculty is known for striving to create personalised educational experiences, and the institute is a leading organisation in supporting indigenous peoples with programmes and opportunities to gain undergraduate and graduate education. 

Though in many ways unique, NAU is not immune to the many challenges facing the higher education sector at large. At a surface level, it must remain modern, with digital capabilities in line with the expectations of its students and the world beyond its campus boundaries. In the summer of 2016, Steven Burrell joined NAU to tackle just that challenge. With the seemingly straightforward assignment of gathering a sprawling mass of IT services and centralising them across the institution, the new Chief Information Officer put his near 40 years of experience in higher education to work, accomplishing the task after a couple of “hard-fought” years. 

It was important work, Burrell reflects: “We’ve created some pretty fantastic efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as our agility in response to the rapidly changing higher education industry.” But in 2022, NAU is facing what Burrell calls a “perfect storm” of new, present-day challenges: “I think it's fairly widely known that higher education is totally disrupted with a global pandemic, declining numbers of college-going students, the rapid pace of change in technology and this idea of the great resignation that's going on and has increased competition for talent.” 

These challenges are compounded by financial imbalance, important social conversations around racial inequality, and the maturity of identity politics that go beyond surface level ‘representation’. In the face of adversity, NAU sees opportunity. It has a new mission under the leadership of Dr. José Luis Cruz Rivera, the 17th president of NAU who began his tenure June 2021 and empowered the leadership team to do more. 

“The new president is bringing a fresh vision and a board who would like us to become more of an access institution,” Burell says. “So we're deep into the strategic road mapping process, looking to connect everything we do to provide greater opportunities for Arizona citizens to obtain the education they need to advance the prosperity of their families and adapt to rapidly changing 21st century workforce conditions.”

Quantum Thinking

To reconcile NAU with its roots and beat a path for its new mission, the NAU leadership team knows change is necessary. 

“Rapidly evolving in this unpredictable and often chaotic climate that we're living in today suggests that deeper dimensions of leadership are required,” says Burrell. “We need to embrace a new paradigm of thoughts and I think we need to embrace the kinds of thinking brought forth by quantum leadership.” 

Distinct from ‘Newtonian leadership’, Burrell equates quantum leadership to the findings of Max Planck, the grandfather of quantum physics. They form the fundamentals of the observation of light as both wave and particle at the sub-atomic level, known as wave-particle duality.

“Quantum leadership is the ability to view the world through many different facets and situations from all sides concurrently, and to see that with all these opposing thoughts there is a lot of duality. To stay with the quantum metaphor, I think to see beyond the visible light cast by today's complexity and chaos, quantum leadership draws upon three of our human intelligences.” 

The first of these is cognitive intelligence (IQ), the familiar metric by which the efficacy of people and decision-making are often measured. The second is emotional intelligence (EQ), a better understood dimension of innate thinking which has become a key talking point for leaders in their pursuit to create people-first workplace cultures. The third is spiritual intelligence (SQ), distinct from theological thought and related to the understanding that profit, performance, attraction of skilled people and other organisational objectives must follow the fundamentals of doing good for people and wider society.

It is a complex philosophy, Burrell admits, but breaking down the complex into the easily consumable is quantum leadership in motion. “Simplifying the vision in terms that everyone can understand is a practical type of thing that a quantum leader does,” he explains. “A very concrete example is driving leadership responsibilities to the front lines of the organisation. I've tried very, very hard to drive leadership as far down into the organisation as I can, past management, right to the front lines so that people feel empowered to lead from the front.”

Putting this into practice, NAU has created fusion teams that draw experts from disciplines across the organisation to achieve a particular project outcome, both in terms of the human implication as well as the technological. It is a structural rethink that epitomises much of how Burrell applies quantum leadership’s core concepts with the broader purview as the university’s Vice President for IT and Chief Information Officer.

“We're simply trying to connect what we know about technology in the world and empirical sense to what we know about people in the emotional sense, synthesising that with this kind of inner knowledge and spiritual sense,” he says. “That extends to creating shared governance to drive technology agendas, priorities and actions by drawing from a large range of people, and their voices; to enable different perspectives and inputs that ultimately help guide the decisions that we're bringing forth.”

Holistic Approach to Digital Transformation

In terms of digital transformation, the backbone of any modern CIO’s responsibilities, it is a logical next step rather than a quantum leap.

“There's a certain resistance to technological change, and particularly nowadays I think we've come through a very intense period in response to the global pandemic,” Burrell says. “But digital transformation is very quantum in its approach, because that occurs at the multi-dimensional intersection of technology, people and culture. Given that quantum leadership in itself is holistic, multi-dimensional and its approach is relationship based and change orientated, it's an excellent leadership framework for digital transformation. It involves bringing people together from across the enterprise and having them work, not from the standpoint of the actual technological change, but more intrinsically on the good impact on people or what is it that we need to do to affect the mission.”

Burrell extends this mindset to the university’s many key partners. HyeTech, a network and security services provider of technology giant Cisco, is a long-standing partner to NAU that Burrell believes already engages through the principles of quantum thinking. “HyeTech understands higher education, they understand the power of simplicity, our fiscal constraints and they understand the demands that are upon us. They pay attention to the climate that's going on around this - and not just from a technological lens,” he says. “They're always there to help us through the chaos, and they recognise - as do most quantum leaders - that there's great opportunity in chaos; it's not something to shy away from, but to embrace.”

Microsoft is another key partner that engages at a level far beyond the transactional vendor-customer relationship. As well as products and services, Microsoft brings tremendous value to Burrell and his teams through knowledge transfer.

“Microsoft has a tremendous ability to generate a lot of cutting edge research and thinking. Through their leadership channels they bring that to us in ways that match what we need to do in higher education, with digital transformation and other types of initiatives,” says Burrell. “And it's evident that they operate from a base of multi-dimensional thinking and transformational thought because they're concerned as much about the people aspect as they are about technology. They look through other lenses, bringing quantum capability and very strong EQ to the relationship, which I greatly appreciate.”

With the fundamentals in place, NAU is embracing an ambitious future of extending and improving access to higher education. Plans are in place to reimagine policies and systems to remove the barriers for college goers who are the first in their family to take their education further. Burrell is also an advocate of simplifying technology and considering its impact from the students’ perspective. 

"From the students’ point of view, we spend a lot of time asking students and engaging them as a holistic approach,” he says. “We want to know what's most valuable to them. I’m of the opinion that perhaps not a lot of universities take the amount of time that we do to ask students those kinds of questions. 

“We're also actively driving collaboration and teaming across the institution and bringing together diverse points of view. Seeking new opportunities is so important to us,” he adds. 

Burrell’s statements are purposefully devoid of the buzzwords CIO’s often reach for - digital transformation, cloud technology, edge computing - he says. Instead he is committed to multi-dimensional, quantum thinking “that positions us to do good things with technology”.

“I think if we're able to do that really, really well, we will not only help the institution achieve its evolving mission, but we will drive the institutions’ greater purpose to provide access to knowledge and education leading to the greater prosperity for all of Arizona.”

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