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Ken Libutti: CIO at Palm Beach State College
June 20, 2019
Interview by Sophia Bernazzani
Ken Libutti is Chief Information Officer at Palm Beach State College, a member of the Florida College System with campuses in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Ken Libutti is CIO at Palm Beach State College, a group of college campuses in Palm Beach County, Florida. In this interview with Owl Labs, Ken talks about the technologies he's implemented over the course of his IT career, the strategic priorities he's focused on, and how he decides when to bring in new software or system to the college.

Owl Labs (OL): How did you get to where you are in your career today?

Ken Libutti (KL): I originally went to college to be a physician's assistant. I was an EMT in New York for several years, but I switched to, believe it or not, theater, and graduated with a degree in technical theater. It wasn't until I moved to Florida and started working for a live theater company that I became interested in computers through computerized show control.

That led to me getting very involved with technology, and I ended up working for a church and a school as the IT Director, which eventually led me to work for Broward Community College. I started there in 1997 and worked there for about 20 years. I worked my way up, starting out as a liaison between the campus and the college IT Department. I was supervising the campus support team, eventually became a systems engineer, ran the systems team, and was very much involved in running the infrastructure and operations there.

Finally, I ended my career at Broward College as the Chief Business Officer for the IT Department. That role got me involved in every aspect of IT because I knew what the contracts were for, I knew what we were doing with them, I understood when we started our migration to a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, and when we did our switch onto a Learning Management System (LMS) a couple of times. Towards the end of my time at Broward, I attended Western Governors University and earned my M.B.A. in IT Management, setting me up for the position I now have as Chief Information Officer here at Palm Beach State College, where I've been for two years.

OL: In the two years you've been at Palm Beach State, what are some of the ways you've helped evolve its IT staff or processes?

KL: The transition from Broward to Palm Beach State was interesting. A lot of what we were doing at Broward, Palm Beach was just beginning to do. I knew a lot about the things they were trying to put in place, so it was a perfect opportunity for me to take a department that had been very tactical and start making it a very strategic, service-oriented department.

The first thing we concentrated on was change control, which started to bring a lot of ITIL processes into place. We bought a tool to help us along that path, and we engaged with an institution called Info-Tech which is a research, analyst, and consulting company. We picked the direction for the organization and we talked about how we could become better at serving the customer – that was our focus.

All of the activities we've done within the past two years have been focused around: How do we decrease incident response times? How do we build better customer relationships? How do we set service-level agreements that the organization knows and understands?

We also brought on a project management office and built a governance model that the senior team for the college has really embraced. The whole process helped us to mature, and Info-Tech helped show us what we were lacking most to help us figure out our focus. We ended up spending a lot of time on security, firming up our security responses and protections.

All of the work we've done within the past two years have been focused around: How do we decrease incident response times? How do we build better customer relationships? How do we set service-level agreements that the organization knows and understands?

OL: Is the implementation of an LMS something that you're working on to support students and teachers at Palm Beach State College?

KL: Right now, we have a legacy LMS, and we're starting to talk about where that's going to go. The bigger issue right now is we're in the middle of a migration of our ERP application, so we had a very interesting situation. We were part of a seven-college consortium that built our own ERP and Student Information System (SIS). There's nothing on the market that replicated what we had built for our seven colleges because it was so comprehensive and met a lot of our needs, but it was a very old system and it wasn't adapting well to modern technologies and integrations.

Now, we're moving to Workday, which is a cloud-based software solution. We've done our Human Capital Management (HCM) and our finance migrations, and now we're working with Workday as they build out their Student Information System. They have the fundamentals in place, and they're helping us to scale it for a school of our size. We want to transition into a modern LMS, but we're holding off on that move until we've got the SIS in place. Too much transformation for an organization at the same time is never successful.

OL: Especially with so many different stakeholders you're working to serve at the same time, I imagine.

KL: Exactly. We have approximately 50,000 students across five campuses. We serve a very diverse population in Palm Beach County, from the highly affluent in the southern area to farm workers out in our western area. We service them all, and we have open enrollment, so we have to be everything for everybody, which can become very difficult. We try to focus on student success. It's very important for us to get to the students in, get them going down the right path, keep them on that path, and help them to successfully transition into either a career or into another educational institution.

It's very important for us to get to the students in, get them going down the right path, keep them on that path, and help them to successfully transition into either a career or into another educational institution.

OL: What are some of the other ways you're using IT specifically to support the students and the teachers?

KL: This year, we're focused on student engagement, so we're thinking about how to increase student engagement across all aspects of IT. We're focusing on building and improving learning spaces, both active and collaborative. We've built an entire governance model and institution-wide process for assessing the classrooms, funding them, and getting them implemented. Faculty members are going through professional development to help them transform their classes into those that are either flipped classes, collaborative classes, or active learning, which is a new delivery model. We're concentrating on bringing in the types of technology that allow them to interact with the students in the classroom, even if they aren't physically in the classroom.

Last year, we put in 350 more wireless access points, with a concentration on the classroom. Every single classroom at the college now has coverage for up to 30 simultaneous connections to those access points. We are focusing on delivering online content and hybrid classes, and we do distance learning for our more remote campuses as well. Our nursing program, for example, exists across two campuses, so many of the courses can be taken in remote format.

The idea behind distance learning for us isn't just web-based learning. If we offer a class where it's taught in one location and we have another class taking it in a secondary location, we make sure the experience for both mirror each other as closely as possible. The students on the remote end can interact with our faculty just as easily as they can if they were in the classroom – the learning experience needs to be the same, because otherwise, they can feel less involved. We make a big effort to make sure our experience isn't like that. Our remote classes are live, synchronous, and students can raise their hands and speak up in class.

The idea behind distance learning for us isn't just web-based learning. If we offer a class where it's taught in one location and we have another class taking it in a secondary location, we make sure the experience for both mirror each other as closely as possible. The students on the remote end can interact with our faculty just as easily as they can if they were in the classroom – the learning experience needs to be the same, because otherwise, they can feel less involved.

OL: What are some of the ways you're using IT to support the administrators?

KL: I meet with every one of the provosts once a month, as well as with the vice presidents, to keep track of what initiatives they're trying to accomplish. We make sure that when they identify spaces that need technology, we're included early on in the design process to make sure we're incorporating newer technology. We want to put control systems in place to make it easier for faculty and staff to utilize these spaces, but also for us to be able to do remote diagnostics and resolve issues more quickly for them, without having to physically show up and intervene. We're ultimately trying to cut down the loss of class time.

On top of that, we're putting in new ERP applications, allowing us to re-examine every one of our business processes for efficiency and how it best fits into the best practices of the way Workday does those things. We also have a mobile push centered around three major initiatives, including providing information to faculty, staff, and students, providing excellent directions for everybody, and making sure we're covered with the latest in safety applications. For example, we're putting out some interactive kiosks around campuses.

What we're working toward with our web and mobile presence is to provide a portal that is persona-based to our faculty and staff, allowing them to see the data they need when they need it. Who they are in the organization, and what kind of information they need based will determine what information they are presented with. We're also working on a new scheduling app that will allow us to help with scheduling optimization for the college, which is very important because we get reimbursement based on our utilization. If we can increase the utilization within our facilities, we'll be compensated accordingly.

The most important thing we provide for the college is an understanding of the student life cycle and how to give students the types of information they need at the points when they need it. We're going to concentrate on building a data warehouse that houses the kinds of information they need to see, and we're going to build a knowledge base of answers to their questions. Then, we're going to deliver those in multiple modalities like live chat, text messages, and emails, based on triggers of certain things that are going on. We're trying to automate processes to ensure that the experience the students, faculty, and staff are having is better through superior communication and interfaces of the college systems.

We make sure that when [leaders] identify spaces that need technology, we're included early on in the design process to make sure we're incorporating newer technology. We want to put control systems in place to make it easier for faculty and staff to utilize these spaces, but also for us to be able to do remote diagnostics and resolve issues more quickly for them, without having to physically show up and intervene. We're ultimately trying to cut down the loss of class time.

OL: How can IT professionals working in the education space make those tough calls for resource allocation when it comes to implementing new technology which, I imagine, can be a big investment?

KL: Being part of a senior leadership team at the college, we spent a lot of time and effort understanding what the priorities are here, and we've established a great strategic plan. Once you set those kinds of priorities and you have everybody on the same page, we know that we can no longer spend money just to spend money. We can't bring in technologies simply because they're cool. They have to align with our strategic direction, including student success, student engagement, and student retention.

We get a lot of students in the door, and we have to concentrate on making sure they're in the right program. We identify their talents, their strengths, their career goals, and their life struggles and challenges to make sure we tailor a program for them so they will be the most successful. Then, we have to make sure we keep them on track. Everything we're doing and all the technologies we bring in have to be focused on doing those things. That's how we decide where to spend our resources.

OL: I imagine the distance and hybrid education are strong points for student retention. If a student is having trouble making the commute, or if something in their life changes, ensuring they can still take the course online or from a different campus must be a big priority for you.

KL: The ability to deliver coursework for the student that best serves them is what we're focused on, whether that's hybrid or fully-online. An online course isn't easy for a lot of people. You need to have the discipline to be able to do it. We spend time identifying what's appropriate for the student while providing all of those modalities to make them successful. If they don't have to travel from Belle Glade even to come to Loxahatchee Groves, which is 35-40 minutes for them, and we can provide the same learning experience for them out there, that's our goal. We need to do that however we need to do it.

We spent a lot of time and effort understanding what the priorities are here, and we've established a great strategic plan. Once you set those kinds of priorities and you have everybody on the same page, we know that we can no longer spend money just to spend money. We can't bring in technologies simply because they're cool. They have to align with our strategic direction, including student success, student engagement, and student retention.

OL: What are some of the challenges you're up against? You mentioned security breaches, but what are the other possible threats you're considering when you buy a piece of software or hardware?

KL: If we bring in a piece of software, we're thinking about whether or not it's appropriate to the institution and if it's sustainable. Is somebody in the business going to take ownership of that? Are we going to make it ubiquitous? Are we going through the trouble to make sure that if we bring in an LMS, every single course in the college will be in that LMS? The more we commit to using these kinds of technologies as a college and the business takes ownership of them, building out the processes, and people get to understand that this is something we're committing to, then we become more successful.

That's why we're making those decisions. We've decided to hold off on bringing in a lot of different things at the same time. Until we know how we're going to do something, no technology tool in the world is going to make us successful. Let's figure out how you want to do business, and who is going to own the goal, and then, we'll find the right tool for it.

OL: That's a valuable point. Many businesses can be gung-ho to adopt a new tool that seems useful. But if it's not meeting the actual needs, then it's just another tool that somebody has to update and check every day.

KL: Exactly. We often run into the issue where people don't understand what they're trying to solve. We spend a lot of time up front trying to make sure the business understands what capabilities they need, what the problem they're trying to solve is, and what tools could solve those problems. And as a general rule, I don't want to bring in something for only one campus, so I want to find college-wide solutions to problems.

We get a lot of students in the door, and we have to concentrate on making sure they're in the right program. We identify their talents, their strengths, their career goals, and their life struggles and challenges to make sure we tailor a program for them so they will be the most successful. Then, we have to make sure we keep them on track. Everything we're doing and all the technologies we bring in have to be focused on doing those things.

OL: What do you think technology will look like in the future of this industry?

KL: In the future, I think we'll be asking questions like: How do we work with folks to increase the efficiency of the organization and improve the user experience? What are some of the tools that are out in the marketplace now that institutions are using that will help us do those things? Artificial Intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics are two of the big things we believe we can focus on and gain significant benefit from.

AI is only as good as the input you give it, so we have to be really good at establishing the fundamentals up front which is what we're doing as an institution. When we bring a technology like AI into the school, the experience for the students should be they have no idea whether they're talking to a human being or they're talking to an AI to begin with.

We also have to understand that these technologies have a certain limit. We serve a diverse population that's not only diverse culturally, but also diverse in age. From 17 and 18-year-olds to older folks coming back and renewing their careers, different students want different experiences. The younger generation loves technology and doesn't necessarily need face-to-face interaction, but the older generations enjoy that face-to-face connection, and we have to understand where the technology works, and where we need transition back to the live interaction, because you can't lose those experiences for our different student groups.

We're spending a lot of time making sure we're gathering data in the right place, and then using a tool or an engine that will be able to go through it and find out where our success points are, helping us to focus on replicating the right things. The biggest thing is we have to be flexible and agile to be able to adapt to these new capabilities, now and in the future.

OL: What do you love most about what you do?

KL: I love walking outside and seeing the students we're working with. My wife and I lived in another town before we moved up to Palm Beach, and we would go to this restaurant where many students from the college worked, specifically nursing students. We would hear about their lives, and we'd talk with them and tell them about resources at the college to help them. I'd watch them become successful and leave the restaurant, because they had graduated with their nursing degrees.

Now, I go downstairs and walk around the college, and I see kids coming in who have lofty goals. We want to make sure none of their dreams are dashed, and that's so important to me. I love to see that they're successful and that I contributed to their lives, because one day, they may need to take care of me. From the police officers and firefighters we train here, to the students who might be my accountant or nurse in the future, I want to make sure we're helping to these students in a way where they can truly become the best they can.

The ability to deliver coursework for the student that best serves them is what we're focused on, whether that's hybrid or fully-online. An online course isn't easy for a lot of people. You need to have the discipline to be able to do it. We spend time identifying what's appropriate for the student while providing all of those modalities to make them successful.

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