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Back Story

She’s Got an App for That

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All-day internal meetings and detail-driven bosses are two things that Cassandra L. Carson can do without. “I don’t want to be micromanaged,” says the assistant director, enabling technologies, University of Michigan. “I want to be empowered to make decisions and get things done. My current boss is phenomenal, but I’ve worked for people who don’t want you to move without their blessing.”

A single mom, Carson juggles her high-pressure position with the care of four children. “My oldest daughter just turned 17,” she explains. “I have two sons who are 10 and 7. My youngest is 18 months. She is actually my niece, who I’m in the process of adopting. She had a rough start. Born addicted, she spent her first six weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit.”

For relaxation, Carson opts for long walks. “I put my iPhone on and tune everything out.”

What’s your most exciting project at the University of Michigan?

About three years ago, we started a mobile application pilot, one of the first native app developments for the university. We delivered a campus life app that gives students directory information, what’s available at the dining halls, news, campus maps, and events.

And the reaction?

The first thing students asked is, “When are you going to have the Android version?” Since then, we’ve gotten lots of input on different functionalities students would like. Right now, they can see their schedule, and we’re updating our app so that they can register for classes. 

Where do the ideas for apps come from?

Primarily from students. We purchased a prototype of our first app from two students who developed it in a class. We’d been thinking about developing a similar app and when the students did a demo, we said, “Wow. They’ve already done all the things we’ve been thinking about.” We ended up rewriting the app because it needed to be scalable, secure, and sustainable, but the concept was great.

What can institutions do to encourage innovation among their employees?

Enable employees, give them opportunities, and then get out of their way. Right now, with budget cuts, the workload on our employees is just overwhelming. We have multiple projects in the queue—all top priority. Employees have no time to just step back and think. They don’t have time to ask, “Why am I doing this? What value will it provide? Could I do it differently or better? How?” 

I’m a fan of a Harvard Business Review strategy that encourages employees to “get up on the balcony” and survey the landscape. When they do that, ideas start sparking. If they stay in the forest doing their day-to-day project work, employees just keep trudging along and miss opportunities.

Institutions need to offer an avenue for staff to be innovative. 

How can they do that?

They can sponsor programs that show employees how to be entrepreneurs, encourage them to showcase their ideas, and provide monetary compensation, seed money, or resources—like personnel or technology—to help them work through their ideas.

Any skill you use that you never thought you’d need?

Soft skills. In IT you would think I just need to know how to work through the technical details, but especially at my level, it’s all about relationship building, negotiation, and conflict resolution.  

What mistakes are institutions making in technology?

Not fully leveraging available technology. For example, how are kids learning today?  Kindergartners are using iPads in their classrooms. Yet college students are still carrying around these big thick textbooks when they could be carrying a tablet. When they look at a tablet, it’s not just words on a page. They can interact with it, they can see pictures, they can watch a video clip, or they can dive down into some other detail. Learning becomes engaging and exciting.  

Are we really preparing to teach children, who have grown up with technology and have smart phones, in lecture halls? 

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.