Ellen Shepard wakes to a busy day at Teach For America and unplugs from her job much later, tired but rewarded for what she does. Shepard is CIO and SVP at TFA, the non-profit organization that puts qualified young teachers to work at urban and rural American schools.

The group's charter is to recruit, provide and support well-trained teachers who commit to education jobs in urban or rural areas for two years. More than a volunteer corps, it's a plum assignment that top young teachers compete for. TFA veterans are likely to have careers that lead to roles as superintendents and reformers – and lifelong ties to TFA itself.

A Harvard University study this year found that Teach For America has already created a corps of positive change agents in education, and a record incoming 5,200 teachers will enter the nation's highest-need schools this year through the program.

That kind of scale and support also gives IT a lift. Shepard oversees the organization's strategic technology planning and standing portfolio of technology and manages 120 persons that will ramp to about 160 once her staff is complete. There are typically 40 to 50 consultants at work alongside her staff. "We have large implementations of capital projects every year, and we have people on board from Deloitte helping us with ERP and finishing implementations like Salesforce.com," Shepard says.


Ellen Shepard was named to Information Management's "25 Top Information Managers: 2011". Learn more about the list here.


Core applications at TFA are a mix of classic business management tools and people-centric information management, networking and social collaboration. Early into her three-plus years at TFA, Shepard forged what became a popular portal extranet built on IBM WebSphere that's just recently been tied to a customer relationship system and human capital management hosted by Salesforce.com and Workday, respectively.

The extranet, TFAnet, is a popular collaboration and information exchange platform that faces the two-thirds of alumni. Individuals join working groups at the intranet to discuss topics like algebra or history, and monitor forums about education reform or placement opportunities. Veterans use the intranet to counsel and provide other support to alumni who remain in the classroom.
 
The services built or under construction around the working and volunteer community include customer service and sales support, but go further. Salesforce, for example, really functions as a front-office recruiting application and supports training and follow through engagement with core TFA members.

Workday is the default ERP system, with modules now installed for human capital management, compensation and talent management. The last module for financial management is being rolled out now. There are also homegrown applications including an achievement system to follow the performance of teachers in the classroom and another application to manage donors.

Master Data Management

At TFA, a constituent might be many things over time or at once, an alumni, an alumni who's moved to staff, an ex-teacher or a donor for instance. With many potential roles and application entry points involved, Shepard needed a data architecture and business model to support collaborative and social activities as well as departmental support for administrative and management staff.

An engagement with a consulting group called Knowledgent was launched to create a single synchronized version of party data, the details of every individual connected to Teach For America. Since members are constantly moving forward in their careers, keeping all their data accurate is a requirement for TFA to build the best relationships, keep constituents engaged, find opportunities for them and stay in touch.

The master data hub required work from every end of the organization but was not unlike Shepard's earlier career experience at a financial services firm. "It meant reevaluating all the applications, determining what was critical and what needed to be tweaked and adapted," Shepard says.  

Once the proper plumbing was in place, all the primary application sources of constituent data could be routed through a master data hub, and then repopulated the source applications on an ongoing basis, as a synchronized record of information. "Whenever there are changes to any of that data, and there are always a lot of changes, all the applications are updated at once. So, if you're looking at an email address or cell phone number it will be the same in all applications. You can understand what a big problem that would be otherwise."

It's not as simple as plumbing of course, and Shepard's team has to manage the many details and intricacies of who has access to information and how and when it can be changed or new data can be entered.

One area of this data governance focus is in the process realignment between Salesforce applications that manage much of the constituent relationships, and the underlying data at the forefront of what Shepard calls "TFA in 2011."

"We've always had very smart people working in a very siloed way. The same people were very smartly transacting pieces of the mission on tools like [Microsoft] Access databases and Excel. The problem was that our program needed to execute very cohesively among many client teams and effectively share information, which means their business processes had to be linked. Early on I knew I'd have a Darth Vader kind of role for that."

 

 

Reporting and Data Driven

Based on a growing analytical mission, TFA is embarking now on a program for enterprise reporting to better monitor the group's progress. "The kind of talent we attract tends to be very analytical, more so even than the people at the financial firms I have worked at," Shepard says.

Using SAP's Business Objects platform, TFA analysts measure the groups pipeline and education improvement outcomes, and provides goal-driven dashboards to multiple teams of educators and advisors. "We're constantly making changes and improving in a way that's coordinated so we can share our results and march in the same direction. That's a very difficult thing to do without good information."

It comes down to reporting, and often dynamic reporting that identifies openings, promotions and opportunities for managers to interact against those reports. These results are leveraged on YouTube and micro-websites in an organized way to boost recruiting and fundraising in different markets.

Rather than fact find or educate board members, Shepard has argued that CIOs sometimes need to make an extra effort to translate business strategy into action and take their own initiative.

"It ties to the reporting mentality," she says. "If the CIO and his or her team really understands what the business is currently doing, not just how they are performing, why not first try to understand and meet what they are trying to accomplish? After that, technology has an opportunity to come to the table where it fits. If you can do that, you don't have to preach or educate them. Produce, and you don't have to do that."

More change is in the wings, including a growing call for mobility applications that has become familiar to every CIO. "It's not an elephant in the room, but by 2013 we are going to look at mobile applications. I'm not sure how much it will be a sea change but I think it will be relevant, and it will bring apps to people and bring costs for things like laptops down. It will probably be productive to our field work since we have people all over the place who will find it easier to work where they are."

As with Salesforce and Workday, Shepard is looking to partner with a proven provider, perhaps a Google or Amazon to make her tech team more successful at producing mobile apps, the criteria that justifies them and their best use case.

"Trusted partners are such an important part of an organization like ours these days and I learned that lesson the hard way. I learned that you can always delegate authority but you can never abdicate responsibility."

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