29 Nov 2021

Q&A With New Harvard Business School CIO Beth Clark


Beth Clark has been appointed to the role of chief information officer for HBS, effective January 3, 2022. She will oversee a talented group of information technology professionals committed to helping advance the teaching, learning, research, and administrative mission of HBS. We talked to Beth about where she grew up, what brought her to a career in technology, how she utilizes her background in social work, and more.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a tiny little hamlet of Pine Bush, New York. I lived next to a dairy farm for the first 12 years of my life. It was really in the middle of nowhere. My family moved to Foxboro, Massachusetts when I was 12 and since then I've lived on the East Coast – in a variety of places, but always gravitating back to Boston. And once I had my son, that was it. Boston became the anchor.

Why did you pursue a career in technology?

My professional background is a little interesting. I think I may be the only social worker in information technology (IT) ever. I started out life on one track and sort of fell into IT. Early on in my career, I was living and working in DC, doing policy work around domestic violence and homelessness (A little-known fact—Joe Biden often attended my press conferences!). I had always been technically oriented even before IT was my true profession. I took programming courses in high school and college, but never really thought about going down the computer science route because I always saw myself doing some sort of value-oriented work. I thought I had my dream job when I was hired to manage a treatment program for homeless men in Jamaica Plain. Our job was to help them get their lives back on track, finding them steady work and a place to live. You might recall that finding a job back in the 1990s was much more difficult and labor intensive than it is today. These men, who were battling addiction, had to trek to the employment office, look through books for possible job opportunities, and mail out resumes. I thought, "We've kind of got a problem here—the process is laborious and Boston is cold in the winter. How do we make this easier?" And here’s where my career took a 180-degree turn. It was the early days of the internet. I went out and found some generous people to fund the purchase of a whole slew of computers so that I could set up a lab. I literally I got down on my hands and knees and wired up a lab for my clients and it dawned on me: This was a technical solution to a human problem. No more sending these men out in the dead of winter and risking that they might not come back. This was an inflection point for me and my career, because it was so much fun and so rewarding to solve a human problem with technology. Eventually I went on to establish the academic technology practice at Boston College, setting up their first learning management system and working closely with the faculty. I've always been sitting in this place between the end user and technology. I really like the process of going back and forth, making the connections, and finding the right fit.

Do you ever find yourself using your social work skills in your IT role?
I always say I wish there were more social workers in IT. In social work, there is a focus on understanding both human behavior and how to manage conflict, which is part of day-to-day life. Whether it’s interpersonal, resource, or other types of conflict, social work gave me a practice and tools for working through conflicts.

What are the biggest shifts you’ve seen in technology over the years?
The biggest shift I’ve seen is in the power dynamic between IT and end users. It used to be that IT was the provider of the technology and users had to make do with what they were given. Today, IT can only succeed by becoming a strategic partner with the stakeholder. In a higher education setting that means partnering with everyone across the campus to think hard about the business and the role that technology can and should play. The profession has evolved from being very tactical and reactive to being strategic and focused on the long term. This won’t subside because technology now permeates every aspect of our personal and professional lives. It’s the IT leader’s responsibility to help the institution make good choices—future state choices—based on where we see technology going.

What do you see as the biggest area of opportunity in technology?
Data. More specifically, the ability for institutions to set the data free. Whether it's for making business decisions or making things more efficient through machine learning and AI, I think understanding how to harness data in ways that help us to better achieve our mission is where huge opportunity lies.

Stepping into this role, where will you focus your energy and attention?
One of the major areas of focus for me will be on our institutional IT strategy. We were going through a process a couple of years back of identifying HBS IT’s vision, mission values, and strategic priorities—and then the pandemic hit. It’s time to get back to that exercise and engage the campus in the process of identifying what IT’s strategic plan might look like. The digital transformation launch has also made technology and the role of IT top of mind. Bringing clarity to that is one of my biggest areas of focus. I’ve tried to be clear about the fact that the digital transformation is not an IT project. It’s a complete reimagining of our business model, though IT will have an important role working alongside the business to create an environment that facilitates success.

What’s your favorite technology?
I would say the technology I use the most is my watch. I'm a runner and I like get up before the crack of dawn every morning and go out for a run and it helps me keep my pace and my competitive edge with myself. (I have a little bit of a competitive streak, though it's usually just internalized.)

What do you do to escape from technology?

Running! Even though I always have my technology with me, if I really want to cut the cord, I spend time outside. In addition to running, I love hiking as a way to clear my head. I’m thinking of buying some cross-country skis in a couple of weeks so that I can finally embrace the winter weather.

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