IT Trends

Battling the CIO Retirement Wave

Excelsior College has created a program to cultivate new CIOs for higher education.

After allocating time and resources over the last two years to studying chief information officer trends across the higher education space, Wayne Brown came to the conclusion that there's a mass exodus on the horizon that few institutions are aware of. Those that choose to ignore it could find themselves picking CIOs from a much smaller pool of candidates than has ever existed in the past.

Brown, who is vice president for IT at Albany, NY-based Excelsior College, which bills itself as "America's first virtual university," said nearly half of today's college and university CIOs plan to retire over the next 10 years. Who will fill their shoes, Brown wondered, and perhaps more importantly, would the next organizational layer down from CIO be ready to become the next generation of higher education technology leaders?

"There's a large retirement wave approaching the higher-education CIO community during the next decade," said Brown. Credit the retiring Baby Boom generation with expediting that road to retirement, and add in the fact that many would-be CIOs aren't aspiring to move up into the leadership position.

"Some of the individuals in the organization's next layer down don't want the top IT job," said Brown, who pointed to family obligations, satisfaction with current job positions, and not wanting to take on "what looks like a thankless" job that in some cases has nothing to do with technology" as the primary roadblocks.

According to Brown's research, which is conducted by the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies Inc. (CHECS), 69 percent of potential CIO candidates want to pursue the executive position within the next 10 years. The number of technology leaders available within this period will drop slightly owing to predecessors' retirement plans, according to Brown, and reduces the total percentage of those who would be available and who wanted to be CIOs to less than 60 percent.

The good news is that there are more technology leaders than CIOs, said Brown, and that--if cultivated properly--this large candidate pool will give universities and colleges a place to draw from. The problem, however, is that no one is helping those aspiring CIOs get to the next level. "When we asked these folks if anyone was assisting them in their career goals," said Brown, "38 percent of them said no."

Brown, who has been conducting CIO research since 2003 and launched CHECs in 2009 to contribute to the education and professional development of the CIO in higher education, said that 38 percent of candidates may either remain in their current positions or move onto another career outside of higher education. To help stem that outflow, Brown formed a nationwide advisory panel of other higher education CIOs and created the College Center for Technology Leadership (CTL).

"I used the research I'd been conducting to develop a business plan and get college support for this initiative," said Brown, who pointed to the extensive research as the primary catalyst for CTL's launch in January 2010. "When I put the information in front of the powers that be, it was pretty clear to them that something needed to be done."

That "something" includes a mentoring program comprising week-long courses for both aspiring CIOs and newly appointed technology leaders. The first of these courses will take place in October and will include professional development programs, mentoring, training, and networking opportunities. The program will expand slowly and, by January 2011, will be serving individuals from outside institutions, according to Brown. Included in tuition for each CTL course are five hours of mentoring from a higher education CIO.

Brown said he sees that mentoring as an important piece in the CIO development puzzle. "When I do presentations on my research," said Brown, "the question I hear most from people in the audience is, 'How do I get to the CIO job?'" Brown said confusion over the CIO career path can be traced back to the fact that IT is a relatively new field, and that technology professionals typically hail from a variety of disciplines.

"We have to mentor and provide opportunities for those individuals in the next layer of IT to become ready to become a CIO," said Brown. "What do we need a CIO to know? What experiences should they have had? What education should they have had? These are all important questions that need to be answered in order for a mentoring program to be effective."

One of the skills professionals need help with, for example, is the ability to communicate effectively about technology with the individuals who are using that technology. Brown said CTL's programs will focus on closing that gap while opening doors to leadership opportunities in higher education IT. "We want to provide the training, mentoring and networking for the higher education technology leaders who are trying to find their way onto the CIO career path."

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