IT Trends | Feature

The New CIO: Strategist, Change Leader, Digital Guide

Higher ed chief information officers discuss their changing role on campus.

The New CIO: Strategist, Change Leader, Digital Guide
University of Michigan CIO Laura Patterson (Image courtesy of University of Michigan)

If one thing is constant in the world of the higher education chief information officer, it's change. Once seen as the plumber keeping networks and systems running, the CIO has morphed into a strategist, helping his or her institution keep up with technologies that are fundamentally changing the business of teaching and learning.

"The best CIOs are emerging as digital guides that universities are turning to for key leadership to drive that transformation," noted Gartner research analyst Terri-Lynn Thayer. "They have a different skill set as brokers, facilitators and change leaders."

Campus Technology interviewed five CIOs about the perceptions of their changing role on campus, asking them to give examples of how they delegate, mentor, collaborate and strategize more than they used to. In part 1 of our series, University of Michgan CIO Laura Patterson tells us how she is driving change at her institution.

Laura Patterson, University of Michigan
At the University of Michigan, Laura Patterson has been CIO and associate vice president for information and technology services since 2009. She joined the institution in 1993 as the university registrar.

CT: Have you noticed a significant change in the university's expectations of you as CIO?

Patterson: There is definitely a shift in the role of the CIO from someone who manages technology to someone who manages change. The technology underlies everything the organization does, but it goes beyond that. If you look at what is happening in other industries, such as the newspaper industry, movie distribution, music — that kind of disruption is also occurring in higher education. And the CIO is at the core of that, because it is technology-driven change. It involves massive cultural change in the way we think about what we do and how we do it.

CT: You came to the CIO role from the registrar's position at Michigan after working on enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations. Has that career path shaped your vision of the CIO?

Patterson: Yes, it has. We did three ERP implementations in five years across three campuses and in our hospital. We had multiple student information systems, multiple financial systems and general ledger systems. It was a huge cultural change moving from all these decentralized, distributed systems into a single core system and thinking about the university's data as infrastructure for decision-making and planning.

Now we are moving to the next paradigm of technology driving change, which is cloud and consumer-driven. As far as the CIO choosing the technology you use — that role is gone. That is why I see the CIO as the person at the table who leads the organization in strategic change.

CT: Is part of the trend getting more directly involved in teaching and learning technology?

Patterson: For the past eight to 10 years, there was a big focus on leveraging technology to drive down costs of administration. That was the premise behind ERP and business intelligence — better decision-making and better planning. Now the paradigm for how research is conducted is changing because of capabilities that technology has introduced, and the teaching and learning pedagogies are changing because of the technology. So the true mission of the university [teaching, learning and research] is now the focus.

CT: You've undertaken a multiyear effort to create the next-generation IT environment at Michigan. What has that involved?

Patterson: A few years ago, we saw that we were spending significantly above the benchmark for research universities, and a significant portion of that spending was going to redundant and commodity services and infrastructure support. Every department on campus was basically running its own infrastructure. We realized the direction that these technology-driven changes were headed could not be supported in that model. So we launched NextGen Michigan, to create services running on a unified infrastructure that was also flexible enough to support local innovation. The goal was to drive down costs to free up the resources in the departments so that they were working with faculty on edge technologies and new innovation. Then as edge technologies in a department begin to take hold, we could more rapidly scale them across the university.

CT: You have created an IT Council to set campuswide IT priorities. Why is it so important to focus on outreach, collaboration and community?

Patterson: The IT Council has been absolutely critical to the success of NextGen Michigan and the type of cultural change we are trying to achieve. There are 19 schools and colleges at Michigan. We could have said we will have one representative from each of these and one from each administrative area. Instead, we organized the council by the mission domains of the university such as research; teaching and learning; and knowledge preservation. We named respected faculty leaders for each of these domains and they worked across the university in their domain. The IT Council has helped move thinking away from unit-by-unit needs to what the university as an enterprise needs and what are the most critical investments we can be making in technology. It has proven to be quite effective in setting strategy and building alignment of IT to the university's highest priorities.

CT: Are disruptive changes forcing you to be more collaborative with other higher education CIOs?

Patterson: We are in an era in which no single university is going to meet the challenges alone. Universities working together to meet demands of the future will be a critical part of our success. Right now we are talking with other universities about working on a collaborative project on the future teaching and learning environment. It is time that the CIOs work together to think about things that can and should be done at scale across many of our universities. We have to be more open to collaboration across the industry as we look at the changes driven by research and teaching and learning at scale — learning analytics particularly.

Coming Next: Southern Illinois University CIO David Crain talks about IT's role in strategic initiatives on campus.

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