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What Is the CIO's Job, Anyway?

What is the CIO's job, anyway? Is it to know the nuts and bolts about every piece of software and hardware on campus? Is it to know "the seven layers" and be ready to get in there to fix an e-mail server? Apparently, there are those on campus who still look at the head "IT guy" that way.

Until recently, Dennis Huff worked at Houston Baptist University. While there, he kicked off what turned out to be an enlightening discussion on the CIO Constituency Group e-mail list. The subject line on his first post was "The New CIO":
With all the rapid advances in technology, do you find, like me, it is much more difficult to maintain a technical bent as CIO? I find I cannot spend time trying to get down to the detail that those who work for me are purposed to do. I spend my time visioning and managing resources to get the job done.

As I speak with my executives about the role of the CIO, I would enjoy responses to share of your ideas of how the CIO should run his IT department  ... with more technical knowledge or with more management skills?
Huff, who received his Ph.D. in Information Systems from Nova Southeastern University, agreed to be interviewed about the subsequent e-mail conversation.

TERRY CALHOUN: Dennis, can you briefly describe what your job was at Houston Baptist University, when you asked this question, and tell us a bit about how you got to that point?

DENNIS HUFF: I was essentially the CIO. I held the highest technology office at the university. That meant I was in charge of all technology support at the institution, including visioning, planning, budgeting, etc., for technology in support of administrative and academic computing, telephony, and networking infrastructure.

It occurred to me that those outside the information technology shop had little idea of what it takes to run an IT shop; they had preconceived notions of the CIO role entailed and what skills the CIO possessed. It seemed as though, to those outside the shop, the CIO was "the computer guy," and, as such, was expected to know everything about all technology, personally, down to the level of those who report to the CIO.

CALHOUN: I remember that when I read your posts, I was thinking to myself how guilty I sometimes feel in my own job, that I am no longer as hands-on facile with the supporting technologies as I used to be. It's still pretty hard for me to ask our technical support staff for support, rather than just trying to do something for myself.

I think it may be one of the hurdles we all have to overcome within ourselves as we move away from hands-on roles in things. Strange, though, how unlikely it would be for the chair of, say, Romance Languages, to be expected to speak 12 to 15 languages, although I suppose some can.

Were you surprised at any of the turns the discussion took during the subsequent days of discussion on the CIO list?

HUFF: Not surprised, but affirmed. Most agreed that the CIO position is less a technical role than it is a strategic, visioning role.

CALHOUN:  Can you share a few key points from the discussion?

HUFF: The CIO must be adept at building relationships amongst the institution's constituency, as well as within the shop itself.

In some cases, mostly in small shops, there are some hands-on technical skills required, but the majority sided with the strategic over the technical role.

However, the CIO must be current in his knowledge of technology, insofar as he must be able to understand the solution sets in particular instances, as well as "speak the language" accurately with his technical staff.

Still, the CIO is purposed to ensure the mission of the institution is supported by technology as well as it possibly can be.

He must ensure that his staff is skilled enough to be able to support that mission, among other things, and thus his talents should be more suited for strategically placing technology in its appropriate role, rather than spending his time performing e-mail server administration and the like.

CALHOUN: Is it possible to summarize some lessons learned from that e-mail exchange?

HUFF: Not really lessons learned, although it can be seen that way.

Essentially, the CIO needs to ensure that those outside the information technology shop itself understand that his maximum effectiveness as CIO is when he is a supporter of the institution's strategic plan, mission, vision, and goals, and to a manager of the hands-on staff who also support the institution's mission.

The "new CIO" has a different set of skills than was required a decade ago. No longer should the CIO--a relatively new term--or the IT director be expected to recite the seven layers of the OSI model and how each layer relates to each other. No longer should the CIO be expected to describe the database structure of the ERP system being implemented.

Rather, the CIO should be expected to lay strategy in support of the vision of the institution. When I was asked what my vision of technology is for the institution, I replied that the correct way to state the question is to ask "What is the overall vision of the institution?" I then would do my best to define what would be the best technological strategy to support that vision.

CALHOUN: That's familiar language to me, it's essentially at much of the core of what my employer, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), is about. And we would say that you can pretty much insert the title of any significant institutional leadership position on campus for the title "CIO" and say the same thing. Apparently that's a hard lesson to learn.

Some might say that technology is such an important part of higher learning that the CIO should have a prominent place at the table during the formulation of strategic plans and institutional missions and visions. Did the conversation address that? Do you agree? If you do, in what words would you say that to, say, the CAO or the president if you were a new CIO (or a CIO candidate) at a university?

HUFF: I definitely agree with Richard. I would suggest that, with the ubiquity of technology throughout the institution, our constituency demands that the CIO have a prominent place at the strategy table. Students expect a level of technology support in the classroom, all over campus, and wherever they are when they are engaged in activities related to class work and learning.

Thus, the place of the CIO at the strategy table is not because the CIO has visions of grandeur, rather, it is because the students expect and demand that technology be a part of their overall plan for matriculation and post-graduation.

I submit that any institution that does not include technology leadership at the highest level of strategic planning will not be competitive with today's iPod student society. That also includes students who have families to feed and who are currently in the work force. They are looking for that marketable edge to better themselves. Technology is certainly not the sole answer, but it's a necessary part of a sound strategy to address their needs.

CALHOUN: Things are changing so rapidly these days. I enjoyed the e-mail exchange, got in touch with you, you agreed to be interviewed, and in the interim you've changed jobs. Where are you now and what are you doing?

I am serving as a project director with Oracle, in charge of ensuring large ERP systems are properly implemented at various institutions.

CALHOUN: It's nice to know that someone in that kind of role has had your learning experiences and has your big-picture perspective on technology and the higher education institution.

Thanks, Dennis.
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