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Three higher ed IT leaders weigh in on what it means to be 'chief information officer' now and in the future.

The Road Ahead

THE ROLE OF THE CIO IN HIGHER EDUCATION has expanded over time as technology has worked its way into our daily lives, altering forever the way we work and learn, and becoming ubiquitous on our campuses. IT is now critical to the business of education, and the CIO has stretched his or her influence to span key operational areas and diverse programs, often providing input to top institutional leadership and sometimes to the comprehensive strategic plan. Does that mean CIOship in higher education is a booming business? We got some perspectives from three experienced higher education professionals who have been tracking the higher ed CIO for years:

Bruce Maas, CIO at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, reflects on implications stemming from what he considers to be the biggest change factor for CIOs today: the economy. Maas presents widely at national conferences on issues relating to the role of the CIO, where he argues the permanence and impact of these changes.

In response, Mely Tynan, recently retired CIO from Tufts University (MA), considers which leadership areas the CIO should focus on. Now a consultant and leadership coach, Tynan provides organizational- and technology-leadership consulting and seminars, and she conducts strategic planning and IT organizational reviews for university leadership.

We close with Wayne Brown, vice president for information technology at Excelsior College (NY), who brings data from his 2009 Higher Education Technology Leadership Study that could call into question the very existence of the CIO role in higher education.

Bruce Maas
CIO, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The current economic conditions are likely to constrain us for quite some time. The way we went about doing business in the past has changed, and I believe it will be changed permanently, moving out into the future. With constrained resources, you have to be extremely careful about how every dollar is spent. And it's not that any university has not been frugal or attentive to that, but there's a new level that's in place, of paying attention to the dollars. It's no longer possible to get by while having some inefficiencies.

What is, right now, the biggest factor influencing change in the higher ed CIO role?

One of the areas I am looking at regarding the role of the CIO is the relationship with the chief business officer. While that has always been important, at this point it becomes almost acute. The CBO and the CIO have many, many common intersection points. One example is budgeting methodologies. When you move forward, for example, with projects that are considered to be of strategic importance, it is absolutely essential that those projects be fully costed with the total cost of ownership over time. Exit strategies, too, are always difficult because you have stakeholders who are reliant on technology. We are in a new position now where it's very important to have agreement on how you form your business cases and how you cost things out.

The Road Ahead : Bruce Maas

"The CIO's relationship with the chief business officer has always been important, but at this point it becomes almost acute.”

Another thing with the chief business officer is that many of the university's business processes really do run through the CFO or CBO. As CIOs we're in a natural position to work as fully collaborative partners with those executives, because IT has a well-established methodology of developing requirements that has worked over many years. While there are aspects of [those requirements] which formerly have been thought of as only applying to IT, I think the concept of requirements works well broadly. On our campus we've used the IIBA-- International Institute of Business Analysts-- body of knowledge as part of that methodology, and doing that has yielded a remarkable level of agreement. This is a natural place for the CIO to develop into a slightly different role than we may have had in the past.

Another important area relates to the issue of where technologists reside organizationally and how they work together, as well as how they work with their business counterparts. One of our big challenges in higher ed is that the staff in central IT and staff in distributed areas don't always have the same view of the world. Often we see some overlap that occurs. In part there may be role ambiguity, or there may be a lack of clarity about who should be doing what, under what circumstances, and so on. The role of the CIO needs to include helping to break down those barriers.

On my campus, the model that we use to talk about this is called service layers. As you move through the different services-- for example, desktop support-- you'll find more of those functions are actually occurring closer to the faculty member, so they are more "edge”: That is, they are tailored for particular needs in disciplines and areas. All of that is worth talking about, because the same practices should not apply to every unit on campus.

I believe the CIO is the person who should be driving that kind of a discussion, because the role of CIO is not just to supervise or direct the central division of information technology, but to represent the broader needs of the campus community. The CIO needs to establish and create an environment of trust where you can have those discussions in a productive, collegial, and meaningful way.

Amelia (Mely) Tynan,
Consultant and Retired Tufts University CIO

The concept that comes to me as a big takeaway for leadership is context. It's very important to understand the current context in which you are leading. As we know, colleges and universities are complex enterprises with tremendously distributed authority, and the structure is pretty diverse. Constituencies are diverse; you have a lot of people to satisfy. So it is important to understand the context for planning, decision-making, and resource allocation at your own institution. We are in tough budget times right now but this can vary across campuses, so for you it could be transparent or very opaque. Cost-cutting is a focus for almost everyone right now, but the usual issues and frictions of central versus decentralized organizations continue to be important and are not likely to disappear.

What aspects of leadership should CIOs focus on in a changing environment?

The other thing that one has to be sensitive to as a CIO is understanding your local politics. You must able to navigate that-- and local politics can change suddenly, by the way. Change could be triggered by a directive from the chair of the board, or the departure of a senior administrator, or a crisis, or-- right now-- the economy, or a new technology for that matter. A smart CIO will sense and respond to these changing dynamics, and be flexible enough to ensure that alignment is always there.

The Road Ahead : Amelia Tynan

"I'm often asked: 'What is your vision of IT?' But there is no such thing as a standalone IT vision. It must be hitched to a larger picture and it must yield benefits to the broader institution.”

With changing scenarios in IT-- and the pervasiveness of technology is everywhere, it's not just in the IT shop-- we cannot assume constancy of support for our IT initiatives, so flexibility is very important. Seeking feedback often and throughout the institution is critical.

Maybe related to that, we sometimes still underrate or overlook the importance of relationships. I know we always say that, but to us it should mean taking a lot of actions: reaching out, having more energy to create, nurture, and manage relationships. I know for me, visiting deans and departments is very important. Even if they're not necessarily interested in technology, a lot of times it's about understanding where they are coming from, listening, learning, engaging them in all kinds of conversations, because you ultimately are seeking opportunities for technology to be of benefit to them.

A question I'm often asked is, "What is your vision of IT?” In many ways there is no such thing as a standalone IT vision, because it must be hitched to a larger picture and it must yield benefits to the broader institution. It is important to understand that the idea or the real power of vision is unleashed only when a community has a shared sense of direction.

If you think about it, everything that is happening-- and it's not just true for campuses, but also in business organizations-- everything is touched now by technology. So there are very few pure central IT projects or pure IT projects. It is both an opportunity and a complex management gray area because we are always managing intersections-- it's not just the simpler IT of the past where you were in the central computer center and you defined, developed, and delivered services. Now, it's really using the nature of new technologies and identifying the opportunities in the collaborative context of removing barriers. IT is a very good vehicle for removing barriers and creating opportunities in teaching and learning, and in operations.

In terms of understanding the changing CIO role, it's simple: It means that whereas you once were a sole provider, you are now working with many co-providers. This really is the thrust of the need for partnership. CIOs and other service providers on campus have to connect our customers' or stakeholders' selfinterest to our efforts. In other words, ask, in what way does this new visualization lab or the new streaming media advance your success as a school or as a department? Think of building more of that type of link to the purposes of the user, in order to serve something bigger than the IT purpose.

Wayne Brown,
Vice President for Information Technology,
Excelsior College

Forty-five percent of CIOs are going to retire in the next 10 years from higher education. That's been a pretty consistent number across versions of the research that I've done [at the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS)]. That got me thinking about who the replacements are. I think the majority of them will come from that next layer down in the organizational chart. My concern prior to the [2009 CHECS] survey-- and something that I heard from other CIOs-- was that we didn't think people in that group wanted the job. The survey data reveals, fortunately, that isn't the case. If you continue looking 10 years out, 59 percent of the [second-tier] people I surveyed are interested in the CIO job. And there are more of them than there are CIOs-- there are probably at least two people on that level at an institution of any size, and in some cases at some of the larger institutions there are 13 or 14 of them.

Who is the next-generation CIO and how will the job change in the future?

The disturbing result of the survey was, however, when I asked who's helping these potential CIOs get ready for a CIO role, the number one answer was no one. Thirtyeight percent of the people who said they wanted the job had no one helping them prepare. So mentorship is becoming very important. What do we need a CIO to know? What experiences should they have had? What education should they have had?

The Road Ahead : Wayne Brown

"The foundational things that we're best at, the things that are considered most important by us and by the institutional management, can be easily outsourced. That's a bad recipe for the long-term viability of the CIO.”

If you ask 10 CIOs the career path they took to get to the job, you'll probably get 10 different answers. So when you think about the people in the next layer down, and what they are doing or what they think they need to do to get ready to become a CIO, it's a rather cloudy career path. Part of what CIOs need to do is reach down and help people in that next layer, whether it's people who work for them or people from another institution. We have to mentor and provide opportunities for those people in the next layer down to get ready to become a CIO, if that's what they want to do.

But the nature of the CIO job itself is in question for the future. In the CIO research that I do, I ask a variety of questions that put the CIO into different roles. They cover all the different jobs that the CIO does, from making sure that there's a responsive help desk and computers on desks, to being a partner in strategy. And everything in between. Consistently across versions of the study, when I ask the CIO, the university management, and the CIO's peers and supervisors-- in what role is the CIO most effective?-- they say that the most effective roles are foundational rather than strategic: putting PCs on desks, answering help desk phones, and those kinds of things.

Yet the roles that I think are more important, and that I believe most CIOs would rather do, such as being involved in the strategy of the institution, evangelizing for technology, and making sure that the management team is educated on the possibilities of technology-- those strategic roles consistently are viewed as the least important and the place where the CIOs are least effective, according to themselves and according to the management team.

This sets us up for a diminished CIO job, given the possibility that foundational roles can be outsourced. There are companies that will provide help desks, and I know there are a number of institutions that outsource the help desk. That's a dangerous place for us to be, where the thing that we're the best at, and the thing that's considered the most important by us and by the institutional management team, can be easily outsourced. That's a bad recipe for the long-term viability of the CIO.

I think there are a couple of different scenarios for the future. One is that we do outsource those foundational roles, and CIOs ascend to the strategy level. That's possible if you're on that level already and you have strategic roles. But if you're focused on foundational things, if you're not a member of the management team, and you're not reporting to the CEO-- then maybe you just get outsourced. And we don't need a CIO just to manage contracts because there's a purchasing department to do that. I'm not saying this is something that would happen tomorrow, but that's definitely one possibility, especially when you consider that only 34 percent of CIOs report to the CEO, and only 56 percent are members of the management team. So if you're not there now and you don't have that visibility, if you're not seen as somebody who should be at the table for strategy, and then those foundational things lead you to outsourcing-- that's one scary possible future.

Strategic conversations regarding IT are going to take place whether there's a CIO at the table or not. Are the [conversations] going to be well-informed? They are awfully expensive and important to any institution to take place without somebody who understands [technology] at the table. But those conversations are taking place, and they are taking place without us. These things concern me about the future of the profession.

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