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IT Leadership | Feature

College CIO-for-Hire

A Massachusetts community college reaps the benefits of outsourcing its chief information officer.

To some college administrators, the idea of outsourcing the CIO position to a third-party vendor is the equivalent of hiring a fox to guard the henhouse. For many schools, though, it makes perfect sense, and the resulting partnership can be extremely successful -- if properly managed.

In the February CT feature "Setting up a CFO Trust Fund," learn how a strong relationship between a university's heads of IT and finance is critical to the success of the institution as a whole.

We're not talking about short-term arrangements either. For example, Gary Ham, an employee of SunGard Higher Education, has been CIO at North Shore Community College (MA) for 12 years -- longer than his on-campus supervisor has been CFO. While many contracts for outsourced CIOs stipulate a minimum of three years on the job, Ham's long-term experience at North Shore is emblematic of the kind of partnership that can develop between an institution and an outsourced employee.

Why Outsource?
Around the time of Ham's hiring, North Shore had issued a strategic plan that called for it to become a leader in technology. While the institution had already made costly investments in various network technologies, those projects had not quite paid off. "We really didn't have technical leadership with expertise and vision," says Janice Forsstrom, the school's CFO and VP of administration and finance -- and the person to whom Ham reports on campus.

To help achieve its technology goals, the college signed on with SunGard HE for a combination of the company's IT strategic management services, IT security services, and help desk support. Ham filled a new leadership role at the college as an outsourced CIO, and the contract also included another expert to manage the school's SunGard Banner ERP system. The ERP manager serves as the director of applications at the college.

North Shore's story is not unusual. Indeed, several other colleges in the same Massachusetts system rely on outsourced staffers. According to Robert Tidwell, senior vice president of managed services for SunGard HE, schools that go the outsourcing route are frequently located in either very rural or highly urban areas. In both cases, it's tough to find a qualified candidate who is willing to relocate to an undesirable area.

"SunGard doesn't have that problem," Tidwell points out. "We recruit nationally. We pay competitive wages. We get those resources. That's one of our major value propositions. We can get the staffing and services you need to keep your operations going."

Budget considerations -- the ability to pay a competitive wage -- can be a major factor in a college's decision to outsource its CIO. Especially in today's budget environment, many community colleges find it hard to justify the hiring of a well-paid, highly experienced CIO, but they can often tuck the costs of an outsourced CIO into an amalgam of IT services.

Finding the Right Candidate
In addition, it can be difficult to identify a candidate who has the right technical skills, can be nimble and flexible, and understands how community colleges work. "We have to be fast" says Forsstrom. "There's a lot of change and a lot of new things that have to be done, and done in a timely manner. Finding those individuals who fit, regardless of whether we hire them or outsource them, is a challenge for us."

To keep skills sharp among the 60 to 65 higher ed CIOs who work for SunGard HE, the company provides manager and skills training online. It also holds a CIO conference every year, which offers sessions on such topics as customer service and negotiation tactics. Most of the CIOs also attend industry events such as Educause, says Tidwell, to stay up to date with technology trends and learn how to support an institution in a broader business sense. "We have a very heavy focus on being strategic, not tactical," explains Tidwell. "We try to train our CIOs to be business leaders, not just tech leaders."

Potential candidates for SunGard's CIO bullpen often come from referrals or from the ranks of recently retired college CIOs. Before any candidate is hired, he is put through multiple interviews and actually goes through psychological testing. Some years ago, Tidwell recounts, the company took its most successful CIOs and sent them to a company that built a profile, which is now used to evaluate new hires.

A new CIO hire is asked to make at least a three-year commitment to any school where he is placed. But the pledge doesn't end there. "Our CIOs move to the community," notes Tidwell. "They buy houses. They're part of the institution. They sit on committees. They're literally part of the organization."

For North Shore's Ham, the first couple of years were not easy. In particular, he faced challenges with the rest of the college's IT staff. "They knew they needed leadership," recalls Forsstrom, "but they also had to learn that they weren't going to lose their jobs." That worry didn't last long, she adds, "once they got to know Gary and realized this was about building a strong IT organization rather than reducing staff."

Ham and his team soon began rolling out a digital campus that gives students and staff access to multiple resources and services online. Twelve years later, North Shore finally has become the tech-savvy institution it aspired to be.

No matter how integrated an outsourced CIO is within the campus community, though, the fact remains that he still answers to two masters: the institution and the vendor providing the staffing services. And while some colleges contract for CIO services only, more often the contractual arrangement includes software or other professional services, too. So what happens if a vendor urges an upgrade while a college faces budget cutbacks? Can an outsourced CIO be objective when it comes to making product choices for the college?

"There's dual reporting. There are always challenges with that," admits Forsstrom, who stresses that it's crucial for schools to examine any prospective partnership from every angle. "You have to understand that there is a partnership with the company as well, and that has to be taken into consideration. You need a relationship not just with the individual but with his boss and his boss's boss -- and to make sure that there's alignment between the company, the individual, and the college."

SunGard's Tidwell concurs: "We have to be aligned -- we have to be working toward the goals of the institution, not our own."

At North Shore, potential conflicts have been averted by strong communication and collaboration. "Gary has been here a long time, and we've been able to work together in a pretty good partnership," says Forsstrom. "There's never anything that's done that's not in the interest of the college. SunGard takes an interest in our strategic directions, and it's worked out very well for us."

At this point, Forsstrom sees no need to contemplate bringing the CIO position back in-house. For the foreseeable future, Ham will remain at North Shore. In 2009, the college renewed its contract with SunGard HE for another five years.

"This contract arrangement has worked out well for us," insists Forsstrom. "We have access to a range of IT professional services from SunGard HE. If we decide we don't want to continue in a particular direction, we can restructure the agreement. And SunGard has been very helpful with complex areas such as IT security as well as with strategic planning assistance for academic technology and online learning. We have the ability to be flexible as technology changes, and to make better business decisions about investments in technology. It has worked out as a partnership with the company and it's a good fit with our college's strategic direction."

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