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9 Traits of the CIO of the Future

University of Scranton CIO shares research on the changing role of the chief information officer in higher education

How are you adding value?

It's a question faced by many higher ed CIOs, as campus administrators look at the dollars budgeted for IT and wonder what they're getting for the money. And it's no longer about servers, bandwidth, and e-mail: Increasingly, IT leaders in higher education are under pressure to go beyond finding operational efficiencies, to developing more strategic contributions to pedagogy and university business.

Jerry DeSanto, vice president for planning and CIO at the University of Scranton (PA), has spent considerable time thinking about this evolution to an increasingly strategic orientation. Besides spending 25 years as a CIO, he made the role of higher education CIO the focus of his recently completed doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. For that project, he surveyed 200 CIOs through the Leadership Board for CIOs and conducted in-depth interviews with the CIOs of eight colleges and universities as well as with other C-level executives at those schools. He also brought together 12 CIOs for a roundtable discussion at the Educause 2011 conference in Philadelphia.

Speaking at the Educause Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference in Baltimore last month, DeSanto said he was drawn to the topic because he had read articles by writers such as Nicholas Carr predicting the CIO role would lose relevance or change drastically. He found few studies focused on the CIO profession and how the CIO role is changing. And in his own career, he has seen the convergence of the rapid pace of change in the IT industry overall and the volatile state of higher education.

DeSanto's CIO interviewees noted that their roles are being impacted by consumerization, cloud computing, and IT security and compliance issues, but surprisingly, not so much by virtualization and budget constraints. "Virtualization is described as a wonderful technology development that has resulted in greater efficiencies, staff productivity, and facilitated more flexible service offerings, but it isn't seen as changing the CIO role," DeSanto said. And budget constraints drew the equivalent of a shoulder shrug, he said. "They have been dealing with that forever, and expect they will continue to," he said. "That is not changing the role to any great degree."

But beyond any particular technology, CIOs told him they are under pressure to make strategic contributions. That doesn't necessarily require reporting directly to the president, they said, but CIOs must have a seat at the cabinet table. "You have to have access to decision-makers to understand what is important to them," DeSanto said. "Otherwise you are stuck in an operational role." While CIOs in the for-profit sector are often asked to contribute to revenue generation, "Higher education CIOs are largely expected to create value in other ways--principally through process improvement, customer relationship strategies, and teaching and learning innovation," he added.

DeSanto described the new CIO as facilitator, broker, and intermediary. Central IT is becoming a service procurer and integrator as well as an IT legal expert and consultant. In something of a word game, he used a few concepts to describe the shift in IT over the last 20 years:

20 Years Ago


Building Sharing
Spending Optimizing
Technical Well-rounded
Physical Virtual
Obscure Visible
Functional Value-added
User-centric Customer-centric
Operational Strategic
Manager Leader

DeSanto is putting his research into practice. As the chief planning officer for his institution as well as CIO, he is in a great position to apply the insights from his surveys and interviews to the University of Scranton's strategic planning process. "We are looking at four main areas: leveraging IT as an asset; business process management; big data; and a strategy around consumerization," he said.

He also is paying more attention to developing IT staff skill sets that map to the traits listed above. "All of us have to do a better job of succession planning, and actively selecting aspiring potential leaders to mentor," he said. CIOs should emphasize professional development and expose potential future CIOs to strategic institutional discussions. "I have a deputy CIO who attends a lot of planning meetings with me," DeSanto said. "I don't get to decide who will eventually replace me, but at least I feel comfortable that somebody is in place who is capable of doing the job."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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