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The IT Leadership Challenge in Higher Ed

Information technology organizations need to develop a new wave of IT leaders, foster a culture of innovation and create a new approach to IT management.

new IT leadership challenge

Colleges and universities face a growing number of challenges when it comes to information technology, and few are more pressing than the need to develop new IT leaders.

Technology demands in higher education are changing faster than IT professionals can keep up. Today's college IT department is "not built for future needs." And add to that a "greying" of the IT leadership ranks, with nearly 50 percent of current campus CIOs eligible to retire over the next five to 10 years.

Those are among the warnings of Michael Kubit, deputy CIO at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Speaking at the Campus Technology 2015 conference in Boston, Kubit said college and university presidents and CIOs need to quickly develop a new wave of IT leaders that possess new skills and new vision.

The Leadership Pipeline

It starts with each college and university assessing its own IT leadership pipeline and the skills and competencies available in the IT group, Kubit explained. "The CIO needs to ask, 'Are we agile?' 'Are we responsive to needs?' 'Are we able to respond in a timely manner?' 'Are we strategically aligned?'" Kubit posed.

The good news: A majority of university CIOs recently polled said yes, they do feel confident that their IT departments are up to the challenge. The bad news: The same IT leaders cited issues related to communication, culture and ability to change as among the things that most keep them up at night.

"A majority say they are challenged by silos," Kubit said. That is, communication and knowledge sharing goes up and down within the department "silo" but not across the organization.

That fact is not good, when greater collaboration, innovation and strategic alignment are all needed in order for IT to help the college or university meet its goals, Kubit noted. With IT budgets declining in nearly all sectors this year, the pressures are getting stronger.

All of this creates a number of key challenges for the CIO in higher education, Kubit believes. Among them:

  • How is the role of IT leader changing in this environment?
  • Is the current CIO up to the task of meeting the changing demands?
  • How does the CIO drive innovation when he or she doesn't control all digital assets?
  • What skills and competencies are needed to keep pace with technology demands today and tomorrow?
  • How can the CIO get more productivity and efficiency from existing staff with level-funded or reduced budgets?

To address these challenges, Kubit said the college or university CIO needs to foster a new culture of innovation and knowledge sharing, as well as focus on emotional and social intelligence. "Emotionally intelligent leaders know their values, emotions and intuitions and use that knowledge to make decisions," he said.

According to Kubit, the IT organization itself should be restructured to reduce the number of titles; redefine job roles to encourage shared responsibility and accountability; create cross-functional teams; establish a new customer-first mandate; and promote transparency throughout the organization.

A Culture of Innovation

So how does one establish an IT culture of innovation in the halls of academia?

To help CIOs get a handle on what this really means, the folks at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, authored a research report on "Creating a Culture of Innovation." Often referred to as the "entrepreneur's college," Babson is all about entrepreneurship and innovation. It has been ranked the number one college for entrepreneurship education for nearly three decades.

Perhaps the most important lesson for CIOs is that they are not alone in wondering where this innovation train is heading, noted Patricia (P.J.) Guinan, an associate professor who co-authored the report and teaches information technology and business strategy at the college. According to Guinan, the toughest mission here may be that of the CIO educating the other executives in the college or university on what a culture of innovation requires.

"Given the fact that we are certainly talking about consumerization, and end-user power, and data analytics, and the cloud and social, it has changed the world upside down for technologists," Guinan said. "In one regard it's probably one of the biggest opportunities, and in another regard it means we're asking these folks to do some radically different things."

It's easy to see why there is such growing interest in innovation right now, Guinan explained. For the CIO, the task is to harness it all and drive change.

"If you think about what IT folks are traditionally trained in, we're pretty awesome at process; we're pretty awesome at execution; we've learned to keep the lights on; we've learned to keep costs down. Now the game is really, 'How do I keep the costs down and increase user satisfaction?' The only way to do that is through innovation," Guinan stressed.

A New IT Organization

Kubit agreed. But he said for the campus IT department to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow requires a new type of organization, and with it a new approach to leadership.

Kubit offered several examples of how the campus IT organization needs to change. He said the changes include moving from:

  • Knowledge hoarding, to knowledge sharing;
  • Ad hoc training, to continuous training;
  • Many management levels, to few management levels;
  • Inflated titles, to few titles;
  • Uneven responsibilities, to shared responsibility;
  • Culture of blame, to culture of accountability;
  • Functional silos, to cross-functional teams;
  • Risk averse, to entrepreneurial;
  • Information on an as-needed basis, to shared information; and
  • Climate of cynicism, to climate of celebration.

Adding to the urgency is the potential loss of important knowledge about the organization as CIOs in the Baby Boomer generation begin to retire. Those days are upon us.

Kubit cited statistics from the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies (CHECS), which claim that nearly half of current CIOs plan to retire within the next decade. He stressed that the time is now for colleges and universities to prepare for that event.

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