Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The New Higher Education CIO
After serving in a number of roles in higher education, including 16 years as a Chief Information Officer, some of what I have been thinking about and reading in articles and job ads lately about the new CIO has been affirmed. Recent articles talk about the CIO needing to be a communicator, a consensus builder, a visionary, and someone who provides solutions, not just technology. Of course to provide solutions the CIO needs to understand the business or institution in the higher education world. Understanding means mentally sitting on the academic and business side of the desk and understanding what the institutions are and will be. This seems to be an affirmation of the obvious, but it’s not so true on many campuses.

Over the past two years I have talked to CIOs, academic leaders, higher education business professionals and vendors about technology and higher education in a period of great change. Some have said this is nothing new. IT has been bringing on new technologies for the past 15 years. This is true as campuses have implemented web ERP systems, SMART classrooms, installed wireless networks everywhere, and most recently started to work on student success initiatives. Student success projects have been collaborative with other parts of the campus and have been largely driven from the top. As a result, everybody works on this. These recent initiatives provide a glimpse of how information technology (IT) should work. I would suggest that many CIOs are still techies who do not understand higher education and have been focusing primarily on ERP upgrades, computer refreshes, firewall placement, security, and internet capacity and up-time. As a result, IT is often seen as outside the loop of higher education and not connecting well with what really needs to be done on campus.

This sounds harsh and unappreciative, but ask a provost, CFO or registrar what they think of IT on their campus. Having read job advertisements for dozens of CIO positions in the past two years, I can tell you that the most often seen “must haves” are that the new CIO “needs to be an effective communicator and accomplished innovator”. This implies that the last CIO was probably not an effective communicator and was not particularly innovative. In other words, the last CIO did not get higher education and was focused too much on providing ubiquitous (often unnoticed and underappreciated) infrastructure. I have no intention of bashing CIOs or IT teams. They provide incredibly valuable services and often do so with limited staffing and funding. That said the new CIO needs to be something different. They can’t view the next need from the faculty or a user department as “just another project that I don’t have time for”.

The new CIO needs to either come from outside of IT or be an IT person with the passion for providing service and technology that advances the mission of the college/university. A person with only an IT background needs to get out on campus as often as possible and participate in campus life and sit with administrative and academic department heads regularly to understand their biggest pain points and that next regulatory requirement. A CIO does not have endless resources, but they need to become a broker for the resources they do have. Where can time, energy, and money be utilized to benefit the institution? Can partnerships be formed within the college to meet a need or initiative that advances the campus? I think campuses are looking for the new CIO to be their partner, not a gatekeeper or solely and infrastructure provider. IT cannot be all things to all people, but with much better communication and openness to meaningful innovation they can hit the moving target a bit closer to the center.

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