The New Higher-Ed CIO

By Jonathan Brennan, CIO, State University of New York - Delhi

Jonathan Brennan, CIO, State University of New York - Delhi

The world of technology is constantly changing. In the past decade, users have embraced mobile devices, social media, and cloud based services. In Datacenters, we have embraced virtualization, automation, and big data. How we interact with and use the technology on our university campuses is shifting.  As technology evolves, some of the old challenges fade away, but new challenges always emerge. As the role that technology plays shifts, how should the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) shift with it? Should the CIO be a technicianor a business strategist?  In order to be effective, where should the CIO be positioned on the organizational chart?

“Technical proficiency is still a must and goes hand in hand with strategy”

For most institutions the CIO role is shifting from a purely technological focus to a business strategist. Technology is now a driver of nearly all aspects of the business, and to stay relevant institutions are recognizing the need to have IT involvement in nearly all business operations. According to an EDUCAUSE study, CIOs are doing more strategic planning, negotiations, and business operations than ever before. (EDUCAUSE ECAR Report, 2011).

Utility Versus Strategy

The role of the CIO used to be one of a ‘head geek’. Because of the utilitarian nature of technology at the time, it made sense that we were utility workers akin to plumbers and electricians. Technology was viewed as an add-on to the business, not necessarily a core facet. When I first assumed the role of technology manager, I was very much that. I managed technology. I managed small to medium projects, and outside of some technical decisions, I had little involvement in institutional strategy. Ten years later, my role has evolved significantly.  I now spend more time in planning, budgeting, forecasting, and initiating and managing contracts. My cognitive workload is now more weighted towards things like risk management and institutional strategy than technological specifications.   
That is not to say the latter is no longer required. Technical proficiency is still a must and goes hand in hand with strategy. However, the landscape is shifting. Much of the technology that used to fill up our local data centers is now being shifted to cloud based systems, which reduces the operational burden and allows the CIO to focus more on emerging technology and technology integration throughout the business. It is important to recognize that integration is the key to success. Technology administration is very broad. Technology leaders already needed to be well versed in networking, telecommunications, development, client support, data centers, and much more. Today’s IT leaders are now expected to also be knowledgeable in finance, law, identity management, security, risk management, academics, business management, project management, and more. A 2015 study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that by 2017, 80 percent of the CIO’s time will be focused on analytics, cybersecurity and creating new revenue streams through digital services.We need to be experts on both existing and emerging technology and how those diverse technologies can be leveraged effectively to achieve the strategic goals of the institution.

Many technology leaders have had experiences where they were brought into initiatives after decisions,and mistakes, had already been made during the beginning planning stages of a project.IT is often then viewed as a roadblock to success on the initiative because challenges are raised once activity is already in action. For this reason, IT needs to be at the table from the beginning. It is much more effective to prevent problems than it is to fix them. This is a problem where institutional culture that has failed to keep pace with how technology is shaping our world. The quality of the IT environment is heavily influenced by the culture and management strategy of the institution.  If the institution does not recognize the value of IT, it will be unable to capitalize on it. To be successful, the senior IT leader needs to be involved in the formative stages of the institutions initiatives.   

Reporting Structure

Does the CIO need to report directly to the campus President or Chancellor? The same EDUCAUSE study shows that more CIOs are reporting directly to the campus president than ever before. (EDUCAUSE ECAR Report, 2011).With the balance of duties shifting away from that of a technologist, this trend is likely to continue. But does it really matter? The answer to this is a little complex, and it varies by institution. However, evidence seems to show that the short answer is yes. It does matter, but not necessarily in the way we might think.

Where the CIO sits on the organizational chart is less important than the input and influence he or she has on organizational decisions. Think about the role of technology on a college campus.  Is there a single functional area that does not rely on technology? Is that reliance growing or shrinking? The trend is clearly that technology is already core, or is becoming core, to all aspects of the college. Since technology is of central importance, the CIO often has unique viewpoint of nearly every functional area, as s/he has a role in creating and maintaining the administrative systems each unit depends on to complete their daily business. While CIOs may not be experts in every aspect the university, they possess a valuable perspective that is not shared by any other C-level executive. More than ever, IT needs to be viewed as a business strategy partner rather than simply as a utility provider.  

Can a CIO be a successful strategist while reporting to a CFO or another VP? Under certain circumstances, yes, but a lot is dependent on the personality and skillset of both parties. Take for example, risk appetite. By nature, most business leaders are risk-averse. They are trained to take the path of least resistance and most stability. This cannot be, and is not, true of competent technology leaders. Technology changes too quickly, and we have to keep pace or be left behind by our competition. This means we are constantly examining emerging technologies and re-evaluating existing systems and processes to ensure that they are the best possible choices to meet the institutional goals. The executive representative for IT needs to lead the institution on a tightrope walk, balancing risk with efficiency and competitive edge.  More importantly, they need to be able to communicate the risks and rewards to the other executives.  CIOs are experts identifying risks related to technology endeavors, mitigating them, and exploiting opportunities.  If the same cannot be said of the person representing IT at the executive table, then the CIO needs to be present.

Answer the following two questions: Does a CFO or non-technical VP assume the role of Senior IT leader during executive meetings? Do they make technology decisions and then pass along the mandate to be executed by the CIO? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, then chances are that the CIO is a maintenance CIO and not a strategic partner.  The CIO cannot be a strategy partner without a top-level view of the whole organization. They need to be at the table whenever initiatives and strategy are being discussed. Simply being invited to exec meetings when there is “an IT topic” to discuss is not enough. In the modern era, aren’t all topics “IT topics” in one way or another? The CIO or a technologically trained VP needs to be a regular fixture at Cabinet/Executive meetings. Excluding IT may cause unnecessary hardships for the university, as the CIO may have been able to point out technological solutions that others may have missed, and s/he may also be able to help others establish realistic expectations about potential solutions, costs, and other factors. IT needs to be a part of all initiatives, because in today’s landscape, nearly all initiatives involve IT.

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