Higher Ed CIOs Can't Ignore MOOCs Or Politics

Tim Goral's picture
Thursday, May 2, 2013

The job of a higher-education CIO is changing, partly because of disruptive technologies for online learning, but that doesn't mean the basic challenges go away. Perhaps now more than ever, a CIO's job hinges as much on surviving a brutal schedule of meetings and the academic politics of the institution as it does on mastering bleeding-edge technologies.

These are some of the themes I heard in the opening sessions of the Consero Higher Education Technology Forum, which kicked off Sunday in San Diego. As the only journalist at what was otherwise a small, invitation-only event intended for peer-to-peer interaction among higher-education technology leaders, I had to agree to some ground rules, meaning I can't reveal here everyone who participated by name or institution. Some attendees gave me permission to quote them on some of the things they said, but no one wanted to be on record complaining about the politics of their institutions. After all, that would only lead to more politics.

Trust me, though, the theme about having to navigate and nurture relationships with institutional leaders, deans and department heads came up more than once. As one man put it: "what consumes your day, what you really do, is politics."

Every CIO must manage the intersection of technology and organizational change. In particular, a higher-education CIO has to be a master at building relationships and making sure as many interested parties as possible feel they were at least consulted on the decision before implementing, killing or changing a system.

That consultative process is important, but at some point technology leaders must also have the courage to "deal with the non-friendlies who will never change," said Andrea Ballinger, associate VP and chief technology officer at Illinois State University. If a system change is important enough, the institution has to be strong enough to deal with the resistance and move on, she said. Like a military campaign, success in change management requires "boots on the ground" and "being willing to take the arrows" of the opposition, she said.

One of her priorities is creating a service catalog of every function the information technology organization provides, including the associated costs. The tendency is for a system once launched to never be retired, Ballinger said. With a service catalog, it's easy to see what's obsolete or redundant or a commodity service that could be outsourced at a lower cost, as the range of things that can be treated as commodity expands. Meanwhile, the catalog helps document and communicate the broad range of services IT provides.

When someone in the audience complained that this characterization contributes to the perception that IT as a whole is a commodity, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology CIO Marilyn Smith disagreed. The idea of a service catalog is an important tool for identifying where IT adds the most value, she said. She always encouraged her staff to remember that their job was "not to do IT but to help people do education and research," she said.

One of the best ways of winning over skeptics is to involve them in the process of figuring out how a technology should be implemented, Smith said. "People appreciate being asked for help, and they usually have help to offer."

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