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The Changing Face of the CIO

Once charged with fixing computers and not much else, today’s technology leaders have become part of institutions’ strategic elite.
University Business, September 2012

Not long after Pennie Turgeon came to Clark University (Mass.) as its vice president for information technology and chief information officer, one of the university’s functional units undertook a project with a significant technology component to it. Despite the expertise of Turgeon’s team, the other unit saw Information Technology Services as little more than tactical lackeys.

“IT,” Turgeon recalls, “was viewed as the plug-and-chug monkeys.”

She adds that the unit, whom she politely declines to name, excluded her department from meetings and kept decision making largely to itself.
“If we need coding, we’ll call you,” is the way Turgeon characterizes the other unit’s attitude. “If we need new servers, we’ll call you. If there’s jargon in the implementation documentation, we’ll call you,” they would say.

There weren’t many calls, there was no partnership between the departments, and the outcomes, she says, were “less than optimal.”

Flash forward six years and that relationship—and project results—are strikingly different. When Clark recently implemented an enrollment management system, a process that saw the Information Technology Services and Admissions offices partnering very closely, Turgeon served as project leader for the implementation.

“The reason that project was incredibly successful was that we knew the technology side, the systems side, and the technical elements that needed to be integrated,” she says. “And the Admissions people hands-down knew their process.”

Turgeon’s story rings true at campuses across the country. From low-level service provider to strategic partner, the chief information officer has come a long way in higher education. As her examples illustrate, the role is no longer a peripheral one—it is integral.

Then and Now

Once upon a time (and, really, it wasn’t all that long ago), the college or university CIO had one primary job: keeping the PCs on everyone’s desks and in the computer labs working.

Then technology exploded. In the ensuing supernova of progress, hardware got smaller, faster, cheaper, and much, much more portable. Software gave people unprecedented access to information and the tools to share, shape, and present that information.

“Before, we totally controlled the classroom and pretty much controlled what kind of devices students used,” says Linda Hartford, CIO at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “Now it’s a combination of ‘What are we providing?’ and ‘What are they bringing?’”

Previously, colleges and universities had great latitude to dictate to students what types of educational electronics they could bring to campus. Now, schools “almost have to plan for being device-agnostic,” as Hartford puts it. The proliferation of manufacturers, operating systems, online protocols, and so forth has cast students in the role of demanding customers and put CIOs in the position of eager helpers.

“Each fall, we see a new crop of students come in with a whole new set of devices,” says Rick AmRhein, chief information officer and chief of staff to the president at Valparaiso University (Ind.). “The whole paradigm has changed from the university indicating what kind of devices they support to the university supporting all of the devices that come in the door. Students are coming from all over the world and they’re bringing devices from all over the world, sometimes with different protocols for connecting. It’s not an option for IT anymore to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t support that device.’”

Their burgeoning to-do lists have required technology chiefs to expand the number of departments they serve. As Kimberley D. Conley, CIO of Henderson Community College (Ky.), puts it, “Other than facilities maintenance, we’re the only other area that touches every single area of the college. Everything that happens here, whether on the education side or on the continuing education side or the business and industry side or advancement—we touch every area.”

“Outreach is nothing new for CIOs, but it has become more critical as technology grows more and more infused and ingrained into not only work life but also everyday life,” shares John Lawson, vice provost for information technology and chief information officer at Western Washington University. In addition to devoting more time to reaching out, Lawson says, he now engages in considerably more planning to ensure that his division is operating proactively and effectively.

“Because we see technology infused in almost all aspects of the institution,” Lawson says, “if we aren’t reaching out and aren’t trying to have those discussions, then we’re in the dark and we can’t operate strategically.”

A Seat at the Table

In times of economic duress, with unrelenting competition, a choosy applicant pool, ramped-up public scrutiny, and other challenges, it should come as no surprise that it is not merely the revenue-generating divisions but also the support units that are engaged in strategic thinking and planning.

“You still need to be really good at keeping the lights on, but that’s not enough to be a successful CIO in today’s environment,” notes Turgeon. “The IT agenda needs to flow from the university’s academic and business needs, not from a technology agenda. It’s a priority to support the mission of the university through the application of technology.”

"My job is not to take care of the computers, it's to lead the college as a member of the cabinet." —Kimberley D. Conley, Henderson Community College

CIOs observe that a reflection of their new strategic role can be seen in boardrooms and on organizational charts. Once relegated to mid-level spot, CIOs are increasingly reporting to their presidents; even many of those who aren’t still have a seat at the table as members of their institutions’ leadership teams.
“My job is not to take care of the computers,” says Conley. “It’s to lead the college as a member of the cabinet.”

She points out that this leadership role entails not rubber-stamping technology-related decisions, but determining whether and how technology can meet the goals of the college and the needs of students. And those determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis.

“That may mean advocating for technology,” she says. “It may mean explaining why technology is not the panacea for every problem that comes down the pike.” At times, Conley says, she has to tell her colleagues, “You’re looking at a business process problem, not a technology problem.”

Conley sees a seat at the table as critical in ensuring that the CIO sees and hears from all parties, not just a select few. Such an institutional vista allows for better, more strategic decision making, a big difference from her days as a director, she says.

“You have to look at the whole college and be up high enough that you’re not influenced by a specific department,” she notes. “To be evenly influenced, that makes a difference. It’s more than just putting computers in a lab.”

AmRhein echoes that, noting that in the past, CIOs were responsible for little more than responding to requests. Now, they must assess their institutions comprehensively and focus not only on their own divisions but also on all others as they seek ways to leverage technology for cost savings and increased efficiencies institution-wide. The broader views they’re afforded with a seat at the leadership table give them that opportunity, and responsibility, he says.

“It’s important that the CIO proactively step in and offer advice or offer to be a part of the planning process for anything that’s going to be done,” AmRhein says. “There are many, many ways the proactive use of technology can help the process along and assist those units doing what they do most efficiently and in some cases more quickly.”

Indeed, Valparaiso is reaching the end of a master planning process. Not surprisingly, AmRhein and his team have been deeply involved in the technology envisioned for Valparaiso’s future and the infrastructure needed for implementation. That has entailed a wide review of anticipated needs across the campus, not just in IT, as well as recognition that the university will be better served by an agile outlook to respond to swiftly changing times.

"The user-end technology is constantly evolving,” AmRhein says. “You have to constantly readjust what you’re planning for based on anticipating where some of that is going and determining where you need to be on your campus. As universities look at overall planning, that’s one of the key pieces that’s most important, that the CIO be involved in that area.”

Technology’s ubiquity and pervasiveness make institutional integration a must, according to Erika Yigzaw, chief institutional officer at the American College of Healthcare Sciences (Ore.). Where she sees “issues,” she says, are in areas in which technology is not made a fully integral part of the entire enterprise—and that often falls on the CIO.

“You really need to be a great leader and a great cheerleader in getting the information on what’s available out to the rest of the team,” says Yigzaw. “If you have departments that don’t talk to each other [about technology], you can end up with a lot of inefficiencies.”

The Need for Professional Skills

CIOs aren’t just technology professionals—they’re also managers and leaders. Their role’s evolution includes changes in the kinds of employees they hire and oversee. “It’s gone from where you had one or two tech guys sitting in a basement somewhere to technology being pervasive,” Yigzaw says. “The CIO and the technology team have moved into a leadership and integrative role.” That integration, say chief information officers, makes “soft” skills (communication, teamwork, adaptability) that much more important. Technology’s reach into virtually every corner of campus means that those responsible for making it work need to be versatile, collegial employees capable of proactive interaction.

"When I first started, a lot of times I was just looking at their skill level,” Conley says of prospective hires. “Now I find it’s really important to make sure they can communicate, that they understand. Not that they have to have an education background or worked at colleges before, but that they understand that education is very different from business and industry.”

The biggest change in management for the CIO, according to AmRhein, is in the area of client services. “That person has to have high-level interpersonal skills,” he says. At the same time, “it’s a bit of a balance. In client services you need to have the interpersonal skills but also enough of a level of technological ability to understand the problem and at least describe it.”

"There are sections of it where the solitary work, the very technical individual work, is true,” he adds. “But for it to be successful today, there has to be that interpersonal interaction. Units that don’t provide that usually find themselves very reactive to problems that are going on.”

It’s Not Over

The concerns voiced by CIOs reflect those enumerated in a recent Educause study, “The 2012 Top Ten IT Issues in Higher Education.” Among the issues raised in the study were transforming the institution’s business with technology; integrating information technology into institutional decision-making; improving the institution’s operational efficiency through information technology; supporting the trends toward IT consumerization and bring-your-own device; and updating IT professionals’ skills and roles to accommodate emerging technologies and changing IT management and service delivery models.

These issues seem unlikely to fade anytime soon. When asked what comes next for CIOs, many foresee a continuation of the evolution of recent years. “The other leadership members, especially the presidents, are going to become much more reliant on CIOs to help drive the future,” Hartford predicts. “They’re going to worry less about operations and more on how do we become more strategic and more agile.”

Lawson, citing technology’s increasing pervasiveness, notes that he and his peers will need to keep up with rapid advances and determine whether and how to apply them. “The technology will continue to be significantly more a part of what we do. The whole idea of wearable computers and virtual glasses is just going to continue to become more a part of the tools we use. So the CIO will need to make sure those tools are used in the institution in a manner that does help to differentiate either the instruction we give our students or the experience they have in general with the institution.”

It’s tempting to be wowed by the newest shiny object, or the latest next best thing. And the future seems certain to bring forth many of them. Conley says it’ll be critical to assess each advance not according to its novelty or coolness factor but to whether it can be smoothly integrated into campus operations. “My job is not to protect my department; it’s to protect the college,” she says. “We’re trying to meet a need. That is how I approach what I do. It’s not technology for technology’s sake. It’s not ‘let’s go to the cloud because everyone is going to the cloud.’ It’s ‘what need does this meet?’ ”

Just how far out technology changes can be envisioned is a matter of debate, of course. In the short term, Lawson says, effective CIOs will grow ever more important to their colleges and universities, finding ways to apply technology effectively and use it to better the schools’ interaction with students, “whether that’s on a physical campus or a virtual campus.”

But, he adds, “does that just continue to increase over time? I don’t think my crystal ball is good enough to see out that far.”