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The Changing Face of IT Executives

Managing information technology departments increasingly requires business and political skills. Major concerns include security, staff training, and keeping up with ever-evolving user needs.
University Business, Jun 2005

The information technology (IT) leader on campus today is more likely to spend his or her time preparing business plans than checking server configurations. As high technology has embedded itself into the day-to-day teaching, learning, researching, and administrative tasks of colleges and universities, there has developed a need for IT managers to be able to speak the language of return on investment (ROI), as well as understand the many and varied needs of faculty and students.

If that hybrid role has come to be expected of IT professionals, another one may be more surprising: politician. Most of the people interviewed for this article listed as their top job duties the need to be out in meetings; responding to queries from students, faculty, and administration; talking to faculty to learn what their needs are; and other human touch duties.

They are, in short, the human face to a complex high-tech infrastructure. They see their constituents as customers with needs to satisfy, though they must sometimes be the ones to help convince those customers of the appropriate technology that will meet their needs.

My time is spent attempting as best as possible to model the type of culture we are trying to create," says Gard Meserve, chief information officer (CIO) at Clarkson University (N.Y.). "I meet with staff, facilitate reviews, plan leadership, team building, and other events consistent with our departmental direction, assist with project planning, and serve wherever possible."

University Business spoke with CIOs and IT managers across the country to learn about the state of their jobs: How are they filling their time, how are they meeting their mandates for technology leadership, and where are they taking their institutions of higher learning next? A common response was that their institutions had already gone through their first one or two phases of heavy technology adoption, and they were now interested in taking it to the next phase and broadening the reach of the hardware and software.

A big part of Bob DeWitt's job as CIO at National-Louis University in Chicago is to be "constantly out and away from the basic operations, working with a lot of the key individuals in the business, thinking of the university as a business, to be sure I'm constantly aware of the needs of the various components and basically communicating what we're doing and looking for the next thing we need to be doing."

It is, in tech geek terms, an input and output job, meaning CIOs like DeWitt are not only hearing what others in the organization need, but they're also talking to people and acting as an influencer to establish direction for the institution. Susan Bowen, CIO at Camden County College (N.J.), says most of her time is taken up with "communicating with the community regarding information technology." That includes committee meetings, biweekly meetings with departments that are particularly technology-involved, ad hoc project meetings with IT staff, as well as e-mail and phone conversations.

Many IT leaders mentioned the need to develop consensus among all the stakeholders in a technology project, a task made more complicated by the individualist streak in many faculty members. "All of them want to be able to be involved in some way in discussions of what happens in technology, and they have sometimes drastically different views about introducing anything," says DeWitt. "Anti-spam, for example. Some purists believe no filtering of e-mail should happen; others won't even use e-mail if a strong filter isn't used."

No matter how much they are out of the office, CIOs and IT managers are also leaders of their staffs. Several of the people interviewed here also stressed the need for increased pay and training for their employees, one of the few complaints they voiced. But even that criticism was frequently couched in praise for the hard work of the employees in their IT departments.

"We could lose 10 percent of our budget and still continue to support the needs of Clarkson, but we could not lose 10 percent of the people and do the same," said Meserve.

In the six years that Farokh Eslahi has served as director of educational technology at the University of Illinois Springfield, campus-wide technology has grown from two classrooms that were "smart" to 90 percent of the classrooms being equipped with the latest generation of smart boards, projectors, document cameras, and sound systems. "Today, most of our courses use the campus course management system to make course content available to students anytime, anywhere, and to put students in touch with the faculty and other students," says Eslahi.

In those same six years, San Juan College (N.M.) has completed the first phase of an infrastructure program that has resulted in a full campus wireless network, wireless laptops for all faculty, voice-over-IP (VoIP; essentially, it's phone service using the internet instead of a phone company's wires), student portals, and more. Shah Ardalan, vice president of technology at the school, says the future will emphasize "the human factor, team approach, and excellence in customer service."

Five years ago, Sul Ross University (Texas) had no online registration or other student self-services, says CIO Tom Graf. In addition, computer labs "looked like they were part of a bad technology donation program," and web-based instruction was limited to a couple teachers doing web-enhanced courses. Faculty members teaching in the video classrooms had to use a half-dozen remotes just to manage basic functions, while data conversion projects were hanging in limbo with no central help desk to assist people.

All that has changed. "Key to making this happen were the cross-functional teams we built within IT that communicate well and are proactive in addressing the technology needs of our constituencies and a broad-based IT strategic planning process that includes students, faculty, and staff," says Graf.

Overall, the pace of change has increased as has the number of technology initiatives. "Complicating this scenario is level or decreased funding for IT initiatives, which makes it all the more challenging," says Bowen.

When asked about their current and future priorities, IT professionals ranked security very high. They not only have to maintain security to protect information and systems, but they have to figure out how to stay ahead of the curve and get funding for software or hardware that will help protect their organizations from future threats.

"Every CIO has to cringe when they see another headline of yet another security breach," says Graf. He calls investments in staff and infrastructure the front-line tactics for securing systems. "Staff need increasingly advanced skill sets and security resources to manage and mitigate the constant threat to data and systems."

"As a CIO, I am foremost concerned with maintaining the integrity of the campus network and all networked-attached devices," says Bowen. "As a member of a college community, I am concerned with the shared responsibility among all constituents to maintain the security of institutional data housed in our administrative database and governed by policy and laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and so on."

Security has been a priority for Meserve since he was contracted to serve as Clarkson's CIO five years ago. He says it has now moved to even greater heights. "With spam mail, virus issues, denial-of-service attacks and other attempted attacks, we have found it necessary to purchase additional tools and assign more resources to address this issue." Every project, regardless of size, has to address security matters. Every IT employee "has a list of risks for 2005 on their desk and security is first," Meserve says, and departmental staff meetings cover security at least twice a month.

Noting that the biggest threats to security come from within a network rather than from outside, DeWitt is focusing on doing so without complicating things too much. "We recognize that a lot of our primary student body is mature adult students coming back to study with us: They have full-time jobs and families," he says. "We talk within our department about what we call the Starbucks model--that is, I can go in and use the wireless network in Starbucks. They don't hand me a 30-page manual and make me get in touch with the help desk. I just plug in my card and away I go. That's the kind of service we're trying to deliver here."

The task of convincing administration leaders of the need to invest in hardware and software is a chief role of CIOs and IT managers, but it helps when those above them on the food chain already have an understanding of the topic.

Many of the investments are built into ongoing strategic plans, of course, so standard upgrades of systems and replacements of equipment generally are not a problem. But nearly every department or constituent has a wishlist for more technology or services that require funding, and that's where the IT pro's political experience and business acumen pay off.

The executive team at Sul Ross "is incredibly supportive," according to Graf. "Whether dealing with business process or budget issues, we work through them."

Ardalan praises his college's leaders for their understanding of technology and its cost. "Operational investments are justified based on increasing efficiency," he says. "Some initiatives are easier to sell than others. For example, security-related projects can get immediate support with limited efforts, while implementing VoIP required a full proposal including ROI. The implementation of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system involved the entire campus and was focused on increasing efficiency and service to customers--faculty, staff, and students. In short, it depends on the project."

His words are echoed by DeWitt. "We're in the midst of trying to put together an RFP for a storage-area network. That's completely based on an ROI argument--the consolidation of the existing storage arrays and [saving] staff time," says DeWitt. But for "introducing wireless access for students, it's obviously a software argument in general."

ROI remains an important factor for Meserve's tech initiatives, too. Software and hardware contracts are constantly reviewed to see if newer technologies can achieve the same goals at lower costs. "Over the past three years, all major infrastructure upgrades--hardware and software--have hit a target ROI of two years or less using this approach," he says. "We have reduced the average age of our server farm from 11 years to two years in the past 36 months, while maintaining zero budget growth."

From what's on the drawing boards, students and faculty of tomorrow can expect more cameras, microphones and other multimedia equipment to be integrated into their courses. Wireless technology and distance learning also appear to be popular focuses.

"We do a fair amount of video teleconferencing in one of our classrooms to allow corporate leaders to address classes, but not streaming of class lectures via the web--yet," says Noffsinger. When that does happen, it'll only be because it meets the requirement that it "allow faculty to integrate it into the way they do business, and it must be easy to utilize."

UI Springfield's future technology growth will revolve around integrating learning with technology "that can encourage student participation in large classes," says Eslahi. "An appliance such as the one from [RoData, Inc.'s] Accordent ... can capture an entire classroom session and make it available for future viewing."

Ardalan hopes to bring to San Juan College an electronic document management system, which he had previously implemented at another institution. But security is never far from the forefront of plans, so he is also planning to upgrade San Juan's card access system. "I have been monitoring and testing the integration of biometrics in this industry, but I am not sure if it has matured enough for this specific mass deployment," he says.

Speaking with campus IT leaders, one gets the impression that they are challenged by the amount of work but overall are a happy lot. "I've worked in the private sector and the military, both of which have good points," says Noffsinger. "But our unique position encumbers us with far less red tape than most organizations, and we work with and for forward-looking educators who, by and large, embrace new technology and are glad to have a personal technical support experience."

Citing the popular book The Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (Jossey-Bass, 2003), Meserve summarizes his job satisfaction: "The book ends by saying the one constant that ran through their study was that successful leaders loved their jobs, loved the challenge, and loved the people they worked with. I'm not sure about the 'successful leader,' but I can tell you that I love my job, I love the challenge, and I have grown to love the people I work with. I am proud to be part of this team."

John Burton is the West Coast correspondent for University Business.

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