Published on 2017/01/11
The EvoLLLution | CIOs Driving the Institutional Improvement Train
The defining feature of CIOs today is grit, which becomes critical as they and their IT teams shift gears to become front and center in all aspects of the modern university.

Picture this: higher education ten years ago. The university environment. The role of the Chief Information Officer.

Unlike today, someone traversing the path of the university CIO was more than likely to visit once and not necessarily look forward to another visit anytime soon. As usual, I speak only from personal and peer anecdotal experience when I say the role and persona of today’s CIO varies wildly from that of merely a decade ago. An odd yet wonderful evolution of sorts occurred. As technology progressed from basic connectivity and building of hardware to wireless everywhere and integrations of hosted solutions, the leadership role transformed from high-tech wizards who spoke in acronyms to business-savvy change agents who use laymen’s terms.

Why this change? To answer, let’s play another game of “Remember When?” Remember when students were considered entitled to expect access to the solutions they needed, where they needed them and when they needed them? Remember when faculty members were considered irritants when they needed support in connecting to technology within the classrooms? Remember when the side-eye was given to administrators who expected support for their Macs?

Flash forward to today and it’s pretty clear: Our users set the expectations. At some point—when technology magic and mystery evaporated and users started to become familiar with all the inner-workings of the underbelly of our systems—our end users started to drive the execution of technology change. IT leaders who refused to pivot quickly became obsolete and were for all intents and purposes swallowed whole by progress.

In my opinion—and keeping in mind I became a CIO less than ten years ago so I can safely and conveniently distance myself from the former versions of CIO—this is the way it should be.

I don’t mean being reactive to user demands, but cognizant and driven to exceed expectations of our users by envisioning what our users need before they even know it themselves. This requires that a technology team be aware of the environment, be responsive to and appreciative of environment needs, and be driven to diligently work toward the smartest long-term solutions as opposed to perpetual short-term quick fixes and Band-Aids. And to pursue this path requires savvy.

When you think about the CIO persona transition aligning to customer experience and how we have naturally evolved to serve our people, it starts to make sense how exactly the CIO role is perfectly positioned to drive institutional scaling and revenue growth. Considering the ongoing and exponentially increasing pace of technology change alongside what appears to be an ongoing and exponentially decreasing pace of technology funding in higher education, who else on a campus has had to continuously pivot to provide wow-worthy technology while concurrently facing growing budgetary restrictions?

In 2015, I co-authored an Educause white paper titled Aligning IT Funding Models with the Pace of Technology Change where we collaboratively came up with suggested ways to help elevate the efficacy of current budget processes and improve communications surrounding technology funding across the business units. More than ever, given the decreasing pool of students in our competitive industry, lessening the delivery of technology is not an option. In many instances if you see transformational technological campus change—tangible or intangible, physical or cultural—I can assure you that your CIO is a leader that today can easily be compared to a COO role with an ever-increasing path to the CEO role.

Why is this?

Because of the area we represent and the requirement to thoughtfully and deliberately deliver right-sized services. We have had to become (near) experts in finance, business, analytics, collaboration, communication, PR and big-picture view. We can see the campus experience as a whole in lieu of in small parts. We are likely the only top-level administrators on campus for whom silos don’t exist, because in order for us to get through our past few years and move forward we’ve needed to shatter those boundaries. Funding-schmunding. With countless financial operational-versus-capital battles under our belts, we’ve built relationships with internal and external finance partners, devised creative funding plans and likely honed well-received project plans and concepts enabling us to not only conceptualize projects but also complete them. By eliminating chargeback shell games and focusing on large-scale campus areas of improvement, we’ve identified millions of dollars in annual savings in areas like campus printing, software licensing and bundled hardware discounts.

All of these implementations, found savings and consistent experiences impact one area in a huge way: student success (which tends to be the baseline reason for our season). We can engage outside our IT walls. We can focus on large-scale, pervasive services and systems and, having become intimately familiar with RFP processes, we’re not afraid to identify areas that might garner savings, develop a consistent environment concept and throw these ideas out to vendors to compete for our business as opposed to continually being reactive at the end of each contract term. We have transitioned and up-trained staff to better meet the needs of a technology department. The days where the IT offices were the real-life equivalent of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” are long gone. Programmers morph into analysts, desktop support transition into virtualization teams and so on. On a university campus we are forever needing more staff. Or are we? From what we see, we need continually changing staff to meet the needs of the institution. This doesn’t necessarily mean more staff, but a better aligned staff and ensuring that along the way we are sun-setting outdated programs and processes to fund growing areas of focus.

In a nutshell, when asked “how the role of the CIO has evolved in recent years, especially as it pertains to the role of IT in supporting institutional scaling and revenue growth” my answer is simple: It’s what we do. Kevin Lawlor, the Executive Vice President at Fairfield University and my former boss, once told me in the midst of budget season and while we were pursuing a bevy of forward-thinking projects that I had grit. One word, grit. Before I got offended I googled the definition and handy-dandy Wikipedia let me know that “Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.”

I think most Chief Information Officers of today live this trait. We see big-picture, our passion is technology with the objective being overarching improvement—process, spending, service, alignment, efficiency. Knowing that, when projects or discussions arise, if a wall is hit on any campus, my recommendation remains to have a chat with your CIO. You’ll know pretty quickly if they are ready to be a transformational partner in your efforts. Most of us are ready to engage and up for the challenge.

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