Published on 2018/07/16

From the Backroom to the Top of Mind: The Evolving Role of the Strategic CIO

The EvoLLLution | From the Backroom to the Top of Mind: The Evolving Role of the Strategic CIO
As IT shifts from the back end of operations to the top of everyone’s mind, the role of the CIO necessarily evolves into a strategic business leader guiding the future of the institution.
A number of years ago, when all technology services were considered back-office operations (and mostly sat in back offices), the acronym CIO was kiddingly defined as “Career Is Over.” It was not so funny at times because the CIO was often blamed for issues that were completely out of their control, which often led to negative career-related outcomes. Some of that thinking can still apply in today’s world, but the role has evolved significantly for the better in recent times. Let’s examine some of the factors that have contributed to the evolution of the CIO.

In a nutshell, CIOs are held to a different standard today than they were in the past. Most importantly, they are now seen as a critical and strategic business partner with a seat at the table in all important business decisions. IT is now considered a strategy so the CIO now contributes to the mission or the goals of the institution. Additionally, critical categories such as cyber security and cloud computing are first and foremost on the minds of senior leadership so endpoint protection, identity protection, and data security must be at the top of every CIO’s priority list. Ultimately, the CIO is no longer seen as the go to, hands-on person for getting everything done right, but they clearly are accountable for the operations and success of IT. The role is much more strategic than in the past so the CIO is now primarily responsible for charting the future direction of the IT organization.

We are now in a completely new era where oftentimes CIOs are not the technology gurus they once were. We often see business skills, communication skills, vendor and contract negotiation, and some of the softer, relationship-based (i.e. high emotional IQ) skills as the predominant skill set. Technology skills, such as programming, analysis, or network configuration are important, but the other skills are really what helps communicate the IT value proposition to senior leadership. CIOs are now transformative and innovative because the expectation is that IT services will help drive strategy and effective business process. IT strategy also needs to be communicated or sold to senior leadership since that is where funding for major technology initiatives will be approved. You need everyone’s buy-in to support the IT mission, so it is important for the CIO to create an effective messaging plan to communicate for all consumers, even staff. My thinking has evolved dramatically in this area as I used to only have respect for the CIO as a serious technologist. Now I see myself and others have a different role where we present technology strategy to senior leadership while identifying and resolving challenges and opportunities versus actually executing the work. In this case, a CIO must have the ability to understand technology issues and make decisions about important items such as negotiating with a vendor over their lack of data security and encryption. The new organizational model has simply changed the way a CIO must get the job done. It is now more important to leverage the skills across technology subject matter experts than to try to do it all alone.

After almost 10 years in the higher education space, I have a good understanding of the unique needs of a mission-based organization. Don’t get me wrong—my roots at GE will always be by my side, but there are significant nuances in the way a CIO must manage both strategic and tactical activities within higher education institutions. Much of what has been stated above applies to both the public and private sectors, but there are significant considerations in higher ed that are worth discussing. As a key steward of the institutional mission, higher ed CIOs must factor in the overall student experience as a critical success factor. A CIO must therefore be focused and driven to provide the basics (24/7 network availability and reliability, system uptime, data currency, etc.), and the more advanced such as information and identity security, to the mission drivers such as student retention, registration and disability services. This is where I see the most value a higher ed CIO can bring to the table: partnering with departmental and academic leads to help deliver and optimize value, helping students be successful throughout their academic careers. The new skills mentioned above are critical success factors for both the CIO and the institution they are supporting.

An additional consideration pertains to budgeting. In the era of challenged enrollments and therefore reduced budgets, CIOs are critical to help determine the most cost-effective service delivery model that provides the most value for the investment. That is a critical aspect in my current role, and I suspect many others are experiencing similar environments.

CIOs today bear a broader responsibility than those of the past. Technology has evolved at such a rapid rate that it is nearly impossible to keep up with the latest and greatest. Determining how to build and deploy apps (e.g. DevOps), moving to the cloud, and protecting identities and data require deep technical knowledge. More than ever, CIOs rely heavily on Chief Technology Officers (CTO), Chief Information Security Officers (CISO), and other capable technology staff who immerse themselves in cyber, cloud, data analytics or other emerging technologies such as blockchain or something-new-as-a-service. Our ability to listen to discussions and arguments and discern the important versus the urgent help us keep staff laser focused on delivering value to the mission (remember those students I mentioned: that is the reason we are all here).

CIOs of the future will take business skills like financial management, analytics and ROI analysis to a new level. Yes, this means we are becoming more business-like, but I am optimistic that we can incorporate the positives from the business world into our domain and have the best of both worlds. Combining the business skills with the soft skills needed in today’s environment will help lift the CIO position to even greater importance with no limits how high they can rise within an organization. It is an exciting proposition to consider for all aspiring technologists out there who can now see a path to senior leadership with a seat at the table in important topic discussions (as opposed to being relegated to the back office their entire career). So is the CIO career really over? I say yes because the old position has been retired and the new role is continually being reinvented for the better.

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