Visit Modern Campus

How A Transformational CIO Can Help Your Institution Grow

The EvoLLLution | How A Transformational CIO Can Help Your Institution Grow
The Transformational CIO has the potential to be a major, proactive player in helping their institutions evolve and to serve as a full partner in the mission of their college or university.

The future of higher education depends largely on innovation and transformation. Any college or university that is not able to innovate and reinvent itself will cease to exist. It’s as simple as that. A more difficult task is how to create a culture of innovation and transformation not by serendipity, but by deliberate design.

So, how does the institution systemize innovation without killing it? The good news is there may be someone on your team who is already skilled in end-to-end innovation planning.

One of the leadership roles best poised to help institutions innovate is the CIO. The effective use of data and technology has been a major force in driving growth at highly successful institutions. Positive disruption in business and higher education has been driven largely by technology. To be successfully transformative, a CIO must change their primary focus from classic IT support to business analysis and strategy, taking a holistic view of the success of the institution. Transformational CIOs are helping to inspire and create the changes institutions need to survive in higher education by changing the way users perceive technology and its use in education. The nature of the CIO role has changed dramatically from the 1980’s to today. Although there are some CIOs still working primarily in the classic mode of IT support, there are others who have stepped up to the leadership table by assisting the institution with a strategy for scaling and growth.

Skills the Transformational CIO Must Have to Enable Institutional Growth

CIO’s must have the support of the college or university leadership team to act in a strategic capacity rather than a “keep the lights on” type of role. To muster this support, the CIO must be able to influence organizational culture by being a trusted leader who keeps promises. They must have mastered the classic infrastructure and support role of IT department responsibilities and have delegated some of this functional work to trusted IT employees, so that those basic needs of the institution are very successfully met. Only then can CIOs be freed up to become the business strategists that are needed in today’s higher education institutions. Transformational CIOs spend the preponderance of their energy on proactive, institution-wide strategies targeting success.

Transformational CIOs must also learn when to say “no” to projects that will drain precious energy away from the campus-wide strategic goals for growth. They must be prepared to eliminate practices that no longer serve the institution.

It is vital that they be skilled at partnering with other areas of the institution, finding allies within the organization, and breaking down silos where they find them. The allies and partners must see the CIO as a facilitator and not a giant roadblock to where they want to go. The CIO must communicate with all partners about technology in a way that is understandable and interesting to a non-technical audience. They must be able to clearly explain why what they are doing will lead to a successful outcome for all involved parties.

The CIO must have a broad knowledge of the entire college or university at the process level. This involves talking to people in many areas and learning business processes. Having this knowledge will be extremely advantageous for creating strategies for scaling and growth. You can’t change a process if you don’t understand what the desired outcome is. Having this broad source of knowledge will allow the CIO to see where opportunities for improvement might be and IT’s contribution to it.

The transformational CIO must take on the big data challenge. They must know how the college or university can best utilize and capitalize on the data available. Knowing how to capture and make effective use of data can be a powerful tool in your toolkit and can create valuable insights for the success and growth of the institution.

The transformational CIO must be prepared to redesign and reimagine the IT team—roles are changing quickly– there is less need for hardware experts more need for high level IT skilled workers who are able to work with the new integrated IT services. Legacy on premise IT service provision must change to meet new demands for going digital. The CIO must be able to attract and retain the right talent for the skillset needed, which can be very challenging given that some of these skills are in high demand.

Lastly the CIO must understand the rapidly changing landscape in higher education. There is a scarcity of resources at many institutions creating a need to find ways to become more efficient. That’s where technology can come into play and improve and enhance processes.

Some CIOs Cannot Make the Leap to Transformation

How many CIOs are actually operating at this transformational level and how many are still classic IT support providers? The answer is many are still operating in the classic IT mode based on CIO survey data. IT departments are still bogged down in meeting basic technology needs, unable to be the advance guard to guide technological innovations to improve process and effectiveness.

If the CIO is unable to delegate the running of operations and infrastructure to trusted employees they’re likely to miss the opportunity to participate in business strategy discussions as they will be overwhelmed in a mountain of details. They may be unable to delegate due to low staffing levels, lack of skilled staff to delegate tasks to, or an unwillingness to change on the part of the CIO.

Also, if CIO is not part of the leadership team it is highly unlikely that they will be able to garner the support to work at the strategic level beyond the walls of the IT department. The CIO must become known for business process thinking. If this type of thinking is not their area of expertise (or interest) they will have a difficult time making the transition to the leadership team. CIOs with a purely technical background may find it difficult or uncomfortable to move to the transformational CIO role. If they are not able to commit to cultivating the necessary skills for transformation they risk not being able to meet the needs and expectations of the institution in the future.

Ways Transformational CIOs Add Value to Their Institutions

There are a few key ways Transformational CIOs work to help their institutions evolve. They: 

  • Understand the value in the use of data and analytics to analyze student needs and higher educational market shifts.
  • Scout for new technologies that can be used to improve the institution’s services to students.
  • Promote the reengineering and automation of business processes to free up time and human capital for strategic redirection, helping to reduce costs while still doing more.
  • Use technology to monitor for continuous quality improvements. Almost anything done using technology can be measured. Take advantage of that data to make changes and improvements to your processes
  • Create an idea management system to capture good ideas for further exploration as one part of an end-to-end innovation process.
  • Help the institution become more nimble by automating and more customer-focused by freeing up staff time.
  • Differentiate the college or university from competitors using innovative student success technologies and new modes of delivery, and by optimizing educational technology.
  • Help to create an innovation culture to use information technology for a competitive advantage.
  • Suggest new systems to respond to student preference and demand.


It is critically important to get all hands on deck during this period of great disruption in higher education. At some campuses the CIO is a largely untapped resource to help the institution grow.

The leadership teams along with the CIO need to spend time creating a strategy to confront the coming disruption in higher education. Some of the challenges faced will include declining enrollments and price deflation driven by changes in the higher education marketplace. Leaders will be required to identify new opportunities for growth and innovation using tools that involve technology and data analytics.

Consequently, the CIO needs to be a major player, proactive rather than reactive, as a full partner in the mission. The transformational CIO has the potential to be a driver for institutional scaling and growth through the use of innovation, making it one of the most exciting roles on campuses today.

– – – –


Baya, Vynod, Gruman, Galen and Mathaisel, Bud “The Strategic CIO’s New Role in Innovation” PwC (2011, Issue 2)

Brown, Wayne “A study of CIO Roles and Effectiveness in Higher Education” Campus Technology (May 13, 2009)

Buckley, Rob “Why the Higher Education Sector is Ripe for Digital Disruption” I-CIO (January 2015)

Crawford, Tim “The Difference Between the Traditional CIO and the Transformational CIO” (Jan. 4, 2017)

Doss, Henry “The Future of Higher Education Depends on Innovation.” Forbes (July 14, 2014)

Miller, Jen “How the CIO Role Needs to Change as Business Needs Evolve” CIO (Oct. 6, 2014)

Author Perspective:

Author Perspective: