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Information or Innovation? The Emerging Role of Postsecondary CIOs

The EvoLLLution | Information or Innovation? The Emerging Role of Postsecondary CIOs
In 2017, we need to finally see CIOs as “Chief Innovation Officers” who can lead the charge in driving student, faculty and staff digital dexterity while creating a richer institutional environment for all.

In the cold light of January, we can reflect back fondly on the holiday season, designed to indulge in a little too much eggnog and a few too many seasonal sweets. But the holiday season is good for more than that! The passing of another year is also a good time for reflection—on what worked (or didn’t) in the past year, and what we hope to accomplish in the year ahead.

This year, I find myself reflecting more deeply and broadly than in years past—beyond my own goals and departmental aspirations—to questions of equity, advocacy and digital transformation. Perhaps it’s fueled by the growing uncertainty that many of us are feeling about what lies ahead for our profession, industry and country. Or maybe my institution’s focus on developing students with humane instincts for lives of leadership and service is rubbing off on me.

Whatever the reason, I can’t help but ponder: What is an IT organization’s and CIO’s role in a 21st century higher education institution, and what should it be?

A number of years ago there was a lighthearted EDUCAUSE conference session called “The CIO: Plumber or Strategist?” where two CIOs sounded off about the merits of a CIO being focused on keeping technology running (plumber) versus directing the use of technology across the institution (strategist). Since then, there has been much hand-wringing about the CIO’s role—what exactly they should be focused on, if the CIO has a “seat at the table”, if they get the respect they deserve, and so on.

There’s little question that IT organizations must keep technology systems running, but I suspect most of us today would agree that this is a baseline requirement best handled at an operational level by a deputy CIO, COO for IT, and/or IT directors and managers—not the CIO. Where the conversation starts to diverge somewhat is when we start to talk about what “strategist” means, in the context of IT in higher education. Some have argued that the CIO is or should be the chief “innovation” officer, helping drive innovation and change across an institution. But many more say that IT’s role is to serve and support the core mission of the college and its various units. While IT/CIOs must be strategic in thinking about the college’s technology infrastructure and applications of technology, “the business” must lead the institution’s technology initiatives with IT as a partner in the process.

And this is where I’m beginning to have my doubts. The model of IT and business partnership makes perfect sense in organizations where technology is the business, or in ones that are already well on the path toward becoming a digital business. With a few possible exceptions, I would argue that this is not the case in higher education. Our institutions are not technology-centric, we do not generally employ digital models for what we deliver or how we work, and our leaders are not—by and large—digitally savvy. At best, they are asking their IT counterparts to implement software that makes existing processes more efficient, not to upend how they do business altogether.

Given these realities, where does the responsibility for driving digital transformation in our institutions reside, if not with the CIO? Having a seat at the leadership table isn’t sufficient if we act as silent (or worse, lesser) partners. We know that advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality have changed the nature of the world, and more directly, the nature of the work that we must prepare our students for. And what about the impact that these technological advances can, should and will have on our institutions?

CIOs and their IT organizations have a unique opportunity—perhaps even an obligation—to lead the conversation and institutional action around student, faculty and staff digital dexterity, digital business strategy and digital transformation.

This responsibility for CIOs to lead should not end at our institutional walls, either. Just as we must advocate for digital transformation within our organizations, we must advocate for the greater good outside of them. By all accounts, we are facing a growing tech talent shortage at the same time that lack of diversity continues to plague technology companies. Our own higher education IT workforces are equally lacking diversity, while our student bodies are becoming increasingly diverse, ethnically as well as socio-economically. Tackling technology-related issues of diversity, equity and access—for our students and our IT workforces alike—is of paramount concern. So is keeping our constituencies secure where technology is concerned, promoting a better understanding of civility, digital citizenship and privacy online, as well as taking a stand for the ethical use of technology, and against anything that undermines the diverse and inclusive environments we are trying to create (e.g.,

I’m reminded of the famous line from the movie Dirty Dancing, “nobody puts Baby in the corner.” All too often, CIOs and IT organizations have been relegated to the corner—here to help, serve and support, but never to lead.

I propose that 2017 is the year for CIO leadership. Because if not us, who?

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