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Challenges And Changing Trends For CIOs in the Higher Education Industry

By Dena Speranza, CIO, Denison University

Dena Speranza, CIO, Denison University

Like many other industries, multiple forces have converged on higher education CIOs bringing a necessary evolution to the role, and extinction to the seat holder who does not grow and evolve themselves. Higher Education in the United States is under tremendous pressure to reinvent itself to meet the changing needs of our customer base. Our student populations are more diverse than ever placing new emphasis on services to meet a multitude of needs. Our product, graduates ready to become productive members of society and, able meet the needs of employers, require new and varied skill sets sometimes not offered in traditional university curriculum. 

“We must challenge ourselves to grow as our role evolves and expands, and, extend a hand out to partner with the upcoming generation of IT leaders”

Our operations are facing the potential of strained budgets, increased operating costs, shrinking endowments, and growing regulations and compliance demands, as well as an aging workforce and a shrinking number of qualified candidates ready to step in and fill critical roles. These pressures, combined with rapidly advancing technologies that bring promises of increased enrollment, engagement and innovation, can cause many CIOs to lose much sleep. The future for higher education CIOs has never been more challenging, and yet the opportunities to make an impact on the success of our institutions have never been more evident.

Today, a CIO can no longer expect to be the sole fount of technical wisdom for our institutions. Instead, CIOs must be agile and responsive to changing institutional needs. As a partner to senior team members, a CIO has the opportunity to anticipate needs and collaboratively identify and enable services and solutions that solve immediate challenges, while architecting a flexible and secure ecosystem for this rapidly changing higher education environment.

We must find opportunities to explore innovative solutions that could be transformational to the higher education experience and operations model. Our core constituents have come to expect a consumer-like user experience while interacting with us. We must closely partner with our colleagues to innovate distinctive educational experiences and to build effective and efficient operational models.

This transitionary and potentially volatile time for academia means that we must stay keenly focused on institutional strategic priorities. Demand management, talent development, and strong vendor partnerships become critical to providing rapid response to changing needs. Strong technical infrastructure, good governance and change management practices are critical in a rapidly changing environment. CIOs must  guide IT governance groups to focus less on the operational aspects of IT and more on institutional priorities and how technology can help to meet institutional goals.

The role of CIO must evolve from a focus on operational excellence to that of service delivery excellence. A key finding in the 2015 EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) report “IT Service Delivery: Current Methods and Future Directions,” was that “CIOs believe the next decade will bring a shift in their management focus from primarily managing infrastructure and technical resources to primarily managing vendors, services, and outsourced contracts.”

The 2016 EDUCAUSE/NACUBO Enterprise IT Summit Report found that IT will spend less time managing technologies and infrastructures and more time managing services. CIOs will focus less on their personal technical expertise and will need to draw on soft skills including collaboration, communication and others. The report states, “Many higher education challenges require that institutions have in place both a good technology foundation and a forward focused strategy for putting technology to work to solve emerging problems. IT faces the challenge of maintaining a secure, dependable, reliable set of technology services while also finding the time and resources to be innovative and help the institution further its goals. When IT work is firmly grounded in institutional goals, it is easier to make decisions about resource investments and to communicate about IT efforts with the rest of the institution.”

The rapid growth of innovative cloud technologies and services is enabling IT’s evolution into a service-centric organization. CIOs must guide the enterprise through vetting new offerings and must manage successful introduction of new technology to the organization using effective change management. Cloud services can be rapidly provisioned by business units and can often be released with minimal IT involvement or service provider interaction. It is critical that CIOs partner with administrative and academic leadership across the institution to focus these (often decentralized) investments on delivery of strategic initiatives and provide enterprise-wide insight to manage costs, complexity, compliance and security.

CIOs must strengthen a myriad of skills as their role evolves.  Some key skills needed to succeed in the role include: communication and collaboration, talent management, staff development and succession planning; vendor management and contract negotiations; risk management; business acumen, strategic thinking, relationship management and influence. We must partner with peers across our institutions to envision, assess and deliver services that meet institutional needs, drive student engagement and success, and provide distinctive value to the institution.

The competing pressures on the changing nature of the higher education CIO were highlighted by Joshua Kim, director of Digital Learning Initiatives for the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, in his 2015 EDUCAUSE Review article, “We look to our CIOs to be thought leaders on campus and in our higher education technology community, while at the same time we blame the CIO if our Wi-Fi stops working or if our systems are hacked. We want vision and leadership from our CIOs, but we are not willing to accept the risk that comes with innovation. The best CIOs balance continuity with experimentation. They help the campus calibrate its appetite for risk. They deliver on the service promises that the technology organization makes to the  stakeholders, with a disciplined approach to experimentation and learning.”

Innovation is a key component in the evolving CIO role. The Gartner, Inc. annual CIO survey asked if CIOs have been given leadership over areas traditionally not in their IT domain in order to gauge expanding responsibilities of the CIO role. The top three responses in the cross-industry survey included chief digital officer (CDO; 42 percent), head of innovation (23 percent), shared services (19 percent), enterprise change (16 percent), and business strategy (10 percent).  An interesting finding specific to higher education CIO role growth was the addition of innovation responsibilities as the 2nd highest (11 percent) in respondents who gained this responsibility in the last year.

Positioning of the CIO within the organization may also indicate evolution to a more strategic role in colleges and universities.  Moving out of the legacy IT silo, CIOs are more frequently finding seats at the senior leadership table.

The ECAR comprehensive research study on the IT workforce in higher education describes the state of the higher education IT workforce across all management levels. The 2015 report found that 42 percent of the CIO respondents are president or chancellor’s cabinet members and therefore spend more time participating in and shaping the strategic initiatives of their institution. Interestingly, this figure was down from 49 percent reported in 2013, yet still represents the opportunity for considerable influence.

To be successful in this evolving CIO role, we must manage in, up, across and out as we lead our teams, collaborate with peers, advise and influence institutional leadership, and manage and strengthen vendor partnerships. But, most importantly, we must challenge ourselves to grow as our role evolves and expands, and, extend a hand out to partner with the upcoming generation of IT leaders to envision what the CIO of the future must become.

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