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Cheerleader and Defender: Expanding Roles of the CIO

By Dan Ewart, VP for Infrastructure and CIO, University of Idaho

Dan Ewart, VP for Infrastructure and CIO, University of Idaho

As the chief information officer of a rural, land grant research institution, I face many of the same challenges and opportunities as my peers at like institutions. The roles of a higher education CIO have changed over the years but I think that most would agree that CIO’s have retained the developed roles of leader, collaborator, educator, solution provider and process improver but have also seen roles added or expanded including strategist, change agent and many others. There are two roles in particular, however, that stand out to me as having changed significantly in the past few years, especially with the increased focus on and capabilities of cloud computing: cheerleader and defender.

"There are two roles in particular, however, that stand out to me as having changed significantly in the past few years"

Cheerleader

CIOs have always had a cheerleading role in the use of technology to improve education and research outcomes, tackle complex administrative problems and improve communication between constituents. More frequently now, CIOs find themselves needing to be cheerleaders within the IT team. IT employees find themselves wondering about their role in institutional success and concerned about the translation of their skills to the cloud-centric environments that many institutions are actively embracing. In the case of my institution, those concerns are compounded by factors such as the tripling of the number of supported applications, a significant increase in the number of technology equipped classrooms in the last two years, continued expansion of the scale of the wireless network and, most critically, a dizzying increase in expectations for IT to meet the “right here, right now, just works” consumer view of technology.

In addition to the changing expectations, some institutional partners have begun to question the value of a central IT organization in providing services beyond a network and inexpensive connectivity to cloud resources. In a time when devices are seen as 1-2 year lifespan disposable things, when data is stored in the cloud and cloud include massive quantities of storage, when vendors promise that SaaS applications can be stood up in a matter of weeks to meet needs that are not satisfied by large enterprise systems and when AWS, Azure and others can offer near immediate access to massive processing power with extensive scalability, IT team members can begin to question their own value.  

Cheerleading has become an important part of energizing an IT organization. IT employees need to see the opportunities of new technologies for the institution and, just as importantly, for themselves. The nature of cloud computing creates opportunities for new training, new challenges, different kinds of projects and potentially completely new roles. As my institution moves to a more cloud centric focus, there are expanded needs in project management, business analysis, system integration, application administration, business intelligence, mobile services and security. I often find myself reminding employees that our industry has been through transitions before in moves from mainframe environments to client/server to web and now the cloud. We have persevered and adapted before and will do so again – and none of those of changes represented a decrease in the need for skilled IT professionals but instead required necessary changes that allow us to adapt to the volatility of our industry and match the innovate spirits of our institutions.

Defender

As discussed earlier, there are increased expectations from many technology users concerning the pace at which technology improvements should be made available.  This paradigm has created an interesting dichotomy: systems and services should be immediately available but also be secure and always available. All are expected, but oftentimes more attention is paid to function and speed rather than long term ramifications. I find myself being the defender of the importance of technology security, stable and reliable access and compliance with the myriad of federal, state and institutional mandates. Most information workers have a basic understanding of the importance of these topics, particularly that of the security of personal data or student records, but the implementation of necessary measures in this area are often viewed as afterthoughts or, worse yet, obstructions to progress. Defending these important concepts means adapting communication methods and messages as well as requiring a renewed importance on technology governance. CIOs must work hard at communicating the need to have IT involved early in the process – we can provide more value and be less of a perceived roadblock if we can ensure people are cognizant of the need to strike an institutional balance between allowing for the innovation that is a hallmark of higher education with a realization that we are undertaking our mission in a distinctly different technological and societal environment than that of even a few years ago.

In the end I am defending the importance of security, stability and compliance as important components of successful technology implementations and for the protection of the reputation of the institution. I am certainly not alone in this defense and have partners throughout IT as well as in the Office of the Registrar, Risk Management, General Counsel and others.  It is also important to note that being a staunch defender is not the same as being defensive. CIOs must strive to be a partner in developing solutions that meets the many and varied objectives of the institution and not simply preach of the need for central control or the minimization of security risks at the expense of usability or creativity.

The roles of cheerleader and defender are not ones I feel have been thrust upon me unwillingly; instead they point to important components of the “new CIO” and ones that, if done with energy and enthusiasm, will help the institution. My success in these areas will play a significant part in the success of the institution and I look forward to a process of continuous improvement surrounding how I accomplish these roles.

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