CIO Grand Challenge: The Institutional Horizon

08:30 on a Tuesday morning & the first session of EDUCAUSE2009 for me – Seminar 20A, pretty full room of what I guessed must be existing & expiring (there’s a Freudian slip – I meant aspiring!) CIOs – which a show of hands proved to be about right, 2/3 the former. Not entirely convinced that all these would be CIOs by my definition – might have been more traditional IT Directors, but this is speculation – nor that they were represented on the Executive Board/Senior Management Team – further discussion suggested that the latter wasn’t the case. Would have been interesting to have further discussion about the definition of CIO – here seemed to be the senior IT leader in the organisation – & what made a CIO different from an IT Director.

Layout was round tables for group work – not ideal, & the acoustics were poor which didn’t help – with a general introduction then a presentation/group work/feedback on each of three scenarios, followed by a general roundup on CIO competencies.

Purely by chance my group – four only – had no US representation, consisting of two gentlemen from Kobe University, Japan, one from Seneca College, Canada, & me from Liverpool John Moores University, UK. Institution sizes: Kobe, 20,000 students; Seneca, 20,000 with another 80,000 part-time, if I heard right; LJMU 25,000.

Introduction: couple of comments resonated: the CIO needs to be an effective leader & staff manager, & these two roles need very different skillsets; if the CIO is spending too much time as a staff manager then won’t succeed as CIO! Also, need to understand & respect the campus culture & be able to work in it effectively, even if the culture appears to be counterproductive.

Scenario One: Organisational Change. Noted that the two main occurrences that caused organisational change in IT were merging assets &/or reducing staff numbers. Reference was made to the Unfreeze/Transition/Refreeze approach (though not in those terms directly) – ref Lewin – & noted the importance/difficulty of creating a transition space for staff to adapt to new beginnings.  If only we always had the luxury!

The scenario: a  new CIO is brought in to make a change, essentially to create a merged service department from decentralised assets, & in particular to incorporate an existing media service. There is a need to get the support of a new senior manager & manage cultural issues within existing structures/staff. What should the CIO do?

In our discussion we discovered interesting models within our institutions: Seneca had recently gone from a ten member Executive Board, with the CIO represented, to a new four member Board with the CIO not represented & reporting to the VP Finance not the (new) President. Kobe had an eight member Board on which the CIO was represented – but commented that the fact that the CIO was a Board member didn’t necessarily make realisation/execution any easier. We more or less came to the conclusion that we would try & engage with existing staff by presenting the planned merged service as an opportunity for staff development/career progression; noted that the benefits for management and staff were very different & needed to be articulated differently; noted the complexities of different cultures & the issue of dealing with trades unions.

Comments in group feedback/discussion: there was a need for team building & sound people management; noted the difficulty of dealing with territorial/political issues; there was a need to focus on end customer benefits to drive change; & senior management support could be gained by selling them on enhanced service levels.

Scenario Two: Financial Planning. A new senior administration is presenting new priorities, not necessarily clear yet, budgets are tight, & the CIO needs to inform the new administration of infrastructure needs & the realities of IT budgets. The CIO no longer has a place at the top table in the new structure – how does the CIO get senior engagement with IT issues/priorities?

Interestingly for our group discussion, this was the scenario that Seneca had just been through. Our first clear priority for the CIO was that he/she should make themselves ‘useful’ to the new President; find out what his/her agenda was, what pushes his/her buttons, & support that agenda even if not the CIO’s own – the tactical or dare I say it (yes I dare) Machiavellian approach. Although budget cuts were not currently on the table for IT, we felt that clearly they would be on the horizon, & the CIO needed to be proactive in presenting a budgetary projection for IT that acknowledged this & presented options for cutbacks. Japanese position: as a national university, Kobe was facing cuts in government funding of 2% pa year on year, but felt that IT was still seen as an investment area. Quite close to the feeling at LJMU – but clearly the cuts are imminent & it’s best to be planning for them. We discussed the need to make the case for IT being the driver for cost efficiencies in other areas of the University, but agreed that the case was unproven & more work would be needed. Finally, we noted that if cuts were going to be split across services for administrative & academic areas, it would be important to engage with faculty leaders so that they were involved in prioritising etc.

Comments in group feedback/discussion: need to have a living tactical/strategic plan based on customer requirements; listening essential – listen to everybody & pay attention, then when the strategy is fed back, what they’re hearing is familiar/what they want; comment on our group’s feedback: yes, need to be proactive, but what if no good at it?; finally reference to the value of ‘the visit’: the need to build relationships through informal visits to stakeholders with no agenda, just listening/getting to know.

Scenario Three: Strategic Planning. New CIO/new President. The latter wants an IT strategic plan quickly, but is still working on a new institutional plan. There is a decentralised IT support structure & an amorphous Governance structure. What does the CIO do?

In the absence of an institutional plan, which in my view is the only one that matters, we decided to go for an ‘organic’ approach: try & get at least a heads up on the possible agenda of the new President; leverage (sic) existing informal Governance relationships/structures to get some scenario planning going around the possible agenda; present the scenarios to the President as planning options/a work in progress. There was no group feedback/discussion.

Last part of the session was presentation/discussion about CIO competencies, & I’ve just noted as bullets below things that I thought might have some mileage in them:

  • be able to place your own desires second to the goals of the institution
  • recognise that IT is not generally viewed as a strategic enabler in most HEIs while still being able to work as if it were
  • have a high tolerance for ambiguity in policy, procedures and decision-making: if you want everything clear & laid out & well signposted, then CIO in an HEI is not the job for you!
  • the job of an IT department is to deliver quality of service, not technology
  • an IT Governance structure is fundamentally for communication, if it doesn’t do that, it won’t add any value
  • associate yourself with people who think differently from you

& that about wraps it up. Couple more observations: interesting in feedback/discussions that I sensed an emphasis on breaking through strategic/organisational inertia by focusing not on the strategy or the organisation, but on the customer, which I think is very good advice; as stated at the beginning, I think it was a shame that there wasn’t any discussion about what a CIO was/was for, although I appreciate that this wasn’t the objective of the seminar, to me it was an elephant in the room (not the elephant – there were a number of elephants, but it was quite a large room).

(Being flippant for a moment, I would compare  this to having a discussion about god & the role of god in our lives, without ever discussing whether god existed in the first place).

& finally building on a similar theme, if we could define what a CIO was in the first place, would be good to ask the question ‘Do we need CIOs? (does god exist?) & also ‘What will the role of the CIO look like in 2015? (if they still exist). It was a useful seminar in that it got me thinking, but I think it could have been more radical – it seemed to be focusing on how to do what we do now better, rather than how to meet the challenges of how things might be very different in the future – but maybe that’s just me…

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