“Is it really only Wednesday morning?” I ask at 7 AM. It seems like it should be Friday by now. It has been one of those weeks where every day has seen some twist in direction, some major shift in a project or initiative, some new priority that needs attention; distracting me from my list of priorities carefully crafted at the beginning of the week. More importantly, it’s diverting me from the most important work that all of us do as leaders of an IT organization—develop our staff’s capabilities and spend time strategically thinking about the best way to deploy IT’s limited resources to the best advantage of our institutions. One of the key challenges of being a CIO in higher education is not to be distracted by the crisis-of-the-day, but to keep our focus on our most strategic priorities.
Effective IT Leaders are always Stretched
Like many CIOs in private industries, effective IT leaders in higher education are always stretched. But unlike many CIOs in other industries, who fret about not having a seat at the table, most CIOs in higher education have seats at too many tables.
These include tables that focus on supporting the research missions of the institution, whether it be next generation networking that helps faculty access their research projects across the globe, or dealing with the ever increasing data sets stemming from these projects. It includes tables that focus on the academic mission, such as helping faculty bring data sets into classrooms for instruction, or leveraging technology in multiple ways to enrich teaching and learning. Other tables focus on administrative operations, including streamlining business processes and improving service delivery through automation, introducing “apps” that make a cumbersome task easy, and helping transform data into actionable dashboards for decision makers. And finally we sit at tables that support a richer student life by enabling an innovative digital world such as Wi-Fi everywhere and intuitive self-service tools.
"One of the best ways to build capacity for change is through helping everyone understand the necessity of the change"
To effectively contribute to these seats, CIOs must be disciplined in several ways. CIOs must be able to build a core of strong staff to extend and leverage the IT organization’s reach. They must plan their workforce for changes in technology. And finally, and most importantly, they must build capacity for change in their organization—to be able to pivot and adapt to a rapidly changing technology environment.
Developing Layers and Networks of Leaders
To be effective, CIOs in higher education must build a team of strong IT generals, enabling the CIO to lead multiple initiatives across campus. These generals can spearhead campaigns in student systems and engagement; analytics and decision support systems; administrative applications linked with business transformation; strategic infrastructure; and networking re-architecture to support research and operations. Every member of the IT leadership team understands that it is just a given that IT solutions must be technically solid and well-executed. But for any of these initiatives to have true impact, IT needs to work hard on campus engagement, creating business value, communication, and change management.
A good way to build a strong IT Leadership team is to hire leaders who have the potential to become the next CIO, give them ever increasing portfolios of responsibilities, and provide them with stretch opportunities, such as high profile projects to gain credibility in the institution. Not to be underestimated is the importance of providing logistical support by surrounding your generals with strong experts in the areas of human resources and organizational development, communications, financial management and project management. All contribute to the ability of the organization to leverage these high potential players to the maximum benefit of the organization.
“One of the best ways to build capacity for change is through helping everyone understand the necessity of the change”
Potential leadership within an organization needs to be layers deep, with the next layer of lieutenants having a clear understanding of campaigns and execution plans. These lieutenants are often on the front lines with key customers and directly managing the majority of our staff, making the need to develop their non-technical skills critical for an IT organization’s success. Providing training opportunities for these lieutenants is critical for building your bench strength, including leadership development programs and additional support mechanisms such as communities of practice and individual coaching. Recognizing that campus IT is often delivered through a fabric of support between central and decentralized IT, it is important to build relationships and to improve information sharing and trust between our organizations.
Strategic Planning of our Workforce
Developing a plan for retention and replacement of your IT workforce is essential to your organization’s success. My own department is not atypical of IT departments at universities around the country, with more than half our staff eligible for retirement in the next five years. It is critical that we understand what this means as we plan our operations, training and support for staff transitions. When planning for workforce management you have to look not only at your people, but at technology trends to make sure they are in sync; make sure you have the skillsets on hand for the technology you are managing. Only by understanding the realities of your workforce and your technology plan can you start to manage this asset effectively.
Developing Capacity to Adapt to Change
Higher education IT straddles a unique world steeped in traditions, literally dating back centuries. At the same time an institution is in a continual cycle of renewal, as new classes of entering freshman and graduate students bring new devices and expectations. This dichotomy is amplified as universities are one of the few institutions in society where faculty tenure means that the workforce continues to work productively, well past the standard retirement age of our society. At the same time new faculty enter our community with different work expectations about technology. It is important for IT staff to understand the differing capacity for change among these groups.
Historically technology organizations are relatively good at adopting new changes that impact their end users. Because of this, many technology organizations mistakenly believe that they are good at change, when in fact they do not manage change well in their own organizations. One of the best ways to build capacity for change is through helping everyone understand the necessity of the change, the benefit of delivering the most important services to our campus, and the consequences of not changing.
In order to remain relevant, both our institutions and our organizations need to develop the capacity for change. For a university to advance its mission and to remain competitive, it needs to adopt new technologies. IT organizations need to be agile to keep up with rapid changes in technology in order to help their institutions succeed.
How do we adapt? Fundamentally, IT organizations need to have the capacity to fund our own exploration and discovery, through relentless cost cutting of the less important, and not keeping every service running until the last user is ready to exit. At the same time we need to remember we have productive faculty into their eighties and nineties at our institutions, and change may be challenging. We need to have clear criteria, supported by our institution, about how and when to disinvest and redeploy resources.
Finally, Ending with a Challenge in the Coming Year
Each of us on our campuses has its own Silicon Valley of innovation and limitless possibilities, which every one of us under-exploits. It is higher education’s biggest strategic differentiator - access to the brightest young minds in the country - our students. All of us have student staff, and many work in our service centers, student computer labs, user interface teams, or as support workers around our units. There is the opportunity, through thoughtful engagement, to have student employees contribute and gain so much more.
Some of the most transformative companies of our time—for example Google, Facebook - were started on our campuses. The learning management system used by my campus was started by a couple of BYU students who didn’t like the status quo. All of us can do better and would do better if we tap into this strategic asset more in the coming year.