Oct 31 2006

The Strategic Role of the CIO in Today's University

The CIO's role as a strategic partner takes shape on campuses across the country.

There's a lot going on at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The president's cabinet is planning a revision to the college's strategic plan, which could increase diversity at the college and boost involvement in the local community. Dave Smallen, the college's vice president of information technology, plays an integral role in delivering and developing an IT strategy to meet those goals.

“I get involved in discussions about everything that happens at Hamilton, whether it's a decision on how we might go about attracting new students or how we're distributing financial aid,” Smallen says.

The concept of CIOs and other IT executives serving as strategic partners that help establish–and fulfill–a higher education institution's mission is relatively new. And it's not an idea that's embraced universally.

EDUCAUSE, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit association for the advancement of higher education through the use of information technology, conducted a study of nearly 2,000 IT professionals in 2004. The study reported that only 38.5 percent of the most senior IT leaders report to the CEO, and only 50.6 percent are members of the president's or chancellor's cabinet. Senior IT executives who hold these roles reported greater interaction with senior management, a more prominent voice in IT issues on campus, and more influence in shaping academic and business direction for the institution, according to the report.

“The way I would distinguish a CIO with a strategic role from somebody who is not at the table is that people who are not at the table are given a list of the goals, and asked ‘How can IT help with that?' ” Smallen says. “But they don't tend to be involved with shaping those goals.”

Making the Case

Being a strategic CIO means going beyond technical expertise to truly understand the business case behind every IT project. “I see the people who can not only pick the right technology, but spend money wisely, taking over in more and more places,” says Charlie O'Donnell, vice president and CIO at Dean College in Franklin, Mass.

IT executives who don't have the proverbial “seat at the table” know it, because their institution's strategy may lack critical technical input. “My colleagues who aren't part of the cabinet would say that a lot of things tend to come up in a way that's not always clear and planned,” Hamilton's Smallen says. “More often than they would like, they come in after everything has been decided and it feels like maybe the best decision hasn't been made.”

Joanne Kossuth, CIO at Olin College in Needham, Mass., puts it more bluntly. “If you haven't been in the position to sit at the table when the decision is being made, you're behind the eight ball” when you have to implement.

Fortunately, the benefits of having constant CIO input in strategic decision-making are becoming increasingly clear to many presidents. “This is such a fast-moving field that when you find a CIO who's really articulate and on top of it, who has skills in many areas besides managing IT, it can be of wide benefit to the institution,” says Richard Miller, president of Olin College.

Recent legislative agitation about extending the financial reporting requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 to nonprofits almost demands that the CIO take charge of this role, says Brian Hawkins, president of EDUCAUSE. “This is a big thing that's on the horizon, [one] that eats up time and energy, and that doesn't belong to the business officer,” he says. “These problems belong to the CIO, and since [he or she] is critically involved, that's why sitting at the big table makes a difference.”

Half Empty?

If the benefits of having a CIO regularly contribute to strategy and implementation discussions are so tangible, why do only about half of the country's institutes of higher education carve out this role for their senior IT leader?

“Many institutions think about information technology as an expense that has to be controlled rather than as an enabler of institutional aspirations,” says Joan Hinde Stewart, president of Hamilton College. “Similarly, some CIOs still view their contributions to their institution in a narrow sense, regarding themselves more as advocates for the use of technology than as partners in advancing broad institutional goals.”

The idea of the CIO as a strategic partner is spreading, but it will require a paradigm or perception shift in many institutions. “Tech people in general, speaking as one myself, haven't had the reputation of being able to speak clearly about issues,” says Olin's Miller.

Hawkins of EDUCAUSE blames the culture of higher education for the disconnect. “Universities and their administrations don't change very fast,” he says. “But to put it into perspective, 25 years ago, no director of the ‘computer table' would ever sit at the president's table.”

If the realities of your reporting relationships don't give you the ear of the president or the rest of the cabinet, you need to build a strategic presence. Start by educating non-IT executives and administrators about major technology issues facing institutes of higher education. Then demonstrate how IT supports and enhances the mission of the institution across the entire campus on a daily basis.

“You have to work hard so people understand that you get the big picture,” Olin's Kossuth advises. Besides regularly meeting with executives to discuss their IT needs and issues, Kossuth also shares relevant articles–with the important passages highlighted–and writes a monthly report on the activities of the IT department.

To be an effective change agent in higher education today, CIOs have to be proactive, persistent and creative.

The Art of I.T. Investment

One of the biggest issues facing higher education CIOs is allocating limited resources to a seemingly endless stream of requests for projects and services.

To manage the flow of project proposals, Bob Weir, vice president of information services at Northeastern University in Boston, and consultant Tom Murphy, a Northeastern alumnus, devised a method to assess the IT needs of each function within the college, research the projects and score them based on collaboratively created criteria. High-scoring projects are implemented, while others are sent back to their teams for revisions and resubmission.

The IT Investment Decision Process (see Murphy Tool sidebar , page 23) created by Murphy and Weir is divided into seven steps:

1. Engaged more than 40 university leaders in discussions about how to theoretically measure the value and success of IT projects. These discussions resulted in a scoring matrix that put the value of the investment in terms of its intended outcome judged against the probability of its success.

2. Outlined the projects that were already in the pipeline, and the requisite funding, to determine what remaining resources could be allocated.

3. Identifed demand. Weir and Murphy met with all the senior functional executives and asked them to create an IT wish list–with a single supporting paragraph–ranked according to priority.

4. Published lists, with the previously created scoring criteria, for consideration by the senior executive team. In a single meeting, the staff winnowed a list of 36 projects to 17 worth pursuing based on their scoring totals.

5. Confirmed that the remaining 19 would not be pursued at that time.

6. Created six teams, each with at least a functional executive, an IT executive and an IS project manager. These teams were charged with creating short business plans for each proposed project that addressed what would be done and how it would be done. This phase reduced the number of projects on the table from 17 to 14, as some were combined and others scrapped.

7. When all the business plans were finished, the projects were scored using the IT Investment Decision Process, along with considerations such as IT staff availability, scheduling, business cycle and financial requirements. Twelve projects were selected for implementation.

Northeastern's first use of the demand management process took place from December 2004 to April of 2005, and resulted in 12 projects that were completed on time and on budget.

data sheet


To succeed as a strategic CIO, one must:

1. Understand and articulate the business case behind every IT project.

2. Assess IT needs, research present and planned projects, and score the projects on collaboratively created criteria.

3. Educate non-IT administrators and executives about the important technology issues pertaining to institutes of higher learning. Show them how IT supports and enhances the institution's goals.

The Murphy Tool Scoring For Northeastern

Competitive Advantage
Student Selectivity / Student Success / Academic Reputation

Business Process Change
Information Integrity / Process Readiness / Technology Fit

Service to the NU Community
Quality of Student Life / Quality of Faculty Life / Broader NU Benefits

Sponsorship & Leadership
Sponsorship / Leadership / Resource Commitment

Financial Benefits
Cost Reduction / Financial Resources

End-User Acceptance
User Involvement / Resistance Level / Ease of Use

Decision Support
Data Integrity / Information Analysis / Expanded Number of Decision-Makers

Scope & Complexity
Project Duration / Project Complexity

Efficiency & Productivity
Collaboration / Efficiency Gains / Functions Improved

Delivery Fundamentals
Management Controls / Project Definition / Resource Management

Risk Reduction
Legal Liability / Reputation Risk

Security and Regulatory Compliance
External Compliance

Copyright © 2005, Northeastern University. All Rights Reserved.

According to Bob Weir, co-creator of the Murphy Tool, the criteria and weighting will be unique to each institution, and the engagement process is more important than the actual scoring outcome. “The rich discussions between functional and IT executives brought us to a whole new level of understanding and partnership.” In addition, Weir says that the value side (and to some degree the success side) can be applied to any institutional investment decision, not just IT projects.

Rebecca Sausner is a New York-based writer who specializes in education, business and technology.