Feb 18 2008

Pioneers on the 21st-Century Tech Trail

When facing unexplored terrain ahead, the IT chief needs to be the institution's tech scout and wagon master.

When facing unexplored terrain ahead, the IT chief needs to be the institution’s tech scout and wagon master.

A CIO in higher education has a multidimensional role. To be successful, this leader must work with all constituencies in the institution and move it and the information technology organization across uncertain territory. To succeed, the CIO must be the advocate for aligning the vision for IT — as well as the policies, plans, organizations, staff and resources — in ways that provide institutional direction, support, reliability and stability.

There are many ways for CIOs to understand their responsibilities, but here is a useful metaphor: During the great western emigration across the United States in the mid-19th century, each wagon train needed a scout, someone who understood the uncertain territory ahead. Each group of pioneers also needed a wagon master, the person who provided the leadership and decision-making focus to keep the wagon train moving in the right direction, despite the risks.

Setting the Course

A CIO must be both a scout and a wagon master. The tech leader is the scout for the institutional wagon train — out on the edge making the best guess about technologies to choose, anticipating the right direction even without adequate data. As wagon master, the CIO has to make decisions that help the institution move forward successfully, including all constituencies in any changes. Both these roles require alignment, or commonality of purpose, between the CIO and the campus.

Most important, this person’s vision for the campus must track with the visions of the president and senior staff. One of the best ways to help ensure success is through the appropriate use of an IT governance structure. The challenge comes in focusing the governance committees on institutional strategies and needs, rather than technology.

Trust evolves from effective communication. CIOs should spend time listening to faculty, staff and students, building consensus across the campus. This can be difficult because decisions that the campus will accept may not be the “best” technical decisions. The CIO needs to deal with this reality by keeping an open, nondefensive perspective, seeing problems as opportunities and being an effective problem-solver.

Common Direction

Ultimately, the CIO and the IT shop facilitate change — in fact, that’s a basic purpose of IT. But, there’s a crucial caveat here: To make progress, the IT organization must drive change along the same course as the institution. Like a wagon master, the CIO is a change agent and is expected to support and promote change for institutional effectiveness and efficiency. There are both high risks and high rewards for change agents, particularly CIOs.

To be an effective scout and wagon master, the CIO must be innovative, entrepreneurial and courageous and, at the same time, focused, diligent and reflective. Why? Because even the best-planned, most-aligned project can take a wrong turn, and the scout will have to lead it back on track.

What’s Next?

Keeping tabs on the latest trends and trying to identify worthwhile experiments before they become commonplace is all in a day’s work for a higher education CIO.

According to The Future of Learning Technology from the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness, four areas will become mainstream in the next seven years:

  • Tools to help students work productively, such as improved note-taking systems, collaboration applications for working with other students and faculty, and online search functions for academic content;
  • Pedagogical tools to help faculty members easily create online lesson plans and study guides;
  • Hybrid programs that merge classroom and online learning environments;
  • Online assessment tools that link students, faculty and administration.

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