Joanne Kossuth is vice president for operations and CIO at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.

Jan 08 2010

Why Higher Ed CIOs Are Expected to Change with the Times

Today's CIOs must understand business processes and collaborate with a diverse group of stakeholders.

In the past, CIOs were technology people first and business people second, but that is changing. As technology becomes an integral part of university strategy, CIOs must work more closely with the administration to understand the business case for technology deployments, improve their communications skills and build partnerships with outside experts.

Many of us need to develop a fresh set of skills to excel in this new environment. Here are five valuable qualities of a modern CIO:

    • Ability to identify and improve business processes. The ability to articulate how technology can be leveraged to automate business processes, such as adding or dropping a course or processing book orders, is the most important skill a CIO can develop. For years, higher education IT departments focused on creating the connectivity and developing applications unique to each institution. “Homegrown” was often considered an affirmation of uniqueness. Given the unrelenting pace of technological change and these tight financial times, colleges and universities are now identifying core services that must be resourced on campus and developing partnerships and contracts for noncore serv­ices. Possessing business acumen and spotting opportunities to improve processes is a key quality for CIOs.
    • A solid understanding of the technology. CIOs once knew how to deploy and run most of the systems at a university. Although today's CIOs tend to be managers first, they still must understand the underlying technology well enough to know which questions to ask. Otherwise, they will be at a loss when their IT staff wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on, say, new networking infrastructure or a virtual tape library for storage.
    • Strong communications skills. CIOs must educate their administration on what it takes in terms of time and money to build effective IT systems. If they wish to be seen as integral to the university's senior leadership, they must be able to convey to their administration the potential advantages that information technologies offer, justify the costs and anticipate a return on investment. As enrollments increase, CIOs must lead innovation throughout the enterprise to support increased student demand, and collaborate with partner institutions to create a shared vision to the benefit of all.

Nearly 39% of top IT managers at colleges and universities say they have reorganized academic computing in the past two years. Another 25% expect to do so in the next two years.

Source: The Campus Computing Project

  • Empathy for users. CIOs need to spend time with their university's departments to understand the real needs of students, administrative staff and professors. These stakeholders want information technology systems that will make them more productive. They require seamless integration of campus services with those of outsourced providers. The CIO's “clients” are the students, faculty and staff whose demands drive technology forward.
  • Willingness to ask for help. Today's technology is too specialized for any one person to know everything. CIOs need to form ongoing relationships with business partners and pool their knowledge with CIOs and administrators at other universities. Decisions made will have more credibility if they stem from experts in the field.

CIOs need to evolve, or they risk becoming irrelevant or extinct. As always, understanding technology is critical to the position. But more important, today's CIOs must be able to communicate, market, negotiate, collaborate, understand the business, add value, innovate and lead in these challenging times. These are the new core qualities for the CIO — and their value increases daily.