Jan 22 2020

How The CIO Role Is Expanding on Campus

IT leaders understand the tools and solutions that can help higher education navigate today’s business challenges.

When EDUCAUSE released its 2020 Top 10 IT Issues list last October, it included a notable newcomer in the rankings: “The Integrative CIO.”

Defined as “repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner of institutional leadership in supporting institutional missions,” this issue recognizes a shift that many IT leaders are keenly aware of. Their role is changing, as dramatically in higher education as in the business world.

Discussing the matter at the 2019 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, Kellie Campbell, CTO at Vermont Technical College, speculated that a more strategic CIO role — in perception and in fact — could be one of the most consequential items on this year’s list. Without that expanded influence, she pointed out, IT leaders may be unable to move forward on other priorities identified by EDUCAUSE. These include not only areas where IT is central, such as information security strategy and digital integrations, but also those where IT can facilitate desired outcomes, such as student retention and administrative simplification.

CIOs May Need to Educate Institutions About the Strategic Value of IT

IT leaders’ desire for a bigger role in institutional planning and decision-making is often framed by the concept of “having a seat at the table.” That may take the form of direct reporting to senior leaders, belonging to the president’s cabinet or participating in strategic planning initiatives.

These relationships matter: According to EDUCAUSE’s “The Higher Education IT Workforce Landscape, 2019” report, “CIOs who have an appointment to a president’s or a chancellor’s cabinet more frequently engage in shaping their institution’s academic directions and strategic activities than their counterparts who do not have those appointments.”

But most IT professionals realize that participation is a two-way street. Yes, institutions may need to recognize the valuable contributions CIOs can offer, and CIOs can demonstrate that value by speaking to the business case behind IT investments. To that end, Opinder Bawa, vice president and CIO at the University of San Francisco, said at the conference that IT leaders should present themselves as business experts who happen to specialize in technology — not the other way around.

Wayne Brown, the founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies, notes that the ability to effectively advocate for IT funding is part of the leadership skill set. And while some presidents and institutions already recognize the value of entrepreneurial, forward-thinking CIOs, others may not — and that’s when IT leaders have an opportunity to educate them about the strategic importance of technology, he says.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read how a data-driven landscape is leading to privacy concerns on campus.

Making the Business Case for IT Investments Is a Top Skill

A business-oriented mindset shows up on campuses more often these days, as many institutions increase their focus on career readiness and real-world engagement. That’s true in the curricula and in the ways colleges reckon with the new competitive landscape of higher education. Often, such conversations take the form of needing to please “customers” — meaning students — who increasingly have greater choice about where they spend their higher education dollars.

In this environment, IT professionals who can lead their institutions toward solutions that support enrollment, retention and financial sustainability will show that the value of IT goes well beyond the important work of deploying infrastructure and classroom technologies.

Similarly, IT leaders can guide their colleges toward technology initiatives that create a competitive advantage. That’s important, since the digital experience is one of the criteria prospective students, staff and faculty use to evaluate an institution. Students want to know if the college will deliver the seamless connectivity and ease of use they’re accustomed to as consumers, while potential employees and researchers want a digital workplace, collaboration tools and data analytics capabilities.

Recognizing the business value of initiatives, and being able to present them effectively to senior leaders and boards of trustees, is an important way that IT leaders can shape the conversation. IT leaders already know this, of course: EDUCAUSE’s study of the IT workforce also ranked effective communication and the ability to manage cross-campus relationships as among the top skills for success.

The strategic implications of the CIO role will only increase as technology continues to become the backbone and the beacon of digital transformation on campus. IT leaders have an excellent opportunity to help pave the way.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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