The "I" in CIO is increasingly coming to stand for "innovation" as much as "information," and few fields come with as high an expectation of innovation as higher ed. Navigating those oft-murky expectations, however, can sometimes prove particularly challenging.
Sharing their strategies in a Thursday afternoon panel at this year's annual Educause conference in Indianapolis were CIOs A. Michael Berman (California State University, Channel Islands), Raechelle Clemmons (St. Norbert College), Kyle Johnson (Chaminade University of Honolulu), and Melissa Woo (University of Oregon). You may recall the same group, along with Ithaca College's Keith W. McIntosh, from our coverage of last year's show, where they participated in a panel on why CIO is the best job on campus.
"I can obviously only speak for myself, but my sense is we really enjoyed having a chance to work together on this. We liked the diversity of institutions that we did, and the gender diversity and the ethnic diversity," Johnson said of the panelists deciding to reconvene for a second year. "When we got done with the panel last year, there was this sense that there was really a next question to answer: If CIO really is the best job on campus and we've convinced people they should do it, what's the next thing that needs to get talked about?"
Education Dive caught up with the quartet prior to their session to discuss their experiences leading change, as well as the strategies and pitfalls that come with doing so.
'Fixing IT' often means looking at organizational structure
"Whatever the area is that they think is broken," said Clemmons. The range of these areas, the CIOs said, includes the enterprise systems or ERP, organizational efficiency, WiFi access, or user services. The latter of which, Berman added, is often referred to as "the helpless desk."
"Or it's the Office of No. 'Whatever you ask, they just say 'no' and hang up, and they don't know how to provide customer service, they don't speak our language" he said. "You hear those kinds of things sometimes when you come to a campus."
Resurrecting and correcting a failed project is also a common expectation. Recalling an ERP system implementation that failed after four years of work, Berman said his team was given a year to fix it and after three months had to say that he could do another failed one in a year, but doing it right would require two.
"Sometimes it's not so much a change in what people do but in how they perceive it or what's communicated," said Berman of the gap between expectations and reality, which all four CIOs noted was frequent. "I think expectations management is probably one of the key roles of a CIO, and it's never done."
Clemmons added that the gap also includes the understanding of what the role of IT is versus the role of everyone outside of IT. "In institutions that I've seen, it's sort of like, 'Hey, it's a piece of software, so therefore it's IT's responsibility.' Really, the software's not there because it's cool to have software, but it's there to run something of the business. So getting users to take their role and responsibility in that is kind of this expectation gap," she said.
In that sense, problems with business processes or training in student records, finance, or other departments could impact processes with, say, retrieving data, leading to another problem CIOs are faced with. Sometimes it's as simple as the data not being put into the system correctly, and that's a problem a flashy dashboard can't fix.
"People want there to be a magic IT tool that makes things better, but don't realize that it's actually not IT that has to change in many cases. It's actually the business and the functional offices themselves," Woo said. "People don't like hearing this here, but I have a saying that I think most people have heard me say at least five times if they've ever been in meetings with me, and that is that there are no technology problems, there are just people problems."
Stability, consistency, and strategy all require long tenures
"Do you know how many announcements I've seen of people switching institutions in the last two months? It's a little frightening," Woo said.
Even if an IT department is full of talent, making the best use of it requires stable and consistent leadership and vision — neither of which can be achieved with frequent turnover in the top role.
"On the IT side, I have a group that was just orphaned. They had been bounced around for five years, with five leaders under different parts of the organization," Clemmons said. "So they desperately wanted somebody who was going to advocate for them and be a leader and rally the team and create a vision."
Without that leadership, Berman said, there are "simmering debates" over things like user services and infrastrucutre that never get solved because neither side can make a decision. But with a CIO to lay out the strategy, even the side that doesn't get what it wants often ends up happy just to be done with the issue.
Stability in the CIO's office can also help when IT needs someone with social capital and a seat at the table to advocate for spending money on a necessary solution.
"Sometimes people who haven't been in more senior positions just assume that it's impossible to get resources: 'We could fix it if we got $20,000, but how can we ever get $20,000?" Berman said. "We'll come in as a new CIO and say, 'I can do that. That's not insurmountable. We just have to be able to explain to the campus the value of what we're doing. When they see they're going to get $100,000 of value by spending $20,000, I'll be able to get that for you.'"
Culture can be a roadblock
Even with a mandate for change, people on campus are still likely to resist when it comes. Things embedded into a campus' culture can make change hard to implement. Change is often more about culture, people, and process than it is about technology.
"One has to customize the approach to change in terms of how to do the change, the rate at which to do the change, and maybe even when to start change based on culture," Woo said.
Younger campuses might think more like a startup and have trouble building long-term infrastructure and processes, while established institutions might be too reliant on the established processes that have always worked before but might be outdated.
"Folks are very interested in having IT help the institution become efficient, although no one ever defines well what that means," Johnson said. "There's always a struggle because efficiency comes from process change, and that's the thing they don't want to change. So somehow, magically, IT is supposed to make the same set of processes more efficient just by using technology."
Berman cites a line from Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince" to illustrate that pitfall: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
"The people who like things the way they are, are going to be against you. And the people who could benefit from the change are going to be skeptical that it's ever going to happen," he said. The people against it feel there's something to lose, and the people who could benefit will be "lukewarm."
Johnson noted that in some cases, it's much more effective to wait for someone to retire and be replaced by leadership ready to partner on a change or innovation than engage in a battle to convince that person otherwise.
Ultimately, the more successes, the more credibility and social capital will be available to effect change the next time around, but CIOs are dependent upon other people and departments within the institution for that success — and it's part of why some CIOs only last a few years in the position.
CIOs need the support of their presidents for success
College and university presidents must be able to tell CIOs to get out there and make the changes that need to be made — and be willing to back them up with their own social capital if they know those changes were right but still didn't succeed.
"If you get out in front of the parade and there's no one behind you, you're pretty vulnerable," Berman said.
Clemmons added that IT is embedded in every aspect of the institution, so presidents must view any IT changes as institutional changes to be prioritized by any affected divisions of the organization.
"It's OK to sort of have the CIO be the lightning rod for change, but they need to understand that much of the change actually needs to come from the business unit," Johnson said. "Either the president has to prepare the institution for that by making sure that their senior level executives are ready, able, and willing to make change, or be prepared to help the CIOs out."
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