Today’s CIO has an “I” for Innovation

As a consultant/strategist in higher education, I have the opportunity to work with many different kinds of colleges and universities, and observe different technology leadership models. Each institution has its own unique spin on IT leadership, which — broadly speaking — reflects either the roots of its emergence within the culture of the institution or the reporting line of the position. The institutional context and culture that defined the role has historically shaped the direction of the IT organization, services provided, and the biases that dictated investment and technological direction. Since 2010, however, I’ve noticed that what defines a CIO in today’s world is more functional and less dependent on the tradition that formed the position in the institution’s past. There’s a renewed need for strategic innovation, and the time is right for a new leadership model to reemerge out of the CIO’s past.

In the early days among research universities (where I worked for nearly two decades), the CIO was an extension of the institution’s academic culture and for the most part, had to possess the qualities of an entrepreneur and inventor. Technologies and protocols that we take for granted today — TCP/IP, Ethernet, World-Wide Web, high-performance computing and modern authentication — arguably advanced largely because higher education invested in invention and took the entrepreneurial risk to move them from the lab to first generation production. With the commericalization of NSFnet and the birth of the commercial Internet, these building blocks of modern commerce and society were unleashed and what arose changed the globe.

The 2000’s saw a shift in priority — first generation infrastructure within institutions needed to evolve and the inventor/entrepreneur CIOs stepped forth again, but fell into two decidedly different groups. The first continued the inventor tradition and concentrated on areas such as community-source to collectively address shared technology needs not unlike the decade before, and focused its attention toward capitalizing on higher education’s intellectual and business uniqueness to create the next big thing. The second took an entrepreneurial approach and worked to solve problems by partnering with the booming commercial technology sector, and although fraught with challenges gave birth to the possibility of large-scale cloud-based services for education. In essence, the second group took took the unique characteristics of higher education and tried to turn them into a business advantage rather than the first, which concentrated on creating stand-alone businesses that were, in part, in competition with the commercial providers it helped grow a decade before.

Regardless of whatever model one favorited, when 2008 hit and institutions fell into crisis the rules for institutional IT changed. The discretionary flexibility the inventor CIOs enjoyed was reigned in by presidents, chancellors, and trustees because funding to “do the right thing for higher education” evaporated, whereas the negotiating advantages the entrepreneurial CIOs depended on vaporized as institutions hunkered down to concentrate on less risky and more business-defined activities. Two types of CIOs rose out of the ashes of this seismic shift — portfolio managers and service providers — and if a sitting CIO didn’t fit or couldn’t adapt, he or she was swept aside or marginalized in favor of a business-centered approach. The reason for this was simple: IT was (and is) expensive, and the budgets held by IT were prime targets for institutional belt-tightening.

In the years following the redefinition of the higher education Chief Information Officer, the technology demands of higher education (and society at large) have exploded, which has given rise to new thinking in technology leadership. The digital roles of the Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Data Officer and Chief Security Officer, for example, were once part of the CIO’s domain. Some CIOs have transformed into Chief Technology Officers, whereas the academic and administrative IT leadership roles are being split at some schools into the CIO (administrative and infrastructure) and Chief Academic Technology Officer (research and teaching). With these changes and technology no longer being the defining factor of a CIO, what is?

IDC conducted a study (“CIOs Must Drive Technology Change For Business“), which outlined three emerging types of CIOs in business: operational (“keeping the lights on” and managing costs); business services manager (providing a portfolio of services the organization can quickly tap into); and chief innovation officer (business innovator). The first two roles, operational and business services manager, have become the norm in post-2008 higher education. Not surprisingly, I’ve observed that these definitions of CIO are once again under siege. “Keeping the lights on” and providing a service catalog for a campus isn’t enough; the world is changing too fast and the technological possibilities are overwhelming institutional leaders. From my vantage point, operational and service-oriented IT leaders are more-and-more perceived as barriers and roadblocks to institutional success. Managing IT well is no longer good enough.

The shift from “information” to “innovation” in the CIO’s role is significant. It makes an assumption that the CIO isn’t a caretaker of digital resources and systems; instead, the CIO is a key participant in the continued growth, health and well-being of the institution. As a focal point for institutionally-focused innovation, the new CIO is an individual who looks across the school and seeks ways to capitalize, advance, and/or improve upon the elements that support the institution’s vision, mission and strategic direction, regardless of whether or not the technologies and services are provided by his/her organization.

Providing resources and human capital, sifting though options and vaporware, negotiating and brokering solutions, and crafting and growing partnerships that transcend traditional boundaries are all elements of the innovation CIO. This kind of CIO recognizes and tends an ecosystem of technologies, resources and services and is not limited by a resource portfolio, service catalog, ITIL, AGILE, Six Sigma, ISO 90001, or other management flavor-of-the-month. Thinking big, enabling possibilities, pushing capabilities, growing partnerships, and balancing benefit and risk need to be part of the modern higher education CIO’s thinking. The rest are tools that can be used to contribute to strategic success.