Think Beyond Running the Department

By Jill Albin-Hill, CIO and VP IT, Dominican University

Jill Albin-Hill, CIO and VP IT, Dominican University

Over the years, we have witnessed a massive change pertaining to the role of CIOs depending on the organization, industry, business strategies, prevailing market conditions, and financial climate in terms of business value. How would you describe your own role as CIO has changed in the past couple of years?

Getting IT Out of the Basement; Literally, Figuratively, and Strategically

Technology permeates all facets of life today. Much has been written about the evolving role of the CIO and for years it has been predicted that the demands of business would reshape the expectations of the IT department skill sets (Baldwin, 2012). Yet, according to Dr. Wayne Brown’s research, formal roles and responsibilities have not been shifted significantly, with 69 percent of CIO’s reporting a portfolio of only IT department functions (Brown, 2016). So the evolution has not necessarily included changes to the organizational structure. However, expectations are still high that the IT department can plan for future growth, constantly adjust to changes, keep costs down, and be happy in spaces where no one else wants, namely, the basement. Apart from the ironic implications for disaster recovery and business continuity, the changing role of IT means that the CIO must lead the way by getting out of the office (and out of the basement), be in relationship and business savvy, while striving to learn the work of various departments. Only then can technology solutions be effective or make a difference.

"To keep in pace with expectations, we can no longer rely only on human efforts, but must leverage technology to do things it can, such as automating processes and facilitating communications"

So how does a CIO break down barriers and get a seat at the table? It starts by taking really good care of the basics and building a solid infrastructure. For example, if there are frequent network outages it is hard for someone to imagine how a CRM (customer relationship manager) could transform their work. Additionally, most would agree that a flood-prone, lower-level site is not the best location for the most critical systems. Though the solution often isn’t easy or fast, it doesn’t require taking over prime real estate either. Virtualization should relieve some pressure on the datacenter. Cloud resources can be leveraged for a variety of solutions, from email hosting to backup storage and just about everything in between. Each of these solutions can reduce the risk of a catastrophic outage. Security concerns notwithstanding, if you are not yet in the cloud, you need to be in some capacity. In the short term, to avert the risk of catastrophic outage and help you sleep at night, install censors in the data center to alert for high-temperature and/or wet-floor. If IT doesn’t meet basic expectations, it can’t move into the strategic issues or be in dialog with others to promote the use of technology.

CIOs must also be willing to do the hard stuff. This means reading the minutes from committees across campus, attending department meetings, asking questions, doing research and even job shadowing. Meet people where they are. To keep pace with expectations, we can no longer rely only on human efforts and must leverage technology to do things it can, such as automating processes and facilitating communications, to ensure that critical human interactions can happen. Too often staff is overwhelmed, performing frequently unnecessarily manual procedures, under pressure to “do more with less”, yet they haven’t figured out how. Today’s CIO should be the bridge; getting to know the work of others in order to align technology solutions. This isn't about technology for the sake of technology. It is about finding ways that IT frees us to do the work that matters most.

To help users reimagine how they do their work while leveraging technology resources requires an IT professional who can quickly understand the tasks and requirements and has a broad knowledge of what is possible with systems. It starts with good relationships, by being curious and interested, and then helping them make things happen with effective project management; define the scope of work, set a timeline, gather resources, execute the plan, and track progress.

The work of the in-house IT shop changes as the use of cloud services increases, and having a team of professionals who can integrate systems rather than just perform software-patch management, is imperative. The traditional DBA needs to understand how to aggregate disparate data sources and what to do with “messy data” not just relational data structures. More and more, business intelligence and data visualization tools are critical to make evidence-based decisions. With the consumerization of IT, the Helpdesk and Desktop Support technicians no longer hold all the magic. Since individuals are less afraid of computers and devices, they will attempt to fix problems themselves and avoid interacting with support technicians.

Institutions of higher education need CIOs to get out of the basement and step up to “lead the change” (Kotter, 2012). In fact, CIOs are in an excellent position to see across the institution, help identify the big opportunities, and influence the changes affecting the entire industry. IT leadership must think beyond running the department, and move from being operational to being strategic. This requires a comprehensive knowledge of the industry and understanding the relevance to the market, as well as knowledge of daily unit operations. When this happens, IT leadership demonstrates value and contributes to the success of the business.

The profession needs people to get involved, give and seek support from colleagues, and care about succession planning. While a projected 53 percent of higher education CIO’s plan to retire in the next decade, fewer technology leaders are planning or preparing to move into the CIO role (Brown, 2016). The stigma of basement behind the scenes work, needs to be broken.

To be the best you can be, take time to read, learn new things, and enjoy what you do. Hard work trumps talent all day long, if you believe Angela Duckworth’s theory on grit (Duckworth, 2016). I took up biking, when my knees let me know they didn’t enjoy running that much. While at first disappointed thinking it was a set-back, I’ve come to love going farther, faster and seeing new things.

This morning was a great ride. Even though I came face to face with a deer blocking the path and almost fell off when a fire truck blew the siren behind me, I took three different trails on my 20 mile trek. So remember, there will be obstacles and naysayers along the way. Many times the resistance comes from fear. Talk through it and navigate around it. Emergencies and fire drills will happen. But, spending time developing plans will reduce the risk of falling down. There is less chaos if you have already thought through issues and practiced. Institutions have evolved at different rates and are at various stages of technology adoption and that’s okay. Have a roadmap but don’t be afraid to shift gears and make course corrections. The technology revolution calls for CIO’s who get out of the basement and enjoy the ride!

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