Now more than ever, a higher education CIO's job hinges on both surviving the academic politics of the institution and mastering bleeding-edge technologies.
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
The job of a higher-education CIO is changing, partly because of disruptive technologies for online learning, but that doesn't mean the basic challenges go away. Perhaps now more than ever, a CIO's job hinges as much on surviving a brutal schedule of meetings and the academic politics of the institution as it does on mastering bleeding-edge technologies.
These are some of the themes I heard in the opening sessions of the Consero Higher Education Technology Forum, which kicked off Sunday in San Diego. As the only journalist at what was otherwise a small, invitation-only event intended for peer-to-peer interaction among higher-education technology leaders, I had to agree to some ground rules, meaning I can't reveal here everyone who participated by name or institution. Some attendees gave me permission to quote them on some of the things they said, but no one wanted to be on record complaining about the politics of their institutions. After all, that would only lead to more politics.
Trust me, though, the theme about having to navigate and nurture relationships with institutional leaders, deans and department heads came up more than once. As one man put it: "what consumes your day, what you really do, is politics."
Every CIO must manage the intersection of technology and organizational change. In particular, a higher-education CIO has to be a master at building relationships and making sure as many interested parties as possible feel they were at least consulted on the decision before implementing, killing or changing a system.
That consultative process is important, but at some point technology leaders must also have the courage to "deal with the non-friendlies who will never change," said Andrea Ballinger, associate VP and chief technology officer at Illinois State University. If a system change is important enough, the institution has to be strong enough to deal with the resistance and move on, she said. Like a military campaign, success in change management requires "boots on the ground" and "being willing to take the arrows" of the opposition, she said.
One of her priorities is creating a service catalog of every function the information technology organization provides, including the associated costs. The tendency is for a system once launched to never be retired, Ballinger said. With a service catalog, it's easy to see what's obsolete or redundant or a commodity service that could be outsourced at a lower cost, as the range of things that can be treated as commodity expands. Meanwhile, the catalog helps document and communicate the broad range of services IT provides.
When someone in the audience complained that this characterization contributes to the perception that IT as a whole is a commodity, former Massachusetts Institute of Technology CIO Marilyn Smith disagreed. The idea of a service catalog is an important tool for identifying where IT adds the most value, she said. She always encouraged her staff to remember that their job was "not to do IT but to help people do education and research," she said.
One of the best ways of winning over skeptics is to involve them in the process of figuring out how a technology should be implemented, Smith said. "People appreciate being asked for help, and they usually have help to offer."
The theme of technology-driven change radically altering the nature of education was less prominent in this crowd than at events more dominated by startups and professional revolutionaries. Yet it was not far beneath the surface.
Pam McQuesten, VP and CIO at Southwestern University, said she believes university leaders recognize the inevitability that there will be "fundamental, massive change in some way over the next 15 years, tied to technology," even if they can't foresee quite how it will play out. The phenomenon of the MOOCs -- massive open online courses typically offered for free -- is just one manifestation of the disruptive potential. "I'm using the MOOCs as a way to think about that and start the conversation over what promise does it bring, what fears does it bring," she said.
One of the exciting aspects is a change in focus toward using technology to advance the central educational mission of the university, McQuesten said. Until recently, administrative and academic computing were often managed separately, and administrative computing tended to be treated as more strategic to the business of the university, she said. "Academic computing really wasn't strategic for our institutions, and now it is."
Meanwhile, McQuesten said she would happily get rid of her data center in favor of cloud computing alternatives. "I don't think a liberal arts college has any business running a data center."
Frank Sirianni, VP and CIO at Fordham University, said he expects his data center operations to be gone within five years, leaving only "front office" functions for IT to manage directly. He also agreed that teaching and learning technologies will become a bigger focus. "We've been mired in administrative computing, and it's time to put the academic hat back on," he said.
Another CIO worried that although outsourcing basic technological infrastructure might be fine, contracting with MOOCs was too close to the core mission of delivering academic content. "Coming from the liberal arts college sector, if we're going to think of outsourcing that, what is left? We're outsourcing not just our core mission but our bread and butter -- putting it out there. So are we contributing to a disruption that's going to disrupt us right out of existence?"
While acknowledging the peril, McQuesten asked, "could we stop it if we stopped being part of it? No." Instead, she sees her job as working with senior staff to "identify the part that makes us different" from any commodity replacement and show "where technology may help us achieve this strategic goal."
There is nothing new about the challenge posed by online education, disconnected from traditional universities, Ballinger said. Even before MOOCs, "we knew that was coming -- University of Phoenix was provoking us into thinking about that model," she said. If universities are to survive this challenge, "I don't believe we can keep doing the exact same things we have been doing," she said.
Join us for a roundup of the top stories on InformationWeek.com for the week of April 24, 2016. We'll be talking with the InformationWeek.com editors and correspondents who brought you the top stories of the week!