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Transforming your CIO: technical expertise is no longer enough for today's CIO. Here's how to find the CIO to move your school into the future.

Technical expertise and good project management skills are no longer enough for today's CIO. In most cases, a CIO is brought to the campus not to maintain the status quo, but to drive change initiatives and help develop a shared vision of how IT strategies support mission-based objectives. This new role demands a CIO who understands campus culture, key constituents' needs, and institutional priorities, yet has superb communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills. Today, being a CIO on a university campus is about managing relationships and change; it's also about being a compelling storyteller.


When recruiting CIOs, presidents often focus narrowly on finding deep technical expertise, neglecting to test for candidates' institutional, cultural, and environmental fit. If the candidate's skill sets, management style, and background are not in alignment with institutional mission, priorities, and expectations, a short tenure will ensue.

Another common error? Expecting a technically competent candidate to magically morph into a leader who can motivate staff, delegate, think at an institutional level, and learn to be accountable for outcomes achieved through empowering, influencing, and working through others.

Finally, a CIO whose leadership role is not recognized cannot be expected to lead. "Often there is a great deal of tension around the CIO because he or she may not be appropriately placed in the organizational hierarchy or may not have the appropriate access for effective leadership," says Robyn R. Render, VP for Information Resources and CIO, University of North Carolina. "The chief executive officer must examine critically whether the CIO's position is appropriately placed to help accomplish mission and objectives. At the same time, the CIO needs to do his or her homework by stepping outside the technology role to learn the business and culture of academe. That's the two-way street that will allow the CIO to really make a difference."

A number of factors make up the skill sets today's CIO needs, in order to fulfill the role of leader and change agent:

Functional business orientation and communication skills. The CIO must be able to develop mission-based IT strategies that meet the campus's needs for instructional, communication, and marketing tools--and translate IT strategies into a story and message that resonates for key constituents, "CIOs need to be able to communicate at multiple levels, and understand each audience," says Deena Chapman, professor of Information Systems at California Baptist University and adjunct professor at University of Redlands (CA). "In talking to a board member, for example, the CIO has to be able to translate technical language into Layman's terms without sounding condescending or arrogant."

Mary Ann Dase, CIO of California State University, Channel Islands, sees it as a storyteller role: "Translating IT strategy is a constant process of crafting stories that people can understand without losing the message of the technology." One of her stories exemplifies how security is about protection and prevention, not restriction. She tells how her department spent several days restoring the university's systems following a virus attack, only to have the user access to the entire network's resources wiped out the next day because the virus attacked an un registered server that did not have the required virus protection.

Political savvy. Render argues that with portions of a university's support coming from the public sector and the government, it's crucial that the CIO understand the political landscape. "The internal politics are equally challenging," she says. "Not only is IT mission-critical, impacting all aspects of the higher education enterprise, it is also very visible and sometimes perceived as an obstacle rather than a tool or asset. It's critical for the IT leader to understand all of those perceptions and engage the entire community in discussions about IT."

Ability to achieve balance. Balancing the long-term vision and basic day-to-day needs is particularly challenging in a start-up environment such as the CSU Channel Islands campus, which is striving to be a 21st-century IT campus. "The opportunity to create a new environment presents challenges that are different from the planned changes you make in a legacy organization to enhance technology," says Dase. "There's very little time to meet immediate needs in all of the various technology areas being developed, yet at the same time, we must continue to look ahead to avoid installing technology that has little long-term viability. It requires a rapid deployment model which doesn't allow for the full consultation process most information systems projects begin with," she adds.

In addition to balancing immediate needs and a long-range vision, the CIO of a complex system has to achieve a keen balance between allowing autonomy and local control on the one hand, and identifying the system impact of individual campus initiatives on the other. Render cites the following example: "When other institutions began making significant investments in Internet-based degree programs, we evaluated the market and the needed resources, and decided to encourage our campuses to develop their own capacity. Over the last few years, we've compiled a comprehensive array of online offerings across our 16 campuses. Only now are we revisiting and leveraging this new capacity at a system level. Building upon the strength of the campuses that have taken the lead, we are now responding through the use of online learning to some of our systemwide issues such as difficult-to-sustain yet vital curricula. We're supporting our campuses to pool their resources and collaborate in groups of common interest. The system can leverage those local investments to benefit the university as a whole."

Good project planning and control, and ability to influence.

The CIO has to be a good project planner at a macro level. This includes the ability to influence administrators and the academic senate to accept IT initiatives. "Because IT supports the business of the university, it's imperative for CIOs to understand how to work through influence, both within the organization and with external entities and organizations," says Render. "It's the CIO's job to inspire, motivate, and teach others how to effectively apply IT tools to enhance departmental efficiency, improve the outcomes of teaching and learning, or increase the yield of alumni giving." Yes, the tendency of a new CIO is often to stay within his or her comfort zone by jumping in and assuming the role of the project lead. But this can de-motivate and even alienate subordinates who are paid to be superb micro-Level project managers.

Ability to identify, motivate, and develop talent. The CIO has to understand campus needs and how best to utilize staff, as well as recognize and complement current strengths and weaknesses. "CIOs need to be able to lead and motivate people with diverse technological expertise as well as diverse ethnicities," says Chapman. "It's not just a matter of supervising these highly creative people, but of channeling their creativity into the most leading-edge efforts. Further, they don't need additional motivation as much as they need to be induced to respect each other's unique capabilities so they can work together to bring each one's expertise to bear on solving the university's problems. CIOs also need to be willing to lead and encourage subordinates who make more money than they do. Sometimes it's necessary to entice experts to join the university with higher salaries than the CIO's."

Then too, the skill set required for managing employees on a 30,000-student campus is very different from the skill set it takes to create an environment from scratch, as Dase did at CSUCI. When Dase came to the newly established campus as its first CIO, she successfully made the transition from a status qua environment to start-up mode. "In a status qua environment you can realign, redefine, and provide training to achieve the right balance," she says. "In a new organization, it's critical to hire people who have specific skills and can help establish an entire environment. This requires people who combine serious technical expertise with a broad view of the organization. They're not easy to find. The CIO also has to acknowledge that these people are the experts in their areas and provide an organizational structure that minimizes conflict."

A commitment to continuing education. As leader, the CIO needs to be committed to professional development. "Developing the experts in specific IT areas is not just a matter of sending them off to training classes," says Chapman. "It's developing them to use their innate creativity to sane ever more complex problems."

Vision. As a leader, the new CIO is also a visionary. An aggressive vision, for instance, might be to turn IT into a profit center. "As a cutting-edge thinker, the CIO could spearhead the creation of partnerships with private enterprise," suggests Chapman. Dase agrees: "Developing IT into a profit center means taking IT services outside the institution. That requires an entrepreneurial view, and a willingness to take risks on the part of university management," she says. "IT can leverage relationships with outside constituencies to increase the benefits of technology, while holding costs steady or towering them." At the same time, CIOs must balance the need to Leverage promising private-sector partnerships with a responsibility to uphold academic values, as suggested by Derek Bok in his new book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2003).

Chapman would like to see university CIOs create a professional organization. "Most university IT professionals have come up through the ranks. They want to be leaders, but don't know how to enhance their skills," she explains. "A professional association would give them the opportunity to create relationships for the exchange of knowledge, develop training programs, and learn how to lead."


The changing role of the CIO parallels that of a faculty member promoted to dean. Suddenly, success no longer depends on individual contributions--research and teaching--but on leadership and management abilities. Similarly, CIOs who have been rewarded for delivering as project managers may suddenly find themselves in the role of delivering outcomes by influencing and empowering others. Some years ago, the focus was on the changing role of HR directors--from employment specialists to "business partners" who contribute to the institutional strategic plan, establish best practices, and influence others to achieve agreed-upon goals. Now it's the CIO's turn.

Barbara Kaufman is president of ROI Consulting Group, Inc. ( An executive coach and educator, she specializes in leadership effectiveness and organizational development strategies for private and public sector leadership teams.
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Title Annotation:People & Politics
Author:Kaufman, Barbara
Publication:University Business
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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