IT's Educational

It's probably fitting that Higher Education CIOs opted out of our CIO definitions and instead chose to define themselves. These CIOs maintain that IT executives in academia face a vastly different culture from those in business or government and, as a result, require special skills. The Higher Education CIO, they say, must accommodate more diversity, develop collaborative communication skills and cope with a slower decision cycle than is typical in the corporate world.

If you have ever bemoaned the machinations that come with having to deal with a host of different stakeholders, all with different needs, priorities and prejudices, spare a thought for the beleaguered Higher Education CIO. As Chris Foley, director of IT services at Murdoch University, points out, no one has to deal with so many diverse mdash; and demanding mdash; stakeholders as the CIO in an institution of higher education.

"The Higher Education CIO has to deal with students, the public and a bunch of other people that are probably not in the normal set of stakeholders that you would expect in a business," Foley says. "I mean, in a business you've got a bunch of businesspeople, you've got some customers, and there's probably not too many other people outside that the IT department has to deal with. In the education space, you've got internal customers, you've got students mdash; you've got internal students, external students mdash; you've got government and alumni. You've got all sorts of different stakeholders, and it's interesting how you deal with all those different groups."

The multiplicity of stakeholders mdash; all highly opinionated mdash; is very much of a differentiator of the higher education environment, agrees Tim Cope, CIO at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). And he says so with confidence, having come from the private sector some years ago. Education, he says, is a very different environment in which to operate. "The sheer number of different stakeholders is probably a unique feature of the higher ed environment, ranging from students, the general public, the research community, government, as well as all the myriad of internal stakeholders, given that we are such a large, diverse organization split into different academic disciplines and the like. So it's certainly a great challenge," Cope says.

"You have to be politically very astute, because the culture in the university is not a management culture: It's one more akin to government where you lobby, and you involve all stakeholders in extensive consultations, and a lot of the real decisions are made through lobbying that goes on outside meetings," he says. "So I think just the nature of decision making is a significant challenge to getting things done in a reasonable time frame."

Until recently there has been very little focus on the differences in the role the CIO must play in a higher education institution, and our State of the CIO 2007 survey did little to tease out the differences. But as Jeffrey P Lineman, associate professor of management and the STEP Program director at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, wrote in the latest issue of Educause Quarterly, it is high time for further research to explore those differences.

"To date, most CIO studies have looked at the corporate model without regard to the unique demands of the academic arena," he wrote. "Despite many similarities between the skills, responsibilities and roles of corporate and higher education CIOs, enough differences exist in their working environments and applications to warrant more study specifically targeting the higher education CIO."

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Lineman said a recent study of his had found considerable differences between the corporate and higher education CIO.

Many higher education stakeholders imagine themselves as uniquely qualified to push their own views on how IT should be managed

"A corporate CIO must address the needs of the company's customers and suppliers while focusing mostly on meeting the technological needs of the company's administrators and employees. The Higher Education CIO, on the other hand, must meet the technological needs of a broader mix of constituencies, including administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, potential students and even the parents of potential students. Moreover, the Higher Education CIO usually has fewer resources available, both financial and staffing, than those found within the corporate environment," he wrote.

"The corporate CIO works to bridge the gap between technological challenges and opportunities and business management needs and opportunities to establish a competitive advantage. The Higher Education CIO must bridge not only that gap but the gap of understanding between IT and the campus constituency. This involves making both technology and business issues understandable to the world of academia."

Lineman also pointed to the clash between academia, long recognized as being slow to change and committed to an approach steeped in history and tradition, and the rapid rate of change in business accelerated by technology. "The typical academic approach, steeped as it is in history and tradition, can create a huge additional challenge for the higher education CIO. CIOs with little or no experience in higher education will struggle to survive under these demands," he said.

In such an environment, success as a CIO relies above all else on expectation management, Foley says, particularly since so many of those stakeholders imagine themselves as uniquely qualified to push their own views on how IT should be managed. "They all sometimes believe that they have the authority to discuss these sorts of issues with you and understand these things, and from their perspective and their world they understand a little piece of it and the piece that they want to discuss with you.

"You have got to be able to give them the time to listen to them to understand why they've got a particular view on this world, and then try to explain your position to them. It's the old argument of: 'Well, what's good for you at home is not necessarily good for the entity or this particular company'," Foley says.

Another challenge comes from the fact that strategic business planning in universities is still an evolving concept, Cope says, which makes developing good IT strategy immensely difficult because you are often not faced with a set of clear priorities.

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Hard-Wired for Technology

Cope says UNSW is working hard to use IT creatively to enhance the student experience of a new generation that has been hard-wired to embrace technology. Generation Y's use of technology is nothing short of astounding, he says. They have absolutely no fear of technology, and have spent most of their lives in an on-demand world where they can use the Internet to get information and services pretty much whenever they want, yet have no expectation of paying for such services.

"The notion of all these issues around content management and copyright I think are real problems for that generation," Cope says. "They're coming from a world in which they're very technology savvy, and they enter the higher education environment with some pretty high expectations of what they'll find. I think this is a challenge for all universities: to find ways of using technology creatively within the academic program. Certainly, technology is having a very disruptive effect on learning."

Foley says he joined a decentralized organization but centralized it because that was the sensible thing to do. That demanded considerable change management skill, as he brought together disparate IT groups with very different opinions into a central body. The exercise, he says, has been "a lot of fun".

Foley says for him the biggest satisfaction of being a Higher Education CIO comes from getting his own way not for the sake of it, but because it is the right thing to do for the university. However, a CIO looking for instant satisfaction is unlikely to enjoy themselves much in a higher educational setting, he points out, since the process of getting their own way can be very drawn out and exhausting.

"The process of winning is a long process mdash; you can't expect to win stakeholders over because you tell them all what to do. It's a process that takes years."

He says winning trust in such an environment means convincing people that you are taking their issues seriously and that they will be dealt with. "Trust is so important, and it takes years as you know to build trust and one second to remove it," Foley says.

Meanwhile Cope derives his greatest satisfaction from being able to navigate through all the internal processes and achieve an outcome.

"UNSW has some very, very good, probably Australia-leading Web systems for its students now, and all of that has come about through years of hard work, not just in the IT group but within the business groups that we work with. And I think when you see the students really appreciate the impact of technology on their relationship with university mdash; and that comes through in surveys and things like that mdash; it's a real sense of satisfaction," he says.

Sidebar:Top Higher Education IT Issues

1. Security and Identity Management

2. Funding IT

3. Administrative/ERP/Information Systems

4. Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity

5. Faculty Development, Support, and Training

6. Infrastructure (Network Infrastructure and Equipment)

7. Strategic Planning

8. Governance, Organization, and Leadership

9. E-learning/Distributed Teaching and Learning

10. Web Systems and Services

SOURCE: EDUCAUSE 2006 Current Issues Survey

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