Positioning IT as a Strategic Partner on Campus

At a time when institutions of higher education are increasingly looking for technological solutions to strategic challenges, recent downgrades in the rank of the chief information officer at institutions such as MIT and the University of Chicago has sparked alarm in some quarters and a series of debates over whether the CIO may start to disappear from university cabinets at other institutions.

While there isn't any conclusive data to suggest that the CIO role is shrinking, the concerns over that possibility do serve to direct increased attention to one of IT's pressing challenges: that is, how to position the CIO, and the broader IT organization, as a strategic partner within the institution.

We turned to Gene Spencer, principal of Gene Spencer Consulting and a lead thinker on IT management, for practical advice on how chief information officers can grow, rather than shrink, their role.

Missed Opportunities

"Running an IT organization is about relationships first, then technology."
Gene Spencer, Gene Spencer Consulting

Spencer suggests that CIOs who see their role shrinking may need to first look at their own approach to key interactions with partners across the institution. Common mistakes that a CIO can make which actually reduce his or her ability to engage with key decision-makers (and be seen as a strategic partner) include:

  • Neglecting unproductive or dysfunctional relationships with other administrators (e.g. library, academic leaders, marketing, admissions, advancement)
  • Focusing the IT organization's resources most heavily on basic services, leaving little time or effort available for major change initiatives
  • Setting IT priorities internally
  • Focusing too much effort on the needs and challenges of the IT organization ("we can't, because...")
  • Falling into the trap of delivering services aimed at meet minimum expectations
  • Saying "no" far too often

The most critical thing is to shift your focus from the day-to-day to the broader needs of the institution. Spencer suggests several ways to position IT as a strategic partner within the institution by taking a proactive role in helping the institution address its strategic challenges.

Focus on the Institution's Priorities

This entails a shift in thinking away from providing services toward a focus on helping other campus leaders solve problems. Spencer recommends looking at technology initiatives not as IT projects but as institutional projects (to solve institutional challenges) that can be addressed through technology. You can view the installation of a new email and calendar system as an IT project, Spencer suggests, or you can begin with a dialogue about the users' needs and how to make the system more productive. "Once you know that, you can determine how IT can help make it happen."

"A good CIO needs to figure out how to make campus decisions, not IT department decisions. Your goal needs to be moving forward the institution's agenda, rather than the IT department's agenda."
Gene Spencer, Gene Spencer Consulting

Act as Though You Report to Every Member on the Cabinet

"If I report to the provost, I could easily do so and not engage the CFO, the vice president for student affairs, and the vice president for advancement in frequent communication. But everything the institution is trying to accomplish requires some investment of technology, so the IT organization needs to act as if it reports to all of the cabinet members."
Gene Spencer, Gene Spencer Consulting

Spencer recommends that CIOs:

  • Establish monthly meetings with key division heads to talk through their plans and priorities and better understand their goals for the next 6-12 months
  • Connect with division heads just ahead of budgeting time, and discuss their programmatic plans and how they imagine IT supporting those plans

In this way, you can anticipate upcoming technology needs and also offer input into plans that might otherwise unravel at a later stage because the decision makers did not think to consult the CIO early enough about the technological resources needed to make these plans work.

For example, plans to implement an online HR recruiting tool might focus on a few computers that need to be installed to connect to the remote database.  However, if IT is brought into the conversation early enough, a full understanding of the system and its intended outcomes might uncover serious issues pertaining to credentials and security. Early consultation makes it possible to avoid these.

"If division heads see IT as a service provider rather than a strategic partner," Spencer notes, "then they are unlikely to reach out to you at that early stage. They won't even think of it. You have to reach out to them." Engage key decision makers early in a discussion of how best technology can be brought to the aid of their priorities.

Make Improving Teaching & Learning Your Priority, Too

"If you look at where IT allocates its resources, it may be easy to say that IT's top priority is the network or other functions. You need to audit where you are allocating your resources."
Gene Spencer, Gene Spencer Consulting

Becoming a strategic partner means allocating resources intentionally to allow you to throw more of the IT organization's expertise behind improving the institution's outcomes. How much of your organization's resources are directed toward improving teaching and learning? "Your instructional technologists need to be spending time and energy helping faculty address real challenges in teaching. You need to build capacity for this. You need to be in partnership with faculty and looking for technology that will help meet their needs." For example:

  • Work closely with your institution's center for teaching and learning or center for teaching effectiveness to understand the challenges they see in improving instruction
  • Explore academic leaders' thinking about new modes of delivery that need to be in place in 3-5 years
  • Devote time in your organization to research new technologies within specific disciplines
  • Take forward-thinking faculty with you to IT conferences
  • Create a part of your organization specifically tasked with improving teaching/learning

The more that you can identify new possibilities and bring those to your faculty and deans, Spencer suggests, the more you will be perceived as a strategic partner.

Additionally, look for opportunities to improve services to students. Make sure that your services are available where students need them, not where you would prefer to supply them. For example:

  • Consider your helpdesk hours: if you have a number of evening classes or adult learners, then a help desk that closes at 5 may not be of much help to them
  • Make sure IT staff communicate with students in terms they understand
  • Make more of your resources available online (or through mobile devices)

Surveying your students and engaging them in dialogue about their needs will help you to arrive at the highest-return options.

Free up Staff and Resources

Moving from a transactional service provider to a strategic partner does not need to be an expensive transition - it is a matter of how you allocate existing resources. Operating under a tight budget, it becomes all the more important to prioritize efficiency in all of the IT organization's daily transactions - the network checks, the help desk, password changes. "Do everything you can to minimize the time spent in transactional," Spencer advises, "so that you can devote more staff time to acting as consultants within the institution, helping your colleagues solve problems."

Spencer offers these examples:

  • "Outsourcing your email service (which seemed 'mission critical' a decade ago) can free up staff resources for other, more important services.  Developing a relationship with an off-site hosting service can allow your organization to add servers (and services) in a much more flexible and cost effective way"
  • Ask: if you free .5 FTE that manage a particular server, what will be the impact of devoting .5 FTE toward helping users make more effective use of that service?
  • Devote some of the effort currently spent supporting enterprise systems to business process analysis and redesign, to improve institutional efficiency