Great Information Technology Leaders Require Skills Not Readily Identified by Technical Education

By Mira Lalovic-Hand, Ph.D., Senior Vice President and CIO, Rowan University

Mira Lalovic-Hand 2016To be truly great, a university cannot afford to have a modest information resources and technology division.Great universities have products and services that add value to the lives of their students, faculty, administrators and other constituencies while at the same time provide a positive working environment for employees to prosper.

 

A typical CIO is concerned with keeping lights on and making sure that all applications are running. It is a job of always catching up with technology and understanding what is needed for every request. It is an invisible job until something is not working or is not being implemented on demand.

 

What most CTOs and CIOs do not do is look at their operations as one organism much less treat them as one. From major platforms to small applications, efficiencies are only possible if Information Technology (IT)  leaders understand how to add value through strategic investments in IT.  What distinguishes a truly great CIO is the ability to select from the many market offerings and successfully implement and operationalize solutions that not only deliver on the organization’s mission statement but dovetail with its culture.  In a university setting this means having a finger on the pulse of the tools and services that meet such divergent needs such as  undergraduate studies, alumni relations and funding raising. A highly successful CIO not only looks outside but also how best to leverage their existing IT portfolio to meet these needs. This requires having a firm understanding of existing hardware and software, where these components are in their useful lifecycle and how to engage champions in the academic community to ensure successful adoption. The latter is something that is severely lacking in most university environments today.

 

Most research today supports the premise that IT has become a vital and integral part of businesses and higher education. Education institutions have not fully embraced the significance of IT since many CIOs still do not have a seat in the President’s cabinet let alone lead some major university initiatives. Whether or not we acknowledge the significance of IT in higher education, the demand and expectations for IT are fully formed and already inform most business processes within a university.

 

An effectiveCIO must understand the operations they support and bolster. Beyond that, the CIO must be able to meet the demands of the most complex and diverse clientele of the organization. Key skills, among many other skills, needed for such leadership includes innovation and creativity. There are opportunities for application of these skills cross just about every aspect of aCIO’s job. Take for example, lab and classroom space. There is never enough classroom space and especially lab space at any college. Technology is bringing relief in the form of learning management systems like Blackboard and Knaves, but much more can be done if divisions of Facilities and IT get together to design spaces equipped with technology accessible for multiple majors/subjects.  The possibilities are endless.

 

In an IT environment quality of service must be high and consistent. With so much at stake an IT leader must also be a skilled researcher who always gathers new information, blends multiple proposals, considers other views, considers scope and limits, sets up models and tests assumptions and runs scenarios. However, unlike a typical researcher IT leaders do not have the luxury of time. The demand for services is not only instantaneous as with many other services, it also has the least tolerance for downtime. Instead, leaders must anticipate outcomes and be able to prepare the environment for the succession of the new business platforms or deployment of the best possible solutions.

 

The typical university environment with a typical CIO is able to survive – for now. However, the world is rapidly changing. Students are being presented with an ever-increasing catalog of educational opportunities with constantly evolving delivery options so that the material can be consumed in the ways that best suits the student.The challenge for higher education CIOs to remain relevant is to develop the necessary soft skills to engage stakeholders –not only meet, but to excel and deliver on these demands.  The question a CIO must ask is “Am I ready?”  If that answer is “No,” the question should be, “What do I need to do to equip myself to be ready?”