CIOs prepare peers for their changing roles

A survey shows the number of CIOs considered "business strategists" is growing.
A survey shows the number of CIOs considered "business strategists" is growing.

An international group of chief information officers has developed a program designed to shift higher-education technology leaders from a purely technical role to one with more executive power, putting them side by side with campus decision makers who call the shots.

The CIO Executive Council, made up of more than 500 CIOs from across the globe, released a detailed model last month that guides current and prospective IT officials in a more business-oriented approach to the job of managing a company’s or campus’s computer infrastructure.

While the council’s model – known as the Future-State CIO – includes technical expertise as part of the base for a successful technology leader, the organization’s vision for a more influential CIO involves more interaction with stakeholders and bosses.

“Yes, they have to keep the systems cranking, but they also need to be strategists,” said Rick Pastore, the CIO Executive Council’s managing director and a contributing editor for CIO magazine. “[Colleges and universities] don’t want someone who is mostly internally focused. … In order to stay relevant and stay an executive position, CIOs have to be more externally focused, and less focused on just running the technical parts [of a college].”

The council also launched a competency exam for CIOs to test their business acumen in a series of questions about team leadership, market knowledge, organizational development, customer focus, collaboration, and a host of other topics.

Pastore said campus technology leaders have had to answer to so many groups – including students, parents, faculty, alumni, and, of course, presidents and provosts – that shifting away from a shuttered internal role should be more natural than in private industry.

“Higher-ed CIOs are probably a little bit ahead of the journey, because they’ve always been focused on a broad constituency of stakeholders,” he said. “They’ve had that external perspective baked into their role.”

There is some evidence that technology decision makers are moving away from the computer screen and toward the board room, where critical funding decisions are made by executives from other departments, for example: This year’s State of the CIO survey conducted by CIO magazine showed that the number of CIOs classified as “business strategists” has doubled since 2008.

Vince Kellen, CIO at the University of Kentucky and a council member since 2004, said the group’s new model could prove valuable to IT staff members looking for a chance to climb the managerial ladder.

“We’ve laid out the description of the capabilities that CIOs of the future are going to have to have,” said Kellen, who was CIO at Chicago’s DePaul University for five years. “It shows them what kind of skills they’re going to have to pick up along the way.”

Technical jargon remains a hurdle standing between many higher-education technology officials and university provosts, Kellen said. This technical gap can keep CIOs from becoming top-level executives.

“CIOs sometimes have a problem with describing problems,” he said. “The gap is because their life experiences are different. … CIOs are more technically oriented.”

The CIO Executive Council’s guidance comes at a time when research shows there could be a CIO shortage on the horizon.