Not a Future CIO

Key Takeaways

  • If you do not want to become a CIO, what career path can you follow to achieve a strategic leadership role in higher education technology?
  • Lacking are communities of practice and professional development opportunities for emerging institutional leaders in technology-connected positions.

What is your career path into a strategic leadership role in higher education technology if you don't want to become a CIO? This question challenges a growing number of professionals working at the intersection between education and technology. We aspire to work in roles that have the potential to make a significant institutional or system contribution around the three-pronged aim of

  • improving quality,
  • increasing access, and
  • lowering costs.

We believe in the transformative power of technology as an essential element if higher education is going to achieve the saltatory, rather than incremental, changes that we believe to be imperative. We have spent our academic careers working within, or closely interacting with, technology organizations on campus. We want to occupy a leadership role both in helping to create a strategic vision for change on our campuses, and then in helping to lead the changes we have envisioned. And we want to have this leadership role in higher education technology with a title other than chief information officer.

Why not aspire to the CIO role? The CIO is, after all, the technology leader on campus best placed to envision and lead change. The CIO on many campuses — and many believe on all campuses in the future — holds a key position at the strategic leadership table. The conception of the CIO as the head technologist who makes sure the technology trains run on time is outdated and inaccurate. Today, the higher education CIO collaborates closely with other campus leaders to help develop and then execute on medium- and long-term academic goals. The skills of the successful modern campus CIO, from expertise in communication and coalition building to high levels of social intelligence, have evolved beyond the technical and managerial skills traditionally associated with the role. The modern CIO is trilingual (at least) in the languages of academe, technology, and leadership. The best CIOs are respected thought leaders on (and often beyond) their campuses, looked to as peers and colleagues by provosts, deans, vice presidents, presidents, and other academic leaders.

The reasons, I think, why many of us coming out of the higher education technology profession seek campus leadership roles that do not include a CIO title follow.

Time and Attention

The modern academic CIO may serve a key role on the campus strategic leadership team, but her time and attention necessarily veer to non-differentiating institutional tasks. Even the most visionary CIOs need to make sure that the network is fast and secure, the storage is abundant and secure, and the ERP and SIS systems are up-to-date and functioning properly. The modern university runs on the 24/7/365 technology infrastructure that the CIO oversees. This campus technology infrastructure is absolutely mission critical. Even if the best big-picture CIOs build a strong leadership team around themselves, including a strong chief technology officer (CTO), at the end of the day the CIO is still accountable for the infrastructure. With accountability comes the need to commit time and attention. A CIO may not run the day-to-day operations, but she must understand what is going on and who is doing what. She asks lots of questions. She can translate the essential value of the administrative computing investments to campus stakeholders (faculty, leadership, staff, students, etc.). She fights for the professionals in administrative computing. Having their backs when things go wrong. Giving them credit when things go right.

Among those of us not wanting to become a CIO, there is a clear-eyed recognition of the absolute importance of the CIO role for the success of our institutions. We believe that the part of the CIO’s job that involves leading, protecting, advocating for, communicating about, and evolving the administrative side of the higher education computing house is absolutely essential. Our recognition of the fundamental importance of investing time and attention in leading the campus administrative organization is what makes the CIO role less attractive. Time and attention spent on administrative computing, no matter how essential and productive, is time and attention that cannot be spent on the attributes that differentiate our institutions in our increasingly competitive postsecondary market. In reality, having the world’s best student information system (SIS) or most secure network will never differentiate an institution. What every college and university needs to do is discover and build on their specific strengths. These strengths may be in broad areas, (such as undergraduate teaching or advanced research or graduate programs), or in specific disciplines or subjects (such as in business or health care or the arts). Every campus needs to ask: What do we do better than anybody else? How can we build on these strengths? How can we stop doing what we are not good at so we can invest more in what we do well? These identified strengths will not be in the technological infrastructure, they will be academic strengths. It is within those areas of academic strength that a new generation of campus professionals with a background in or connection to technology want to work. We want to be able to spend all of our time and attention focused on helping to lead in the areas that differentiate our institutions.

Service and Innovation

The effective campus CIO has one foot in the daily technology operations (all of them) on campus, one foot in the strategic decision making that will define future campus investments and priorities, and one foot in the larger discussion of how higher education is evolving. You will notice the CIO needs three feet — an indication of why the role seems so impossible (and maybe a reason why we do not seek to become CIOs). Many of us question if it is even possible to operate effectively in all three arenas. We look to our CIOs to be thought leaders on campus and in our higher education technology community, while at the same time we blame the CIO if our Wi-Fi stops working or if our systems are hacked. We want vision and leadership from our CIOs, but we are not willing to accept the risk that comes with innovation. The best CIOs balance continuity with experimentation. They help the campus calibrate its appetite for risk. They deliver on the service promises that the technology organization makes to faculty, students, administration, alumni, potential students… (the list of stakeholders goes on forever), with a disciplined approach to experimentation and learning.

The challenge facing the modern academic CIO, and the reason some of us don’t want to become CIOs, is the need to constantly balance the technology organization between service and innovation. If you find spending most of your time and energy on innovation exciting, then the CIO role probably is not the right one for you. Any innovation effort will have an unknown outcome, and the unknowability of how things will work out defines a project aiming to innovate. Uncertainty runs deeply against the culture and operations of a campus IT unit, which must offer a reliable set of services within the budget allocated. Continuous, incremental improvement is the goal. An innovation effort, by contrast, seeks to change both the form and the function of a service or product. Innovation efforts are not improvement efforts. To get to exponential, or at least step-wise, improvements requires a tolerance for failure. Any CIO with a history of failures will not remain a CIO for long — the opportunity to fail is a luxury. But it is a luxury that many of us want in our academic careers.

If Not a CIO, Then What?

If becoming a CIO seems a bad fit for many of us working at the intersection of higher education and technology, then what is our leadership path? Does the choice to forgo taking all the steps necessary to ascend to a CIO position consign us to forever practicing leadership from the middle? All of us have leadership roles to play in whatever position we occupy. Many of us, however, want to find a path to authentic institutional (and industry) leadership. To have our ideas enacted. Our vision followed. Outside of a CIO role it is not immediately obvious what career destinations lead to the same sort of institutional and professional influence.

It may be that the CIO role will need fundamental rethinking in the coming decade. The CTO role may ascend to a level of importance and stature commensurate with that outside of academe, freeing the CIO for leadership in innovation and long-term strategy. Or perhaps other high-level strategic roles are created on our campuses, even the emergence of the chief innovation officer — someone who will also have a seat at the institutional leadership table. Or perhaps those of us most reluctant to follow a CIO (with the “I” for Information) path will come to think differently about this role.

What does seem clear is that our profession has spent too little time grappling with leadership paths besides that leading to CIO. Extensive professional resources support those on the CIO trajectory. Once someone reaches a CIO (or deputy CIO) position, there are numerous opportunities for networking and continued professional development. What seems lacking are communities of practice and professional development opportunities for emerging institutional leaders in technology-connected positions. We don’t have a good idea of the options and opportunities for campus and professional leadership for those of us who leverage technology for change, who are most interested in innovation, and who don’t want to become a CIO.

If you are an existing or an aspiring CIO, what misconceptions and misunderstandings about your role do you see represented (or misrepresented) in my analysis?

If you are someone looking to achieve a non-faculty leadership role in higher education, one that involves working at the intersection of learning and technology, what job title do you seek?

Are you also thinking about how you can have the most impact and make the biggest contribution to your institution and our discipline, but also that a CIO track is not for you?


Joshua Kim is the director of Digital Learning Initiatives for the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. He has a PhD from Brown University. He blogs for Inside Higher Ed at "Technology and Learning."

© 2015 Joshua Kim. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.