Organizational Routines and the Higher Ed CIO

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Key Takeaways

  • This essay continues the conversation begun by the recent ECAR IT Leadership in Higher Education, 2016: The Chief Information Officer report, focusing here on the CIO's role in influencing organizational routines.

  • Despite constant change in the IT environment, the ECAR CIO study found little variation in the scope of the CIO role because the input CIOs have into organizational routines is consistent across institutions.

  • CIOs have greater influence over organizational routines than do most other employees, but strong inertia in organizations resists changes to routines.

The job of chief information officer (CIO) has a scope and influence across campus that makes it "the best job on campus." According to the recent EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research report on CIOs, part of the IT Workforce in Higher Education, 2016 research series, CIOs in institutions of higher education have responsibility for nearly every area of IT on campus. This breadth of responsibility is one of the great appeals of the job to many in it, as it requires addressing a constantly changing set of problems and requirements, along with interaction across and even outside the institution.

One of the most striking findings of this report is that, despite an extremely broad scope of responsibility, there is actually little variation in the job of CIO. Across all of the questions on the survey of CIOs, the responses rarely had greater than a 10 percentage point spread. This held true across all slices through the data: by institution size, by Carnegie type, by age and sex of the CIO, by whom the CIO reports to, indeed by any stratum that we could construct. For example, 100 percent of CIOs at Bachelor's institutions and 95% at Doctoral institutions have responsibility for Information security and services, 99 percent at private institutions and 94 percent at publics, 98 percent at very small institutions and 93 percent at very large institutions, 98 percent of Boomer generation CIOs and 95 percent of GenX CIOs. Similarly, CIOs at Bachelor's institutions and 20 percent at Doctoral institutions allocate a median of 18 percent of their time to Planning and innovation with campus units, 20 percent at both private and public institutions, 20 percent for Boomer CIOs and 15 percent for GenX CIOs.

A broad scope of responsibility but little actual variation in the job would seem to be a contradiction. The question "How can apparently nonroutine work display such a high degree of regularity?" is one addressed in depth by organization science. This essay will explore how this line of research in organization science can inform our understanding of the CIO role in higher ed. This essay explores a body of theory in organization science that significantly informed the ECAR CIO report.

Organizational Routines

The apparent contradiction of nonroutine work displaying a high degree of regularity can be resolved by looking to a concept from organization science: organizational routines. Organizational routines have been compared to both the genetics of an organization and its memory. According to the former metaphor, organizational routines are the instructions that make an organization what it is: the organizational genotype that, influenced by environmental factors, expresses the organization's phenotype. According to the latter metaphor, organizational routines are what give an organization its identity over time, just as the continuity of an individual's memory gives that individual an identity that persists over time.

More concretely, an organizational routine may be thought of as an algorithm: it has inputs and outputs, and processes in between that transform the former into the latter. These inputs may be labor or resources, and resources may be the outputs of other routines. Routines are patterns of collective action that "freeze" the knowledge — both explicit and tacit — contained in an organization. Routines are critical to coordination within organizations and may be highly formalized or highly improvisational. Scheduled backups of networked computers, for example, are so highly formalized that they are often performed automatically, with little human intervention. At the other end of the spectrum, troubleshooting technology problems is a highly improvisational practice. Campus IT help desks, for example, use routines that scale from formalized to improvisational: Some technical problems are so straightforward that undergraduate work-study students at the help desk can fix them. But when technical problems are more complex, they are brought to increasingly senior members of the IT organization so that increasingly specialist knowledge can be brought to bear.

There are two primary methods to create a routine: by importing it (e.g., via training in a standard operating procedure), or by creating it from scratch (e.g., via deliberate or accidental development by a new working group). Existing routines may also evolve over time, reflecting both individual and organizational learning. On the less formalized end of the spectrum, routines are both dynamic and continuously emerging; even on the more formalized end of the spectrum, routines change over time, though more slowly and with greater organizational effort.

CIOs and Organizational Routines

All individuals who contribute to a routine have, in theory, the ability to change the routine. However, organizational leaders generally have greater influence on the initial creation and subsequent evolution of routines. As the highest-ranking IT leader in institutions of higher education, CIOs are in a position to shape organizational routines. Most campus IT organizations predate the current CIO, of course, as higher ed CIOs have been in their current positions for an overall median of only four years. As with any change in leadership, a new CIO import new routines into the organization and has considerable influence over eliminating existing routines and rapidly evolving others. Routines performed by a campus IT organization must be flexible, to accommodate both technology and stakeholder changes, and yet the contexts for those routines remain fairly stable.

CIOs have responsibility for nearly every area of IT on campus, with few gaps in their scope of responsibility — that is, areas they are not currently responsible for but believe they should be. In other words, CIOs' scope of responsibility is comprehensive and unlikely to change dramatically. Furthermore, the greater the requirement for reliability, the greater the structural inertia in that organization resisting change in the routines it performs. In other words, when reliable performance is key to the success of an organization, an organization will be motivated to faithfully perform organizational routines that have a demonstrated history of success. Reliability is of tantamount importance to campus IT organizations, a point made clear by the CIO respondents to the recent ECAR survey, who frequently mentioned trust, and gaining the trust of institutional stakeholders, as key to success on the job.

The routines performed by a campus IT organization exist along a spectrum, from formalized to improvisational, and strong inertial forces in the organization keep routines from changing. This explains the regularity of CIOs' profoundly nonroutine work: While the specific problems that arise constantly change in the short term, the organizational routines that the CIO must engage in to address these problems stay more or less stable in the longer term.


Viewing the role of the higher ed CIO in light of organizational routines helps to explain what much past research by EDUCAUSE and others has found: that IT leadership involves relationship building, leadership skills, and strategic planning as much as it does technology. Since individuals provide input into organizational routines, anyone attempting to manage these routines must, directly or indirectly, manage the individuals contributing to them. Relationship building, political skills, and collaboration play important roles in any IT leadership position, but they are critical to the role of CIO.

There are three takeaways for CIOs, or any organizational leaders, from this discussion of organizational routines. First, CIOs must understand that their ability to influence organizational routines is both exceptional and limited. Routines are persistent and influenced by multiple stakeholders and cannot be changed by a single individual, no matter how highly placed in the organizational hierarchy. Nevertheless, as the leader of the campus IT organization, the CIO has greater influence on the initial importation, creation, and subsequent evolution of routines than other institutional leaders. On the other hand, a variety of factors influence routines, and yet because of their robustness over time, they are difficult to change. Leadership has a strong and lasting influence on routines at the time of their creation, but after that, change requires both be an explicit impetus and the right timing.

Which raises the next takeaway: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Dysfunctional routines are, unfortunately, just as persistent as functional routines. It is not always possible to identify which is which, until conditions change or something goes wrong. Clearly, leadership's role encompasses changing dysfunctional routines. Equally, leadership's role involves not changing and instead reinforcing functional routines. The problem? It takes time for new leaders to identify which is which and decide what to do about them.

Third, listen and go slow. New CIOs commonly spend time in the beginning learning about the organization, talking to staff, and generally internalizing an environmental scan. Changing routines imposes significant costs, both political and in terms of efficiency. A sensible leader treads lightly when changing routines.

Paradoxically, the CIO wields considerable influence in an organization — and very little. On the one hand, a large part of the CIO's role is to ensure the efficient performance of existing routines. On the other hand, a large part of the CIO's role is to exert influence across campus, to affect the strategic direction of the institution. In order to influence the creation and evolution of organizational routines that enable the realization of this strategic direction, the CIO must collaborate with the widest possible range of institutional stakeholders. This breadth of scope makes the CIO job the best job on campus, indicated the ECAR survey respondents.

Jeffrey Pomerantz is a senior researcher for EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Jeffrey Pomerantz. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.