7 Strategic Concepts for New and Aspiring CIOs

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Especially during a time of change and turmoil, every CIO and aspiring CIO would do well to understand and embrace the special strategic concepts of higher education IT leadership.

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Credit: IR Stone / Shutterstock.com © 2020

I've long since retired from the responsibilities of being a CIO (corporate and higher ed) or even working with CIOs on a regular basis (MIT, Internet2, and consulting), but I am still very much involved in our field and am an avid follower of EDUCAUSE publications and blogs. Looking back on my experiences, including successes and not-so-successes, I am struck by the literally dozens of strategic concepts every CIO and aspiring CIO would do well to understand and embrace, especially during a time of change and turmoil such as we are experiencing today. Many of these are well-known and discussed in standard management texts. There are seven, however, that are somewhat specific to the college/university environment and deserve discussion here and wherever higher ed CIOs congregate.

  1. Responsibility. You are responsible for all of campus information technology, whether or not you have full authority. You will be called if the network is down, if email is slow, if some professor lost a file, or if any system anywhere on campus isn't working or has a security breach. It is always your job to find out why these things happened—or are perhaps still happening. An issue may be related to activities of the central IT organization or it may have nothing to do with the central IT organization, but taking care of the problem is still your responsibility—at least to track down the person who does have the responsibility to correct the issue. "That's not my department's problem" are words that should not be spoken by you or any member of your staff.
  2. Authority. As CIO, you rarely have full authority to do anything. IT support and operations are a mix of centralized and local functions, each with its own leader (sometimes even called "CIO of Department X"), each of whom believes he or she has the authority over all that exists within his or her own domain (while actually being subject to the same rules of responsibility and authority as you). At the institutional level, however, you are the one who can set up and lead a "CIOs' Council." This should be an important forum for determining which functions are best performed on a centralized basis and which are perhaps better handled on a decentralized basis, in the various schools and departments. This can be a forum for defining "best" and for understanding the tradeoffs between cost and value, between economic efficiency and organizational effectiveness. Having all IT support managed centrally may be less expensive (in budget dollars-and-cents), but there is often high value (in user satisfaction and productivity) in providing more localized support of faculty, staff, and students. If there were always a single "best" low-cost, high-value solution to every IT need in every situation, we wouldn't have invented the existing multitude of alternatives for providing IT services.
  3. Reporting lines. You "report" to everybody on campus, regardless of official reporting lines. The org chart may show you reporting to the chief administrative officer or the chief academic officer or both, but you really report to all the department heads, the faculty, the staff, and even the students. When I was CTO of a start-up, I used to joke that there was only one person who thought he knew my job better than me—that was the founding CEO. When I moved to MIT, it was clear that there were thousands of people who thought they knew my job better than me. As CIO, you need to appreciate who they are. Remember that some of them might actually be (partially) right about one thing or another. Use what they are telling you, and you will improve IT services, not to mention gain advocates in the community.
  4. Balance. A nonprofit higher education institution is not a business, even though some aspects of it are run like one. Trying to run the IT organization too much like a business will be counterproductive. The issue is balancing how much to act like a business and how much like a community service. That's not to say that staff and services shouldn't always operate in a business-like manner (the trains have to run on time and within budget), but talking too much about "customers" and "profit and loss" will turn people off and make them question whether staff in the IT organization understand their role in the community. And that leads to . . .
  5. Community. A campus is a community of faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, and even neighbors. The IT organization is, like every other department, part of what makes up the institution. If you (and all your staff) act like full members of that community—soliciting and sharing ideas, working alongside the academic and research staff, looking for opportunities to further understand how the services you provide can help them accomplish their goals—you will never have to focus on improving relations with the community. You will already be part of the community. Referring to other community members as your "customers" or "clients" doesn't frame the IT organization as part of the community. Community members work together in full partnership to accomplish institutional, departmental, and personal goals. All IT staff members are participants in the community, and their actions and words should reflect that.
  6. Change. Over the course of my career, I have worked with at least six generations of computer technology: minicomputers, mainframes,1 time-sharing, minicomputers (again), personal computers, the internet, and now the cloud (which, of course, is a combination of mainframes, PCs, time-sharing, and the internet). As the provision of IT services shifted from one generation to another, IT staff had to learn the new technologies and often new ways of working with vendors and users of IT services, sometimes taking on completely different roles (e.g., moving from programmer to vendor manager). Broader organizational responsibilities change too, including the split of activities between the central IT organization and a local IT unit (e.g., email service started out as a decentralized function and took somewhere between ten to twenty years to become a centralized function, but only a few years to mostly move to the cloud). As CIO, you have to understand the changes coming in technology and also what they mean to your organizational environment. You need to make sure that people have the resources and opportunities to adapt to those changes.
  7. Wonder. A college/university is a wonderful and fascinating place, and you should be honored to have been chosen as the senior IT leader on campus. Working with faculty and students and learning about their academic programs and research is part of what makes being in higher education technology special. I never missed an opportunity to ask faculty members or students about their current research or what they were learning, and I was always rewarded with fascinating views into many different fields. An important part of your job as CIO is to anticipate what the community is going to ask for tomorrow. Overlaying knowledge of IT trends with an understanding of what community members are doing helps to define where campus IT services should be headed. You serve the institution and its mission to create, discover, preserve, and transfer knowledge, and you need to know as much about that mission as you can. Keep that mission top of mind, even during the inevitable day-to-day crises and setbacks. It will help you to make the right decisions and do the right things.

These seven strategic concepts are not, of course, the only ones that new and aspiring CIOs must be able to incorporate into their thinking, but their application is somewhat particular to the college and university environment. As you go about your tasks of delivering IT services, among all the strategy discussions, crises, and other aspects of being a CIO, take time to enjoy being part of the higher education community. There is no other community like it.


  1. I learned to program on minicomputers in high school in the 1960s before I moved on to mainframes (the IBM 1620 and the UNIVAC 1105 at Stevens Institute of Technology and the Bendix G-15 and the IBM 7090 at Columbia University).

Jerrold M. Grochow retired as Vice President for Information Services & Technology at MIT in 2009. In 2011–2012 he was Vice President for Cloud Services at Internet2. He now consults and writes on topics that interest him, as well as volunteers in several academic and research programs at MIT.

© 2020 Jerrold M. Grochow. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.