The CIO Pipeline, Part 1: The Strategist vs. the Plumber Revisited

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This will be the first in a three-post series related to the CIO Pipeline Challenge. Part 2 will address the need to broaden CIO recruitment into the “strategist” pipeline, and Part 3 will address the need to take a different view of “plumbers and plumbing.”

You may remember the point-counterpoint session that my friend Brad Wheeler and I did at EDUCAUSE 2010. If not, here’s the humorous “trailer” for it and also a link to the whole shebang. Our debate centered on the question of whether the role of the CIO was to be a Strategist, helping the institution transform itself by directing the use of information technology, or a Plumber, helping the institution by keeping everything running and by fixing all breaks as soon as possible (if not before). We had a lot of fun jabbing at each other, but we ended the session by breaking the fourth wall and letting the audience know that we were playing roles—that we felt today’s CIO must be both a Strategist and a Plumber.

This opposing set of roles is felt even more strongly by CIOs today, in 2014. There is simply far more plumbing to do—what with security, identity management, compliance, governance, shrinking budgets, increasing operational demands, etc. At the same time, there is even more need for intensifying the strategic presence of information technology in helping our institutions deal with the disruption that is impacting higher education—what with technology’s ability to transform education and its increasingly vital role in enabling innovation and research.

As a CIO—with the capabilities of a Strategist but perhaps a Plumber at heart—I feel this schism even more acutely today than I did back in 2010 when Wheeler and I went at each other. Just when I start to focus on strategic questions and begin to make progress on today’s larger disruptive issues, some pipe somewhere springs a leak, and I don my waders and grab a plunger and a wrench.

Just recently—even as I was preparing for my Randolph Scott moment of tipping my hat and riding off into the sunset (metaphorically speaking only!)—I had my plan of focusing on critical strategic matters for my university derailed by some {expletive deleted} Internet criminal who picked a great many locks to get at key information and then stole the information like a thief in the night (literally). So, rather than having the time to lay out a plan for a few transformative IT impacts for the institution, I was kept busy slugging it out with a very messy situation. Staying with my penchant for movie moments, I’m living Michael Corleone’s “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Aside from hoping to hear a thousand small violins playing for me, what’s my point?

My point is that when plumbing always overwhelms strategizing—when fires always cause a stoppage in our plans to build a sprinkler system—this may be fracturing our profession. Or at least it has the potential to do so at many institutions. Nearly three decades after we worked to join the fundamental technology elements of administrative computing, academic computing, and telecommunications, and two decades after the rise of the CIO as a unifying entity and a cabinet player and the beginning of the CIO’s involvement and influence in all facets of the academy, we are seeing circumstances and forces working to tear these roles asunder.

In many institutions we are seeing the rise of the “Chief Digital Officer,” or the “Vice Provost for Online Learning,” or the “Teaching and Learning Transformation Czar(ina),” or what-have-you. We are also seeing some institutions break off separate research computing enterprises. I had one colleague mention that these are the fun things (i.e., the interesting, exciting, strategic things) about the job, whereas keeping the network at 99.999% reliability or chasing bad guys in the matrix is . . . well . . . no fun. As a result, I sense that fewer of one type of CIO candidate will be looking to enter the pipeline—that is, fewer of the energized professional academic (i.e., faculty member).

I understand that this isn’t new; our profession has always been evolving to match the diversity of higher education institutions. We’ve seen these challenges for nearly the entire time of our existence, what with the need to focus on the administrative and fundamental infrastructure and service challenges that often distract/delay us from paying attention to the needs in academic and research computing. The funding retrenchments of the past decade have certainly caused us to spend a lot of time figuring out how to save money so that it can be used to address unfunded mandates and remedial needs or simply handed back to cover budget cuts. And yet, one facet of plumbing is that plumbing is often viewed not as part of a strategic foundation but, rather, as a necessarily evil or cost-recovery function and thus is treated with perhaps a slight bit of disdain. Hence the role of Plumber may be not only more difficult but also far less rewarding and perhaps less respected professionally on campus.

Revisiting 2010, we should ask: Is this time different? I believe the answer is Yes. This time seems more intense. If nothing else, there is now additional pressure on our profession to separate into two or more parts: the part that keeps the lights shining and things in compliance; and the other parts that direct another type of light (information technology) into new places to address the disruption and enable the transformation. I’m not using this blog as a way to rail against this situation. Quite the contrary. It may be good not only for our profession but for higher education overall if we look to “divide and conquer.” I’m trying to give some form, some articulation, to what we all likely see and are thinking about: What does this mean for our profession?

Tearing apart the CIO role risks fragmenting the CIO’s portfolio and losing the cabinet post. The loss of the seat at the cabinet table puts the institution at risk of losing the much-needed focus on the use of information technology to address the disruption of higher education. Institutional leaders will continue to face this disruption for the rest of this decade. Can they do so without a strategic CIO? My own experience leads to my view that they cannot.

I’d really like to hear your views on whether the Plumber and the Strategist can coexist in a single role/person. Or is the fracturing of the role into two or more parts an inevitable and valid approach? What do you think it all means? Please post your views in the blog comments, or drop me a line. This will help EDUCAUSE develop additional tools, information resources, and data to enable us all.