The CIO Pipeline, Part 2: Infusing Academics into the Pipeline

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This is the second in a three-post series related to the CIO Pipeline Challenge. Part 1 raised the potential of a “fracturing” of the CIO role into component parts (strategist and plumber), and Part 3 will address the need for a different view of “plumbers and plumbing.”

In Part 1 of “The CIO Pipeline” blog post series, I observed that we are seeing the rise of the Chief Digital Officer (aka the Vice Provost for Online Learning, or something along those lines). I also observed that some institutions are establishing research-computing enterprises separate from the CIO portfolio. I noted that using technology in support of the transformation of teaching and learning and in the creation and delivery of cyberinfrastructure for research is the fun  (i.e., interesting, exciting, strategic) part of a CIO’s portfolio, whereas keeping the network at 99.999% reliability and chasing bad guys in the matrix are … well … no fun.

Let me suggest a theory: Might it be possible that most academics (strategic, fun-seekers that they are) tend to shy away from the CIO profession because it has all those no-fun things distracting them from the fun ones? The EDUCAUSE Core Data Service suggests that only about 6–8% of CIOs had a faculty position as their most recent position or two positions back.

Hold on to that thought. I’ll come back to it shortly.

Let’s take a look behind us. The earliest CIOs were often faculty members who had an interest in the use of computers or data-processing functions. As time – and our profession – moved onward over the next few decades, these early academic pioneers learned (some might say, crafted) the CIO role and oversaw the creation of holistic IT organizations addressing the broad array of IT functions. This process gave rise to the “professional CIO” as these “Version 1.0” CIOs raised the next generation in an increasingly critical function. The model for Version 2.0 CIOs was often someone who came up through the ranks of the IT organization, gathering significant operational experience across multiple facets of the discipline, with or without an advanced degree. I’m an example of such a CIO, as are a great many of our CIO colleagues today.

The professional CIO makes a great deal of sense. The sheer breadth of the current CIO portfolio makes it virtually impractical for someone to simply jump from the faculty ranks (even with some departmental/unit administrative experience) into the CIO position. The increasing importance of the GRC (governance, risk, and compliance) elements certainly contributes to this challenge. Unlike the rebooted Star Trek’s James T. Kirk, you really can’t go from Star Fleet Academy to the captain’s chair of the Enterprise in a single step. (I don’t care how many Romulan invaders you repel.)

However, with the recent rise of interest in targeted uses of information technology in teaching and learning and in cyberinfrastructure enabling research, there is an alternative path for an interested academic into a part of the IT leadership role. Essentially, academics can become Chief Digital Officers or Directors of Research Computing Centers, since those functions are splintered from the broader IT portfolio, are not as bound to the critical GRC aspects of the CIO’s portfolio, and are capable of being addressed by a specialist approach without the generalist background. It’s all the fun and none of the mess.

Therein, lies a possible concern: that we may see the “tearing asunder” of the broad, holistic IT function at some institutions, perhaps resulting in a degradation of the role of CIO to the point that the CIO no longer sits in the Cabinet. Of course, this won’t happen everywhere. But it will happen; it likely already has. Going back to Part 1 again, let me reiterate that I’m not saying that a fracturing of the role to gain focus on specialized challenges (at a given institution) is necessarily a bad thing. However, taking information technology (in the person of a CIO) out of the Cabinet is a bad thing, and I believe there should be concern if this fracturing results in the subdividing of the CIO role.

Our profession is diverse. It has to be, because higher education institutions are quite diverse (they are special snowflakes). So the type and nature of CIO hired will vary across institutions. This is all the more reason for us to diversify the types of individuals we bring into the CIO profession. The professional CIO is a must, given the critical nature and impact of IT/technology on higher education. But in those instances where someone who comes from an academic background would be a better fit for an institution, having such candidates in the pipeline is healthy for our profession and for higher education.

Back to the thought I told you to hold on to: I don’t think there are enough individuals with academic backgrounds in the CIO pipeline (and I’m not sure how we replace even the meager ~6%). I believe we need an infusion of academics into the CIO pipeline. We should consider how we can create entry points for the energized and engaged academics who may seek careers in IT leadership.

Let’s find these people and offer them development opportunities in our IT organizations, helping them augment their academic credentials with high-value, hands-on experience. Let’s think of ways to bring these people into our organizations in responsible staff positions and to quickly evolve their roles to include direct responsibility for key functions: support, infrastructure, administrative IT – even the “fun” areas of teaching and learning and cyberinfrastructure. And then let’s prepare them further by placing them in deputy CIO positions to ready them for the move to the “captain’s chair.” EDUCAUSE can provide these academic “recruits” with excellent professional development vehicles.

We must strive to maintain the broadest possible role for the CIO in higher education so that the CIO position will remain steadfastly in the Cabinet. One way we can accomplish that is by continuing to diversify our talent base through the recruitment of more women and men with academic backgrounds and by ensuring that they are well-seasoned for the CIO role. Of course, one size does not fit all: there will be plenty of opportunities at all levels of the institution for the “battlefield-commissioned” professional CIO. But in some of our larger, leading institutions, an academic who has embraced the professional aspects of the role of CIO will be able to further strengthen the portfolio and perhaps more broadly influence the profession … and higher education.

Of course, these CIOs will still need to figure out how not to get sidetracked by plumbing leaks on a day-to-day basis. The job isn’t all fun; sometimes you need hip-waders and a plunger!

What are your thoughts? Does encouraging an influx of academics into the ranks of CIOs make sense? If so, how can the sitting CIOs among us start to make progress in bringing some of them into our organizations, so that they can pick up the very necessary understanding of the role not only of the strategist but also of the plumber?