The CIO Pipeline, Part 3: Being Strategic about Plumbing

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This is the final entry 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 2 addressed the need to broaden CIO recruitment efforts by infusing more academics (faculty) into the pipeline.

In the first two parts of this series, I’ve referred to the more operational aspects of the role of a CIO as “plumbing.” Like functioning, leak-free plumbing, the operational side of information technology disappears from the consciousness of the campus community. When things work as they should, we tend to give them no thought at all; and we might dismiss their overall value and importance to our higher-level activities and goals.

But the moment the plumbing does not work as it’s supposed to, everyone immediately pays attention. When something goes wrong – and something pretty much always goes wrong, thank you Mr. Murphy – these plumbing matters consume a CIO’s attention through resolution and recovery. As we explored in the EDUCAUSE GRC (governance/risk/compliance) discussions in the past year, when the plumbing breaks, all time and energy (and funding) that could go to the more advanced, esoteric aspects of our responsibilities quickly evaporates.

I have had some timely firsthand experience… During the recent unpleasantness as I was retiring from the University of Maryland, I had ample opportunity to engage with my president on the topic of plumbing. In our long and often intense discussions, we soon went beyond how the plumbing “leak” that had caused such strife had happened and got into why the leak was inevitable. In addition to all the logistical and technical elements, we explored how the long-standing institutional culture did not view IT fundamentals as strategic assets but instead viewed them as an auxiliary activity.

Core cultural issues became visible during our retrospective and introspective analysis of that crisis, issues that I believe go beyond one institution and are thus a broader challenge across higher education. All of these core cultural issues in some way emanate from a broader – and, I believe, flawed – view that IT fundamentals (the plumbing) are simply commodity elements without strategic value. However, our crisis exposed these so-called commodity elements as the main underpinnings to everything our institution does. To paraphrase Alan Shepard: It’s a very sobering fact to realize that the fundamental IT infrastructure upon which all of the institution’s future depends is viewed as a commodity to be acquired at the lowest possible price.

As EDUCAUSE President Diana Oblinger and I discussed this situation recently, Diana noted that a good analogy is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She suggested that I try to succinctly articulate that concept. So (succinctly) here goes:

1. IT “plumbing” is the foundational base of a conceptual pyramid of all IT needs. Our campus physical IT infrastructure and fundamental services – networks, data centers with servers and storage, administrative IT systems, learning management systems, IT helpdesk support and service, IT security and policy, etc. – articulate Maslow’s description of foundational levels of physiological/physical needs and safety needs.

2. The areas viewed as strategic use of IT are the upper levels of the pyramid. The IT used in transforming teaching and learning and the cyberinfrastructure used in advancing discovery (research) are the higher, more esoteric levels that Maslow articulates. According to Maslow, in order to pursue higher-level goals, one must first meet foundational needs. The same is true for IT on campus.

3. Satisfying upper-level needs is dependent on addressing more basic needs. Applying this concept, we can illustrate why fracturing the CIO/IT role – as we explored in the first two posts in this blog series – is perhaps unwise. When CIOs working in only those higher-level IT elements have neither grasp nor influence on supporting their activities, they will likely be ill-equipped to ensure the “self-actualization” levels of institutional achievement empowered by more advanced IT.

Okay … so what is to be done about this?

The way we ensure that the plumbing doesn’t leak is to treat it as a strategic enabler of our institution’s activities—not as an auxiliary. We must view these fundamental IT elements (e.g., networks, security, hardware, software, information systems) as the foundation of our strategic activities. All of IT becomes strategic in this sense. I believe we should take a few key steps to translate this view into reality:

Strategically Fund IT: We should be using a more holistic “public-good” utility funding model for core IT infrastructure and services, rather than auxiliary-based models (e.g., charge-back) that can discourage use or lead to inefficiencies (and risk and compliance gaps as well).

Strategically Adhere to Policy: Community engagement in policy development is wise and appropriate (governance), but when decentralized institutional structures lead to “opt-in/opt-out” adherence to key IT policies that protect the integrity of the institution as a whole (risk and compliance), problems will arise.

Strategically Define CIO Responsibilities and Accountabilities: The CIO’s first duty must be to the institution and its strategic advancement and operational integrity. While “service” to the campus community is how bona fides are built and maintained, campus leadership should not make “customer satisfaction” the primary measure by which a CIO is judged. Institutional effectiveness in its use of IT should be that measure.

IT leaders grasp these things well, but what we need is for the rest of our campus leadership – peer C-level colleagues, provosts, presidents, and boards – to truly grok this.

We have been attempting to spread the word by developing improved “arguments” and honing increasingly articulate presentations that we IT people can use to educate our leadership colleagues and win them over to our point of view. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this approach is getting results soon enough, given that time is of the essence. Allowing these discussions to continue only within the IT community – among CIOs sharing horror stories at conference forums and in articles, op-eds, and blogs – also will not get the job done. We’ve been discussing this topic in various forums for as long as I was a CIO (nearly a decade) and, I’m pretty sure, for a decade before that (if not longer).

Among ourselves, we’ve long ago concluded that all aspects of the CIO role are critical and strategic, with both strategist and plumbing functions being important to the success of a CIO. However, this message needs to go beyond the faithful of “the IT clergy” and get out to our cabinet peers, provosts, presidents, and boards. But in my view, we’re not going to get the message across by simply having a high-enough bully pulpit from which to preach to these executives.

We need them, these executives, to become the messengers, not just the recipients, of the message. We need more board members, presidents, and provosts (and other cabinet peers) who “get it” to become involved in leading this discussion. Not just because they are the ones who influence the placement and portfolio of the CIO. But because they are the ones who, in the end, are most dramatically affected by the cultural biases that contribute to the long-term ramifications of treating IT “plumbing” as an auxiliary enterprise instead of a strategic foundation for innovation.

How do we make this happen?

Do you have a president, a provost, or a VP colleague who groks IT and this Maslowian concept? Get them involved in spreading this word to their peers. Help your Chief Business Officer colleague write an article or deliver a presentation for NACUBO on the subject, or help your Enrollment Officer carry the word to AACRAO. Encourage your president to raise the issue among his/her colleagues in the AAU, APLU, SHEEO, or other forums germane to your institution type. Work with your provost to create an op-ed or panel discussion with ACE or with specific academic affiliations such as the CIC.

If you, as an IT leader, find yourself in forums with these colleagues – whether you are serving on a panel at one of their conferences or are consulting with another institution – make a point of putting aside the technical info you were chosen to provide or an update on the latest gadget from Cupertino and instead open a dialogue with them on the Maslowian analogy provided above. I recently had the opportunity to do just that, moderating a panel at the Association of Governing Boards annual conference. I held my breath and launched into a discussion of the cultural/behavioral aspects of what we’re facing. To my great relief (and joy!), all three of the executives sitting on the panel took up this topic and articulated their views that all of IT – not just the new, topically popular aspects – is strategic to the success of their institutions.

What about the CIO pipeline?

This view of the strategic value of IT fundamentals impacts our CIO pipeline challenges. It reinforces the need to carefully consider the holistic nature of the role, before institutions consider a short-term gain from a quick-fix of fracturing it into component parts. This view reinforces that as we seek to expand the pipeline to include more academically focused individuals, we must also provide grounded professional training and experiences for them so that they can properly address the foundational elements of the portfolio. We need to increase the breadth of understanding and support among institutional leaders – presidents, provosts, and boards in particular—for this holistic role. They must be engaged in filling and developing the CIO pipeline for their institutions’ advancement in these volatile times of disruption.