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5 Reasons Why CIO Is a Cabinet-Level Position

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With the proliferation of technology on college campuses, the role of the CIO has evolved. Learn how institutions that include their CIOs in the cabinet are benefiting from better outcomes, including increased innovation and the ability to achieve their most pressing objectives.

At EDUCAUSE 2017, one of the most interesting sessions featured a discussion on data security between prominent campus leaders at some of America's top institutions — and among the most interesting points made was the assertion that the CIO needs to be included in a president's cabinet for an institution to be adequately protected against data loss and theft.

I found that fascinating for two reasons. First, it made me reflect on the stark differences that exist between institutions that do include the CIO in the cabinet and those that don't. For the most part, we see better outcomes with institutions that elevate the CIO to this level — and not just in the context of innovation, but in their ability to achieve institutional goals across the board. And second, it got me thinking about all the reasons — in addition to security — why the cabinet is precisely where the CIO belongs.

Security certainly tops the list, but given the ubiquitous nature of technology deployments on today's campuses, there are myriad other factors that make today's CIOs much more than just the IT guy or gal. If institutions are serious about operational efficiency, student experience, and a host of other priorities shared across the higher education landscape, then the CIO needs to be more decision-maker than order-taker. Here are just the top five reasons why:

1. Security

Among the EDUCAUSE panelists, the most important question related to data security on campus was how to elevate the issue to a governance level. That's only possible if the CIO has regular access to senior leaders, preferably at regular cabinet meetings.

The CIO needs to be aware of how the work of other leaders can lead to risk — and if an issue arises, the CIO needs to be able to communicate (without a filter) the level of threat and the limits those leaders must accept to protect the institution. At the same time, placing the CIO at the cabinet level rounds out the influence most CIOs have via their board committees as well.

Moreover, the combined one-two punch of cabinet and board involvement creates a set of circumstances that forces management to keep data security top of mind. And, in turn, management's focus enables a diligent mindset to cascade throughout all levels of the institution as every employee begins to see data security as a priority [https://www.ellucian.com/insights/solving-cybersecuritys-people-problem] that requires constant attention.

2. Technology Touches Everything

Access to, and the dissemination of, information is absolutely critical to every member of a president's cabinet.

photo of president addressing faculty in meeting room

Examples include the Provost, who oversees curricula and advising services that are increasingly delivered through some type of educational software or platform. There is the VP of Institutional Relations whose access to social and other digital media is absolutely crucial. There is the VP of Student Life, who relies on technology to reach students on issues ranging from a dire emergency to everyday events on campus. There is the Chief Financial Officer, who depends on software for reporting, budget implementation, and management of operations and the physical plant. And there is the VP of Human Resources, who uses some form of digital means in nearly every interaction with faculty and staff.

When the CIO sits on the cabinet, there are typically at least four occasions every month where he or she can lead a discussion about some aspect of the institution's information technology and whether the speed and quality or underlying services is up to snuff. This enables issues to be nipped in the bud before they become real problems — and it helps ensure that the cabinet is always supported to the fullest extent possible.

3. Budgeting

Because technology touches just about every aspect of an institution's operations, many competing priorities arise when it comes time to decide where to invest the institution's technology budget — and if the CIO isn't at the crux of this decision-making process, the cabinet is essentially flying blind.

In this cloud-centric environment, where technology vendors are increasingly knocking on the doors of functional leaders outside the IT department, The CIO understands better than anyone how well certain systems perform, how easy or difficult they are to implement and integrate, how much they cost, and whether they are worth the return on investment. Without a direct channel to those functional leaders, there is a risk that the CIO's expertise will be left out of the process entirely.

Equally important, open, cabinet-level discussions about the order in which projects should be implemented means that no other leader can argue that he or she didn't have a voice when budget priorities were set.

4. Innovation

After reading this far, you may be coming to the conclusion that every cabinet level conversation is all about technology. Believe it or not, most don't start that way. But that doesn't mean they can't end in the IT sphere.

When the CIO can be an active participant in cabinet level discussions on issues outside his or her normal purview, the CIO is then empowered to think creatively about solutions that others on the cabinet may never have considered. Are enrollment projections down? There may be a new piece of software that helps recruiters target the students most likely to succeed on a certain campus. Is retention becoming an issue? There may be an advising solution that provides early warning and the ability to intercede before a student drops out. Are strategic planning processes moving too slowly? There may be new analytics or workflow systems that can infuse new efficiencies.

When the CIO is read into the challenges other VPs are confronting, the potential solutions often grow exponentially.

5. Today's CIOs are Higher Education Experts

In the same way that a facilities director knows every inch of a campus' physical layout, today's CIOs possess an incredible grasp of the numerous departments, functions, and services that comprise higher education. Why? Because their work brings them into contact with each and every one. From advising to residence life and from the classroom to the dining hall, the modern CIO is master of constituent service — and that means the CIO must understand a multitude of diverse constituencies — and their diverse needs — better than anyone.

The job of CIO is no longer relegated to the ins and outs of network configuration or explaining what WCAG 2.0 Level AA specifications mean. It's about understanding the many roles on campus and how best to support them. It's about understanding student expectations [https://www.ellucian.com/Insights/Connected-Technology-Experiences/] for a mobile, on-demand experience. And it's about a true understanding of how every piece of the puzzle works together to achieve an institution's ultimate educational mission.

This puts the CIO squarely in the center of institutional operations, culture, experience — and it provides the CIO a level of experience, perspective, and expertise from which any cabinet can benefit.

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Kari Branjord, Senior Vice President, Strategy & Product Management, Ellucian