The role of the modern campus CIO
Christopher Markham, associate vice president and chief information officer (CIO) at SUNY Empire State College, is currently leading the largest digital and business process transformation his institution has ever seen, which includes the simultaneous implementation of constituent relationship management (CRM) systems for enrollment, advising, and advancement, in addition to several other student-focused technology implementations.
In this interview, Markham weighs in on a range of challenges in his role as a CIO in higher education.
Q: How has the role of the higher ed CIO evolved?
A: It's incredibly complex and challenging. Anybody that tells you differently is either not completely engaged, not leading, or they're misinforming to you. The role of a CIO in higher education in many ways rhymes with the rapidly evolving roles of IT leaders the world saw from the 1980s to the early 2000s, where if you weren't gaining experience in new tech leadership roles every 12 to 18 months either within your institution or at different ones, the understanding was that there was something wrong with you. That was the stigma in Silicon Valley because the rate of change in technology and enterprise was so fast.
The pace of change is even faster now. Whereas I think what happened is the ‘80s and ‘90s were the Wild West for the tech industry and things have been kind of reined in since then. There are some remnants of that culture, and I think the turnover is a little higher in the role of CIOs, at least in the CIOs who are expected to be change agents. Nobody wants to be that CIO who claims to have 20 years’ experience at one institution, but really only has five years’ experience four times. I think it’s easy to make this mistake. There’s no substitute for experience, and breadth and depth of experience are both needed.
You only worry about what you can control, right? I think within any organization—public or private, higher ed or non-higher ed—senior leadership often receives extra scrutiny for the overall effectiveness and culture of an institution. At SUNY Empire State College, we’ve been very good about continuing to drive toward the continuous improvement and transformation goals we established for the institution. That’s entirely dependent upon the culture dictated at the top of an organization but controlled at the bottom, and we have a good culture here.
Q: What can IT leaders do to have a bigger impact on campus?
A: If IT-related personnel are to be thought leaders at an institution—especially in higher education where IT typically lags 5-10 years behind business and industry—you need IT leaders behind core pieces of the institution’s strategy and vision. I serve as CIO on the president’s cabinet—according to CHECS survey reports nationwide, only about 50% of CIOs are on the president’s cabinet in higher ed, but it’s absolutely where CIOs ought to be.
There are two types of CIOs. One focuses on bits and bytes and blinking lights. They're the old infrastructure crew or programmers who came up through aging IT systems, and now they're CIOs. And then you've got the CIOs that are genuine thought leaders. They're focused on how they can partner with constituencies to reflect strategic value in their strategic initiatives and objectives, educational technology promoting pedagogical efficacy, and a systems view of the overall enterprise. They’re constantly asking themselves questions like, “How can I help to transform the teaching and learning process, or improve it in some way, shape, and form?"
If you want to emerge as a thought leader at the table as CIO, the structures need to be there, you need to have cabinet-level leaders who understand the value proposition of technology in the 21st-century, higher education landscape. But it also starts with you: you have to be willing to get to the table if you're not there and speak to more than just transactional issues. Of course, you have to satisfy basic transactional needs first in order to emerge as a thought leader. If you can't keep the lights on, you'll never be able to do that.
Q: How do you get other departments moving in the same direction with IT?
A: My favorite word is evangelize. To inspire transformation, you have to create evangelists—you can’t drive everything yourself, and you shouldn’t. I always start off with the philosophy of imagine how much you can get done if it didn't matter who got the credit. I empower other leaders and directors, but I match authority with accountability. And so I allow them to achieve their results their own way, that’s really key, but the results are established together.
A lot of leaders claim they don’t micromanage, but then they expect their leaders and managers to achieve results their way, and so stifle creativity and muzzle self-expression. They’re getting ready to die on the vine as an organization. We establish the results together and agree, “This is the direction we're going.” And while that may start in IT, that same message and culture has to be felt with all our partner groups across campus.
Most of what I do is ceremonial, relational, and architectural—it’s motivational. It’s paying attention to the science-based principals of organizational change management—I ensure that we're continuing to move in a strategic direction and that our partnerships and our relationships are sound across the aisle. In that vein, I empower all of my direct reports, and they empower their direct reports in order for us to have sound relationship management. We can’t get very much done without that.
It also helps to be aware of what your brand is within leadership circles. I'm perceived to be a change agent, and so I step up. That's what I am. I don't hide it. You have to be honest and happy with what kind of leader you are.
Q: How do you manage to keep a big transformation on track?
A: Once you kick off a big implementation, success depends on the cohesiveness between the project teams. Project management leadership is what it all boils down to here—that and executive sponsorship. If we weren't constantly checking in among cabinet-level leaders, project management would never have gotten the support it needed. Communication flows are also a deliberately designed project that governance structures and executive sponsors need in order to be the strategy’s greatest cheerleaders.
Leadership is not such a big, complicated thing. You just have to be decisive and understand where your role starts and stops; it’s how all of economics functions. As a leader, and as a leadership team, we recognized that we need to evangelize and ensure execution of the flagship. The flagship is the strategic plan, the strategic goals and objectives.
We stay out of the way to allow project management to be the experts we hired them to be. We empower them to achieve the strategic goals and objectives, and essentially, we function as risk managers along the journey. Are you achieving the goals and objectives? If not, tell us why, and how we can help you remove barriers. Otherwise we’ll stay out of your way.
Being statewide and internationally based, we need to empower the project management team as leaders in order to accomplish things efficiently. To that end, we invested in project management professional (PMP) certification for everyone in our project management office. When managers and directors need us to remove barriers as executive sponsors, we do so. But our actions always map to the flagship strategic goals and objectives.
Q: How do you set up a successful transformation process?
A: I was brought into Empire State because I had formal training and experience in organizational change management. These are the five steps leaders should follow before embarking on any major transformative effort:
- Before you begin any change, establish your institution’s strategy.
- You need a firm organizational structure in place. Don't do a reorganization during an implementation. There's a lot of research showing how much of a mistake that is. It’s almost guaranteed to be fatal to your implementation if you reorganize during rather than before.
- Establish your requirements and model your enterprise business processes ahead of selecting a vendor to partner with. It’s OK to allow room for fine-tuning once new projects are underway, but you must begin with baseline processes in place.
- Recognize that it's not just a technology transformation. It's a business transformation, really, because there’s no value inherent in technology, only the value people give to it. And if your higher ed culture doesn’t like the word business, then just use the words administrative and digital. It's an administrative and digital transformation.
- If I was having a loose conversation with a president or vice president at a college, I'd mention that it's a necessary idea to establish a data governance committee ahead of selecting a vendor and start establishing a data dictionary. We formed an inclusive, comprehensive committee, and one of the first things we did was establish a data dictionary.
Data governance is probably the single most foundational piece of digital transformation. Our data governance committee is made up of representatives from every functional office around the college. It’s literally every functional office—meaningful data governance cannot be siloed.
Q: What advice do you have for other institutions looking to pull off their own digital transformation?
A: Right now, institutions can leap forward when there’s strength in collaboration, operational ability, and strategic leadership—all in the interest of student success. A few years ago I gave up the philosophy that your greatest asset in an organization is your people—because I disagree. Your greatest asset is your communication. You can have the best people in the world working for you, but if you have poor communication you won’t get anything done. In some sense your greatest asset is still your people, but really communication comes first.
I instill a culture of communication by clearly articulating a vision, so everyone understands the vision for Information Technology Services at SUNY Empire State College. That is what I believe I'm chiefly responsible for, and it's not just pie-in-the-sky platitudes—it's collaborative, persistent, applied, and effective thought leadership.
That’s a bit of a failing point for most leaders, and not just IT leaders. The really excellent senior leaders of any organization understand the importance of evaluating, collaborating, and communicating about strategy continuously while holding teams accountable to each objective along the way.
Digital transformation is not a top-down authoritarian process; it has to be collaborative. The work we’re doing now will bring our institution to a level of efficiency and effectiveness we haven’t yet seen this century.