How CIOs can impact change at the cabinet level
- Technology impacts the conversations happening at the cabinet level—higher ed CIOs need to be a part of those conversations
- Hire people who can bring a different perspective and contribute new ideas
- As the student population changes, community colleges also need to change to better serve their students
How is the role of the higher ed CIO evolving? Why is it important for CIOs to be at the cabinet level?
More institutions are moving that chief information officer up to cabinet level positions. Technology has really crept into almost every aspect of the college and the institution. CIOs are becoming partners with the rest of the institution and all departments. They have to in order to survive, provide value, and participate in driving the institution forward.
The position is really becoming more of a cabinet level spot that needs to participate in almost every conversation and discussion that's happening on the campus.
There are discussions going on at the cabinet level on a regular basis that can be affected by technology. Without that input into the active conversation, it becomes difficult to catch up and discuss later or make changes after decisions or discussions have been had.
What skills do today's CIOs need in order to be successful?
You need to have at least enough technical depth to understand where the technology is headed and what it's doing. The other skill you need is to stop hiring people who are like you. That was something I had to learn, because everybody likes to work with people just like them. I like to work with people who are not like me, because now I get a different point of view. If you get a bunch of people who think just like you, you get a lot of the same ideas.
Get out of your comfort zone, hire people who are not like you, because you will get a more diverse picture of what to do, and when to do it, and where to go. You'll get people who can give you big ideas and tell you when you might be heading in the wrong direction. Those things are important.
It's something that most IT people need to work on, engaging people who don't think like them, who are in a different space, and have a different perspective. That's what the CIO needs to be able to do and how they need to change.
I think those are the tough things for CIOs to come to grips with, because they hire a lot of people they really, really like. I hire a lot of people who I know are going to be really good, because I need them to perform all the time and come with great ideas. It's a different set of dynamics now in IT, because everybody wants to “Do it with less. Do it faster.” You can't do it with less and faster if you don't have really, really, smart people working for you. You also need to find people that aren’t afraid to take chances, fail, learn, and do better. Those are tough to find, and when you find them, you need to figure out how to hold on to them.
There's a lot of soft skills that CIOs need. They can't just talk tech anymore. They constantly have to figure out how to translate “tech” into a language that is going to resonate with the particular audience you are talking to. That's not easy. That's something CIOs need to work on because it doesn’t come naturally.
What advice would you give to an aspiring CIO?
Find someone who is going to mentor you. Find somebody who's going to help you get ahead. Find somebody whose objective it is to grow you to the point where you can go do this on your own or even their job.
You need to have a mentor, not a boss. You need to find a mentor, somebody who's going to put you under their wing and drag you in the office and go, “Listen, here's a thing you can't do anymore. If you want to get ahead, these are the five things you need to remember.” You need to find that person.
When you find that person, be a sponge. Sit down and talk to him or her. Figure out what motivates them, where their head is at.
The days where you outlive the current CIO and get promoted into that position, I think they're long gone. I think they're now going, “Okay, that CIO is leaving. We need to find that next high-energy person who's going to get us to the next place.” If you just hire from within all the time and just wait out the CIO position, there's no change happening, and institutions need change.
How are community colleges changing? What challenges are they facing?
The landscape of what is going on at community colleges is changing on a regular basis and a rapid basis. They're trying to be far more relevant than they have been in the past or the population viewed their relevancy.
You're dealing with a changing landscape with a student population that has the demographic from one side of the equation to the other. And you're now starting to see, as things evolve, those students who would normally have gone to a four-year institution, now starting at a community college.
The population will change again. You'll start to see the population change to those students who are four-year degree-seeking students who are going to start their career purposely at a community college, where in the past, maybe that wasn't really the game plan. Maybe they were just going to get the two-year degree. Now, options are much wider.
Everybody is fighting for enrollment. They're all scrambling to change curriculum, adjust, be more focused on business partnerships with local businesses and delivering students who can fit into future workforces for those businesses. Everyone is trying to predict what the workforce of the future will look like and how to graduate students two or four years from now but community colleges are at ground zero.
Community colleges are becoming much more focused on what can they deliver to the local community to fill the job opportunities that are happening there, and what are the things that we can graduate students with that absolutely can get them a job and hit the ground running.
Do you have any advice for institutions considering a move to SaaS?
This is my advice to everybody: You need to look at what has been preventing you from adapting or adopting the technology changes and enhancements that have been rolling out. Institutions cannot afford to adopt technology changes, enhancements, and new features slowly as IT works out the integration issues or fixing the “customizations” made over the years because they can’t afford to fall behind.
The reason that we went at Mercer is we needed to, as an institution, fall forward faster; be able to accept updates, changes, and enhancements quicker; be able to deliver new features and functions to the institution and students when they came out; and we needed to focus on really important things like how do we deliver better service to the students? How do we improve the business practice so that students aren't waiting in lines when they register? We're looking at technology to fix that or at least contribute to the solution.
Our directive was: Serve students anywhere, anytime, and have technology available. The only way we were going to do that was to get into a SaaS environment where we no longer needed to worry about whether that patch or that update was going to get installed or break the system, because we had more important things we needed to focus on, which was business process and making the institution more effective. Our directive wasn’t to write great code or interesting modifications or to keep a finger in the dam to hold the water back. It was to help the institution meet its strategic goals while utilizing current technology better, finding and deploying new technology that can enhance and improve the student experience, and constantly looking for the future technology that people may only be thinking about that could positively affect the mission.
It’s about being more effective, and utilizing IT in a way totally different, and changing the way technology is perceived, and changing the way the institution does business. That's the reason we went, to jumpstart the institution and make change, and that's absolutely happening.
The one thing every institution needs to be aware of is that the move to SaaS is an institutional culture shift— it must be—and that shift includes IT. IT is critical in the participation and leading the culture shift to make the move to SaaS. The shift or change includes how you do your job, how you support the customer, how you support the student, how data is managed and accessed, and how you even talk about the environment. And change can be and often is hard.