Federal CIO College Marks 20th Anniversary

Information Resources Management College began as Department of Defense Computer Institute.

by / January 18, 2009

Half a century ago, modern computing began its rapid march across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Rooms brimming with racks of equipment fueled the postwar age of automation, demanding an entirely new set of military skills. While practical training was aimed at the mechanics of computing - programming, maintaining and operating - the Pentagon soon realized that educating leadership was also important and senior managers would need to be schooled in the fundamentals of IT if such a capability was to be appropriately leveraged. This recognition led to the creation of the DoD Computer Institute, a joint program that by the early '70s reached nearly 3,000 students per year.

This bit of historical perspective is important when considering the present-day equivalent of that bygone training venture, which underwent an official name change in 1988 and inherited its current moniker, the Information Resources Management College (IRMC). No longer anchored to an era of punch cards and transistors, the IRMC enjoys a modern identity all its own, and this year it ticks through its 20th anniversary as a component of the fully accredited and widely respected National Defense University (NDU). The college isn't just for educating DoD leaders, but also serves federal, state and local governments and international leaders.

The IRMC has good cause to reflect on its evolution since its relatively modest beginnings and consider the landscape of pending challenges and what they may mean for a new generation of government leaders. Although it was ostensibly created with information resources in mind, the IRMC is anything but a "DoD computer school." The coming years will test the college's ability to innovate, widen its aperture of influence and posture itself as an enduring leader within the DoD and throughout the full range of federal, public, private and international partners.

A Tectonic Shift
Tucked within the gates of Fort Lesley J. McNair along the Washington, D.C., waterfront, the IRMC occupies a place of geographic and historical distinction, shoulder-to-shoulder with NDU's other schools: the National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Although the IRMC is the newest of these colleges, it has grown into a critical NDU component and is certainly no less important in terms of molding the nation's leadership in the face of evolving geopolitics, emerging technologies and national security challenges.

When the IRMC was officially designated a graduate institution in 1988, its chief offering was the Advanced Management Program, a course of instruction still well attended today. Yet this academic staple is now complemented by a number of newer IRMC certificates that have gained momentum in recent years. Most notable are the Information Assurance and Chief Information Officer certificates, the latter of which was born with the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996. The act created a tectonic shift in the management of federal information resources because it put formal structure and competencies behind the acquisition and integration of IT - a significant legislative nod of endorsement for a government college catering to such skills. All told, the college now awards 11 graduate certificates.

The IRMC and its certificate programs have gained increasing exposure and recognition, and are attended by students from a variety of sectors - military, civilian, private sector, international and public sector. With a student body composed of graduate-level leadership, the college fills 3,500 seats annually, a number that far exceeds other management institutes of its kind. Of course, other federal entities administer department-level education programs; every agency, from Interior to Treasury, offers courses geared for upper management. In fact, more than 100 such programs spill from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Federal Leadership Development Catalog, but only half of them invite federal students from outside the sponsoring agency. Far fewer open their classrooms to nonfederal employees, and virtually none offer the type of graduate-level certificates granted by the IRMC.

Because the college is a DoD installation, enrollment is free only for Defense Department military personnel and civilians. Roughly 70 percent of the student body is made up of DoD personnel (with a 2-to-1 civilian/military ratio); the other 30 percent is non-DoD federal employees, public-sector professionals, private sector and international students. Non-DoD personnel - federal, state and local government employees - pay $1,100 per course (and those with a signed memoranda of agreement at the IRMC Registrar's Office pay even less), and private industry pays $1,995. IRMC certificates consist of four to eight courses (either as five-day resident courses or a 12-week distributed learning option for each course), so a public-sector government student can attain a certificate for less than $10,000. (Please note: The Advanced Management Program has a different structure and slightly different tuition.)

Not a Technology School
One reason for IRMC's broad appeal is its capacity to reinvent itself against the backdrop of a core mission that hasn't changed appreciably since it was created. Its elemental purpose is to prepare leaders to utilize the power of information and IT. For as much as this mission establishes academic boundaries, it also offers inherent latitude, as the traits that make for a federal CIO are the same traits that make for a good government leader in general; the college refers to these as CXOs.

For example, things like strategic planning, organizational development and change management - all competencies prescribed by the Federal CIO Council - are elements common to both IT and general managers, and offer the college sufficient leeway in terms of revisiting and remaking its curriculum. As Mary McCully, chair of the Information Strategies Department, explained, "We strive to go beyond vocational stovepipes and develop courses that make the CIO someone who can reach across all management tiers and really transform the enterprise, not just manage its IT."

The driving reason behind the college's 20-year growth and relevance lies in its enlightened faculty and brash conviction of Senior Director Robert Childs. A walking amalgam of both tactician and strategist, he oversees the mechanics of a sprawling campus - both physical and virtual - while fervently shaping its future and striving to dispel preconceptions about the IRMC being a "tech school."

"When the office of the CIO first emerged, we were more about technology," he said. "But now we're about so much more - innovation, transformation and optimization. If we were to allow ourselves to dwell solely in the technical realm, we'd be doing our students a great disservice." Although formally named director in 1999, Childs' influence within the school was felt much earlier, as he was IRMC's dean of faculty beginning in 1991. Prior to setting foot at the college, he honed his pedigree as an academic provost through decades of trailblazing experience in military and civilian educational institutions.

Never content to rest, Childs continually challenges his staff to assess, define and refine the school's mission focus, each time emerging with a renewed sense of purpose and potency. Childs has consistently clung to the notion that the school isn't a technical institute, but a business school that improves the fabric of government leadership and a service organization that sublets its vast intellectual capital for those seeking appropriate knowledge. "I no longer see us as merely a graduate school," he said. "More and more, we are a service organization with the potential to impact CXO offices worldwide."

Childs has taken this idea of service organization to new and innovative heights, commoditizing and exporting the IRMC's subject matter expertise to a growing domestic and overseas student base. Because he understands the intrinsic connection between U.S. and international CXO competencies, he has embarked on an aggressive program of capacity building, advising countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Sweden, the UK and Singapore, all of which are moving to establish similar professional institutions. Moreover, he is using the power of the private sector - the likes of Sprint, CISCO, BAE Systems and many others - to expose students to emerging technologies. The fruits of this partnership can be seen in any one of the school's several computer and simulation labs, which include workstations, static displays and scale models sporting all varieties of applications and hardware.

By opening these laboratories to market leaders, Childs can acquaint his students with today's technology, not dated systems with long-expired capabilities. "See this?" he asks, pointing to a plastic box that looks more like a toy than a bona fide piece of IT. "It's the $100 laptop. Even federal government CIOs need to know what kids in the developing world are using." By breeding awareness of evolving technologies and their uses, Childs enables students to go forth with a more informed perspective on what types of information resources are finding their way into the mainstream.

In addition to showcasing new hardware and software, the information assurance, crisis management and virtual reality labs serve as a proving ground for emerging information security concepts. "Cyber-space is the newest enveloping concept," he said, pointing to an interactive model city roughly the space of a pingpong table. "This mockup demonstrates how cyber-space penetrates every aspect of our life and how our adversaries can use that dependency to their advantage."

Expanding the Mission
These labs and their capacity to enhance the student experience are living proof of the school's ethic of ingenuity. By maintaining a chameleon-like relevance to the present day, the IRMC works to lead, rather than lag the vocational competencies of federal information leaders. This license to invent led to two significant initiatives coinciding with the school's 20th anniversary. First, the IRMC announced a new Chief Financial Officer certificate, an offering that would appear to be at odds with the traditional CIO role, but is, in fact, entirely supportive of the CIO's capital planning responsibilities. The other noteworthy development is the potential availability of a full-fledged master's degree in Government Strategic Leadership (with concentrations that mirror IRMC's certificates). Such an undertaking will require approval from Congress and the Department of Education, and will likely take one to three years to materialize, but it marks a seminal change in the college's core identity. The college is currently seeking master's degree approval.

"We've long had partner relationships with other graduate schools, and we will continue those," Childs said. "But now we'll also have the autonomous ability to grant a degree, and one that is very different from what our partners offer. It's a pretty big deal for any federal educational institution."

Despite two decades of reinventing itself and progressively expanding its educational variety, the IRMC - nearly by virtue of its name alone - will always be subject to the catalyzing effects of broad external factors impacting the office of the CIO. Budgets, personnel, disruptive technologies and emerging legislative currents may introduce subtle or even significant new dimensions to the information resources environment.

First, where the fiscal landscape is concerned, money will be the surest indicator of how well or how much the CIO continues to play in the new electronic government and in cyber-space security. Undoubtedly the IRMC has benefitted from the conditions created by a meteoric rise in federal IT spending. At the time of its creation, the college was witness to a federal IT budget of some $17 billion, where now the same line item totals $70 billion. Because IT costs are so conspicuous - and because management of these funds is regularly under fire - it's likely that even if the budget continues to rise it will be under the watchful eyes of auditors and agencies calling for a tangible return on investment.

As for any significant expansions or contractions in the federal information work force, current projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics don't reflect noteworthy changes in the coming years. Senior-level managers in general will experience a nominal drop by 2016, but in terms of computer-specific occupations, there will be a slight rise in the aggregate numbers of IT specialists. Some of these sectors, however, such as computer programmers, will decline more severely. In all, there are no terribly significant trends in force structure that will categorically change the demographic of information professionals within senior management or at the operator level.

While the future force may portend only modest impact, evolving technologies stand to change the CIO position in ways that cannot yet be envisioned. Although the competencies of a federal leader will remain relatively timeless, they will not be entirely technology-neutral, especially for the CIO. Emerging trends in information systems will almost certainly be of consequence, as any number of dawning innovations may disrupt conventional government IT practices. Some of these oncoming technologies include the Semantic Web, new and vast improvements to processing and storage, and even the full redesign of the Internet itself. Taken together, these external factors will play into the IRMC's strategic planning formula and contribute to the emerging picture of the next 20 years.

"I can't predict the future," Childs said, "but I'd sure like to influence it. We're going to do all we can to keep the CIO position relevant and value added. It's really not about computers anymore; it's about knowing the business operation and bringing the power of information to bear. It's also about communicating on a leadership level - not 'geek speak.' Telling a compelling, consistent and understandable story may be the CIO's most powerful weapon." Childs sees an increasing need for CIOs to cross-pollinate at every level - DoD, state, local and international. By shaping this confluence of issues and ideas, the IRMC hopes to retain its visionary edge and bolster the clout and relevance of the CIO writ large.

When asked how much bigger the college will be in the coming decades, Childs said, "Words like 'bigger' aren't as important as 'better.' It's not about how large the campus becomes, but how well we adapt to the professional landscape and serve our stakeholders' needs."

As to the question of how relevant the office of the CIO will remain, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will weigh heavily into that equation, especially for the federal sector. Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the OMB, sees an enduring need for the CIO who can harness IT's power to make government more effective. This includes holding program managers accountable for delivering the functionality they promise - on time and on budget. "CIOs need to be business partners, clarifiers, problem solvers, managers and most importantly, results oriented," Johnson said.

Childs, too, sees a lasting need for a senior-level government professional who can prudently put IT to work. "The position may change within the margins, but the basic mandate is constant. As a school director, I simply want to improve the office through world-class education in the best, most appropriate academic setting there is."

In the end, a forward-looking curriculum may not be nearly as important as the pedigree and knowledge of the students who pass through the IRMC. These individuals, with a lifelong association and familiarity with IT's power, may ultimately represent the most significant driver of the college's foothold in the future, because their savvy and academic expectations will surely stoke the coals of new curricula and course offerings.

With 20 years behind it, the IRMC has taken root as a significant player in the education of military, government, public- and private-sector professionals. Once an institute that catered solely to military leaders confronting new technologies, it has transformed its longstanding mandate into a new educational imperative - one that adds meaning and relevance to the office of the federal CIO and takes its traditional competencies in new and inventive directions.