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Opinion: Higher Ed CIOs Need More Than Technical Skills

Far from being limited to technological savvy, essential skills for a chief information officer are evolving with the role's scope of influence, today including management, business, security and communication.

A man wearing a business suit reaching out to tap on the word "CIO" in front of him. Arrows point from the "CIO" to other symbols like a cluster of buildings, a bar graph, a lock, a clipboard and a set of cogs and wheels.
The term “chief information officer” first appeared in 1981, used by William Synott and William Gruber in their book Information Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s. People used floppy disks back then, and cellphones and wireless access to the Internet were still a sci-fi show’s dream. But the role of the CIO evolved dramatically with the rapid growth of technology.

When I first went to work in government in the early 1990s, there was no CIO title or person in a similar position. But by the mid-'90s, the position was created and the seat was filled. In the early 2000s, the CIO role was also emerging in higher education. Technology’s impact on education was about to start in earnest, and there were great expectations for how transformative it would be. To ensure success, there was a growing need in education for someone to champion technology strategy and lead colleges and universities through the next phase of their digital transformation. Technology directors at the time reported to vice presidents with no technology expertise or experience. Enterprise technology was not on the agenda. Whiteboards were at the front of the classroom. Online learning management systems were in the “pilot” stages of use.

I am encouraged to see how the role of the technology leader has evolved over the years. I can’t imagine any higher education institution going through this transformation now without one. I attribute the elevation of the position to technology-savvy students, increased technology on campus, heightened awareness of and focus on cyber attacks and security, and the overall need to adapt quickly to a changing business and technology environment.

Over the past three years, CIOs have become invaluable partners to education and functional leaders. This new status also gets them a seat at the C-suite table. For those CIOs still working toward this change: Demonstrating knowledge and understanding of what the business owner needs, and aligning those needs to your technology strategy, will help you on your way. An enterprise strategy that addresses user frustrations and shows your commitment to things like continuity of operations will only lead to positive impressions. Engaging with business users more frequently could also help them to know and appreciate what you bring to the table. CIOs are problem solvers, so think outside the box and find innovative ways to tackle longstanding problems — capabilities that all leaders like to have in a CIO and partner.

While this may be a transformative time for technology, it’s also a transformative moment in technology leadership. Higher education needs CIOs who are strategic partners to all business leaders and who can align functional needs to their technology plans; who know how to balance the technical challenges and priorities they already face with new demands for innovation and progress; who are risk takers, but not so risky that they put continuity of operations at risk; who understand cybersecurity and will do what is needed to protect the college or university; who can communicate in basic terms and put away the technical dictionary; and who know how to lead a team, advocate for them and in the end manage the work successfully.

To do all this is no easy task. CIOs who were once expected to have degrees in computer science-related disciplines must now develop their softer skills — people skills, communications skills, management skills — and at the same time create a firsthand knowledge of business lines and functional operations. Investing in nontechnical skills will accelerate a CIO’s partner status and evolve how others see the role of IT in the university or college.
Brian Cohen is the Vice President of the Center for Digital Government and Center Digital Education. Prior to joining the Center, Brian served for 30 years in IT leadership roles with the City of New York and most recently with the City University of New York (CUNY).