Posts Tagged ‘ Higher Education ’

Information Technology and the Economic Downturn

I am writing this blog while on an airplane to Texas. As I often do when I travel, I bought a copy of The Economist in the airport and plan on reading the magazine cover-to-cover during the flight. As one might expect given today’s economic environment, a central theme of the issue I hold in my hands is the global economic downturn and the pending impact on industry and society.

The words in the magazine lead me to reflect about the upcoming challenges for IT and, since I am generally an optimist, I also wonder about what opportunities we have for utilizing information technologies to some of ease the negative impacts of the global economic downturn.

In a broad sense IT can either be run (or perceived) as a cost centre or an innovation centre. If IT is a cost centre then the organizational focus will be on determining how to reduce the current IT spending. If IT is an innovation centre then we should be contemplating investments in projects that identify (and implement) ways to streamline business processes to reduce costs, improve services, or enter new markets.

Clearly IT will need to find ways to reduce current IT expenditures to assist with balancing the books. IT will need to restructure and reduce costs. But just making our share of cuts and waiting for this fiscal unpleasantness to pass would be, in my opinion, missing an opportunity. I think now, more than ever, we need to find ways to use IT to ensure we use our scarce resources to get maximum value.

The economic situation has brought with it a sense of crisis (or potential pending crisis) in many organizations. This can be a significant catalyst for change. We are likely entering a period of time where organizations will be willing to more critically examine past business practices and approaches to drive out costs and improve services.

However, in these economic times it may be difficult for organizations to invest in large IT projects. Capital will be scarce. Any large project risks will be difficult to justify. So instead of envisioning large monolithic projects that have positive but perhaps a rather long-term return to the organization, I think we need to rely on a more incremental approach.

Big vision, small steps. And each step must provide distinct value to the organization.

Incrementalism can be a sound philosophical approach even in good times and certainly a good practical approach when times are tougher. However, sometimes I feel some people would really rather talk about the big wins.

In these tough economic times our challenge in IT will be to convince people that a lot of aligned smaller wins are more likely and more valuable than that one big project. No matter how exciting that big project may be!

Are you a CIO or an IT Director?

As of the time of publishing this blog I have been a CIO for 3.578 years.

As an old CIO joke goes, not so many years ago the typical duration of someone in the CIO role was thought to be about 2-3 years, so by at least one measure I am now an above average CIO. I strive to also be successful by other (more useful) measures but the joke leads me to wonder what are the appropriate responsibilities and measures of success for a CIO in Higher Education.

The letters “CIO” are an abbreviation for Chief Information Officer but another common title for the “chief” in this area is “IT Director”. How does an IT Director differ from a CIO? Exploring this difference leads me to at least two significant measures of success for a CIO.

First, let’s explore what an IT Director might do. In most organizations an IT Director has the responsibility for the centralized IT function. In an academic setting that generally includes the key business systems, networks, the common applications used by most staff and students (e.g., campus email, calendar, learning management system, desktop applications, etc.), and often the campus phone services. It typically does not include any responsibility for the distributed IT services within the Faculties, Department or other units. In fact the distributed IT units may often offer competing services such as local email. In a large research intensive University the combined distributed IT shops can easily be as large as the central IT organization. If you’ve got a Medical School distributed IT might even be larger than central IT.

In some organizations a CIO is seen as a relabeled IT Director. Same responsibility, shorter title. But, in my opinion, a real CIO has several key differences in responsibilities from an IT Director.

The first key difference is scope. An IT Director is often responsible for just the central IT, a CIO is responsible for the IT across the institution. Wait a moment, some of you are saying to yourselves! In most higher education institutions with a CIO there is still a large segment of distributed IT that report through different lines — typically up through a Dean. So? The CIO still is responsible for the overall IT directions of the campus. Regardless of budget or HR authority, they still are responsible to move the complete IT organization in the appropriate direction. Through a variety of means — developing a shared vision, creating incentives, developing relationships, funding, and, if desperate, use of corporate politics (in only the nicest of ways!) — the CIO is responsible for developing alignment and direction that enables the institution to best use IT to achieve the institutional goals. In addition to delivering on a central set of IT services, the real CIO is also responsible for delivering on a set of localized IT services.

The second major difference can be seen in the title. The title “CIO” doesn’t contain the word “technology”. IT Director is often seen as the chief tech person. And, especially in some of the smaller IT shops, is often a person with a very strong technical orientation. While the CIO generally has the central IT Department as one of their units that is not the sole or perhaps ultimately even the most important function. I see the CIO’s responsibility as one in which they need to meet the organization’s “information” needs. Technology just happens to be one of the key mechanisms by which the “Information Officer” can meet those needs. That said, if the basic technology is not functioning, a CIO might as well pack their bags and go. Unless basic services function, there is nothing on which to lay the more valuable “information” services. The provision and management of information is a hard thing to measure. But basically the provision of quality “information” should result in better decision making across the organization.

So what does the above mean with respect to measures for the success of the CIO? Obviously there should be a suite of measures of success of the CIO, and the specific items will tend to differ for different organizations. However, two key measures arise from the above:

1) Alignment of services. A successful CIO should be moving the institution toward common sets of services (where they make sense) regardless of the distributed nature of the IT environment. Some indicators could be the reduction in number of email systems, file services, directories, web services or help desks.

2) Success of the organization. Simply measure the CIO on the overall organizational ability to achieve stated goals. That is, the same general measures as one might expect to use for the President, CEO, VP(Finance) or other senior corporate officers.

By the way, another old CIO joke (that stems from the same time period when a CIO’s careers with a firm lasted about 2 years) is that the letters CIO actually stands for “Career Is Over”. However, this “above average” CIO expects to continue in his career for at least another decade before retiring to some place where he can fly fish every day of the year.