CIO: A Steward of Innovation in Education Arena

Gina Siesing, Chief Information Officer & Constance A. Jones Director of Libraries, Bryn Mawr College
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Gina Siesing, Chief Information Officer & Constance A. Jones Director of Libraries, Bryn Mawr College

I believe that colleges and universities can lead all industries in nurturing innovation that supports lasting and meaningful development. Higher education has a few distinct advantages as an industry sector in terms of fostering innovation and responding to evolution in our environment. First, the ethos of academic freedom means that individuals across the academic community are continuously questioning existing paradigms in their respective fields and creating new knowledge collectively. Second and related, there is a generous culture of sharing knowledge among counterparts across institutions in almost every field, as opposed to the proprietary approach to knowledge and practices that might occur in other industries. As a result of these beliefs and practices, higher education institutions tend to be highly participatory in their decision-making approaches (many perspectives from across campusinform decisions), and this leads to wise approaches and positive outcomes that serve our current and future constituents, primarily students. Higher education institutions have outlasted most companies, even through times of great financial crisis or societal uncertainty, and this is a tribute to their ability to evolve and to make strategic decisions in a deliberative way that serves not just short-range interests, but mission-focused, long-range goals.

The cycle of iterative environmental scans and strategic planning has accelerated in all industries. Higher education must be especially vigilant in managing this hastenedpace of analyzing opportunities and challenges and determining a strategic path forward. Our core missions are lasting, and our cultures are strong and sustaining. However, the array of potentially “disruptive” trends in technology development is seemingly infinite, and we as CIOs and institutions are walking a tight line between the strong belief, or hope, among many stakeholders that technology-enhanced approaches may alleviate pressures in the current global economy and local budget. These approaches may even  help to inform and solve key challenges for the institution, and the equally strong awareness that investment in new technologies and (much more so!) in changing business or cultural practices to leverage technology is costly and may or may not yield sufficient strategic return on investment. Technology in a vacuum doesn’t solve problems, no matter how agile our adoption and implementation of the new technologies.

  The role of the CIO in higher education has evolved into an institutional senior staff position, ensuring that technology and data planning are closely aligned with the mission and strategic directions of the college 

Rather than simply delivering services out of a well-functioning IT organization, CIOs in higher education are responsible for helping to discern which technology trends are hype, or irrelevant to the particular context of the institution, and which investments are essential to enabling the institution to evolve in the ways it has envisioned for itself. In this context, the role of the CIO in higher education has evolved so that many participate as members of the institution’s senior staff to ensure technology and data planning are closely aligned with the mission and strategic directions of the college or university. The modern CIOs of today are equally  responsible for creating mechanisms for successful partnership across campus to identify high-level priorities and to ensure that technology investments yield meaningful benefits for the members of the current campus community, especially students, and for the future thriving of the institution as a whole.

What this means is that CIOs need to help members of the community to carve out time and space to articulate their needs and wishes, and then help community members to carve out more time to learn how new services can support the goals they’ve articulated. Help should also be extended to the exceedingly busy colleagues to carve out still more time to transform their administrative or teaching/learning/research practices so that they and the overall institution can actually reap the benefits promised by the new service. It no doubt seems simpler to many in the community to skip the innovation and forge ahead with traditional practices, no matter how aware we might be of inherent limitations in those practices.

Given the power of inertia – not due to stodginess or unwillingness to innovate, but caused by the incessant pressures to deliver results and the perception of insufficient time to pause, analyze options, and chart a new course – an effective CIO must be a patient, persistent change agent. The CIO must gently and consistently present new models for keeping the trains running while also regularly scouting the horizon for tools and practices that might further our goals, gathering with other stakeholders to understand and analyze costs and benefits of potential new approaches, and investing robustly in the process of making change and ensuring we derive the full possible value from the new directions we pursue.

The rewards of the higher education CIO’s job are the moments where we take a leap forward collectively in our institutions because we’ve found a sweet spot where a new framework allows us to make meaningful, measurable progress in addressing broad and compelling needs. We have had two recent examples of this kind of collective success at Bryn Mawr, and many across institutions are engaged in similar endeavors, often borrowing and adapting from what has proven successful in the peer institutions. The first for us is a new framework around information stewardship – ensuring that the goals of information security and effective management of data are perceived and enacted as campus-wide responsibilities with all playing a role in mitigating risk and shepherding institutional and individual data mindfully – and the second is a new framework around digital competencies – the 21st-century capabilities that we want all students to be able to develop through their curricular and co-curricular experiences at the institution. Putting frameworks in place and leveraging the particular strengths of higher education – many contributors thinking about best ways to approach a shared and complex challenge, robust mechanisms for sharing best ideas and practices, and wise decision-making about which endeavors to tackle as a community in order to yield the most lasting and positive results – enable us as CIOs to influence cultural practices, not just installation of new technologies, so that we all as members of the institution can benefit from working in an environment true to its mission of enabling continuous inquiry and learning and ability to thrive in our work and in our lives.

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