Organizational Capacity and the Evolving Role of the CIO in Higher Education

David Waldron, VP for Information Technology, St. Edward's University
David Waldron, VP for Information Technology, St. Edward's University

David Waldron, VP for Information Technology, St. Edward's University

The most profound challenge facing university IT organizations is capacity. It seems that pressing new needs arise in our client offices almost every day. And it seems that news of promising new applications and technologies arrives daily. However, university IT staff sizes and budgets are static. How do we meet the exploding demand for technology and technology-related services without significant new resources?

This is a critical question and the need to address it is—reshaping the CIO role within higher education. I have come to spend less time thinking about technology per se, and much more time thinking about building and maintaining a strong healthy technology organization and increasing the capacity of that organization to serve the university, to promote its mission and to advance its strategic goals.  

My organization has formulated and pursues a well-defined set of strategies for increasing organizational capacity. These include:

• Process Automation
• Service and Organizational Consolidation
• Client Empowerment
• Cloud-based Services
• Distributed Leadership
• Professional Development
• Staff Recruiting

​  IT leadership teams should develop specific strategies for enhancing capacity and should regularly brainstorm about ways in which these strategies can be advanced and refined 

Automating processes and consolidating services are perhaps the most obvious steps that can be taken to improve operational efficiency and to recover time that can be devoted to the delivery of additional IT services to the community. This effort must be pursued relentlessly and the reallocation of recovered time must be done intentionally to produce the greatest impact.

When complex technologies first appear, they are invariably owned, managed and operated by the IT organization. Over time, as these technologies mature, their management and operation become decentralized. At one time—believe it or not—projection and video equipment were scarce and specialized. IT owned and operated it. Now, those technologies are ubiquitous and users operate that equipment on their own. Printing used to be centralized. This is certainly no longer the case. Increasingly clients are managing their own web content, designing and producing their own reports, producing their own digital videos and live streaming their own events via the internet.

Client empowerment is the effort to equip members of the user community for self-service. The benefit of client empowerment to the IT organization is clear—rather than dedicating resources within IT to the provision of a particular service, users perform that service for themselves. Clients also benefit in that they can work on their own schedules rather than waiting for IT. The pace at which new technologies are arriving at IT’s doorstep means that the rate at which technologies are maturing and being handed off to the user community will increase. Universities think in structured ways about preparing graduates to thrive in an increasingly complex world characterized by ubiquitous technology. Increasingly, universities will have to think about the attributes that staff and faculty must develop to be successful in that same environment. They will also have to look for effective ways to facilitate the development of those attributes.

The adoption of cloud-based services is a critical component of an overarching strategy to increase organizational capacity. The availability of such services allows IT organizations to leverage third party resources to serve the university community. It also allows universities to devote their own resources to those services or activities to which those resources bring special value. Of course, it is important to evaluate each cloud opportunity and to weigh relevant factors such as security, performance, integration, data ownership and cost.

IT is a project-oriented discipline and IT organizations within universities understand the importance of effective project management. However, not all universities understand project management and project managers as vehicles for increasing organizational capacity. Some universities rely exclusively on formal managers—line managers to lead significant projects. In such situations, leadership becomes a significant bottleneck. The creation of less structured, more ad hoc leadership opportunities for members of the staff can dramatically increase the number of projects that can be undertaken concurrently. Project management is an obvious vehicle for this. Ad hoc cross-functional teams led by qualified staff members can be formed to take on significant projects. As staff members grow into these less formal leadership roles, they are positioned to make additional, higher order contributions to organizational effectiveness and leadership.

The trajectory of organizations is set by the talent they are able to recruit, develop, retain and inspire. Professional development, mentoring and recruiting are critical pursuits and need to be recognized as such. Staff members who take on project leadership and similar roles can dramatically increase organizational capacity. Such roles require a complex skill set, rarely defined by technical prowess. Project leaders must form ad hoc teams, leading and motivating them without formal authority. Facilitating the development of this skill set requires focused, intentional, organizational effort. It cannot be achieved exclusively through formal instruction; rather it must be complemented and reinforced via mentoring. This mentoring need not be formal, but it must be focused, intentional, and consistent.

As the pace of technological change increases, members of the IT staff must naturally be afforded more opportunities for technical training. Technical training is important, but leadership training is also critical. Staff members must be provided with opportunities—both formal and informal—to develop and enhance communication and leadership skills. It is also worthwhile to help staff members understand their work in the context of university operations and strategy.

As discussed, the growing importance of distributed leadership has significant implications for professional development. The same is true of staff recruiting. Individuals with technical skills are valuable and in high demand. Those with technical skills and the complex set of skills required to lead teams are more valuable and in even higher demand. They must be targeted and recruited aggressively.

The importance of organizational capacity means that CIOs must devote more and more time, thought, and effort to issues of organizational design, development and culture. IT leadership teams should develop specific strategies for enhancing capacity and should regularly brainstorm about ways in which these strategies can be advanced and refined. This will afford significant opportunities to enhance the contributions that IT organizations make to institutional mission.

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