We may not always agree on whether it is a ‘cookie’ or a ‘biscuit’; if it should be dd/mm/yy or mm/dd/yy; and whether you can name a sport ‘football’ if you don’t actually use your feet; but what we do find British and Americans agree on, as Winston Churchill famously said, is that ‘the gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance’.
As a dual national I know some of the frustrations of sharing a language but not a common tongue. Born and raised in the UK I moved to the US in 1990. After 23 years of living in the States - 11 as a US citizen - I moved back, going to Scotland with my US-born family. I measure temperature in fahrenheit, distance in miles, weight in pounds and liquids in millilitres – and that’s only one tiny area where differences can hinder rather than help.
The future chief information officer (CIO)
So what happens when we apply these differences in thinking across transatlantic organisations and leadership roles – specifically IT leaders who are responsible for driving innovation and improvement in a time of constant change?;
This question led to the formation of a working group on the characteristics of IT professionals of the future, by Jisc and EDUCAUSE, more than six months ago. As we came together as a group of ten IT leaders from both sides of the pond some of the questions we pondered (pun intended) were:
- Is leadership in IT any different from leadership in other areas?
- Are the traits needed to be a successful CIO in the US different from those in the UK?
- Could we come up with a model that was relevant to all organisations, regardless of size?
In effect – could we find a ‘common tongue’ with which we could communicate effectively with our peers overseas to develop the necessary skills for the CIOs of the future?
Making the case
Fast forward many months and we find ourselves meeting for the first time for the EDUCAUSE annual conference 2014 in Orlando, Florida to present our work. We were like long-lost friends as we shook hands for the first time and asked each other nervously whether the work that we had done would pass muster.
We had two opportunities to present our model on what the skills profile of a CIO might come to look like.
The first on Wednesday afternoon was quite informal and invited strong audience participation. The event was very well attended and the dialogue was lively.
My colleagues introduced the leadership model that we had developed and invited comment. We breathed a collective sigh of relief as comment after comment validated the model.
For the second event on the Thursday – which took the form of a panel session – we were convinced that turnout would be low. We had garnered the 8am slot on the last day of the conference. Several of us had flights to catch that morning, and assumed that many of the conference attendees did too.
Adding to the nerves, the session was being broadcast live, so we had cameras pointed at us, smooth jazz muzak playing us in, and a couple of palm trees behind us - presumably so that people watching online would believe that we were presenting poolside.
Coffee in hand, we waited for our audience to arrive – and arrive they did.
Again we presented our thoughts on what we called the future ‘information technology strategist’. My fellow panellists Louisa Dale (Jisc), Tom Andriola (University of California), Mark Askren (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and I bantered back and forth and mainly stuck to the topic, although someone, I don’t remember who, did curse a couple of times…
Where does 'technology' fit?
The conversation was as lively as the first session, with comments coming from Rhode Island, Oregon and Carnegie Mellon all reiterating our thoughts that this is an important piece of work that’s so far been missing - as well as adding fuel to the fire.
There had been quite a bit of discussion within the group on the placement of 'information' and 'technology' alongside 'strategist' at the heart of the model. My view is that to be effective as a CIO you need to have a passion for technology that drives you. Several people on the team and in the room in Orlando agreed and several did not. And indeed, two of the best CIOs I know do not come from a technology background.
But this is what makes the model and the sessions so valuable - they inspire debate and discussion, and aid our ability to communicate with both a respectful common tongue and a empathetic, attentive ear.
And how do you end a session like this and wrap up six months of hard graft? While our session might’ve been brought to a premature end thanks to the flashing strobe lights and the robotic voice stating ‘please leave the building’ (fortunately a false alarm), our work is far from over, and we plan on publishing a white paper that will solidify the findings even further before the year’s out. Watch this space for more details.