The role of the chief information officer (CIO) and the IT director are not synonymous but are very closely related. In fact, they're often conflated to mean pretty much the same thing.
What is common to both is that they usually lead the information systems (IS) and IT function in their organisation and have broad and diverse responsibilities for a range of critical services across all functional areas. This leadership role is against a backdrop of increasingly rapid change and demands on IS/IT to help their organisations innovate and improve.
In short, the role of the CIO is complex, demanding and requires a range of skills, competencies and attributes in order to be successful. The foreseeable changes on the horizon suggest those characteristics may need to increase or become a greater focus as the challenges facing the CIO multiply and emerge.
Identifying leaders of the future
I have a professional and personal interest in leadership skills, not least because I do quite a bit of mentoring and coaching in that area, so I was pleased to be chosen to be part of the Jisc/EDUCAUSE working group looking at the characteristics of the higher education IT leader of the future.
The group is made up of ten CIOs and IT directors from the UK and USA. It quickly became apparent from the call that there were some interesting differences in terms of scale and type of university (eg, student numbers ranging from 350 to 235,000) and the backgrounds and experiences of the working group members.
There was a considerable amount of commonality around the 'soft' skills the CIO needs today (and will continue to need tomorrow). There were two specifically interesting discussion points for me personally.
The first concerns the extent to which the IT leader needs to have an IT background.
There were differences of opinion: one view being that it's hard to lead IT if you don't understand what it does and how it can benefit the organisation, while the counter view was that, actually, IT is so broad and diverse it isn't possible to understand it all in any detail. Perhaps an appreciation of its value and an ability to ask the right questions is more important.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the discussion. Personally, I don't think the CIO has to come from an IT background (even though I do) but they do need to be able to ask the right questions and be able to listen and understand what they hear. Having led services where I don't have direct understanding of the specific technical area, I think those questioning and listening skills are transferable.
What’s so special about CIOs?
The second area I found interesting was about the soft skills we identified and the extent to which these would apply to any leader at the same level. In other words, what is different about the CIO compared to, say, the director of HR or finance? This provoked discussion about what differentiated the CIO from other ‘c-level’ roles, specifically; the breadth and reach of IT across an organisation and the rate and constancy of change in their areas of responsibility.
Other leaders face change as part of their work of course, not least in the UK with the changes of government policy, fees and student expectations. I also believe that change is a constant for the CIO, not least because of the point made about organisational reach and breadth.
I do agree that the nature of the CIO's responsibilities makes them different from other similar-level roles, though I wonder to what extent that's recognised by their peers. I think that's why it's critical we develop the skills in our current, and likely future CIOs, to keep pace with the ever-changing landscape and organisational expectations for IT.
The working group will meet once a month between now and September. They will present their initial thinking at the EDUCAUSE 2014 Annual Conference in September and expect by the end of the year to share their insights with the wider IT higher education community.
To keep in touch with the progress and outcomes of the project, look out for posts on the Jisc blog and news in the winter edition of Jisc Inform.