UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Two

15 May 2024 - UCISA24 Thought leadership - Chapter Two

Unravelling the role of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) Leadership challenges and how to engage the wider organisation.


When Andy Smith (CIO @ UCL) likened the role of the CIO to that of a Dickensian hero, it sparked a moment of introspection.

He said that “she has to make her way in a complex world often against great adversity and with a few unhelpful characters wishing her ill. Despite this she normally triumphs and learns many things along the way”.

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Andy's words prompted me to ponder whether the role is effectively addressing the challenges it faces in the higher education sector and if it is truly triumphing.

Back in the 1980s, a new title emerged in the tech landscape—the “Chief Information Officer” (CIO). But the role itself wasn't born overnight; it's been on a journey of evolution ever since. Understanding its origins and trajectory is key before we delve into how today's Higher Education CIOs are shaping digital strategy.

In the 1980s, the rise of mainframe computing brought forth the dawn of IT managers. Organisations began to recognise the potential for technology to streamline administrative tasks, particularly in accounting. These early IT managers, often tucked under the CFO's wing, were valued for their technical prowess rather than their seniority. In higher education these early IT managers often emerged in the library space.

As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, personal computing gained momentum alongside a proliferation of departmental applications. However, this growth led to the creation of technology siloes and a murky web of data with inevitable confusion over roles and responsibilities for data, technology, and infrastructure. Enter the era of "data spaghetti" and the creation of what we now call "legacy architecture," a tangled mess that IT professionals continue to grapple with daily, often unnoticed, and rarely understood by senior leaders.

By the late 1990s, technology suppliers upped their game, marketing integrated systems as the holy grail of competitive advantage. Organisations eagerly invested in these solutions, implementing them via monolithic waterfall projects that spanned months or even years. Unfortunately, many of these initiatives only added layers of complexity to existing infrastructure, trapping organisations in a cycle of "break-fix" woes.

Amidst this digital upheaval, organisations began to feel the strain on their bottom lines. The rapid pace of technological change, coupled with a lack of strategic guidance, left many questioning the return on their investments. The emergence of e-commerce and customer-facing technologies further underscored the need for effective digital strategy.

Out of this chaos the role of the true CIO emerged, to put it simply, the role was desperately needed to get to grips with the issues created from years of un co-ordinated technology decision making and a lack of architectural design.  It was needed to support organisations to understand how to manage and re-design their digital ecosystems with a similar level of care and attention to their physical ones.

Never has the CIO role been more needed than now as we unpick the legacies we have inherited and navigate the relentless threat of cybercrime alongside the continued pace of change.

And here lies the challenge: while the CIO has been entrusted with a broad set of responsibilities, do our organisations understand enough to provide adequate support for CIOs to Triumph?

During the roundtable session in Edinburgh, it became evident that the role of the CIO is continuously evolving, becoming more complex and pivotal. While there were varied opinions on how to approach the development and implementation of a "digital strategy," there was unanimous agreement on the critical importance of the CIO role in fulfilling any university's strategic objectives.

Nevertheless, several key challenges stand out on the horizon, including:

  • 1. Securing a seat to the top table

    In Edinburgh, the CIO’s influencing ability was seen as the number one challenge voiced at the round table. One contributor put it as “Being high enough up the hierarchy to get your voice heard”.

    For CIOs, influence is paramount, yet many find themselves sidelined from executive decision-making. While progress has been made, with a majority reporting to an executive role, the disparity between the private sector and higher education remains stark. The onus lies on executive teams to recognise the pivotal role of the CIO and provide the requisite support for success.

    The 2024 UCISA CIO Survey (results to be published soon), has found that 10% of CIOs in UK HEIs have a seat at Executive Board level reporting directly to the VC. Most CIOs, just under 60%, report into the COO position, with 8% reporting to the CFO. Nearly 20% of CIO’s report into positions such as PVC’s with a handful reporting into positions below Executive level.

    Whilst it is encouraging to see that most CIO’s report directly into an Executive role in UK HEI’s it is still in stark contrast to the private sector where over 70% report directly to the CEO (CIO Professional Network Survey, 2022)

    In the USA 39% of HEI CIOs report direct to the Principle, 22% to the highest ranking administrative officer and a further 22% to the highest ranking business officer.   (The Adaptive CIO, EDUCAUSE, 2022)

    As the chair of UCISA, I can categorically say that I have seen examples of exceptional IT leadership across the sector regardless of whether the individuals concerned have an actual seat at the top table or indeed, hold a C level title. These talented IT Leaders are most definitely getting their voices heard and I can easily name a dozen who have influenced from within to develop respected and valuable digital strategies. Leaders who have professionalised their IT departments and adopted new ways of working to keep pace with the wider IT sector. The position and title hold some sway, but it is the experience and skill of the role holder that creates the conditions to influence and operate at a senior level.

    However, I'm concerned that some organizations have yet to recognise the importance of investing in their IT leadership. I've spoken with senior IT leaders who worry that the highest-ranking IT role in their organisation is still perceived as purely operational, with corresponding remuneration. Consequently, these positions may not be appealing to individuals with the requisite experience and gravitas to navigate their organisations through the digital challenges ahead.

    I have also spoken to talented CIOs that have left the sector because they have felt stifled by the governance practises within their organisations which they felt inhibited their ability to deliver real change.  An excellent IT Leader is not going to be satisfied with simply modernising the IT estate, they want to make a difference, deliver value, and support the organising to use technology to transform how it operates, they will challenge the status quo. Without strong IT leaders and evangelists for change, our sector risks becoming out-dated.

    So, the real challenge is for Executive teams to consider if they want a CIO that will challenge the status quo and bring new ways of working into the organisation and whether they will provide the right level of support for the CIO to be successful.

  • 2. Breaking the Mould

    In our quest for digital transformation, it's time to break the mould and rethink our approach. As one contributor aptly put it, we need to "move on from tools and technology." Another emphasized the need to stop "doing things the way we've always done them."

    The reality is that complex digital technologies demand a fresh perspective. Organisations must embrace new ways of working to extract value from their digital investments and challenge existing operating models and governance procedures.

    For a CIO to succeed, they must wield influence to shift organisational behaviour. It's about moving away from a fixation on tactical deliverables towards a collaborative approach to investing in and delivering products and services that can truly transform the way we work.

    Taking cues from other sectors, it's time to shift from traditional project-based thinking to the more agile and iterative product lifecycle approach. Design thinking becomes paramount, guiding us towards solutions that evolve with our organisation's needs over time.

    Consider this: What would our physical campuses look like without the guiding hand of planners, architects, builders, and surveyors? The chaos that would ensue is akin to the unbridled growth of our digital estates. It's time to recognize that managing and maintaining these complex digital environments requires a level of control and professional skill akin to that of their physical counterparts.

    In essence, it's time to break free from tradition and embrace a new era of digital management.

  • 3. Redefining funding and change governance models.

    Transitioning to iterative, product-based delivery necessitates a rethink of funding mechanisms.

    CIOs must collaborate closely with CFOs and governance colleagues to implement the necessary changes and move away from monolithic projects. Building collaborative partnerships with vendors is equally essential to achieving sustainable value and long-term user satisfaction.

    The shift towards Software as a Service (SaaS) and Cloud products presents its own set of challenges, particularly for those seeking to utilize capital-based funding. CIOs play a critical role in navigating these complexities and understanding the nuances of accessing funds for change initiatives.

  • 4. Democratising Tech Literacy

    Let’s kick this challenge topic off with a classic joke:

    A man decides to use a hot air balloon to travel to meet his friend, he sets off and after an hour he realizes he’s lost. He reduces height and spots a woman down below. He lowers the balloon and shouts, “Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”
    The woman below says: “Yes. You’re in a hot air balloon, hovering 15 meters above this field. You are between 40- and 42-degrees north latitude and between 58- and 60-degrees west longitude.”
    “You must work in Information Technology,” says the balloonist.
    “I do” replies the woman. “How did you know?”
    “Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you told me is probably technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of the information, and the fact is, I'm still lost.”
    The woman below replies, “You must work in senior management.”
    “I do,” replies the balloonist, “But how’d you know?”
    “Well,”, says the woman, “You choose a solution without understanding if it would meet your needs, when it went wrong you asked for my help but you didn’t actually specify your requirements so I didn’t know how best to help you. I gave you the information you asked for but you’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”

    In Edinburgh we discussed the need for our communities, especially our senior leaders, to have a greater understanding of technology, one contributor felt that the CIO role is about “Being a business leader and helping everyone be tech leader.”

    Reflecting on our joke, imagine if the balloonist had sought navigation advice before taking off, or if the woman had probed deeper to understand his journey's purpose and his level of geographical understanding. It's a two-way street, requiring a shift in working practices from both sides.

    It's less about understanding the actual technologies and more about grasping the policies and practices around managing them.

    Every professional discipline has specialist skills and knowledge. As CIO, I’m expected to understand financial policy and practise well enough to manage an IT budget, support financial planning and financial security. I don’t claim to understand accounting practise as well as colleagues in finance departments, but I defer to their expertise when needed. Similarly, I expect others to understand IT practices well enough to manage their digital capabilities, support digital planning, and digital security and to defer to IT expertise when needed.

    All leaders, regardless of discipline, must translate their expertise into language that others understand. Successful leaders work in partnership with stakeholders to understand their requirements and provide appropriate support.


So, do I think the role of CIO is triumphing in the HE sector?

In my opinion we are making great progress, but we are not quite triumphing. While there are some outstanding digital strategies leading to substantial advancements, I contend that most CIOs are still primarily overseeing the digital modernization of their institutions. For the majority, true transformation and that moment of triumph are still on the horizon.

And finally, I would like to propose that the role of CIO is more like that of a Genie than a Dickensian hero.

She can conjure forth technological marvels, weaving intricate webs of connectivity and efficiency across the digital realm. But you must phrase your wishes carefully to ensure that she will transform your antiquated systems into beacons of modernity, breathing new life into outdated processes and workflows. Be warned, if you use your wishes poorly, the CIO’s powers will be shackled by the constraints of legacy systems and outdated practises.

Make no mistake – the CIO is no mere servant of the lamp. They are the architects of transformation, the visionaries of tomorrows digital landscape. Their role transcends mere technical proficiency; it encompasses leadership, innovation, and strategic foresight.

So, the next time you encounter your organisations CIO, remember the analogy of the genie. For they are more than just a purveyor of technology—they are a catalyst of change, the guardians of digital destiny. And with their guidance, the possibilities are truly limitless.

Think carefully. What three wishes will you make?

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E Woodcock, Chair of UCISA & CIO @ York St John University