Lessons Learned As A University CIO

By Chris Wessells, senior higher education strategist, Dell Technologies.

Christopher WessellsA university CIO is responsible for myriad responsibilities related to improving and maintaining technology and services in support of institutional goals. Still, to do that effectively, the job goes far beyond what many typically consider as part of the role.

Hiring engineers and IT specialists? That’s part of your requirements, in addition to protecting personal information of students and faculty, ensuring there is a high-performance infrastructure, as well as providing effective systems and IT services to meet institutional requirements.

A CIO needs to have a variety of skills to succeed, including being capable of managing people and change while also considering financials, managing a budget, balancing technology responsibilities and keeping cybersecurity top-of-mind.

Having served as a CIO at prominent four-year universities in the United States, I learned that in addition to the responsibilities outlined above, the role of a CIO is an ever-changing position that requires constant evolution and adaption to meet the needs of a heavily technology-driven community.

Some of the most important lessons I learned include:

1) Relationships are as important as technology

I quickly learned that building relationships with executive decision-makers was crucial to the success of institutional initiatives. Building bonds with business unit leaders from facilities management to public safety to athletics can be as essential at the relationships with the provost, deans and academic department chairs. That is, the CIO should cultivate and maintain healthy relationships at all levels of the university, which can lead to allies in digital transformation efforts.

Being connected with students is equally important. I found having a student technology advisory committee was an excellent way to listen to student needs, gain insights on how to improve IT services and build trust with the student community.

Building a strong IT leadership team also enables CIOs to form better relationships on campus that will assist in implementing new academic and administrative initiatives.

2) Enforcing shared governance is a must

One common CIO mistake is dictating change without receiving input from others on campus. This is why shared governance, placing the responsibility, authority and accountability for decisions on those who will use the technology, should be a top priority.  Shared governance with the academic community is essential to being successful.

Higher education CIOs should be shifting responsibilities from operating technology to more strategic governance responsibilities. Students and faculty are the primary constituents that require technology and services from a campus IT organization, so naturally, CIOs should consider their requirements when assessing and implementing new solutions. For example, before purchasing new classroom instructional technology, it is crucial to consult faculty on those matters; and include faculty in pilot projects and testing.  This approach often leads to better decisions that are made collaboratively, rather than having IT simply dictate decisions from a technical standpoint.

3) Meeting expectations starts with a strong infrastructure

Campus infrastructure is as critical as ever in today’s ever-connected society. Students and faculty have high expectations for instant and constant connectivity with reliable Wi-Fi and technology that allows them to complete tasks from anywhere on campus at the tap of a finger.

As such, CIOs should prioritize a robust, highly stable infrastructure, including high-performance networks, hybrid-cloud offerings, densely deployed Wi-Fi and various specialized research infrastructure. Having a solid infrastructure in place helps set a foundation for quality IT services while also delivering excellent enterprise applications that meet the needs of the university community. Besides, having a highly reliable technology infrastructure is a prudent step to enhance student and faculty experiences.

4) Students want modern applications 

Some of us remember when hotels used to advertise on welcome signs that they offered “Wi-Fi.” That was a premium feature in its day but quickly became an outdated message, as before long, every hotel (and business) for that matter, offered Wi-Fi.

As the technology landscape evolves, a university must continuously innovate to provide services and applications and platforms to enhance the student experience. The demand for mobile applications that are secure and connected with the myriad of campus apps is the world that is essential for student success.

These days, it’s not unusual for students to have an average of 3-4 devices connected to the Wi-Fi at any given time. Having pervasive connectivity is no longer sufficient. CIOs should have a modern Integration Platform as a Service (IPaaS), to deliver a seamless customer experience in the hands of students and faculty. Campus mobile apps that allow for payment at registers, checking into events, monitoring and making services actionable in real-time, are what separate the average institution from the premiere. CIOs that have a pulse on what students need, how they use technology, and how to make it accessible to every student on campus regardless of location, will be the leaders’ differentiating their university from the next.

Never Stop Learning

The most compelling lesson learned during my time in higher education is to keep an open mind and remember never to stop pursuing innovation. Every day as a CIO is another day to learn from peers, the campus community and even the technology. Building relationships and continually meeting the demands of students and faculty will set up a CIO for success in the short- and long-term.

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