The Changing Face of IT Executives: Managing Information Technology Departments Increasingly Requires Business and Political Skills. Major Concerns Include Security, Staff Training, and Keeping Up with Ever-Evolving User Needs

By Burton, John | University Business, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Changing Face of IT Executives: Managing Information Technology Departments Increasingly Requires Business and Political Skills. Major Concerns Include Security, Staff Training, and Keeping Up with Ever-Evolving User Needs


Burton, John, University Business


The information technology (IT) leader on campus is more likely to spend his or her time preparing business plans than checking server configurations. As high technology has embedded itself into the day-to-day teaching, learning, researching, and administrative tasks of colleges and universities, there has developed a need for IT managers to be able to speak the language of return on investment (ROI), as well as understand the many and varied needs of faculty and students.

If that hybrid role has come to be expected of IT professionals, another one may be more surprising: politician. Most of the people interviewed for this article listed as their top job duties the need to be out in meetings; responding to queries from students, faculty, and administration; talking to faculty to learn what their needs are; and other human touch duties.

They are, in short, the human face to a complex high-tech infrastructure. They see their constituents as customers with needs to satisfy, though they must sometimes be the ones to help convince those customers of the appropriate technology that will meet their needs.

"My time is spent attempting as best as possible to model the type of culture we are trying to create," says Gard Meserve, chief information officer (CIO) at Clarkson University (N.Y.). "I meet with staff, facilitate reviews, plan leadership, team building, and other events consistent with our departmental direction, assist with project planning, and serve wherever possible."

University Business spoke with CIOs and IT managers across the country to learn about the state of their jobs: How are they filling their time, how are they meeting their mandates for technology leadership, and where are they taking their institutions of higher learning next? A common response was that their institutions had already gone through their first one or two phases of heavy technology adoption, and they were now interested in taking it to the next phase and broadening the reach of the hardware and software.

BEING THE POLITICIAN

A big part of Bob DeWitt's job as CIO at National-Louis University in Chicago is to be "constantly out and away from the basic operations, working with a lot of the key individuals in the business, thinking of the university as a business, to be sure I'm constantly aware of the needs of the various components and basically communicating what we're doing and looking for the next thing we need to be doing."

It is, in tech geek terms, an input and output job, meaning CIOs like DeWitt are not only hearing what others in the organization need, but they're also talking to people and acting as an influencer to establish direction for the institution. Susan Bowen, CIO at Camden County College (N.J.), says most of her time is taken up with "communicating with the community regarding information technology." That includes committee meetings, biweekly meetings with departments that are particularly technology-involved, ad hoc project meetings with IT staff, as well as e-mail and phone conversations.

Many IT leaders mentioned the need to develop consensus among all the stakeholders in a technology project, a task made more complicated by the individualist streak in many faculty members. "All of them want to be able to be involved in some way in discussions of what happens in technology, and they have sometimes drastically different views about introducing anything," says DeWitt. "Anti-spam, for example. Some purists believe no filtering of e-mail should happen; others won't even use e-mail if a strong filter isn't used."

No matter how much they are out of the office, CIOs and IT managers are also leaders of their staffs. Several of the people interviewed here also stressed the need for increased pay and training for their employees, one of the few complaints they voiced. But even that criticism was frequently couched in praise for the hard work of the employees in their IT departments. …

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