CIOs in the education sector face some unique challenges that quickly turn into traps for the unwary. Speaking from experience as a former education CIO, knowing where these pitfalls lie can help increase job success, satisfaction and ultimately, your survival in the role.
Education is different. This professional realm really does work to a higher purpose of improving society, learning how the world works and developing people from children to adults to make their own contributions to society.
Education often attracts people with altruistic motives who wish to make a substantial impact on society. If you come from "outside" the sector, you may be as highly committed as any of your peers who’ve spent a lifetime in teaching and learning. But you may need to make extra effort to prove your belonging and commitment to the mission and higher cause of education.
Enduring CIOs are those who become trusted allies in the multinational state that constitutes the teaching and learning institution. There are at times stakeholder groups within stakeholder groups, each with unique priorities and interests. If you can grasp the dynamics, contribution and priorities behind these key groups, you’ll have a high probability of success.
Educational institutions are driven by dedication to the mission — usually articulated as learning, the students or developing citizens of the future (or perhaps research in the case of research institutions). The trap is that dedication to the good of the student can be used as an emotive tool.
Powerful stakeholders will do this to influence how investment is allocated and demand is prioritised to favour their part of the organisation. Each key stakeholder group competes for scarce resources and each has legitimate goals.
CIOs are further challenged by education's often remarkable resistance to change, even in the face of significant pressure to do so. Organisational culture is often cited as the biggest barrier to digital business transformation.
Devising common, rational approaches to decision making when prioritising the investment portfolio at the strategic level, or at the backlog of IT work at the tactical operational level, will lift you off the hamster wheel of unceasing demand.
Constant rebalancing of resources, capital, ideas and effort are essential as you lead your teams and colleagues through a fast-moving digital landscape filled with opportunity and threat.
Art of diplomacy
Stakeholder dynamics in a large, complex educational institution can feel like the United Nations. Failing to effectively influence and manage key stakeholder groups has felled many otherwise successful CIOs.
As overwhelmed as you may feel with your own duties, investing in building a shared vision and sense of purpose with a wide range of stakeholder groups can inoculate you from a surprising number of unexpected perils. In a highly decentralised environment like higher education, this is true times ten.
Successful CIOs thrive and protect themselves by building effective coalitions of stakeholders who find a common sense of purpose and benefit. Those who truly believe you understand and care about their priorities will often help you sidestep hazards before they become disasters.
Defuse emotion with a practical system
Education brings additional emotional charge to many of the decisions you face. You "don't love students" if you say no. You "never keep your word" if you always say yes. In this battle of the wills, everyone loses. Most of all you, who builds a reputation as the problem or obstacle, rather than the source of important capabilities for the institution.
Avoid either trap by developing a consistently applied, rational decision making approach to assessing and prioritising requests, in terms of their potential value delivered against strategic objectives.
The common sense of purpose you've carefully developed and the abundance of clear communications about "what we're doing and why," will shield you against those thinking every "no" is an expression of a lack of caring, rather than of priorities.
Take your seat at the insider table
The perception is often that the person exclusively focused on operations obviously doesn't know or care about the "truly important" strategic stuff. If you’re surrounded by leadership that doesn't know what you’re doing or why will make you further isolated and vulnerable. Your ability to influence key decisions and priorities evaporates, as well as your perceived value.
This disconnection frequently leaves CIOs feeling as though they’re in perpetual reactive mode, rather than acting as the proactive, strategic leader of the institution's digital strategies.
Redefine your "brand" to become known as a strategic thinking insider and trusted ally by truly understanding the specific priorities of the institution and its executive team. Then identify the technology capabilities required to execute on strategies and develop specific, agreed upon deliverables.
Master the mission
In the blur of non-stop demands, it's easy to lose track of "why we're really here." Most institutions have a mission statement and most are primarily focused on successful outcomes for students or advancing reputation. It's a deceptively simple guidepost that’s often overlooked.
The temptation is to sometimes chase easily completed, high-profile/low-value initiatives that have technical appeal, but may not actually take the institution in a direction that makes any difference whatsoever for students or for faculty working to achieving critical goals.
Demands will always outpace resources in education, be they time, money or people. You’re tasked with managing a complex portfolio with those limited resources. If you master the continuous prioritisation of resources through effective mission alignment you’ll succeed and survive.
Tell them (then tell them again)
Education CIOs often operate with perilously limited resources. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that under the pressures to keep the operations running, investing time in communication about what IT’s doing and why goes by the wayside.
Letting that happen can have disastrous consequences. Many failed education CIOs felt they'd delivered important results for the organisation, but couldn’t identify who else agreed.
Stakeholders in education are often angry and frustrated when they perceive they can't get what they need, especially given those chronic resource shortages. This natural state of affairs can be mitigated, however, with an effective marketing plan. Being able to establish the story of what IT’s focused on doing, and why that has been chosen over other possible options.
Savvy CIOs recognise that IT’s often the quiet, constant achiever. You must constantly remind the organisation of the value being delivered.
Dr Kelly Calhoun Williams is a research vice president at Gartner, focused on the education sector. She advises vendors and end users (CIOs, CTOs, technology and executive leadership) with insights into the K-12 marketplace. Education technology trends will be explored at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo on the Gold Coast, from 29 October-1 November 2018.