During my 26-year career in higher education as a technology leader, I often felt as if my teams and I were viewed by faculty and administrators as highly-skilled... plumbers. Not that there is anything bad about being a highly-skilled plumber at all but you don’t think of a plumber as being someone in an organization that gives input and direction to the organizational mission.
I have a lot of respect for my plumber given the fact that I have no skill in this area at all. But in saying this, many look at plumbers as the maintenance people who keep up a utility so that others can “get the real business done.” If you are a leader in higher education technology, I am positive you know what I am talking about.
So, how does a CIO, director or other IT professional move themself from the utility role to the strategic role in the C-suite? I think that the problem may lie partially in the history of the role and the rest in how technology leaders communicate with others in the C-suite.
Historically, technology people have been in the basement (literally) of the organization with the mainframe computer. You know, where the boilers and electrical utilities are kept. I began my very early career as a college student there. We were summoned “above ground” only when there was a problem with a workstation or program and a fix was needed. Technology professionals were seen as the “engineers” or “programmers” of the utility, highly-skilled but squarely utility-minded. As our organizational workplaces evolved, our work changed from underground to front line support of the entire institution, but organizational mindsets and culture take much longer to change.
As technology evolved and roles began to change, the requirements for the IT leadership role changed from reactive to proactive. Helping outside colleagues in thinking through and developing organizational workflow, HIPAA and FERPA regulations, staff security practices, and development of better, more effective information systems became a major part of the IT professional’s work. Today, information technology in our institutions touches every student, faculty, staff, trustee and donor. There is no area of our higher educational institutions that does not rely on technology in some way. Even our plumbers and air conditioning professionals rely on technology today. So, why is it so difficult to gain credibility in the C-suite for technology professionals?
The problems many times lie with us, the technology leaders. One of my favorite books on technology operations in organizations is The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford. As I read the book for the first time, there were so many great points that I could identify with in their organization.
One of the points that hit home with me was that people who talk about tactical things think tactically. People who talk about strategic things think strategically. When you are in meetings with colleagues, what topics do you gravitate to in the conversations? Are you talking about the technical outage last week and what your staff did to fix it? OR did you talk about what that downtime did to staff productivity or the financial impact this had on the organization and how you plan to avoid these losses in the future? How much have you talked about your technology operation’s return on investment or partnerships with other departmental leaders to improve their operations? Have you discussed new approaches to cutting organizational costs through new systems and process automation?
I have used the phrase, “We are so technically-minded that we are no good to the business at-hand.” To truly get ourselves out of the actual and metaphorical “basement,” we must start thinking outside of our technological boxes (pun intended). Here are a few questions for you that might help you build credibility in your organization:
Are these items a magic lamp to moving yourself out of the “basement?” No. It takes real, long-term commitment to business challenges and a sincere focus on partnerships and relationships that will be the key to your success. But, having a grasp and understanding of the deeper aspects of what strategic advantages technology can provide to your organization and helping communicate and translate them in a way that your colleagues can understand will build your credibility among them. This will eventually help them see you as a business partner with helpful ideas and not just the plumber who keeps the water running.Keith is a veteran chief information officer serving as CIO for Saint Mary's College- Notre Dame, IN, University of Virginia-Wise and, most recently, Centre College. He is a co-founder and board member of the Higher Education Systems & Services Consortium (HESS) and has ... View Full Bio