Reflections on CIOship, Part I

BaconHaving not been a CIO  for over a year, I’ve been thinking about the evolution of that role — whatever its associated title — in colleges and universities.

As some of you know, I’ve thought and written about CIOship before. In the spirit of Ruminations, I figured the right way to rethink about CIOship was to revisit how I’d thought about it before.

So in this and the next two posts I’ll revisit those earlier pieces, see whether they still make sense. Ignoring chronology, I start with a short piece from a collection in EDUCAUSE Review three years ago. My part was short, so I’ll just quote it in full.

The U.S. Military Academy is a highly centralized organization: an end-of-career superintendent manages a largely transient faculty and a hierarchical administration. Harvard, in contrast, is a highly decentralized organization: a president nudges and coaxes deans, who control most of the resources and who in turn nudge and coax department heads and faculty, who enjoy substantial autonomy.

Like most other colleges and universities, the University of Chicago operates between these extremes—or, more typically and problematically, tries to combine the two. The budget process is centralized, for example, but its product is a set of formulas outlining boundaries within which deans and vice presidents have great freedom. Similarly, the university claims to have centralized telecommunications procurement, but somehow cell phones aren’t included.

Even faculty hiring has both centralized and decentralized components, causing occasional tension between department heads and the provost’s office. Confusion results, especially regarding the processes for setting priorities, resolving conflicts, and negotiating trade-offs.

Senior leadership groups—an officers group, a deans group, and an executive budget committee—exist to resolve these tensions between decentralized and centralized goals and actions. To the extent that these groups evolve into collaborative teams, they work well for issues of general institutional importance. They work less well for issues that involve only a subset of units: IT and Facilities, with overlapping responsibilities for design and installation; intellectual and administrative units, with divergent goals for student life; or pairs of academic departments, with a need to exploit synergies. So I—like other vice presidents, as well as deans and colleagues—have lots of lunches at the Quadrangle Club, the standard place for University of Chicago administrators and faculty to conduct lunch meetings.

For those of us with sedentary habits and no willpower, lunch can be a problem. That’s especially true for me, since the Quad Club makes a delicious BLT wrap, which is in effect a handful of garnished bacon only minimally buffered by a thin wrapper—and I love bacon. Ordinarily, mindful of my waistline, I’d try to avoid Quad Club lunches. But who has lunch with whom—and, sometimes more important, who sees whom having lunch with whom and stops by the table—is very important to the university’s functioning.

An aggregation of dyadic administrative lunches helps us behave as though we are centralized, even as each of us jealously guards his or her decentralized authority. Our lunches don’t turn into negotiating sessions, and only rarely do concrete decisions emerge from them. Rather, lunches give us the opportunity to share thoughts, experiences, perspectives, enthusiasm, paranoia, gossip—the informal information about one another that enables us to negotiate, collaborate, complain, and respond appropriately when our domains do or should engage one another.

This coming year promises to be challenging at the university: an ambitious president, lots of new vice presidents, currents of organizational and cultural change, and many trade-offs to be negotiated. Some of these challenges will call for more centralization and others for more decentralization. Some will necessitate a lunch. In this, I think, we are typical. Bacon is good.

In addition to celebrating bacon, I proposed that  formal processes don’t suffice to manage colleges and universities, especially in times of change. A year later, the national economy fell apart as the credit bubble burst, and most institutions found themselves managing two kinds of change at once: the intellectual and programmatic expansion required by technological and social progress, plus the unwelcome shrinkage required to operate within drastically smaller and uncertain resources.

Stock Market 2008Some institutions have managed to adapt to these challenging circumstances without major dislocation. Others haven’t. It seems to me, based on lots of conversations with IT leaders from diverse institutions, that the existence of established, effective backchannel relationships is even more important in times of shrinkage than in times of growth.

Competition often dominates in times of growth. Competition really doesn’t require backchannels, in fact, backchannels can undercut competitive will. Shrinkage requires collaboration and negotiation, however, rather than competition. And collaboration and negotiation most definitely benefit from backchannels.

In other words, bacon is even more important today than it was in 2007. In the next episode: does it still make sense to follow the money?

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