Reflections on CIOship, Part II

Larry Kohlberg’s work, which I mentioned a couple of posts ago, was an example of what graduate students in my time called “Stage Quest”: the effort, following Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development, to find and document inexorable stage sequences in all kinds of development, including political, organizational, and occupational. In due course it became clear that not all development occurs through an invariant succession of stages. Yet Stage Quest keeps creeping into all kinds of organizational thinking and advice, not least the piece I’m ruminating on today: “Follow the Money'” and Other Unsolicited Advice for CIOs, from 1999.

Over a recent weekend I learned how to drive this 1952 Ford tractor. It’s fun to drive vehicles other than one’s car — in high school, for example, I briefly drove a Greyhound bus around a parking lot (well, okay, it wasn’t actually Greyhound, since it was in Mexico, but it was the same kind of bus — and this was when diesel intercity buses still had manual transmissions) and a friend’s TR-3 with a gearshift one could pull out of the transmission. Later I drove small trucks across the country a few times, and a motorcycle maybe twice, and those little Disney cars, which, truth be told, seemed much faster and more exciting in Anaheim when I was a kid than our son found them when he tried them years later in Orlando.

But I digress. Driving a tractor turns out to be very different from all those other vehicles in one key respect: you pick your gear before you start out, and then you stick with it. If you want to change gears, you stop the tractor completely first, and start over. For a tractor to work without unexpected interruptions, you need to understand what the job is before you set out. If you stick with the wrong gear, the tractor stalls, and you fail.

Here’s my summary reflection on “Follow the Money…”: It’s too much based on Stage Quest, and not enough on a 1952 tractor. The article arose from a conversation with a longstanding CIO from another institution. “What advice,” he asked me, “would you give a new CIO?” We came up with a dozen categories:

  • Ends justify means,
  • Who’s the boss?,
  • Blood is thicker than water,
  • Round up the usual suspects,
  • Espouse the party line,
  • What’s the difference?,
  • Silence is golden,
  • Follow the money,
  • Timing is everything,
  • Consort with the enemy,
  • Practice what you preach, and
  • Be where you are, not where you were

The relative importance of voice and data networking has changed, and I was unduly optimistic about desktop support becoming simpler, but much of the advice remains sound — especially, as I wrote in Part I of CIOship, the advice to avoid hierarchical approaches to IT organization and its relationships with other campus entities, and to collaborate actively across institutional boundaries.

But, as I said above, the article seems in retrospect to be excessively based, albeit implicitly, on the Stage Quest assumption that CIOs face similar series of challenges in different institutions. This, in turn, implies that CIOs at early stages in the series can learn from those who have progressed to later stages. Yet it has become quite clear, especially over the past few years,  that higher-education CIOships come in distinct forms. Like the various jobs a tractor driver might tackle, each form of the job entails a different series of stages, and requires a different gear. Some CIOs are hired to clean up a mess, for example, some are hired to encourage IT-based innovation, some are hired to consolidate past gains, and some are hired to focus on a particular problem. What one might do to Consolidate will fail miserably if one’s job is Cleanup.

The advice missing from “Follow the money…” is this: it’s very important to know which CIO job one has, and therefore which suite of skills and actions — which gear, that is — the job requires. A CIO hired into a Cleanup job will succeed by doing different things than one hired into an Innovate job. Those require different approaches than Consolidate or Focus jobs. Advice, in short, must be taken only in context.

This may help explain the discomfort with CIOship evident in “A CIO’s Question: Will You Still Need Me When I’m 64?“, which I wrote five years later. I’ll revisit that in the next Reflections on CIOship post.

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