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IT's Educational

One of the biggest issues facing Higher Education CIOs is divvying up limited resources in the face of a never-ending stream of requests for projects and services

It's probably fitting that Higher Education CIOs opted out of our CIO definitions and instead chose to define themselves. These CIOs maintain that IT executives in academia face a vastly different culture from those in business or government and, as a result, require special skills. The Higher Education CIO, they say, must accommodate more diversity, develop collaborative communication skills and cope with a slower decision cycle than is typical in the corporate world.

If you have ever bemoaned the machinations that come with having to deal with a host of different stakeholders, all with different needs, priorities and prejudices, spare a thought for the beleaguered Higher Education CIO. As Chris Foley, director of IT services at Murdoch University, points out, no one has to deal with so many diverse — and demanding — stakeholders as the CIO in an institution of higher education.

"The Higher Education CIO has to deal with students, the public and a bunch of other people that are probably not in the normal set of stakeholders that you would expect in a business," Foley says. "I mean, in a business you've got a bunch of businesspeople, you've got some customers, and there's probably not too many other people outside that the IT department has to deal with. In the education space, you've got internal customers, you've got students — you've got internal students, external students — you've got government and alumni. You've got all sorts of different stakeholders, and it's interesting how you deal with all those different groups."

The multiplicity of stakeholders — all highly opinionated — is very much of a differentiator of the higher education environment, agrees Tim Cope, CIO at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). And he says so with confidence, having come from the private sector some years ago. Education, he says, is a very different environment in which to operate. "The sheer number of different stakeholders is probably a unique feature of the higher ed environment, ranging from students, the general public, the research community, government, as well as all the myriad of internal stakeholders, given that we are such a large, diverse organization split into different academic disciplines and the like. So it's certainly a great challenge," Cope says.

"You have to be politically very astute, because the culture in the university is not a management culture: It's one more akin to government where you lobby, and you involve all stakeholders in extensive consultations, and a lot of the real decisions are made through lobbying that goes on outside meetings," he says. "So I think just the nature of decision making is a significant challenge to getting things done in a reasonable time frame."

Until recently there has been very little focus on the differences in the role the CIO must play in a higher education institution, and our State of the CIO 2007 survey did little to tease out the differences. But as Jeffrey P Lineman, associate professor of management and the STEP Program director at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, wrote in the latest issue of Educause Quarterly, it is high time for further research to explore those differences.

"To date, most CIO studies have looked at the corporate model without regard to the unique demands of the academic arena," he wrote. "Despite many similarities between the skills, responsibilities and roles of corporate and higher education CIOs, enough differences exist in their working environments and applications to warrant more study specifically targeting the higher education CIO."

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