CIO: From technologist to process specialist

IT is at the beginning of a new era that must be very carefully navigated in order for organizations to make the most of their IT investments.

You know, I actually hate the constant stream of articles about how the role of the CIO is transforming.  There are countless examples of articles that describe the slow, miserable fate of the CIO as cloud takes the reins. And then, there are other articles that describe how the CIO must adapt to survive the coming organizational upheaval. One would think that organizations across the globe have suddenly decided to throw their IT plans out the window and simply start anew -- that's the level of hyperbole that I seem to see in many outlets.

So, it is with great trepidation and no small amount of self-loathing that I throw my own thoughts into the ring. However, I'm not a purely professional pundit. I'm a practicing, everyday CIO that is watching a lot of what is happening with a healthy, equal mix of excitement and terror. I've been in IT management for ten years, and I do believe that IT is at the beginning of a new era that must be very carefully navigated in order for organizations to make the most of their IT investments.

I'm currently in my fifth year as the CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. When I arrived at the College, I was greeted with an IT department that was in need of new ways of thinking and doing business. Budgets were tight, staff was a challenge, and the IT infrastructure was not in the best shape. My team and I have spent considerable time and effort revitalizing the IT organization and implementing a rock-solid IT infrastructure. If you've read any of my other work on TechRepublic, you'll have a good idea about the kinds of projects we've undertaken. But, as a short overview, here's a very cherry-picked list of what we've accomplished, in chronological order:

  • Development of a funded equipment life-cycle replacement plan
  • Replacement of entire network infrastructure
  • Creation of a campus-wide wireless network (we're in the process of migrating to wireless-N now)
  • Replacement of the entire data center architecture and implementation of an almost fully virtualized data center
  • Operational audit of another campus division, which culminated in a 45-page report with significant change recommendations -- in partnership with that division's VP
  • Rebuilding of the College's long-term financial forecasting model -- in a lead role -- in partnership with the CFO
  • Migration to a new learning management system
  • Implementation of a student retention management system designed to help us identify areas of risk and retain students from year to year -- in partnership with the VPs responsible
  • Installation of a new fund-raising system and migration of all data from the old system -- in partnership with the VP for Advancement
  • Creation of a campus data governance and business intelligence committee

As I reflect on the past few years, it strikes me that my own role has radically shifted from that of technologist to that of information and process specialist and that trend shows all kinds of signs of continuing in that direction. In years past, my focus was very much on the infrastructure and data center software. At the time, that was necessary. With relatively regular failures in these areas, these weaknesses were very visible and had a negative impact on the ability for people to do their jobs. Early on, I used to question users who constantly copied their files from the network to their local machine -- or simply refused to save their files to the network at all. From many, many people, I heard the same answer: "I do this because the network is always down." In other words, people were finding ways to work around IT's shortcomings, and these workarounds were both inefficient and dangerous (a lot didn't get backed up back then).

Those days, thankfully, are long gone.

So, we've moved on to new endeavors that revolve squarely around data and processes. And, in the process, I've been able to move from the "technology" side of the house to the "information" silo.

This certainly wasn't an overnight shift and is not 100% true, but looking back, it's been an obvious transition that's been taking place over the past couple of years. We've shifted from major infrastructure plays to data-based and process-based information plays. As you can see from the list above, the more recent projects have been very partnership oriented and have not had a pure technology focus at all. Instead, I've been able to leverage the very centralized role that the CIO plays in order to help other divisions meet their own goals and look at their processes for potential improvements. I also find myself being consulted more and more often on decisions that are very clearly outside my area of authority. In fact, just this week, I was asked to coordinate an effort that will culminate in a policy shift for a process that simply uses IT to facilitate their goals, but the process in question is not IT related.

In this way, the CIO role -- for me and many others -- is expanding to encompass responsibilities that are outside the traditional IT focus. As IT departments automate more and move services to the cloud, additional staff time can be brought to bear on real business problems for which the CIO is uniquely positioned to lend assistance. This is my hope and dream for the future: to be able to continue to play a pivotal and supporting role for business needs and craft solutions -- sometimes based on technology -- to meet those needs.

By Scott Lowe

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...