Whither the CIO?

Whither the CIO? Bo Wandschneider, CIO at Queen’s University (and full disclosure the Deputy CIO at Guelph when I was CIO), recently posted about the nature and future of the CIO in higher education: “The demise of the Canadian University CIO…?”

Bo observed that too many CIOs in Canada were leaving (e.g. going to the private sector or to other areas of the university). He expressed some frustration at the limited vision of institutions regarding IT (e.g. IT is just a cost centre) and suggested that being a CIO in the private sector might be a better option.

CIOs in higher education (HE) come from many backgrounds; there is no standard career path to the role. I have always thought of that an advantage: diversity matters. But it might also lead to questioning the value of the role.

Difficult Questions

Is the CIO role diminished in HE? Does it live up to its “C-level” billing? And if not, who is responsible for this? The CIO, the Provost, the President?

Are universities blind to the transformational possibilities of IT? Is it just a cost centre or does it offer a positive, progressive disruption?

Is the private sector a better place to be a CIO? Is the university sector moribund or stagnant?


Bo thinks part of the solution for some of these woes is collaboration; real, bold, transformational collaboration. He doesn’t see it happening in IT and this hurts the credibility (and influence) of the CIO.

So, what to do? A few modest observations.

CIOs in HE manage a herd of cats (by which I mean their clients). And these cats are as independent as they come. Each client or client group has tremendous autonomy over their area. Bluntly, they want control. Building consensus for collaborative initiatives across units on campus is difficult enough; thinking about it across institutions seems impossible.

While the rest of the IT enabled world is scaling up to take advantage of innovative services and resources (with competitors sharing common infrastructure and services), HE still likes to do things on its own. Local trumps almost every other option.


University administration (read: Presidents, Provosts, VPs, Boards) don’t believe CIOs can deliver on their vision. Blunt I know.

Real collaboration, the kind Bo is calling for, requires opportunity (we have that in spades in IT), vision (I think there’s lots of good thinking in our community), and commitment (and this is where we are lacking). Collaboration is a promise. It requires a willingness to give up a certain amount (perhaps a lot) of autonomy.

CIOs are generally allergic to that. For Presidents, Provosts, etc. its anathema.

When the water starts to dry up the animals at the drinking hole start to look at each other differently. We are (and will continue) experiencing evaporating resources. But when we look at each other we should see partners not prey. We should think first of collaboration not control.

Think Long Term, Act Now

HE IT needs a long term plan that articulates a view of the HE system enabled differently in a collaborative model. Incrementally realize that vision: start new services/applications as collaborations and move legacy apps to a common framework as they become end of life. This does not mean everyone does it the same way; collaborative directions can be more flexible; variations on a theme rather than a single option.

Remember, however, that all collaboration is about mutual self-interest; finding that sweet spot means understanding the balance between the local and the collective. As a result, it must be a coalition of the willing; the perfect (all institutions are part of the collaboration) is the enemy of the good (a critical mass of engaged partners).

The University CIO

I don’t know if the private sector is a better place to be a CIO, and frankly I don’t care. I worked as a CIO in HE not because I thought technology was extraordinary (although I do) or because information is transformational (which it is) but because I’m passionate about the role and value of universities in transforming the world.

If you are a CIO who doesn’t get this, you should probably leave the sector.


The Canadian University Council of CIOs (CUCCIO) is a wonderful organization involving some of the best information technology leaders in the country. They are well positioned to transform HE IT in Canada.

Be bold.

Recognize the power of collaboration.



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1 Response to Whither the CIO?

  1. Dave Kibble says:

    On my way in to work this morning, I happened to be listening to CBC Radio (Metro Morning). They were interviewing a 4th year Toronto student who was advocating for a mandatory course in Indigenous Studies. Pondering the likely success of her efforts, the comment was made (paraphrasing) “… of course, UofT is a very decentralized place, so it will be challenging …”.

    I couldn’t help but think of Bo’s post and your comments which I’d only read a day or so earlier. Higher education is by its very nature an incredibly rich environment, full of diversity of all kinds. It comes with unique governance models (whether bicameral or other) and carries that spirit of healthy debate in a normally collaborative and collegial framework. The benefits that come with those kinds of “ground rules” are many.

    Unfortunately, those very aspects often don’t provide support for or may be in direct conflict with the way IT is envisioned to work and with what people expect from it. It can be very difficult to make changes in business processes or in the underlying technology behind them. We hear frequently that the pace for project and change is far slower. The reasons are there – challenging budget timing, governance, less clear drivers than might be seen in the private sector – and more. Managing expectations is a daily exercise.

    It’s not impossible to improve and I agree with the “coalition” notion. I’ve seen what can happen when people and institutions band together (in an IT setting) to do something good. It can happen inside as well when IT in faculties and academic support areas combine forces to do things in a more efficient manner.

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