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Changing Jobs in Difficult Financial Times

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Key Takeaways

  • Starting a new job as CIO in these challenging financial times requires immediate attention to your new institution’s IT problems — and successes.
  • A simple checklist offers helps in deciding what to tackle first, from prioritizing project plans to scouring the budget for savings.
  • Some important initiatives don’t require capital budget: governance, in-house training, relationship building, even standards.
  • Taking things one step at a time will help you climb that mountain and move smoothly into your new CIO position.

Audio and Transcript of "Changing Jobs in Difficult Financial Times"

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Starting a new job can be very exciting and challenging. During the interview process you may have learned from the hiring committee and others at the new institution about some of the initiatives they believe need to be done in or by the technology department. Additionally, the position advertisement and job description may have also given some clues as to the challenges that will be faced by the person selected for the CIO position. Moreover, you will more than likely be given definitive direction by the person hiring you. As you gather these clues about the state of the technology department and the overall expectations of the institution, you will quite naturally begin to develop the outline for a plan of action, a to-do list for a new position. To top it all off, you may be making an enormous life change during difficult financial struggles for the new institution and, as in the current economic climate, for the country.

Budget Challenge Ideas Checklist

Prioritize the plan and work on critical projects that have the largest return on investment.

Your action plan should contain different components. Some of the components may be changes in policies and procedures that cost technology department staff time, but do not require a new financial commitment from the institution. Other action plan components may be for projects which require hardware, software, or additional staffing. In these tough economic times, some of your plan components may not be achievable in the near term. Other parts of the plan may be so critical that you have to communicate to the executive team that, should these projects not be completed, it places the institution at risk in the near term. I would use this emergency option judiciously and sparingly. In most cases, tough economic times may require an approach that those of us in information technology (IT) departments are accustomed to — prioritization.

The IT department can never complete in one year all of the projects the institution needs done. As we in IT departments have done often, prioritizing a plan is essential. Working with the institution leadership and the technology governance structure, you will have to decide where precious resources can provide the institution with the biggest return on investment. For example, in the early 2000s I joined an institution where the network was suffering from antiquated equipment and insufficient bandwidth. As some of you may recall, the early 2000s were a time when overinvestment in technology and a lack of return on those investments resulted in the "dot com implosion" and a slowdown in the economy. To deal with this network challenge, my team and I put together a plan outlining the reasons for network slowness and frequent downtime. The executive team approved the plan, despite the economic slowdown, and we were able to eliminate the network’s inadequacies for the institution. There were a variety of other projects on my new job plan that would have eliminated other technology problems, but the network project had the biggest payback for students and employees.

Scour the budget - does it line up with your prioritized plan?

It may sound rudimentary, but scrutinize the budget. A new CIO role requires a thorough review of the technology department budget. Reviewing the last three years of budgets and "actuals" against budget may produce insights into budgeting and spending habits. For example, as a new CIO at one institution, I found $80,000 in a part-time temporary employment budget line which had not been spent in the previous three years. We were able to repurpose those funds and provide a real impact for the institution. The budget and "actual" information can also highlight items where unspecified "contingency funds" are stored. These funds may be an unofficial contingency fund or they may be funds that have been forgotten over time. Identifying these funds and putting them to good use would be a welcome move in tough economic times.

Contracts

  • Are the prices and terms in line?
  • Is it time to gather bids on the product or service?
  • Are there rebates available?

Another item to consider is to meet with the institution’s major technology vendors. As a part of vendor familiarization, the contracts can be reviewed for cost effectiveness, competitiveness, and conditions favorable to the institution. Updating the contract, conducting a competitive bid, or having a conversation with the vendor may result in better pricing, increased products or services, or consolidation.

Work on initiatives that don’t require capital investment, such as governance, in-house training, communication, and relationship building.

While prioritization is one way to deal with too many projects and not enough budget, another approach is to concentrate on the significant challenges in the department that can be addressed without major capital projects. For instance, in the same institution I referenced earlier, when I was hired I quickly learned there was a significant disconnect and a lack of trust between the central IT office, college employees, and the distributed IT departments. This challenge required me to expend a great deal of time, attention, and ongoing communication with those constituents. It also required some travel expense, as I visited 11 branch campuses situated across three states. My goal was to establish a confident, solid relationship with the distributed IT departments and their customers. Once that relationship was established, we were able to constructively work together on technology opportunities and challenges. In the grand scheme, traveling was not a large expense, and the trust and teamwork dividends it reaped more than made up for the cost.

There may be leadership, management, or succession planning challenges in the department. Rather than send multiple staff members to expensive training sessions, you may be able to bring the training to the institution. If you have more than one person who needs to attend the session, investigate the cost of bringing the trainer to your location. Many training organizations offer this on-site option. In addition, you may be able to create your own leadership development program with the help of your human resources or staff development department. Using faculty and staff from your institution to provide the training, you may be able to put together a curriculum that addresses some of the department’s training needs. For instance, establish an IT-specific leadership development curriculum for the technology department management team. All technology department training may not be handled this way. For instance, providing highly specific technology training for one database administrator might not be training that could be delivered in this format. However, where training can be implemented in an on-site manner, it should be explored.

Work on standards.

  • Governance is inexpensive.
  • Cobit is free.
  • ITIL is inexpensive.

Technology governance is a subject that CIOs see on the EDUCAUSE Top-Ten IT Issues list every year. Governance is also an area that can be addressed for very little cost. In fact, employee time is usually the only cost associated with working on governance. EDUCAUSE has good research and other articles on how to implement technology governance. Other cost-effective ideas can be gleaned from standards such as Control Objectives for Information and relation Technology (COBIT) and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

Vendors sometimes offer in-kind gifts.

In addition, a vendor may have programs which can provide in-kind contributions at little or no cost to the institution. An example is Oracle’s higher education classroom licensing; they provide database software for use in an institution’s database classes at little or no cost. This cost avoidance can free up funds that can be used for other purposes. The institution foundation office should be involved in these vendor conversations for several reasons. First, the foundation understands how these kinds of conversations should be structured. Second, the foundation presence during the process legitimizes the conversations. Finally, the foundation will be able to record the in-kind gift and can use it toward any goals the foundation is currently pursuing.

Pursue grants.

Don’t forget grants from government or private organizations to obtain funding for the projects on the new CIO’s plan. While writing a grant can be time consuming, it may be a way to save institutional resources and still make progress on technology initiatives. Obviously, if your institution employs a grant writer, he or she will be an immense help in responding to any technology grant requests.

Form a consortium with other institutions.

Vendors may also be approached using institutional collaboration. Consortium agreements such as the Midwest Higher Education Consortium (MHEC, http://www.mhectech.org) may be another avenue taken as you try to save money and add value to your new institution. These consortia often involve a number of institutions that have banded together to get the best pricing possible from technology vendors. While MHEC is established, you may explore a combination of schools to form a new consortium, such as a group of state community colleges forming a consortium to purchase Microsoft licensing together.

Conclusion

Starting a new CIO job is always a challenge. There is a new department and institution to learn about, people to meet, and problems to solve. There is always plenty to learn and projects to realize. Throwing in economic challenges to the new-job transition can feel like you’re attempting to climb a mountain without any gear. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to deal with the challenge and still make progress on a CIO transition plan.

Wayne Brown

Dr. Wayne A. Brown is the Chief Executive Officer for Educators Serving Educators, a division of Excelsior College and he also serves as the Vice President for Extended Education at Excelsior College in Albany, NY. Prior to his current role, Wayne was the first Vice President for Information Technology at Excelsior College.

Prior to joining Excelsior, Brown was the Executive Vice President for Administration at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS. Brown is a retired US Air Force officer. He holds a Ph.D. in Computing Technology in Education from Nova Southeastern University and a Master’s of Business Administration with an emphasis in computer information systems from Wayland Baptist University, Plainview, Texas. His research interests include CIO effectiveness, IT organizational structure, and enterprise resource planning software implementation.

Brown is the founder of the Center for Higher Education Chief Information Officer Studies Inc (www.checs.org), a non profit organization focused on contributing to the education and development of higher education CIOs. His longitudinal CIO effectiveness research has been published in EDUCAUSE Quarterly and Educause Review, Public CIO, Leadership Abstracts, Campus Technology, and Gartner reports.

 

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