The Adaptive CIO: Balancing Institutional Structure and Culture
Providing technology services and leadership has become an increasingly strategic function in higher education over the past several years. Many institutions have made significant investments in their technology infrastructure since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with even larger-scale investments possible in the future as these institutions consider longer-term digital strategies for education and work.
Along with these changes, the role of the senior-most IT officer—who not always but often carries the title of CIO (which is the term used throughout this report)—as a strategic leader at the institution has been elevated. CIOs have reported greater influence at their institutions over the past several years and have experienced a heightened awareness of and interest in IT's contributions as a partner for faculty and other stakeholders.
In light of these changes and opportunities for higher education IT, how can CIOs best leverage their position to be effective leaders at their institution? Where will the CIO best fit within the institution's organizational structure, and from where can they most effectively exert influence on their institution's overall strategy, planning, and operations?
To help us explore these issues, in EDUCAUSE's 2021 CIO Workforce survey 267 senior-most IT leaders responded to a series of questions specifically about the reporting structure at their institution. Where the CIO sits at their institution, and whom they report to, can and often does have implications for the CIO's access to institutional resources and influence. In previous research, EDUCAUSE has advocated for a direct reporting line for CIOs to the head of the institution—typically a president, chancellor, or CEO—reasoning that such a reporting structure connects CIOs more directly to institution-wide strategic planning and decision-making and enables them to establish a more institution-wide presence.
One stone left unturned in this previous research, however, is where it all leaves CIOs who simply don't have the option of reporting to their president or chancellor (or who would even prefer not to). Can CIOs be effective and make a difference without a direct reporting line to the president/chancellor, situated instead within different, less direct structures? When might not reporting to the president/chancellor actually be preferable, and what factors contribute to CIOs' success within such structures?
By addressing these additional questions, we build on our previous research to highlight institutional culture as an important counterbalance to (or perhaps even more consequential than) institutional structure. And we envision a CIO leader for the future of higher education who not only is integrated into the institution's formal structures but is also able to adapt across varied institutional environments and effectively lead from wherever they are.
- Reporting lines do matter. Though there are important nuances to the discussion of CIO reporting lines, there's no denying that a direct reporting line to the president/chancellor most effectively and visibly elevates the role of the CIO as an institution-wide partner in strategic planning and decision-making. Those CIOs who report to their president/chancellor report significantly higher levels of institutional influence and leadership efficacy across most measures.
- CIOs can have influence and success regardless of reporting lines. Many of the CIOs not reporting directly to their president/chancellor prefer that structure and report high levels of influence and efficacy in key areas of leadership. An institutional culture of collaboration, the institution's missional priorities, and closer proximity to other key areas of institutional resources and decision-making are among the reasons cited for preferring reporting to someone other than the president/chancellor.
- Collaboration is a key element of reporting-line preferences. For CIOs across all types of reporting structures, the ability to collaborate with other units across the institution is a primary consideration. Those CIOs who report to the president/chancellor cite collaboration as a key benefit of that structure, and CIOs who have other reporting structures indicate having a healthy institutional culture that enables collaboration.
- IT needs a seat at the table. Where feasible, institutional leadership should explore options for inviting IT into executive planning and decision-making, such as a direct reporting line to the president/chancellor and/or a seat on the president/chancellor's leadership cabinet.
- Institutional practices and processes around planning and decision-making should be assessed. Institutional leadership should consider whether and how their strategic planning and decision-making processes are grounded in important values such as inclusion and collaboration, and they should strive to give voice to all stakeholders and units, regardless of reporting structures.
- CIOs should be equipped and ready to lead across a variety of institutional structures and contexts. CIOs may not always be able to rely on direct access to power and resources as the only path to influence and efficacy. Skills such as communication, relationship building, persuasion, and influence will be critical for developing adaptive CIOs who can accommodate various organizational structures and better lead from wherever they are.
- Mission should take priority over structure. IT leadership should be positioned in whatever way best supports the institution's overall goals and mission, whether that means reporting to the president/chancellor, or to the academic officer, or to a different position.
We asked our survey respondents to indicate which leadership position they report to—the president/chancellor/CEO, or officers of various functional units, or other administrative or academic leadership positions. A plurality of respondents (39%) said they report directly to the president/chancellor/CEO. Just over a fifth of respondents (22%) said they report to the highest-ranking administrative officer, and an additional fifth (22%) said they report to the highest-ranking business officer. Another 11% of respondents said that they report to the highest-ranking academic officer, and the remaining respondents said that they either have joint, second-tier, or "other" reporting structures.
We next asked respondents whether they felt their current reporting structure was the appropriate one. Among those respondents reporting to their president/chancellor, 99% agreed that it was the appropriate reporting structure. Those who do not report to the president/chancellor were split on whether theirs was the appropriate reporting structure, with 41% saying that it was and 45% saying that it was not (and another 14% saying that they simply didn't know).
This series of questions forms the foundation of our analyses for this report and allows us to examine CIO leadership influence and efficacy across three distinct categories of IT leaders (see figure 1):
- CIOs with a direct reporting line to their president/chancellor
- CIOs who do not report to the president/chancellor and feel this is the appropriate reporting structure for them
- CIOs who do not report to the president/chancellor and feel this is not the appropriate reporting structure for them
How do these three groups of CIOs differ, if at all, in their self-reported influence and efficacy as leaders at their institution? Why do these CIOs feel these reporting structures are or are not working well, and what might their responses reveal about other institutional factors that matter just as much (if not more) for their success as leaders?
Structure Still Matters
Consistent with previous EDUCAUSE research, we find that reporting lines still matter a great deal for CIOs' influence and efficacy as leaders. Reporting on the frequency with which they are able to influence their institution's administrative, strategic, and academic directions, those CIOs reporting to their president/chancellor stand out markedly from their peers who do not have that same direct reporting line (see figure 2).
We find a similar pattern across many important measures of leader efficacy, such as their involvement in change and digital transformation at the institution and their involvement in and ability to influence important decisions (see figure 3). Those CIOs reporting to their president/chancellor, with their more elevated and institution-wide position, may simply have a better view of institutional planning and operations, allowing them to more easily access and be a part of activities and decisions outside their own unit.
When asked to share in their own words why they feel their reporting structure is the appropriate one, those CIOs reporting to their president/chancellor reflected on a number of benefits:
Culture Also Matters
Although reporting lines can make a difference for CIO influence and efficacy, they don't preclude CIOs who do not report to the president/chancellor from finding ways to lead from wherever they are and make effective use of the resources they have. Indeed, when we separate respondents who don't report to the president/chancellor into two groups—those who feel their reporting structure is appropriate and those who do not—we find significant differences in self-reported influence at the institution; in a few areas, respondents who agree with not reporting to the president/chancellor lean closer to their peers who do report to the president/chancellor (see figure 5).
Similarly, in some areas of strategy and influence, self-reported efficacy appears to be more a function of satisfaction with reporting line than whether the CIO reports to the president/chancellor (see figure 6).
Even more tellingly, efficacy in areas such as institutional change and digital transformation, cross-unit collaboration, and influencing decisions is fairly close or even on par across all three groups of CIOs, suggesting that factors aside from organizational structure are responsible for the degree to which CIOs are effective in these areas of their work (see figure 7).
What is helping make such a significant and positive difference for CIOs, then, when they otherwise don't have the benefit of a direct reporting line to their president/chancellor?
Paramount among these CIOs' own reflections on this difference, institutional culture is critical for enabling leadership influence and efficacy regardless of reporting structure (see figure 8). Specifically, when the institution is built on a culture that values and fosters collaboration, CIOs can more easily build bridges across functional units, be invited to the table when important decisions need to be made, and otherwise enjoy open access to executive leadership when warranted by the CIO's needs and expertise. These are institutional environments where CIOs have influence and are effective because they are valued and have a voice, not merely because they have power and position.
There are more practical reasons for preferring to report to someone other than the president/chancellor, of course, which may vary depending on institutional context. At some institutions, a direct reporting line to the president/chancellor simply wouldn't fit with the overall organizational structure and logic—one respondent shared that all of the institution's VPs report to the COO rather than the president. Some of these CIOs reflected on the benefits of having direct access to business leadership and the purse strings of the institution, or of having direct access to a functional area (e.g., academics) that is more strategically important to the institution's overall mission. And other CIOs simply indicated that their president/chancellor would be too busy or inattentive to meet their needs and that such a reporting line might actually be counterproductive.
Whatever their reasons, these CIOs demonstrated through self-reported influence and efficacy—as well as through their own stories—that not reporting to the president/chancellor doesn't have to diminish their ability to lead at their institution. In many cases, in fact, these other reporting lines can enrich their leadership in unique ways and offer the CIO resources and support that reporting to the president/chancellor wouldn't provide.
When Structure Compensates for Culture
Across almost all of our measures of influence and efficacy, the third category of CIOs—those who do not report to the president/chancellor and who feel that this reporting structure is not appropriate—lagged behind their peers. These CIOs lack the benefits of more direct access to the top levels of institutional planning, decision-making, and collaboration, and many of them appear to also lack the kind of supportive institutional culture that would enable them to lead and exert influence from where they are.
It is not surprising, then, that 83% of these CIOs indicated that they would prefer to report directly to the president/chancellor instead of their current reporting line, with most of the remaining 17% preferring to report to different functional units or officers. When asked why they would prefer to report directly to the president/chancellor, they offered explanations that seem to stem from a desire to overcome cultural barriers at the institution: reporting to the president/chancellor, according to these CIOs, would make it easier to partner with other units, improve decision-making processes, and help with things like resource allocation (see figure 9). These explanations imply, of course, that these practices and processes are not currently easy or working as they should and that a shift in reporting structure would help remedy these institutional shortcomings.
Institutional culture can feel impossible to change. Practices and preferences can be deeply ingrained across the institution, and some of these CIOs might believe that a shift in the reporting structure would be a far easier path to greater influence and efficacy than turning the ship of institutional culture. Such a shift might or might not address deeper cultural issues, but it at least would provide the CIO with closer access to resources and an elevated institution-wide presence.
Collaboration over Structure
Leadership at its best is a highly relational and collaborative practice. It requires effective communication across the institution, as well as intentional focus on listening, respect, and empathy. It requires skill in building relationships across a diverse group of professionals working toward the common goal of supporting the institution's mission.
Absent these intentional practices and cultures of collaboration at the institution, no reporting structure will be adequate. When the institution's culture and practices are deeply collaborative, though, the CIO can be an effective leader and influencer across the institution, regardless of reporting structure.
In many of the open-ended comments in our survey, collaboration seemed to be one of the most important aspects—if not the most important—of CIOs' reporting line experiences and preferences. Those CIOs reporting to their president or chancellor appreciated the opportunities that structure afforded for collaboration across the institution. For those CIOs contentedly working through another reporting structure, their efficacy as leaders was buttressed by an institutional culture that allowed them to collaborate with other leaders and units regardless of where they reside in the org chart. And, for those CIOs who were unhappy and longing for an elevated reporting line, much of their dissatisfaction stemmed from an inability at their institution to effectively collaborate with leadership and across units.
Before institutions assess their reporting structures, then, they may need to first assess the culture and practices of collaboration that they are—or are not—fostering among their leaders and staff. Are stakeholders across the institution given the space to lend their voices and expertise to strategic decision-making and planning? Do leaders communicate effectively across units and work well in concert with one another?
When reporting structures are put in place to mask deficiencies in these more foundational areas of institutional culture and practice, improved CIO influence and efficacy may be superficial and fleeting. When, on the other hand, institutions prioritize building cultures and practices of collaboration, leaders may be freed up to put in place whatever reporting structures best fit with their institution's particular context, mission, and goals.
In this report we attempt to strike a balance between two truths: that reporting structures undeniably provide benefits through more direct access to resources and top levels of leadership, and that these benefits should be far less important at those institutions that have cultivated healthy cultures and practices around inclusion and collaboration.
An opportunity is available now and in the coming years for CIOs and for higher education technology in general to assume a more central role in institutions' strategic planning and decision-making. If the goal is to build better practices and processes now that help set up this strategic role for long-term sustainability and success, the best place to start in developing the CIO of the future is to assess institutional practices and processes for planning and decision-making and consider whether these practices and processes are inclusive and collaborative or favor only those with position and power.
With the goal of building better practices and processes, and not of merely elevating some roles over others, we can begin to understand the skills and capabilities CIOs will need on the road ahead. Communication. Listening. Empathy. Persuasion and influence. With these skills in hand, CIOs will be better equipped to have the deep and meaningful impact on their institution's mission that they know they can and should have, regardless of where they sit and to whom they report.
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© 2022 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.
Mark McCormack. The Adaptive CIO: Balancing Institutional Structure and Culture. Research report. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, August 2022.