The demise of the Canadian University CIO…?

I remember many years ago a colleague joking that CIO stood for “Career is Over”.   In those days there was lots of turnover and success did not always translate into longevity in the role.  Some recent departures in the Canadian University sector are making me ponder whether there are systemic issues that are causing our best and brightest to leave the sector.

I have talked about CUCCIO (Canadian University Council of CIO’s) in previous posts, but maybe just a little refresher.  Most University CIO’s in Canada are members of this group.   We engage on a daily basis through our lists, and meet face to face three times a year.   The group is very collegial and there is probably a core group of 35-40 at each meeting.  It is an important organization with some great leaders.  We learn from each other, we advocate, we commiserate and we make HE IT better when we get together.

Over the last year and a bit I can think of 8 CIO’s from this group of 40 who have left their roles, all but one of which were at a U15 (research intensive) school.  Prior to that, a couple of well-respected long serving CIO’s also retired.   This has an impact on an organization like CUCCIO, and on the Canadian University Sector.   These were some of our best and brightest. People who were driving organizational change and transforming the way we thought about IT. I feel the loss.

These individuals left for varying reasons, some stayed in HE but went to other countries, while others left the sector entirely. My question – Is there something systemic drawing or driving them away?   Certainly the CIO role can be a challenging one.

In trying to encourage collaboration across Universities I have been thinking a lot about why it is so challenging in IT when we see other parts of our institutions, such as the libraries, have success.  When I talk about collaboration I mean much more than just collaborative buying clubs, I am thinking about infrastructure and services that multiple institutions plan, invest in and share.

CIO’s in public sector institutions often work in an environment where expectations for IT in our communities exceed what can be achieved with the resources we have to work with.   At times many of us can be head down trying to meet these expectations, sometimes with a very singular focus driven by institutional priorities.  There can also be little tolerance in our communities for IT failure and that can push us to be more risk averse than we would like, or need to be. Although we are working hard at it and we are moving forward, many places haven’t truly embraced technology as a strategic enabler and look at IT as just another cost centre.   This makes it really hard to motivate real change and encourage our organization to advance where they need to.  There is simply very little capacity for collaboration

A few years ago I was talking to a colleague who moved from HE to a private sector agency.  They looked great, were happy and there was excitement in their voice.   They said that when they had good ideas for moving the organization they had instant support from the CEO and there weren’t long drawn out consultations with the community.  They were still doing their due diligence, but made decisions faster and resourced them appropriately.  They said it was fantastic to deliver what their community was asking for in a timely and responsive manner. They were doing it well and their staff were happy. It was fun being a CIO again.

So I leave you with a few questions that I hope will be discussed at our next meeting of CUCCIO.  Is there a systemic issue, or is this just a blip?   Is the grass really greener on the other side?  What can we do to help create an environment for success? How do we make up for this loss of talent and what are our collective plans for succession?

4 thoughts on “The demise of the Canadian University CIO…?

      • I’m a recent convert to HE with a 30+ year career in the private sector in N.A. and Europe. My first introduction to the nonsense of HE was my interview… there were 21 people there… 22 including me. That should have been enough to make me run the other way but I was seduced by their talk of needing a game changer who would have lots of money and support. Upon taking up my new post I was gob smacked by the general lack of common sense and the pointless reports, consultations and committees coupled with grandee posturing and faculty egos of enormous proportion. It’s not like being a private sector CIO is easy. As with HE there is never enough resource to satisfy all the legitimate needs. One big difference is the number of obstacles that other people put in your way! In HE it seems people feel the more obstacles they create the better a job they’re doing. Another is that in private sector you’re expected to get things done, that’s the key performance indicator… in HE you’re judged on adherence to the process and are ‘rewarded’ accordingly. Art really hit the nail on the head with his two observations… lack of trust and risk aversion. But he missed one. People in HE don’t work as a team towards a shared vision, purpose or mission. HE is a collection of individuals or small groups servicing their individual goals- all pulling in different directions. That’s why HE as we know it will disappear. I worked at a for profit educational services provider. We were lean, focused and very effective in serving our customers… i.e. the students, not the faculty. The only thing that keeps traditional HE going is credentialing… once employers stop caring and governments realize the inefficiencies inherent therein, traditional HE will not survive as we know it today.

  1. A very interesting question: are there systemic issues that make it harder to succeed as a CIO in PSE? Maybe, but I suspect that there are many who are built for it, and the eventual move to another sector is because “It’s time”. The nature of PSE is often described as difficult, but perhaps a better way to think of PSE institutions is as full communities with a multitude of priorities and personalities that must be skillfully navigated. The role of any leader in that context is complex, and in time, most will have their abilities recognized and recruited by the private sector. Staying with PSE then becomes a personal decision, based on lifestyle and workstyle desires. The greatest challenge then, is finding the really good people who will thrive in our collective chaos and develop them into future leaders who will replace those of us who choose to follow a different path.

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