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What makes an effective CIO? What skills and qualities do the very best ones have, and how might these attributes change (or need to change) in the next few years? Is it the same story in the UK as it is in the US?

The CIO’s role is evolving so fast that these are hard questions to answer.  At Jisc we’ve spent the past few months working with colleagues across the Atlantic to try.

The idea came out of a conversation earlier this year between Jisc colleagues and our counterparts at EDUCAUSE, the US headquartered association for IT leaders and professionals. Each organisation champions the use of digital technologies to improve research, teaching, learning and management in its own nation’s universities and colleges, and we were interested in finding out what makes a good CIO because of the unique position that CIOs occupy.

Managing a range of critical services right across the business or organisation they work for, and influencing future developments, CIOs can re-imagine operations and innovate in ways that few of their fellow ‘chiefs’ can. So it’s our belief that CIOs are uniquely placed to act as powerful advocates for digital technologies, to identify the ones that can help their institutions most and ensure that they become fully embedded right across the research, teaching and management functions.

It isn’t always easy to set up a transatlantic working group and to get members to commit to a teleconference once a month, so it is a measure of the importance of the work that we managed it, and that people ring-fenced the necessary diary time each month.

The group included senior information and IT officers from a deliberately diverse selection of ten universities – including Nebraska, California and others in the US, and Cardiff, Ulster, Sheffield Hallam, Dundee and Aston in the UK. Student rolls ranged from 350 to more than 20,000, and there were both specialist and generalist institutions among the number.

Their task was to define the characteristics of an information leader, to devise a model that is relevant to all organisations regardless of their size or purpose, and to try to identify development needs that might be common now as well as ones that might arise in the next few years.

Over the six months, broad agreement emerged on the kinds of softer skills that a CIO needs. Listening and asking the right, searching questions scored especially highly. When it came to harder skills, it was interesting to see significant difference of opinion over whether it was necessary for CIOs to have an IT background. Some thought emphatically ‘yes’ but others argued that – as it is increasingly impossible for one person to be fully conversant with all aspects of IT – it is more valuable for the CIO to understand IT’s strategic potential, to build an effective team of specialists and to know how to get the best out of them.

The resulting work was the creation of a model detailing the collective view of what an effective CIO looks like.

It was with some trepidation that we presented our model at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference 2014 in Florida earlier this autumn.

On paper, 8am on the last day of the conference seemed less than ideal for the grand unveiling, even on what everyone agreed was an overdue and important piece of work. But despite the hour there was lively interest in dissecting the model and - given the complexity of the task – it was striking how closely the discussions among delegates mirrored those of the working group during their monthly teleconferences.

There was general agreement that the model that the group came up with is broadly accurate. This consensus has given us the confidence to explore ways to support current CIOs in identifying their own skills gaps and to inform their future development.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Early next year Jisc and EDUCAUSE will publish a detailed report on the CIO development work, which we hope will help to crystallise thinking about the future of this important leadership role as it evolves. There’ll also be a programme of engagement with the education sector, including Digifest, our now annual event where we bring representatives from HE, FE and skills together with digital experts and providers to share new ideas.

All too often, people don’t have a clear idea either of the skillsets they already have or of the ones they may need in the future. For CIOs the picture has been murkier than for most, but we aim to give them a clearer view and to work up some strategies and practical solutions to help them along the road ahead.

About the author:

With experience in marketing and communications, Robert Haymon-Collins is Executive director customer experience  with Jisc, a registered charity and champion the use of digital technologies in UK education and research. Haymon-Collins ensures Jisc deliver a cohesive customer experience strategy and organisational approach – reflecting a deep and sustained understanding of its customers’ needs.