Sunday, November 11, 2012


Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Frustrated IT Manager

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

The background 
I'm an IT manager at a community college. [Several] years ago, my college created a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position and united our technology departments under the new CIO.  It was a disaster.  The CIO was a longtime administrator at the college who, despite being an experienced educational administrator, wasn't able to be an effective CIO (poor communication and project management).  The other administrators were unhappy with the performance of IT under the CIO, but they mostly held their tongues until he retired.  Once he left, they let their displeasure be known and started clamoring for the technology departments to be split back up so they can have more control.  
For the last (many) months, we've had a pair of interim CIOs and they haven't done well either.  Communication is still bad and the other administrators don't feel that their needs are being met.  Despite the fact that one of our interim-CIOs has decades of experience as an IT manager and the other is an experienced educational administrator, they both lack many of the requisite skills for a senior IT manager such as project management, risk management, talent development, communication, etc.  
In July, we got a new president.  He asked the co-CIOs to stay in their position until the end of the calendar year, but he recently let them know that they would not retain that position into January.  The president is considering eliminating the CIO, splitting up IT and putting the pieces underneath the VP of Instruction and VP of Administration.
My dilemma: 
I was hired by the old CIO.  It was my first management position and I had hoped to apply for the CIO position when he retired.  I have less experience than the other managers so I wasn't asked to take the interim position.  Now, it may be eliminated entirely.
I think that we have much more potential as a centralized unit and that collaboration will be difficult if we are split up.  I also think that the CIO position is an important part of having an effective, cohesive, accountable IT unit. 
To that end, I've developed a plan for getting IT back on track.  My plan addresses our communication issues, governance, project and portfolio management, and talent development; all of the areas our previous CIOs failed to address.  I would really like to pitch my plan to our new president.  I'm pretty sure he'll grant me the meeting, but I'm afraid that I'll be committing political suicide.  My plan doesn't criticize the interim CIOs directly, but the implications are pretty clear.  They are officially out of the running for the position, but I may still end up working under one of them and will definitely have to work with them.
If I do go forward with this, I'm unsure if I should ask for the position outright or just pitch the ideas and see what he thinks.

This may not be quite as bad as it looks, depending on your president.

The key will be to separate what would be good for you personally from what would solve the president’s problems.  To put it differently, would you be satisfied if the president decided to keep IT together, but under someone who isn’t you?  

I’ve seen colleges separate IT into “academic computing” and “administrative computing,” and I’ve seen colleges combine the roles into a single IT unit.  I don’t have a theological position on the merits of one against the other; it strikes me as the kind of issue to settle based on performance.  Given that your college has experienced poor performance of the unified model for some time now, I can see why it would move to the other approach.  The burden on you would be to show that the failures of the unified model were not because of the unified model.  That can be tricky if you aren’t comfortable throwing the current leadership under the bus.  (Throwing current leadership under the bus, outside of a few extraordinary circumstances, is what we call a career-limiting move.)

What I absolutely would not advise is simply “ask[ing] for the position outright.”  Assuming that the history as you’ve outlined it is largely correct, then your president is probably highly skeptical of the unified model.  In his shoes, I would be, too.  If you want the unified CIO job, you need to be willing to save the concept first, and not put your name in until the concept is saved.  That entails the risk of suffering through another CIO, but that’s how the game is played.  Annoyingly, in administrative ranks, sometimes you have to move out to move up.

What does the unified model offer that the split model doesn’t?  How can you explain its repeated failure, assuming that at least some of the CIOs have been capable and well-meaning people?  Social psychologists have a term -- the “fundamental attribution error” -- for the habit of ascribing poor performance to individuals, rather than to constraints.  If one person fails in a role, it could be the person.  If several smart people fail consecutively in the same role, it may be the role.  

The upside to separating the structural argument from the personal argument is that it allows you to look good even if you lose.  If you make an intelligent impersonal argument to the president and lose, you’ve made an impression as someone who makes intelligent arguments that aren’t just cloaks for his self-interest.  That’s called credibility, and it’s a great thing to have.  Sometimes you can lose the battle on the way to winning the war.  You can turn a sticky situation into a win-win if you take the high road.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  How would you play this one?  Should our long-suffering writer put his name in, make a structural argument, or just suck it up and start sending out applications?

Good luck!

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

P.S. -- The Big Reveal is Tuesday.  Stay tuned!

Good advice about a tough situation. I wish it was possible to know just how big this college is, since I am at a large CC and we don't have a second layer of IT management. In a smaller organization, cross-training is important.

My observation is that your correspondent has identified problem areas that are independent of the organization's structure and explain why structural changes have not improved performance. I'd pitch it that way, but be sure you have a budget in mind.

You might also narrow your focus. How many of the problems are entirely a result of not developing local talent? Good project managers do not fall off of the turnip truck even if the boss is a good manager. I know what my brother's company does in that regard.

Side comment:
"decades of experience as an IT manager" means this person has been MANAGING since before the web? Many things have changed since then ...
CCPhysicist: We're a little under 10k FTES right now. We have 4 IT managers not including the CIO.

Not developing local talent is a problem. We don't have a formal plan for training staff nor have we identified the skills we have or the skills we need.

With respect to project management, none of the three CIOs to date have shown any knowledge of project management. They have all been in charge of big projects before, but they've just taken an ad-hoc approach without using project charters, detailed timelines, work breakdowns, communication plans, etc.

You're correct to note that the person in question has been managing since before the web. That would not necessarily be a problem, but I don't think he has adapted.
Thanks for that clarification.

We are bigger than that, and might have a similar breakdown as well as that last problem with identifying the skills we need. But, like us, you seem small enough to have everyone know everyone else and share a common culture that transcends silos.

My view of our operation is colored by the fact that it has run well in the absence of a CIO and other leadership changes because each part seems to know that the classroom comes first and hence they respond promptly to faculty and student concerns. The only time I have seen things have to go up from faculty to Dean to VP to Pres to another VP to Pres to the IT VP to manager to programmer is when the cost/time is really significant.

One thing you might consider is where your college stands vis-a-vis full implementation of Outcomes Assessment. We don't have to manage the ERP system that is key to what IR has to do to prepare for reaffirmation of accreditation, but if we did, I think IR would be in charge of IT because a responsive system becomes a life-and-death matter.
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