March/April 2003 // Vision
Creating a Realistic IT Vision: The Roles and Responsibilities of a Chief Information Officer
by James I. Penrod
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James I. Penrod "Creating a Realistic IT Vision: The Roles and Responsibilities of a Chief Information Officer" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The last 15 years have seen the creation of a new senior-level position in most college and university administrations—the chief information officer (CIO). Typically the CIO reports to either the president or the provost, serves as a member of the president's cabinet, and has responsibility for the centralized information technology (IT) unit of the campus. The centralized IT unit typically encompasses a wide range of additional units, including academic and administrative computing; voice, video, and data networks; and other IT support services. The nature and makeup of these additional units vary substantially from institution to institution. The CIO position, however, usually has two distinct aspects: line management of a vital, complex, and expensive IT unit, and responsibility for IT-related policies throughout the institution.

An aspect of the latter will be explored in this article. As IT policy officer, the CIO must work with the president, provost, and other executive officers to create and sustain an IT governance structure for the entire college or university. In turn, the CIO must develop and implement an IT strategic planning process that will appropriately align centralized and distributed IT resources throughout the institution.

It is in this context that creating a realistic IT vision is paramount. The process of creating such a vision depends on several crucial factors that include the following: CIO membership in the cabinet; an IT governance structure that fits the campus culture; an IT planning process linked to performance, budget, and the institutional strategic plan; and an organizational learning initiative that informs IT constituents of the accomplishments that will move the institution toward its overall goals.

The challenges facing a CIO require institution-wide involvement for successful resolution. The CIO is charged with developing a shared information technology vision that will move the college or university to a different level—a level at which the institution will fulfill its mission and accomplish its goals more effectively.

Fundamental Elements Related to an IT Vision

Certain terminology is commonly used in discussions of IT visions and their necessary elements. Particular definitions are provided for the purposes of this discussion, although strategic planning literature may use the same terms in slightly different contexts (depending on the model being explained).

  • Vision is a statement of the ideal way in which IT decisions will be made and the IT organization will operate. It includes values statements that reflect the desired organizational culture, management style, and client service perspectives.
  • Extended mission defines the fundamental purpose of the IT unit, specifies the service mix (with implied priorities), identifies the areas to be served, and outlines comparative advantages (i.e, why is all of this important?).
  • Goals are broad-based IT accomplishments that the institution will work toward over a specified period (a 3-year scenario is realistic in today's world). The achievement of all goals would realize the IT mission.
  • Objectives are specific, measurable, desired accomplishments for the given budget cycle. The fulfillment of each objective is a step toward fulfillment of the stated goals.
  • A futures scenario or target environment spells out in broad terms where the institution wants to be within the specified planning span. This is probably what most people think of when the term vision is used in common conversation.

These key elements are interrelated, and maintaining appropriate alignment among them is a key to success in the IT planning process. The University of Memphis Information Technology Strategic Plan for Fiscal Year 2003 (which will be discussed in further detail below) provides practical illustrations of the elements defined here.

Roles of the CIO

In their recent book Technology Everywhere, Hawkins, Rudy, and Wallace (2002, pp. 130-131) note the need for institutional IT leaders to articulate a clear vision. Critical aspects of the vision include the following:

  • The IT vision needs to provide a sense of what the future will look like at the specified institution. Specifically, how will the IT vision impact the daily operations and functions of the college or university?
  • The IT vision must relate directly to the mission of the institution. Technological innovations may be important, but they are not the focus of an IT vision.
  • The IT vision has to be institutionally inclusive; it should stress what can be achieved by the various elements of the institution working together, rather than what any single entity or individual might achieve.

To develop a sustainable vision, the CIO acts as IT planner/leader as well as an active, engaged executive officer who sponsors transformative initiatives. Thus the CIO is the leader of the information systems organization, but that is only part of the role. The CIO must also be prepared to speak to important issues that affect IT planning and implementation: politics and public relations; finance; marketing; student concerns; academic strategy; the president's philosophy and goals; and the hot buttons, concerns, and aspirations of the executive officers. Consequently, the CIO must contribute to the development and management of academic and administrative strategies that impact the full spectrum of college or university needs. It is only by participating in and sometimes leading discussions on general issues facing the institution that the CIO serves as a full member of the executive management team and, therefore, may foster a viable IT vision (Zastrocky & Schlier, 2000). In short, the "double role" of the CIO helps create an effective bridge between the senior administration and the IT planning process.

The capabilities of a CIO can be substantially enhanced through a carefully developed IT governance structure and an effective IT planning and management process. The governance structure should consist of a policy group of key institutional decision-makers who are actively engaged in the process, as well as representative advisory committees energetically involved in activities related to review, standards derivation, and project implementation. For an illustration of a typical IT governance structure, see Appendix 3 of the Memphis IT Strategic Plan for Fiscal Year 2003.

If we think about using IT as an enabler of transformation on our campuses, then the CIO takes on an additional role: agent of organizational learning. Organizational learning is defined as the successful solving of organizational problems by individuals as reflected in the structural elements and outcomes of the organization itself (Simon, 1991). Four interrelated principles are important to the work of an agent of organizational learning, and they may be applied to a CIO as follows:

  • The first principle is to take action rather than wait for "the organization" to solve problems; it means that the CIO must be proactive but reflective. The CIO needs to be a thinker who invests time and energy in inquiring and analyzing each situation, rather than simply "shooting from the hip." This will create a reservoir of credibility, which is essential to defining a realistic vision.
  • The second principle is to have high aspirations but be realistic about limitations. The CIO and the IT organization must strive to live up to the values established in the IT planning process and expect others to do so as well. At the same time, the CIO has to be realistic about the complexity of organizations and the forces that limit their effectiveness. He or she must be appreciative of all advances—even small gains—and persist in the face of resistance, setbacks, and failures. This will help establish the CIO as an executive-level team player who understands the need to achieve excellence as well as the difficulties encountered in doing so.
  • The third principle is to be critical but committed. The CIO should be aware of what is wrong within the organization while maintaining commitment and loyalty to it. For example, when faced with institutional shortfalls, the CIO may propose new objectives within the IT strategic plan that address the challenges in realistic ways. The accomplishment of such objectives will continue to demonstrate the viability of the vision.
  • The fourth and final principle is to be independent but cooperative with others. For example, CIOs often must establish goals and act based on need, without first seeking consensus; in such cases, they will do something because it needs to be done. At the same time, they must remain sensitive to the needs of others by developing objectives in the IT plan related to the institutional needs. The CIO should "get the ball rolling" and then derive the best solution with the help of those who will be impacted by the specified objective. Such actions enlist widespread support for the IT vision (Friedman, 2002).

A Planning Model for a Realistic IT vision

The IT strategic planning and management process is best derived with use of a formal model. One such model consists of six stages (Figure 1). The first is a "plan-to-plan" that documents the initial planning commitment, defines the roles and responsibilities of participants, and spells out how the process may be modified as circumstances arise. For a specific illustration of this stage, see Appendix 1 of the Memphis IT Strategic Plan for Fiscal Year 2003.

Defining institutional strategy is the second phase. This process encompasses internal analysis (assessing strengths and weaknesses, opportunities, and constraints); external analysis (examining social, demographic, technological, environmental, political, and legal factors that impact the institution); and the derivation of operational values (aligning individual values with unit values defined by a consensus of the staff) that will guide the philosophy and management style of the organization. For examples, see sections 2-4 (Environmental Factors, Strengths and Weaknesses, and Value Statements, respectively) of the Memphis IT Strategic Plan. Through a "mixing process" of these three activities, the strategic elements of a fundamental vision, a mission, goals, and a futures scenario are derived. The mission statement of the Memphis IT Strategic Plan illustrates these outcomes.

The third stage consists of aligning the influence systems of organizational culture, structure, systems architecture (IT infrastructure), internal economy (the acquisition and allocation of resources), tools and methods (processes and software to accomplish defined organizational functions), and metrics and rewards (ways to measure and motivate success). The outcomes of this stage are a small number of IT strategies designed to provide boundaries for all institutional IT units and a series of specific, measurable objectives to be accomplished in the current budget and planning cycle. For specific examples of these outcomes, see the IT strategies portion of the Memphis IT Strategic Plan.

Stage four involves the facilitation of competencies and behaviors needed to accomplish the defined objectives. It links specified objectives to managers, teams, and units; identifies professional development opportunities for all staff members; and defines expectations for performance evaluation. These elements are illustrated in an example of a typical information systems unit plan, in which objectives have been assigned to identified individuals.

Stage five comprises the development of action plans designed to accomplish assigned objectives for all managers, units, and teams; the outcomes of this stage are distinct project plans for all major initiatives. See, for example, the action plan created for the periodic upgrading of AskTom, an automated intelligent response system located on the main Web page of the University of Memphis.

The sixth and final stage involves the evaluation and assessment of the IT unit. The outcomes of this stage include periodic progress reports, client satisfaction surveys, a variety of metrics reflecting a specified target level of service, and an annual report that focuses on the specified objectives in the IT plan.

Factors for Success

Creating a realistic IT vision involves a complex set of activities, all of which must be based upon a deep understanding of the alignment among university will, existing resources, and how well IT is recognized as being rooted in institutional goals. This understanding may be fostered best through a good IT planning and management process in which influential leaders from across the institution are involved in the governance structure. Good feedback and communication channels maintained by the IT unit will provide further enhancement of processes.

Factors critical to the successful creation of a realistic vision are:

  • Consistent goals and IT focus set forth by senior administration officials. This element depends on the CIO's relationship with the officials, their respect for his or her ability, and their perspective of the CIO belonging "at the table."
  • Alignment of the university-wide IT staff (both central and distributed staff). Clear, coordinated, and well-understood role definitions are crucial.
  • Collaboration among university departments and recognition of their interdependence. These factors are the result of role alignment, cross-functional teams, and cooperative efforts reinforced by senior administrators.
  • Campus-wide understanding of higher education trends. Such understanding ensures that expectations are realistic; it is fostered through good IT scanning and communication that relates pertinent trends to specific audiences.
  • Emphasis on the IT plan and the cultivation of support for it. These elements come from involvement with clients and the delivery of results—the accomplishment of specific IT objectives important to a variety of constituents.
  • Maintenance of the decision-making structure. This crucial element requires IT involvement at all levels—policy, advisory, and operational groups.
  • Sound budget allocations. If the IT budget allocation does not follow the objectives set forth in the IT plan, the entire process will soon break down.
  • Continual staff development—of both central and distributed IT staff. Such development leads to best results and ensures that ongoing alignment issues are dealt with appropriately.
  • Constant, cyclic feedback from many directions—from clients to central IT personnel and vice-versa—up, down, and sideways.
  • Allocation of sufficient resources. The key is to focus on using IT to achieve institutional objectives, not on IT as an end in itself.

Concluding Observations

The following passage from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management (n.d.) summarizes the concept of vision quite well and serves as a fitting reminder of why we plan in the first place:

John Bryson, the author of Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, states that typically, a vision is "more important as a guide to implementing strategy than it is to formulating it." This is because the development of strategy is driven by what you are trying to accomplish, your organization's purposes. . . . A vision, however . . . answers the question, "What will success look like?" It is the pursuit of this image of success that really motivates people to work together. . . . A vision statement should be realistic and credible, well articulated and easily understood, appropriate, ambitious, and responsive to change. It should orient the group's energies and serve as a guide to action. It should be consistent with the organization's values. In short, a vision should challenge and inspire the group to achieve its mission. ("How a Vision is Used," ¶ 1)

In conclusion, creating a realistic vision is far from a simple task for the CIO. A good vision is part of a good strategic planning process, and establishing a mission, goals, and objectives that are aligned with the vision is essential. The final element of realism, however, depends on the plan being implemented, and good implementation in turn depends on skillful management (i.e., the creation of action items, provision of needed resources, and follow-through to completion). As administrators face unprecedented challenges in incorporating information technology into their programs, an integrated approach to the planning process will remain a crucial measure for success.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2002 EDUCAUSE Southeast Regional Conference in Charleston, SC.]


Alliance for Nonprofit Management (n.d.). What's in a vision statement? Retrieved October 2, 2002, from [Editor's note: Follow the link to "Strategic planning" and then click on "What's in a vision statement?"]

Friedman, V. J. (2002). The individual as agent of organizational learning. California Management Review, 44(2), 70-89.

Hawkins, B. L., Rudy, J. A., & Wallace, W. H. (2002). Technology everywhere. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Simon, H. A. (1991). Bounded rationality and organizational learning. Organizational Science, 2, 125-134.

Zastrocky, M. R., & Schlier, F. (2000). The higher education CIO in the 21st century. EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 23(1), 53, 59.

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