Leading Questions: A CIO’s Answer to Leadership

By Pat Burke  |  Posted 01-21-2016 Print Email

CIOs that don’t focus on strategic value and competitive advantage are falling short on leadership skills—and devaluing the office of the CIO.

In response to the question “Are leaders born or made?” the subject of a previous Q&A in CIO Insight answered with this: Yes.  It was a telling answer, creating a slight chuckle at a clever sidestep to a question—but it also produced what humor often does: truth.

There are people who are born with an innate ability to lead, and there are people who shape themselves into leaders through study, through observation and through pulling forth the leader within. Christopher Markham is both. As the CIO of Florida State College at Jacksonville, Markham has taken the lead in aligning technical and business value at the educational institution. He also served as a commissioned officer for 15 years in the U.S. Army. Leadership is a quality Markham can appreciate—and it’s something he considers a necessary quality CIOs must possess if they are to evolve within an organization.

CIO Insight: You spent 15 years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. First, thank you for your service. How has your military experience prepared you for life as a CIO?

Christopher Markham: The military provides a good blend of leadership and technical value. I was given the opportunity to hit the ground running at a young age with hands-on experience, as well as theoretical knowledge and skills training. By the time I was 25 years old, I was managing a wide area network (WAN) spanning three different states. There is also quite a focus on cyber-security and information security. 

CIO Insight: Leadership is incredibly important to all organizations, certainly in the military. Definitely in business and tech. How do you see the role of the CIO, in terms of leadership in an organization?

Markham: In my view, most of the problems in technology boil down to leadership. Leadership needs to understand the relationship between technical and business value. If this understanding exists, a good leader can emerge as a thought leader because they will be able to satisfy basic transactional needs first.  As CIOs continue to move away from devoting their time and resources to making upgrades to systems and applications, patching servers and other tasks, they will continue their evolution from one of an overseer of the IT infrastructure to a provider of services, similar to HR, finance and legal. In order to become successful, CIOs will need to have a deeper understanding and relationship with the critical lines-of-business within the organization.

CIO Insight: Habits can be hard to break. How do you address users’ questionable security practices?

Markham: It’s important for a CIO to participate in data governance, or delegate someone to champion data governance in the organization. This should be more than just policy; it’s also strategy. CIOs can resolve data quality, integrity and security issues by having a data transformation strategy and then understanding how data governance rolls up into that. At Florida State, we’ve focused on bridging the gap between digital literacy (understanding the various systems and technology) and digital fluency. To do this, we built a program called Digital Media Productions that allows us to communicate training and change management.

CIO Insight: We’re moving beyond the classical idea of IT and moving it into automated workflow. How should CIOs prepare for this move?

Markham: I believe that if you don’t satisfy the basic technology transactional needs first, you can’t move forward.

When I arrived here 18 months ago, we had a very distributed enterprise with 60,000 students and four different ticketing systems just for technology. The needs of the enterprise, its constituents (faculty, customers and staff) were spread out over four different platforms and business models. I saw that as an immediate challenge.

We partnered with ServiceNow to replace four legacy ticketing systems with a modern service desk. This service desk project was a major success, dramatically enhancing end-user satisfaction while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even more important, it was the springboard for a fundamental IT transformation. We have a service catalog now, which was completely absent before. We do a lot of incident management tied to service level agreements (SLAs). We are able to easily provision new accounts, order technology software and hardware, deal with outages. Prior to implementing ServiceNow, less than one percent of all incident management was completed via self-service. Now it is upwards of 33 percent. 

We are also partnering with ServiceNow to implement a massive ERP implementation for our student information system and all business units throughout the college–finance general ledger, accounting, financial aid, HR, registration, academic affairs, etc. 

We are broadly implementing IT support for various business processes and are moving them into the automated workflow service. As part of this, we are adding ServiceNow licenses to various users throughout the college, such as deans and directors in business and academic units, to ensure that those business processes are tied into workflows and automated within ServiceNow. I have been able to re-engineer a number of my programmers into business analysts and business process modelers. They are meeting with the subject matter experts in HR, the finance department, the business office, in academic affairs, and student services in order to gather knowledge and put knowledge bases within ServiceNow to increase self-service within the tool itself. 

CIO Insight: How has this benefited students?

One example of the impact of this is student retention and attrition. Student Services is responsible for lowering attrition. One way we can do that just through the service desk is by ensuring students have optimal satisfaction with their technology support. Our service catalog includes a variety of services and offerings that will impact retention and attrition. 

Finally, we see a lot of possibilities in transforming our service catalog to include emerging educational technologies such as smart classrooms. This is separate, but yet joined to the overall service desk strategy and will dramatically enhance our students’ learning opportunities.

CIO Insight: What happens to a CIO reluctant to take on a more strategic role in the business?

Markham: CIOs who are reluctant to take on a more strategic role will either be out of a job, or will choose to “walk the back row of achievement” and become a bit of a lame duck. CIOs that don’t effect change are never going to embrace the Gartner strategy of run-grow-transform the business. Some will choose to simply run the business, and you really need a good balance of all three. 

These individuals also impact the way the role of the CIO is viewed at large. The CIOs that don’t focus on strategic value and competitive advantage devalue the office of the CIO and make it difficult for organizations to recruit top talent in IT. 

In order to stay relevant, progressive IT organizations have an overriding mandate to deliver business value. We are now looking to technology to solve organizational issues and unlock opportunities, fundamentally transforming what is expected of IT. IT can have a broad and very visible impact on an organization’s ability to meet its business goals. 

CIO Insight: Any advice for CIOs looking to become more of a business leader?

Markham: I believe that in most organizations, there is already a seat at the table for CIOs, the question is whether or not they take it. It’s possible for any IT organization to transform into more than just the overseer of the IT infrastructure. CIOs need to develop business analysts and process experts who can provide them with information needed to make impactful decisions. However, knowledge is not enough.  We need to empower our people to create unique solutions for our most pressing business problems by synthesizing knowledge gained from many different places.

CIOs can create significant competitive advantages through strategic use of cloud-based services and applications, be they public, private or hybrid. Along with big data and the Internet of things, these technologies will help accomplish broad business goals such as driving revenue growth, targeting new markets and improving customer service.  The CIO and IT department can be more strategic about making users more productive and relieving them of many of the mundane and time-wasting administrative tasks that can consume an entire workday. This is very different from the CIO’s traditional role of focusing only on maintaining the IT infrastructure and operations.

Patrick K. Burke is senior editor of CIO Insight.


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