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Tech Talk Live Blog

Should Technology Leaders Be Considered CIOs?

Nancy Morris


Graeme Philipson, an IT industry veteran and analyst who was co-founder of MIS magazine discusses the title Chief Information Officer (CIO). “The idea was that it [CIO] was a C-level position, the same as the CFO’s or COO’s, and was meant to reflect the fact that the Senior IT person should be on the board with the same level of influence and seniority as other C-level executives.”

When I consider the senior IT staff members in our school districts in South Central Pennsylvania, it is rare for them to have the title CIO/CTO, and most do not sit at the cabinet level with district executives. In fact, out of the 22 school districts that I work with, there is only one with the title of CIO. Most bear the title of Director of Technology but there are other titles too:

  • Supervisor of Technology Infrastructure
  • Supervisor of Technology Services
  • Technology Coordinator
  • Coordinator of Technology Services
  • Technology Facilitator
  • Technology Director

Philipson states “Even today, many CIOs are still fighting for a seat at the boardroom table as they make the transition from being viewed as a technology boffin to a business leader and strategist.”

I have seen the same transition happen in the educational environment. While years ago, the role of a Technology Leader in a school district may have been “wires and boxes” that is not true today. Now they must also “understand the education environment, be an agent of change, and possess leadership and vision skills.”

As technology has permeated our world, it is a tool that is used on a daily basis in our schools. Unfortunately, many decisions are made at the cabinet level without the input of the district’s technology leader.

Ken Gibson, Technology Director for the Phoenixville Area School District states “A good technology director may have more information than nearly anyone else in the district.” (“Adding Another Seat at the Table, Including Your Technology Director in Your District Cabinet Membership,” PASBO Report, November 2017, pp. 3-4.) He goes on to explain that the reason they have so much information is because the operations of a district are usually dependent on technology. This would include security systems, printing, transportation, food services, community events, communications, and academics.  He suggests that there is not much that happens in a district that does not involve technology; therefore, the district technology leader is involved in many initiatives and operations. In other words, there is not much about which he or she does not possess knowledge.

Technology leaders truly have a working knowledge of what is going on within their districts and have the information needed to make decisions regarding departmental needs and how they can be tied together with technology.  Gibson states, “They can point out areas where a workflow process has unnecessary steps, if for no other reason than they know of another system duplicating the same flow.”  Additionally he suggests the following:

  • A technology leader cannot tell you the best way to make a student successful, but he or she can offer information to help them get there faster and more efficiently.
  • Security issues and emergencies cannot be avoided completely, but the technology leader can help a district create systems that can assist the police in getting information faster through cameras, etc.

In other words, the technology leader of a school district possesses knowledge and expertise that should be considered when decisions are being made.

“Some districts have chosen to eliminate or downgrade the CTO position in California,” said Andrea F. Bennett, the executive director of the California Educational Technology Professionals Association. Two or more years after the cutbacks, districts are finding that was “a huge mistake,” she said. “They wind up spending more on technology,” Ms. Bennett said. “They don’t have a leader—someone who understands the bigger picture for the entire school, versus the needs of each classroom.”

In the business world, a CIO must make executive decisions regarding things such as the purchase of IT equipment or the creation of new systems. They are responsible for leading and directing the work force of the organization. They must balance roles in order to keep their business up to date with technology, while keeping the best interests of the organization’s employees in mind.  Is this any different than what the technology leaders are expected to do in school districts?

When districts engage in strategic planning, it makes sense to me that they look to the technology leader to play a key role in the planning and decision-making. Technology permeates most things that we do, and the technology leaders possess valuable knowledge that should be considered.

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