Should CIOs report to the President?

When thinking about how institutions are structured, and IT’s role in supporting the entire institution’s outcomes, it’s normal to ask where IT should report. As IT grows in importance, should their reporting structure change to report to the President/Chancellor?

Personally, I don’t think the CIO’s reporting structure is as important as many people think it is, and I don’t think there’s a right answer. I don’t think that in 20 years all CIOs will report to the President, for example. I especially don’t feel it’s worth the political capital needed to make a change, either to report to the President or to stop reporting to the President.

The challenge is to make sure that IT has a voice, regardless of their reporting structure. The voice can come from IT governance or from a track record for competence.

That said, here are factors to consider in whether the CIO should report to the President:

How important is IT to the President?

Vice-Presidents/Vice-Chancellors are not created equal. The Provost and the CFO are often two of the President’s most important reports, sometimes having the title of “Senior Vice-President” or “Executive Vice-President.” Other reports, say a Vice Chancellor for Research, report in title to the President but get very little of the attention.

It’s great to be in the room–to hear what the cabinet’s planning. (Much of this planning information can also be gathered via improved IT governance.) But being in the room doesn’t mean people will listen to you.

If the President is less interested in IT, then the CIO may end up reporting to the President in title but get very little time. It’s often the attention that gets things done, not the reporting structure. And there are other ways to get the attention.

Does IT need to be perceived as independent?

At some institutions, if the CIO reports to a Vice-President then the other cabinet members may feel their IT needs will have a lower priority. Again, this problem can be addressed via improved IT governance.

However, if the cabinet wants IT to be neutral/independent, and IT is respected by the cabinet members, this may provide the ongoing support needed for the CIO to be effective at a cabinet level.

Does IT need a built-in ally?

If the CIO does not report to the President, they therefore report to someone else. Odds are they report to the Provost and/or the CFO. Please note, I mentioned these two positions before as “often two of the President’s most important reports.”

When the CIO reports to the Provost and/or CFO, their boss is a built-in ally. Their boss wants to listen, because they want IT to perform well and therefore keep the IT department reporting to them. The CIO will get more attention from their boss than they would from the President.

The CIO’s boss can also provide cover and funding that the CIO doesn’t have to ask for explicitly from the cabinet.

Does IT need regular access to the Board of Trustees?

If the CIO needs regular access to the Board of Trustees–for example, if there is a Board committee that reviews IT semi-annually–it’s probably more helpful for the CIO to report to the President.

The Board of Trustees is kind of a big deal at most institutions. (With a few caveats) Boards can decide to fund multimillion dollar projects or to dissolve the entire institution.

Administrators tend to want to limit access to the Board, because the impact of their decisions can be so large. If the CIO is working directly with a Board committee, their boss may want to interfere or step in so they can control the message delivered to the Board.

Even if the President doesn’t give the CIO much attention, if the Board gives the CIO attention then they will be listened to at the cabinet level.