The Not-So-Chief Information Officer

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

January 21, 2014

By Tim Haight

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about how IT management is changing. IT managers have to move from “making the trains run on time” to helping their organizations assess new technologies, their effects on the organization, and their effects on the organizational environment.

Let’s take a specific example, a large foundation supporting good work in health. Beyond adopting new business applications, such a foundation also has to deal with many data. This begins with monitoring and evaluatimg of its grantees, but also may include analyzing increasingly complex use of data by its grantees. Some of this data can be “big,” such as all kinds of community health data. Where’s the data scientist?

It includes new IT systems for which grantees may seek support. This is usually no longer a request to support a grantee’s business applications. Instead, they may want help developing a new technology, such as a device that records when and where an asthma inhaler is used. It then sends the information, through a smartphone, to a database, and returns advice to an app. An example of this is Propeller Health, in which the California HealthCare Foundation is an investor.

Some IT departments recently have been asked to evaluate their foundation’s social media. While we believe that this usually is done better in the communications department, there are gray areas. For example, what about collaboration systems used for discussions among foundation staff and all kinds of external parties. Is this inside or outside? IT or PR? Probably somewhere in between…

Foundations also participate in collective activities with other foundations to improve the whole field. Increasingly, this involves technology. It may involve making grant data transparent, as the Glass Pockets initiative illustrates. It may mean modifying the foundation’s grants management system to allow grantees to use the same electronic data to apply for different grants at many foundations, as advocated by Simplify. Sometimes such opportunities come into IT, but they may come in on the program side of the foundation and never be seen by IT.

We have begun to see dealing with these issues as the new, expanded role of the IT manager. Sometimes, it is an argument for a CIO who can address these needs and still manage IT. Many IT managers may have difficulty making the transition, however, and many foundations may not wish to redefine its management or governance to create such an expanded position. It is possible, also, that “keeping the trains running” may still be a full-time job, even though these new issues clamor for attention. What then?

Perhaps what we need is a not-so-chief information officer, a junior manager who may not have all the detailed technical skills needed to master the infrastructure but who may be very good at assessing the broader issues and collaborating with people across the foundation, inside IT and out. Perhaps a consultant can take on this role. In this way, the new needs may get addressed without ignoring the ones that are still with us.

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