The Future Role of the CIO in the NonProfit

Submitted on Mon, 6/10/2013 - 7:00am
Everything we thought that technology would do to democratize information is happening, and it’s happening in ways that we didn’t dream of. So do we still need an IT department, or a CIO?

This is the deal: Everything we thought that technology would do to democratize information is happening, and it’s happening in ways that we didn’t dream of. Had Arthur C. Clarke known that there would be social media, HAL and Dave in Kubric’s classic movie 2001, A Space Odyssey, would have been tweeting while making their journey to Jupiter. #monolith

The result of everyone being able to access very sophisticated technology tools with only an Internet connection has broad implications in the way we think about leading the way people work. In both the private and in the nonprofit sectors, the role of the technology department has always been to provide technology as a service, but if the functional areas of an organization that the IT department traditionally service can get this from the cloud, why do we need a technology department? Or a CIO for that matter?

Two recent events occurred that have brought into my horizon the topic of the future role of the CIO in the NPO sector. The first event was the NTC panel on IT leadership where colleagues Peter Campbell, Almin Surani, Laura Quinn and I bantered on this topic while NTEN program director Lindsey Martin-Bilbrey did her best to keep us on task. The second event was that upon returning from NTC, I was asked to speak to this same topic, as part of an interview that transpired as result of an award nomination for San Francisco Bay Area CIO of the Year.

Luckily, the themes from the recent discourse with my NTEN colleagues and those that attended the panel were still fresh in my mind, and one of those themes was that of the future role of the CIO in the NonProfit.

A key idea that emerged from the discussion from the panel was that the future role of the CIO is to ensure appropriate integration and alignment of all these exciting democratizing tools into the business strategy of the NPO. Once the CIO took care of integrating these tools, it was time to get IT out of the way and let innovation occur!

This way of looking at IT in an organization presents the CIO as less of a change agent in regards to increasing adoption of a new technology platform, but as a cultural change agent: One to get the organization to be able to incorporate all this democratized technology and put it to use toward the mission.

The success of an IT organization then can be measured by how well the organization can seamlessly executive strategic initiatives that further impact and improve efficiencies, with little dependence on IT in the traditional way.

This can be a dilemma: We want our organization to like (and to hopefully love) technology, so that they can use all this cool stuff to help propel the mission, but at the same time, we hope that all this access we are providing to the Internet is not distracting them from the task at hand. The last thing CIOs want to be in the future is just a better cyber-cop, figuring out more complex ways to monitor Internet usage, remote swipe mobile devices, and filter urls.

So, at the same as we will be empowering our employees to use all these great democratizing tools to further our missions; we also have to ensure appropriate alignment with the strategic direction of the organization while also addressing security concerns. Simply put, most CIOs get a little nervous at the thought of allowing everyone to set up their own Dropbox, Basecamp, Smartsheet, Google Docs, and the list goes on. But as CIOs we also think, “Heck, that will help them get things done without calling helpdesk and having to set up more servers!”

The role of the CIO in leadership given this dilemma will be the one who helps transform the “users” of their job, into the “owners” of their jobs.

Let me explain: In today’s world of ubiquitous access to universal communication, any person in any organization has access to all information. If you want the people who work for your organization to use these tools to their optimum potential, they have to “own” the tasks and jobs that they do for your organization.

This is a tall order for a leader. It moves the CIO from being the one to say “Here is your computer, and your database, and your file system, and this is how you enter information and save files,” to someone who says, “Here are all the ways you can work with information, now go to town and see how you can use this stuff to get our goals met!”

There is often a metaphor used for the difference between “Giving someone fish” and “Teaching someone how to fish.” For the future role of the CIO, this metaphor will be a little different. It will be the difference between “Giving someone a fishing pole and telling them what to catch” and “Giving them the river, they have their own pole, and they know what to catch.”

Michael Enos's professional career began in social work after graduating from University of California, Santa Cruz. As a senior manager overseeing services that provided community living opportunities to adults with disabilities for a large bay-area non-profit, he transitioned into a role as a technical consultant, developing data systems to help measure and track service quality to the individuals being served. Michael was hired at Second Harvest Food Bank in 2000 to manage technology and information systems. He has helped transform the organization into a more effective enterprise, using sophisticated technology to efficiently distribute food, communicate, raise money, and measure the Food Bank's impact. In his current role as Chief Technology Officer, Michael oversees all technical operations, provides strategic support, and works at a national level with other enterprise food banks on developing best practice standards.