Thanks Wes Fryer for letting me write for you while you are out of pocket. My name is Kent Brooks and I write a little on my own I was Just Thinking Site. Although I am a tiny blogging acorn compared to the giant blogging oak Mr Fryer is to all of us, it is a privilege to share a few thoughts with you. One topic Wes had expressed an interest in was how failure has shaped our learning journey. Today I will address a few points related to IT managements failure to recognize the perspectives of the constituents we support. Yes, not understanding the perspective of our users is the great IT management failure.
I have been doing IT support for the enterprise for the last twenty years and my how things have changed. It seems to me Information Technology was once the domain for specialized skill sets which were set apart from the rest of the institution. We always did strange and spooky stuff in the data center basement that nobody really understood, but everyone knew it was important. In fact the need for my organization to better provide specialized data processing services led to my first position in IT leadership nearly 20 years ago.
Traditionally in IT we talked about very concrete concepts. Ours was a world which black and white results are were the norm. You plug in a cable and it either works or not, turn on your computer and it works or it doesn’t , you install a printer and it works or it doesn’t. Evaluation of success is very easy in those situations. Certainly none of these activities are particularly innovative, but they are easy to measure. Deploying ERP systems, consolidating computer labs and data centers, or completing an outsourcing deal are difficult and worthwhile but rarely innovative and at any rate you know what you have at the end of the day…either your systems work or they don’t.
However, several interesting things have happened over the years. First, IT has been given huge piles of institutional cash often based on a voodoo acronymic explanation of why this is a need. I have prided myself on communicating well with my institutional constituents, but even I have a confession. I have on occasion used “technobabble “ to justify an expenditure. It may be payback time for IT as now in many instances IT is being asked to justify the expenditures which a few short years ago were simply accepted.
Second, consumer technology has caught up with and has often surpassed the capability of the enterprise.
You see a lot of discussion about this one these days. In my early years in IT, the technology was almost viewed as magic. Not everyone had all of the wonderful technology toys I had at the office. Not everyone had a massive 56K frame relay circuit like we had in 1995ish. What has changed most drastically is that the average consumer has better tools than I can provide at the enterprise level. In the higher education world faculty, staff and sometimes even the IT people themselves have gone out and found tools which they have more control over and which allow them to do their work better and often for free. The availability of robust open wireless technologies, free online storage, powerful applications such as Google’s Gmail and a host of other services and applications increase the pressure to provide equivalent or better services at the enterprise level. Administration, faculty, and student expectations for the provision of adequate technology resources began to increase rapidly a few years ago in spite of the limited financial means of our institution. I would continually get questions about why we weren’t using a particular product or why one of our systems could not do a particular function. Many times the question had developed because someone was using a free web based tool. Essentially a perspective had started to develop in which whatever Google did yesterday you as an institution are expected to do today. Maybe the greatest related challenge in being a small rural community college participating in a sea of online courses and programs is the expectation from students you will provide not only quality programming but the exact same student services for online students you provide for your on campus students. We were being expected to do as good or better than the huge online providers. The nerve of those students to expect to get something for their rapidly increasing tuition dollar. In many areas the questions seemed to be increasing while legitimate answers to these questions were decreasing. Back in the old days when we were a WebCT shop no one would have dreamed of creating their own WebCT LMS install. Now your own domain name and the right hosting plan you are only a one click install of Moodle away from being your own school. With capabilities such as this my dictatorial grip on my IT kingdom lessens with each passing day.
Third, outsourcing and consolidating IT functions has become very popular. So much for having specialized skills at least according to perspective of presidents. There is a great big pile of perspective in the Presidential Perspectives: The 2011 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College Presidents. One of the most interesting items in that report relates to Strategies Public Sector Presidents use to Address the Financial Challenges confronting their Institutions absent political consequences. I am not so sure this would be any different than the perspective of superintendents at the K12 level. At any rate educational IT managers at all levels and in particular Higher Ed IT managers should probably stand up and pay attention to all of these.
Here is another look at this issue. In the table below I have compared higher ed IT managers top 10 IT issues with those of college presidents. Educause has been a great resource to me over the years. However, I must ask are we patting our selves on the back because our keen observation of the obvious? I have always respected and utilized many of their resources but I don’t think this is near as useful as the Inside Higher Ed report. Kenneth Green (2011) says about this survey and report, “In aggregate and also by sector and segment, these data about IT issues provided by the Presidential Perspectives survey do not bode well as “measures of success.” Indeed, what emerges from the survey is a portrait of campus leaders who appear to be dependent on, captive to, but also ambivalent about the continuing investment of people and money required to acquire and support a full range of campus IT resources and services.”
|Educause 2011 Top IT List(IT Leader Perspective on What IT Issues are most important)||Inside Higher Ed 2011(Presidential Perspective on the Effectiveness of Campus Investments in IT)|
One of my questions would be after looking at all of this is “If I don’t know the perspective of my leader then do I know what the other constituents at my institution think. Again, IT has not had to worry about others perspective before. I think those times are a changing. With these issues fresh in mind I would offer up the “Kent Brooks List of Challenges for IT”:
- Our biggest challenge is to not give ourselves off target affirmation that we have done our job well if we only do what is listed in the Educause chart above and do reduce costs not add value to the strategic plans mission and vision of the institution we serve.
- To communicate with those who do not have the enthusiasm we may have for all things technical. Geek talk and Acronyms must be translated so the end user can better participate in the process
- Embrace the power of consumer oriented tools when appropriate (blog, twitter etc)
- Using Technology to stabilize costs, increase revenue and stop rising tuition
- The Human Side: Working with people to develop a shared vision, being an effective communicator, marketer internally, relationship manager, developer of human capitol, partnership builder
- To accept failure…but fail quickly and cheaply as possible and move on.
- Hiring nice, smart, adaptable, non-risk adverse people
- Cloud computing enables end users to gain access to tools and technologies which allows end users to solve their own IT issues.
- Providing the most robust network possible to enable the tools that people need to innovate and at the same time stabilize the financial side of IT implementation.
- Engaging people in our institutions both informally and formally. Tech committees can be one of the most powerful tools we have in an organization if they are used well. See my “What makes an Effective Technology Committee In Education” Post
Maybe our absolute biggest failure in IT support and management is to understand that our perceptions and those of our constituents don’t always line up. A few years ago it may not have mattered. IT could go its own way alone and get away with it, but the days of being an IT dictator are over. “Especially in this day and age, there’s good evidence that our problems are getting harder,” says Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” “We have to learn how to work together, or we fail alone.”
Background Reading & Resources
Horne, Andrew. “4 Steps To Spark Innovation — InformationWeek.” InformationWeek | Business Technology News, Reviews and Blogs. Information Week, 28 May 2011. Web. 14 June 2011.
Green, Kenneth. “Blog U.: Presidents Confront Technology – Digital Tweed – Inside Higher Ed.” Home – Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 0f4 Mar. 2011. Web. 15 June 2011.
Maron, Nancy, and Matthew Loy. “Funding for Sustainability: How Funders’ Practices Influence the Future of Digital Resources.” Ithaka :: Welcome to ITHAKA. Ithaka. Web. 15 June 2011.
Pratt, Mary K. “The Grill: Larry Bonfante – Computerworld.” Computerworld – IT News, Features, Blogs, Tech Reviews, Career Advice. Computer World, 06 June 2011. Web. 14 June 2011.
Murphy, Chris. “Innovation Atrophy: How Companies Can Fight It (WTN News).” WTN. WTN News, 31 May 2011. Web. 15 June 2011. a href=”http://wistechnology.com/articles/8620/%3E”>http://wistechnology.com/articles/8620/>;;.
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