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January 30, 2005

Open Source is the Answer: Now What Was the Question?

Eduventures has just published a report on Open-Source in Higher Education.

In contrast to the cheerleading tone of the press release, analysts Cathy Burdt and Eric Bassett's 17 page study is a thoughtful review of the uneven and unequal value proposition around open-source in higher education. Case Western Reserve University was one of 7 institutions reviewed for the analyst report.

There is no missing that there is a buzz around open-source in higher education IT circles. The Chronicle of Higher Education routinely reports with fawning admiration the significant investment of human talent and millions of dollars of institutional and philanthropic dollars in support of the so-called open-source movement. Indeed, last year more than 30 articles in the Chronicle appeared about open-source almost without exception the narrative was a variation on "Sharing the Code: More Colleges and Universities See Open-Software as an Alternative to Commercial Products." Educause, higher education's technology community's professional association has likewise published more than a baker's dozen of interviews, articles, and opinion pieces on open-source. Most of the views, expressed by some of my most distinguished colleagues, are worryingly IT-centric and largely missing the mark.

My own candid observation is that not withstanding higher education's reputation for being fiercely independent, in the area of IT strategy and alignment the near infatuation with open-source driven by some of our most visible IT leaders is largely a distraction. As I note in the open quote of the Eduventures study, "Every day we have a requirement to deliver services, execution, and strategic mapping, so that in the end we meet the needs of the institution." For those institutions like Case who are trying every day to map our services to the strategic mission of the institution, open-source is an answer looking for a question.

The naive view that we should turn to open-source because, in contrast to a vendor solution, open-source is "almost free" has been debunked for more than a decade and yet remains the opening gambit for many public conversations. Greg Jackson, my colleague at the University of Chicago puts it right when he states "avoid simplistic notions of good and evil. Remember there is no such thing as a free lunch."

A slightly more compelling line of reasoning is expressed by Annie Stunden, my friend and colleague at Madison. In a published piece in Educause Review, Annie states that notwithstanding the entirely unproven capacity of the open-source community in higher education to support and maintain open-source projects, she has thrown some of the formidable weight of the University of Wisconsin's software engineers behind open-source efforts because if we don't we "will remain hostage to an increasingly hostile vendor environment." In the aftermath of the merger and acquisition activity in the software industry (think Oracle PeopleSoft) this might be viewed as sage advise. My own view is that embracing open-source as a core strategy for investing institutional talent and resources needs to be clearly and explicitly understood as a form of what might be called "self-hostaging". Self-hostaging is a term generally limited to discussions on theory of international relations. A nation may choose to demonstrate the extent of its commitment to a specific foreign policy goal by burning bridges to other options and even go so far as to self-hostage itself so as to communicate its absolute commitment to a policy position. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis is one classic example.

In almost every sense and most every situation self-hostaging in the open-source context is a very dangerous gambit. Self-hostaging represents nothing less than the explicit commitment of university senior management to bet on the four-prong strategy reduced to the proposition "build", "operate", "manage" and "support" their own IT environments. Rare in the American higher education system do we see institutions with core competencies in more than two of these key building blocks. The most common pairing among core competencies is operating and managing. To make an audacious institutional commitment to open-source is to commit to a very long play book in which the final chapter's conclusion that "they lived happily ever after" takes the form "and then we will be building a model of self-reliance in which we can shape our own futures." IMHO, this form of the pursuit of self-reliance is, at best, illusory.

At a minimum, while we watch with interest and more than a measure of jealousy of the utopian vision of the open-source wanna-be community, we should realize that the real value of the movement is very different than what we've commonly understood. The major evident value proposition for those involved in open-source is that they are experiencing an all too rare experience namely, community making across institutional boundaries. This is as powerful a notion as it is seductive. As intoxicating a goal as community making might be as a value, what is less clear is what the open-source movement has to offer the institution. President Kennedy's famous words more than 40 years ago, "ask not what your country can do for you-- ask what you can do for your country," now needs to be placed in the mirror of the open-source community. To self-hostage ourselves into an open-source movement without clear, measurable goals, exit strategies, and milestones is, in the end, a narcistic undertaking. We will find that we have created the ultimate justification for the continued employment of IT professionals on our campus. What is less clear is what contribution the professional support organization will make to the sustainability of the broader community called the University of the 21st century. This is the real challenge and it is a very important undertaking. We should not, however, be so blind so as to advocate open-source in the name of building our own community and at the same time place the university community at risk. The challenge should be clear. Let's keep our eyes on the question.

Posted by lsg8 at 01:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 25, 2005

Blogging and (IT) Project Management

As Case rolls out its enterprise blog, I am asked more times than not, what will it be used for. In the first couple weeks we've seen almost a hundred different bloggers use the capacity for personal use, course adaptation, technical demonstrations, for sharing research, and even keeping in touch during semester abroad.

From the vantage point of the "enterprise", namely the operations of the University, one of the most significant opportunities for the Blog@Case is its use as an instrument for project management sharing. Of course, the concept of an open log of group communication around a project or common interest is as old as communication itself. Usenet and BBS were early technology efforts modeled after chatting around the water cooler. Project Logs (Plogs) are now common place. Indeed, Jeremy Smith's blog on the roll out Blog@Case is a great example of a Plog in action.

Michael Schrage is codirector of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative (schrage@ media.mit.edu). Six months ago, he wrote an interesting column in CIO Magazine on the "Virtues of ChitChat" in which he proposed the value of blogs in support of project management for initiatives like an ERP deployment.

"Why wouldn't it make sense for an IT project manager to post a blog—or "plog" (project log)—to keep her team and its constituents up-to-date on project issues and concerns? Is it inherently inappropriate for an individual to post constructive observations about a project's progress? IT organizations that can effectively use blogs as managerial tools (or communication resources) are probably development environments that take both people and their ideas seriously.... Frankly, if I were involved in an ERP rollout, I would be genuinely interested in accessing the blog of a user who actually had to cope with the implementation. His comments would likely have a salutary effect on me."

The intriguing proposition around blogs in general and blog use for project management in particular is the challenge it represents to "command and control" management approaches. Blog journalism has challenged the authority of the traditional sources and fountains of truth for public information consumption. Blogs have challenged corporate cultures and the "right to assert a monopoly" over the brand of the corporation.

At Case, our University's bold vision is to encourage reflection on how we have evolved our culture and how we might shape it in the future. Thoughtful and reflective use of blogs for project management is one small way we can contribute to that effort. ITS uses the blog technology for all of its communication efforts and news dissemination strategies. The Blog@Case roll out has been shared. The roll out of Sympa to a slightly less degree has also rolled out with significant public sharing of the opportunities and even some of the challenges.

As ITS rolls out its projects and services offering, I have encouraged our management team to use the Blog@Case as space to not only share the "official" communications but to also consider using the Blog for updates for the community on "work in progress" and its many iterations post-implementation. I look forward to seeing if we get an uptake.

Posted by lsg8 at 08:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 24, 2005

BBC and Blogs @ Universities

On a number of campuses in the United Kingdom, blogs have begun to
migrate from the technology fringes to the mainstream of educational
tools. At the University of Warwick, more than 2,500 students and staff
have signed up for the university's blog service, making it one of the
largest academic blogging operations. John Dale, head of IT services at
Warwick, said, "We believe that blogging may open new opportunities for
students and staff." Robert O'Toole, a Ph.D. student at Warwick, said
his blog has allowed him "to speak to academic communities across the
U.K. and [to gain] knowledge from strangers. Blog[ging] has allowed me
to write in a single place almost daily and develop things in fairly
cohesive fashion." Esther Maccallum-Stewart, a history researcher at
Sussex University, uses a blog in her research and her teaching. She
said her blog has become an invaluable part of her work and argued that
academic institutions need to avoid becoming "too insular, constructing
their own language and cliques which do nothing to promote the getting
of knowledge." On the other hand, David Supple, Web strategy manager at
Birmingham University, cautions universities not to rush into new
technologies. He advises considering how best to implement tools such
as blogs "without creating legal and reputational issues for the
BBC, 23 January 2005

Posted by lsg8 at 08:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 15, 2005

Using Technology to Address and Overcome Cleveland's #1 Poverty Standing

Over the past several months, I have written a series of editorials in my blog on Povery Alleviation and the OneCleveland agenda.

This week, Case's Mandel School of Social Sciences'effort in harnessing technology to understand poverty better and help policy makers and not-for-profits battle its effects is highlighted in a terrific case study posted by SAS.

SAS, based in Cary, North Carolina is the world's largest private software company. But SAS is more than just "code". Last week I had a chance to visit the corporate campus with President Jerry Sue Thorton of the Cuyahoga Community College and a number of K-16 leaders in the State of Ohio. Leading by example, SAS co-founder and CEO, Dr. Jim Goodnight is known around the world for the company's values-driven philosophy of balancing life and work. Less well known is Goodnight's commitment to addressing community priorities in Cary and Raleigh. Goodnight has helped to build a model school called the Cary Academy reflecting the makeup of the broader community. Cary Academy makes extensive use of the SASinSchool technology-enriched multi-media curriculum developed by John Boling. Under the new leadership of Mark Milliron, former President of the League of Innovation and newly recruited to lead SAS's education practice, look to SAS to role out a portfolio of integrated product and services, including tools, analytical suites, assessment methodologies and SASinSchool curriculum. I think SAS has a significant role to play in the broad agenda of shaping our understanding of the emerging digital city and more specifically in the area of social policy in education and poverty alleviation.

At Case, Drs. Claudia Coulton and Sharon Milligan co-direct The Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change. The Center's mission is to link Case Western Reserve University's strengths in social policy and social welfare-related research, analysis, and data management with community-based organizations and groups addressing aspects of urban poverty. One of the many activities of the Center is the Cleveland Area Network for Data and Organizing (CAN DO). CANDO is a database that collects and makes easily available detailed, neighborhood-based information, such as trends in population, mortgage lending, housing stock and crime, among others, on Northeast Ohio communities.

In the newly announced enhanced relationship with SAS, The Center is now using a new release of SAS products to help map many layers of socio-economic data across the Greater Cleveland Area. In addition to mapping the data, the Center is using SAS analytical tools to allow both Center staff, graduate students, and the community at large access the data in real time. Over time, I think it is fair to say that Coulton and Milligan hope to engage the community itself in gathering key information on the quality and condition of their neighborhoods and then help community leaders and heads of household analyze their own realities to better articulate their needs.

Another useful aspect of the new SAS project is the ability to document not just the problems – high tax delinquencies or high crime rates – but also to report on neighborhood assets, such as the availability of after-school programs, libraries and employment training centers.

As we begin to understand the emerging digital city it is vital that we remember that our generation will be remembered not only by the amazing never before seen breakthroughs we are witness to but also on the extent to which we leverage these amazingly powerful technology tools to address and overcome the culture of poverty and hopelessness.

Posted by lsg8 at 01:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack