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October 20, 2007

The Role of Central IT in the Research University

Educause Review Publisher and Editor, Teddy Diggs, has assembled a feature section in the current issue of the magazine on the future of central IT in the research University. Thirteen CIOs from across the country were invited to comment on the current state of central IT and provided the opportunity to frame the challenges facing Central IT in the next chapter of campus life.

Over the past couple of years, a growing chorus of voices has challenged IT organizations to self-reflect critically on our evolving roles within the University. The classic parameters of the debate has been between the argument of the efficiencies of centralizing IT resources in support of the business of running the university versus designing a decentralized IT operation in support of research and learning innovation that is traditionally seen to occur at the edge, outside of centralized organizations. The collection of articles in the Educause Review all attempt, to varying degrees, to re-frame the debate away from binary choices in the DNA of Central IT (efficiency OR innovation) in favor a more complex and messy calculus around an additive approach (efficiency AND innovation).

Here at Case Western Reserve University we have evidence of both systems at play (which is not all together satisfactory). As I attempt to reflect critically, the central IT organization through its current Strategic Planning Framework attempts to outline a strategy for optimizing the mix between service quality and cost. The plan calls for a renewal of IT Governance which is shorthand for a much more complicated conversation. All planning and organizational models are contextual to the broader environments within which we operate. Demonstrating and validating IT's contribution to the mission and performance of our University is our raison d'etre. However, the burden of this challenge extends beyond central IT. The choreography of semi-autonomous IT groups and central IT is a manifestation of our collective competency (or lack thereof) as an IT community to get the balance between innovation and efficiency into equilibrium. The requisite dialog between the leadership of central IT at our University and the Deans, Vice Presidents, and other Senior Directors all of us who steward University IT resources (both capital and human investments)is important. It is at the heart of our call for renewed IT governance and reflects a need, in my view, for a renewal of a broader framework for institutional leadership engagement and priority setting.

What are the underlying assumptions in our central IT Strategic Plan? We genuinely believe that much of the future of our University's pursuit of great research activity and innovation in enabling sustainable and transformational learning environments can not be framed as efficiency-seeking activities. At the same time, while that assumption might be self-evident to most, we need to acknowledge, at the same time, that there are real and present economic resource constraints that challenge all of higher education, including our University. And so the challenge in framing the leadership dialog, and around which IT planning at the University needs to occur is all around coordinating semi-autonomous organizational units.

ITS at Case Western Reserve University remains committed to an open dialog with the entire campus community. We have attempted to structure both formal and informal governance structures for input and remain committed to transparency in the setting of our priorities and the manner in which we carry out our stewardship of University investment in resources to support the IT-needs of the University (My most recent presentation to the University's Faculty Senate (and Faculty Senate Committee on Information Resources) has been broadly distributed and is available here). We know there is always room for improvement and we look forward to constructive feedback on improving both our services and the economics of the manner in which we provide those services.

Our framework for IT at Case Western Reserve University over the next period of time represents a paradigm shift from our first planning framework. The three-fold set of drivers for the new direction are (1) the emerging consensus in our University academic plan in focusing on inter-disciplinary advanced research activities and experiential innovative learning opportunities, (2)building on the relative success of our first five year activities , and (3) acknowledgment of important shifts in IT architecture (at an industry-level) that allow us to be more strategic in our financial and human investments here at the University towards genuinely value-added services that support driver number 1 above (examples of this are our move towards an "opt-in" opportunity for GoogleApps and our support for working with Carbonite on support notebook and desktop backup services).

As outlined in our planning framework, central IT at Case Western Reserve University is focusing on (1) platforms for collaboration in the teaching, learning, research, and administration of the University, (2) supporting evidence-based decision making (generally known as business intelligence tools) to allow individuals, business officers, and senior decision makers at the University an opportunity to analyze data through a common data warehouse architecture, and (3) continued focus on core technology, compliance, and business continuity.

As I have been encouraging Deans, Vice Presidents, and Senior Directors across the University during my fall check-ins, now is an opportune time to carry out an internal review of local IT investments and operational plans. I have encouraged members of our council of technology officers to engage in IT strategic planning that is now going on at the School-level. There is an opportunity to get better alignment of not only what central IT can and should do on behalf of the University but also how to better align local investments so as to reduce the amount of duplicative spending on commodity services and to take a strategic look at how to best take local human and technical resources and align them to highest priority outcomes.

In a recent essay in Educause Review I called for a new kind of senior IT Leadership on campus, one informed by the need to balance agility with stability around core technology. It turns out, not surprisingly, one can not simply 'call for' new kinds of leadership on campus. Leadership is a negotiated state of being and needs to be earned day in and day out.

Don't hesitate to let us know how we're doing.

Lev Gonick
October 20, 2007
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH

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