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August 31, 2010

Services above the Campus and the Future of IT in Higher Education

As we return to campus this fall, the rituals of the new semester bring with it a familiarity with students moving into residence, faculty rushing to complete their syllabi for the new year, and IT staff working hard to finish all the summer projects that were supposed to be done before classes start up.

This fall there is an interesting dialog underway among CIOs in the research university setting that is very different than previous back to school seasons. As I note in a column in the current issue of Educause Quarterly the topic is the impact and maturing of a range of offerings that challenge us to explore the relevance of "IT as a service" on campus. In particular, in this column I focus on engaging with talented IT staff on our campuses.

As always, I welcome feedback and insights. Welcome back to campus.

Here is the text of the article

Vladimir: Well? What do we do?
Estragon: Don't let's do anything. It's safer.
Vladimir: Let's wait and see what he says.
Estragon: Who?
Vladimir: Godot.
Estragon: Good idea.
Vladimir: Let's wait till we know exactly how we stand.
Estragon: On the other hand it might be better to strike the iron before it freezes.
Vladimir: I'm curious to hear what he has to offer. Then we'll take it or leave it.
Estragon: What exactly did we ask him for?
Vladimir: Oh... Nothing very definite.
— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, Act One

Like the protagonists in Beckett's play, many IT staff are waiting for their own Godot, in much the same manner. We in higher education IT constructed the digital native as an instantiation of our own vision of the student of the future. We fantasized about faculty colleagues who would transform themselves from the sages on the stage to the guides on the side. To varying degrees our ideal types of the emergent 21st century student and the nascent teachers of tomorrow are less of a mirage than our understanding of our own future selves as information technologists in higher education. Secular technology forces and trends, institutional maturation and evolving priorities, new and different market realities, and broad and significant social needs separately and together challenge the identity and role of today's IT professional staff inside the higher education ecosystem.

As our futures become more open, global, lifelong, and informal, how does the role of the professional information technologist evolve to remain relevant to the new "normal" condition full of contradictory technology dynamics, shifting institutional priorities, growing security and privacy issues, and new demand-side realities of voracious consumer appetites that challenge our traditional value and role within the university?

University IT Staff as Experts

Universities and colleges enjoyed an advantage in the emergent networked world. After all, as much as any other major institutional force in society, higher education was there at the beginning. The explosive and transformational change occasioned by the networked world has far outgrown the boundaries of our university campuses, however. Our enormously talented technical staff now lead national and international standards bodies, contribute creatively and abundantly to open- and community-sourced projects, and still keep up, the best they can, with the enormous complexity and dynamism of the technology environments on campus. To the extent that there ever was a balance between agility on the one hand and expertise on the other, most campus technologists in network services, storage and server engineering, security operations, database management, and administrative applications support are rightly concerned about how they can best fulfill continuing professional commitments to remaining both expert and responsive to the multiple and conflicting demands for new services across campus.

Shifting Institutional Priorities and the Future of IT Staff Roles

While there were and indeed still are some exceptions, IT enjoyed its pinnacle as a strategic imperative on university and college campuses over a decade ago. University presidents and boards of trustees broadly embraced the transformational potential of IT in the early 1990s, succumbed to the institutional risks of not investing in IT (most notably during the Y2K "crisis"), and to varying degrees saw investments in IT as a possible differentiator in their broader strategic vision. As the new millennium has set in, general fatigue with the continuing insatiable demand for ever scarcer financial resources has led to a growing bifurcation of the institutional view of IT: the cost center, in which IT is managed for efficiency and directed to save costs; and the strategic force, worthy of strategic institutional investment as both an enabler of other strategic mission work and as an institutional differentiator. While CIOs continue to do their utmost to manage their portfolios between operations and strategic work, IT professional staff run the risk of being caught in changing institutional priorities.

The rhetorical institutional commitment to "invest in our people" has become more complicated in the world of IT on the university campus. To be sure, we need to invest in technical talent; the challenge is how to shift our orientation to staff hiring, development, and retention in a world informed by significant pressure at the institutional priority-setting level. Technologists are, most of them by their very DNA, interested in and attracted to change environments. The general organizational culture and practices implemented over the past quarter-century by IT management do not position IT staff to become as valuable as we might aspire to in the new institutional priority-setting reality of many university campuses. Transforming the traditional functional organization into a more agile, project-focused organization requires capacity building and deliberate organizational development efforts that relatively few organizations either inside or outside the university have carried out.

The Rise of Consumer Sovereignty, the Demise of Central Control, and the Future of IT Staff

Resistance to the onslaught of consumer products and services invading the campus environment is futile. The broad consumer electronics and technology economy now dwarfs the so-called "enterprise" commercial environment in both size and pace of change and innovation. Universities are incubation settings for life-style gadgets, social networking media, and new platforms for collaboration services. The longstanding core value of open environments makes it nearly impossible to imagine policing and locking down our network services. Surrendering a modicum of control need not be a blemish on the resume of a CIO. However, conceding the new reality that will inform our work, study, and play on campus does mean that the work IT staff do on campus shifts in important ways. Some parts of the university IT environment will remain focused on supporting vertical products and platform standards. The dynamic technical part of the IT organization will necessarily shift to competencies focused on integration services that connect different applications, applets, and services to enable reconfigurable, customizable, and personalized user experiences. More than ever, the customer experience rules, and IT organizations on campus will need to be very creative in shifting investments in staffing and cultural orientation to privilege the increasingly demanding requirements of our students, faculty, and staff colleagues.

Technology as a Service and the Future of IT Staff

The elephant in the room at many universities is how to make sense of the secular IT trend broadly described as technology as a service (Resources). Some will argue that the trend is early in its maturity curve, others will speak of first-mover advantages, and still others will warn of universities abandoning IT as a strategic asset in favor of unsustainable business models and market hype about what amounts to privatizing and outsourcing IT on campus. Make no mistake, this topic in various forms will be the central debate on our campus technology agenda for the next decade and beyond. This conversation can serve as a catalyst for strategic dialogue on the future of IT and the role of IT professional staff in higher education. Where will we place our finite IT investments, and how do we creatively generate capacity to attend to both operational needs and innovation agendas of the future? How can we ensure that IT stays relevant to strategic planning and the institutional mission rather than finding itself sidelined and playing a more limited role on campus?

We can wait for our Godot, or we can be deliberative in our internal conversations about crafting our futures. The choice is ours.

Lev Gonick
August 30, 2010

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