December 14, 2010
The Future of IT Leadership on Campus
This past year, I've written four columns for Educause Quarterly on the Future of Higher Education. The first column dealt with the Future of Education and the different and evolving needs of learners. The second column concerned the future of IT staff. The third column speculated on the future of faculty roles. In this, the fourth and final column, I take aim at the future of IT Leadership itself.
- Rosencrantz: My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and go with us to the king.
Hamlet: The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing.
— Hamlet: Act 4, Scene 2
In the beginning we cast ourselves as high priests. We had others build us grand temples as modern mausoleums in the center of which resided the sacred mainframe computer. All of us old enough to remember recall the special wizard-like roles of those who tended to the machine. Those who led the wizards, plastic pen protectors in place, were viewed with reverence. Then the advent of the personal computer smashed efforts to preserve the hereditary line of the high priesthood.
The emergence of an era of possibility and plenty recast our role into those of the chosen people. Unabashed idealism combined with charismatic leadership and a healthy dose of rhetoric gave rise to the audacious idea of transforming the enterprise of higher education. The chosen people, themselves led by charismatic technology visionaries, would lead the academy, apparently lost and aimless for centuries in the wilderness of the desert of pre-personal computers, into a new promised land. The advent — and powerful appeal — of networks connecting computers and people from around the campus and around the world represented prophetic leadership. These prophets envisioned a world with as many blinking lights around network routers and switches as there were stars in the skies or grains of sand in the desert. The torch of scientific discovery and historical evolution naturally culminated in the digitally networked campus. A generation of heroes invented the Internet, and their prodigy produced a new platform called the World Wide Web. A new dominant ideology of endless possibilities was born. Compelling indeed were those who invented a leadership role to advance this emergent information technology ecosystem and convinced the powers that be that every president needed a new commander-in-chief for technology.
A message with a certain messianic appeal led presidents to privilege the message and the messenger of the knowledge age. Threats like Y2K positioned the CIO as the harbinger of untold chaos — and the bulwark against it. The insatiable demand for resources from networks to ERP led CIOs to command $100m organizations and staffing levels approaching 1,000 IT professionals on research campuses engaged in an arms race in pursuit of technological supremacy.
And then a funny thing happened. The promise of productivity and efficiency of information technology combined with the centrifugal logic of the networks came to pass. Globalization with all of its disruptive impulses in the economic, cultural, and education domains would not have materialized in the accelerated fashion we are witnessing without the compounding impact of our computing and networking power. Distributed technical architectures and the convenience of personal choice made possible by those architectures, along with the associated consumer sovereignty that they have spawned, have led to a new era of technical rationality. Just as history has recorded many eras of human ingenuity and the social organizations that follow, traditional forms of strategy and vision have given way to tactics, transactions, and method. The encrusting of rules, laws, norms, and practices associated with the use of information technology has become the preoccupation of the institution and thus informs much of its leaders’ roles. Power and authority associated with the hierarchy and control of earlier eras has begun to melt away under the network effect. Innovation and the artifacts of control now flow from the center to the edges of the network. Earlier investment patterns have yielded to incremental funding models in which centralized value is measured against an output calculation largely defined by accounting principles. The foundations of much received wisdom are now in flux. Through the success of our networks, the economies of scale associated with computing and storage capacity, and the innovations and economics of nomadic and mobile experiences, what was once solid is melting into thin air.
Is the king dead? The old assumptions about the roles and privileges of the king and queen and their courtiers have begun to collapse beneath the range of new possibilities for leadership on our campuses. Consider three broad leadership scenarios:
- Embrace the assumption that technology is now a utility and generally does not provide strategic advantage. In this scenario leadership becomes managing sourcing strategies for the utility and internal customer relationships, and squeezing capacity to support new unfunded mandates associated with the new high priests, chosen people, and prophets on the campus planning horizon, whoever and whatever they might be.
- Align the organization and its capacity to genuinely support strategic activity. If the institution embraces any form of strategic direction, IT can become an innovative enabler as well as a transformational agent in achieving strategic work. Maintaining focus on strategic differentiators is not easy in the best run organizations, and it is even more challenging in many institutional settings in higher education. IT leadership can provide a consistent and credible voice for the value of having strategies with which others, including IT, can align.
- Dare to artfully challenge the institution and its leadership to continue to see a vital role for innovation and creative work in IT as an ineluctable part of the university’s strategic leadership portfolio. Learning to thrive in the ambiguity of where and how innovation and creativity dynamically render on campus is an existential identity question, not a strategic concern of the institution. Ceding a modicum of control, celebrating the innovation of others, partnering to co-produce and co-enable others to take the institution to the edge of the possible are the objectives of all 21st century university leadership, including information technology leaders.
Case Western Reserve University