Leadership | Feature

Project Rescue: Building a New Vision for IT

After leading his team to some rapid successes, our CIO questions the role of the IT group on campus--and develops a road map to the future.

This is the final installment in a four-part series that follows the exploits of Gene, the established CIO of a sizable IT organization at a top 100 university. Gene had been working with his team to regain the trust of the campus through Project Rescue, a 30-day turnaround plan focused on demonstrating IT's value. Project Rescue had two primary objectives: Implement a more transparent planning and governance process, and deliver a series of quick wins around some visible projects with high customer value. When we last left Gene, the project was struggling but heading in a good direction.

Gene was in high spirits as he walked out of his cabinet meeting in early November: His team had successfully completed Project Rescue, and he was congratulated for meeting the needs of the campus.

In just 30 days, his team had been able to add support for mobile devices, improve the wireless network, implement a hosted student-collaboration space, and move forward with desktop videoconferencing--projects that were all well received on campus. 

As part of Project Rescue they had also introduced an open and collaborative governance process. Priorities, capacities, and costs were openly discussed, and Gene's colleagues had a growing understanding of--and appreciation for--the role of IT.

But Gene knew better than to rest on his laurels. In order to deliver on these improvements, his team members had delayed a lot of less sexy work. They were behind on some upgrades and patching. They had also called in a lot of favors from key staff, and employees had put in some very long days. The collaboration in planning and governance was working, but would his colleagues understand that less glamorous work also needed to get done?

Sustaining the "New IT" Approach

Gene knew that his team had learned and grown from the Project Rescue experience. As senior managers, they were now more focused on mentoring and developing staff. Their new planning and governance process was building buy-in for future projects across the campus. They were also thinking like owners: looking for opportunities to please customers and taking calculated and appropriate risks. Gene knew that all of this would serve them well, but he wasn't sure it was enough to sustain and deliver the kind of IT that the campus demanded. 

To Gene, the IT organization needed to be able to react quickly and embrace new technologies easily. He continued to be haunted by an article written by Nick Wingfield in The Wall Street Journal back in 2009. In the piece, "It's a Free Country…So why can't I pick the technology I use in the office?" Wingfield argued that IT shops just didn't get it--people wanted and deserved great technology freedom. Wingfield questioned why he had a wider range of technology at home than in his office, and wondered what this meant for the future of the corporate IT organization.

Gene recognized that Wingfield's criticism applied equally to his campus, but he also knew he needed to secure institutional data and provide support when his campus customers got into trouble. Above all, he knew that he was on the hook for technology uptime and stability. So how could the new IT organization sustain rapid response, broad choice, high uptime, robust security, and stability in the IT environment?

A Brave New World

Inspired by his managerial blog subscriptions, Gene began to see a path forward. To sustain the "New IT" organization, Gene needed to implement a true paradigm shift: IT should not just be about building and running things. Instead, it should be about integrating solutions and services based on standard interfaces, repeatable processes, and well-defined service catalogs.

In a strange twist, Gene realized, standardization creates an opportunity for experimentation and flexibility by freeing up existing resources. The fewer solutions Gene and his team ran themselves, the more experimentation they could offer--and the time had come when they could rely on others to host and run solutions. Perhaps IT in higher education had finally reached a point where it was time to shed old businesses and business models and embrace a truly integrated world?

In such a world, Gene and his team would continue to steward core and confidential data, user identities, roles, and user entitlements. They would be experts in integration and federation, and would embrace solutions that separated data, logic, and user experience. In this way, they would become experts in "mashing up" user experiences to deliver a custom product based on vanilla solutions and solution providers. On the support side, they would clearly articulate what they could do as experts, and what they simply did not know how to do. The items in the catalog they committed to handling would be delivered through repeatable processes, so that the IT staff could function as trusted advisers. 

To make this approach work, Gene’s team would need to have a deep understanding of the market, commit to open standards, and look to other providers when it made sense. The team had to take pride in creating research and development capacity by shedding services, and seek to partner with the university on the never-ending stream of new ideas and needs.

Bringing the New World Alive

It was wonderful envisioning what such a world would offer:

  • Standards-driven, tiered solutions
  • A robust integration practice
  • A well-defined service catalog in sync with the needs of the campus
  • A commitment to rapid innovation 

But could this really happen with his team at his institution? 

As Gene packed up for the day, he realized that everything comes back to people and culture. For his vision of the "New IT" to work, he'd need to make and meet a new set of commitments to guide his colleagues, his team, and his campus; build a plan that was agile and that created value during the transition; persuade others to commit and contribute; and, most of all, he would need to lead. 

Gene’s role would be transformed from chief technology operator and firefighter to that of inspiring evangelist. He would recast the role of the CIO as one where his primary responsibility would be to understand the state of the art, and apply what he learned to the needs of the campus. And he would lead a team that could carry out its mission with excellence, flexibility, and a strong sense of humor. Can this CIO survive? Yes, if he remembers what he has learned.

At the Campus Technology 2011 conference in Boston, July 25-28, Stephen Laster will conduct a special 90-minute case study session on a struggling university CIO, helping participants apply lessons learned to their own institutional situations. For more information, go to campustechnology.com/summer11.

About the Author

Stephen Laster is the Chief Information and Technology Officer of the Harvard Business School and a member of the HBS administrative leadership team, which oversees the school’s academic, research and administrative computing teams. Laster sits on several Harvard University committees focused on leveraging technology across the Harvard community. As an educator he has taught courses at the undergraduate, graduate level and executive/professional level in the areas of Web development, problem solving, software design, virtual team management, and eLearning product development.

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