Reinventing IT | Viewpoint
Don't Dictate, Facilitate
In response to rapid technology shifts, IT's role on campus is changing. How CIOs adapt to the new reality will determine whether their organizations remain viable and valuable, or see their relevance slowly diminish.
- By Timothy M. Chester
As IT professionals, we are just starting to come to terms with what the internet has truly wrought. For the better part of 10 years, we viewed the internet age as a shift from a bricks-and-mortar world to an online, digital world. CIOs and their IT organizations expected to be at the forefront of the resulting transformation of higher education. We were wrong.
Instead, we find ourselves in an environment that is fast evolving from one based on one-to-many relationships to one based on many-to-many relationships, powered by social networking sites, consumer and cloud technologies, and mobile devices. In this brave new world, we CIOs have a lot less authority and control than we expected. Indeed, some question whether our organizations should continue to exist in their present form--and they're right. If we are to be of value to our institutions, we must change the way we organize our services, the way we exercise leadership, and the way we engage those outside IT.
Thanks to social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia--facilitated by the widespread availability of wireless connectivity and the mass adoption of mobile devices--individuals today are constantly connected to one another and can share ideas from anywhere, anytime. This is disrupting traditional structures of power and authority with breathtaking speed and efficiency. Consider the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the failure of SOPA/PIPA in Congress, and the faculty rebellion against the publishing giant Elsevier. Each of these episodes is an example of how individuals, who tend to have little power in one-to-many relationships, can band together to level the playing field against entrenched powers.
Traditional IT organizations are not exempt from this trend toward decentralization. The many-to-many world has made it far easier for students, faculty, and staff to obtain basic IT services without ever going near the IT organization. This raises a host of new questions: Why should our institutions continue to provide e-mail accounts to students when they can bring their own? Is there even a need for computer labs when students bring their own devices? Why do we need learning management systems in an era of Facebook, Google Docs, and Dropbox? And here's a question that is coming: Why should we build expensive data centers when Amazon, Google, and Microsoft can provide cloud computing services that eliminate high, upfront costs and replace them with lower, variable costs that scale?
Even as the world shifts under our feet, however, tremendous opportunities are opening up for CIOs, IT leaders, and their organizations--if we are willing to think differently, and if we are willing to move to a leadership model that is more in sync with the new many-to-many reality.
Most of our IT organizations began as traditional computing centers, with services available on demand for a price. With the advent of the internet, network- and information-security concerns came to the fore, prompting us to centralize parts of the IT environment as a way to preserve order and protect critical resources. Two severe recessions in the past decade led us to centralize services in a bid to increase efficiency and reduce costs. While fully compatible with the needs of a one-to-many world, our continued emphasis on centralization led Walt Mossberg, technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, to proclaim in 2007 that the central IT organization in higher education was the "most regressive and poisonous force in technology today."
In a many-to-many world, efficiency and innovation no longer correlate to centralized authority and control. Today, we need to think less about being the sole drivers of innovation on campus and focus instead on creating an environment that facilitates the innovation of others. Where we can support students and faculty in the rapid adoption of consumer technologies and cloud-based services, we should do so--even when these services conflict with our own offerings.
A paring of services in our IT portfolios is in order, and correlates strongly with our need to reduce complexity and cost. The only areas that should be immune are our central administrative systems and network infrastructure, where the need for enhanced connectivity and collaboration, better analytics, and the protection of sensitive information predominate.
As we transition from service providers to service enablers, we also need to rethink the notion of leadership. It was only about 15 years ago that computing service directors became CIOs and vice presidents, as campus leaders recognized the need for strategic leadership in IT. In today's many-to-many world, leadership becomes less about making decisions and controlling access to scarce resources and much more about credibly convening important conversations about the effective use of technology on campus. This is an often-overlooked change. Every institution has thought leaders who engage others about the transformative potential of technology, but these thought leaders are not exclusively CIOs.
In fact, IT's traditional notions of authority and control often lead others to exclude the organization from these conversations until the last possible minute, for fear that it will make innovation more difficult. If you find yourself missing out on important conversations about the effective use of IT, it's probably because you are seen more as a barrier to innovation than a supporter.
This brings me to my final point: The most important word in the phrase "credibly convening important conversations" is credibly. In the one-to-many world, credibility was based on reporting lines and formal policy. In a many-to-many world, credibility is created and maintained, not in sweeping fashion, but through constant interactions, each and every time the IT organization engages end users or delivers services. How our campus constituents perceive the strength, quality, and reliability of our services--and our commitment to do what we say we will do--has never been more important.
All of us know administrators on campus with well-deserved reputations for running organizations that deliver inferior services who never shy away from telling us how to run our own organizations. Don't be that person. In a many-to-many world, if you find yourself faced with resistance to key initiatives, realize that it is probably tied to your credibility--or lack thereof--on campus. If, as CIOs, we are truly to transform ourselves into on-campus facilitators, we can succeed only if we, too, bring something to the table: solid reputations for quality and for doing exactly what we say we will do.
Dr. Timothy M. Chester is chief information officer at the University of Georgia.