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Jack McCredie

In Search of Good Governance

Sorting out the complex issues of IT governance in higher education.

Jack McCredieSINCE HIS RETIREMENT in 2005, UCBerkeley's Associate Vice Chancellor and CIO Emeritus and current ECAR fellow John (Jack) McCredie has devoted much of his professional energy to studying and writing/speaking about IT governance and leadership in higher ed. In his role at UC-Berkeley, he was responsible for leading central IT support for academic, administrative, and outreach programs, including the campus data and voice networks for the university. CT asked McCredie for his perspectives on IT governance issues.

Why is the study of IT governance so critical? Large universities (and many smaller colleges) usually are highly decentralized organizations, in which departments and individual faculty members have a great deal of autonomy. Because of the highly decentralized structure at UCBerkeley, for instance, often it was difficult to develop and implement important IT policies and practices that would apply across the board—to every staff and faculty member and to all students. I noticed the same situation on several campuses where I had the privilege of serving as an outside consultant.

At Berkeley, we decided to conduct a thorough review of the way we govern the IT enterprise, and to develop a new model that would fit our current situation better than the one that had evolved over the past couple of decades.

Is there a difference between governance and management or administration? Management differs from governance in that its primary focus is on the implementation of decisions made through the governance process. When I speak of IT governance, I mean the process that clarifies strategic directions, identifies priorities, and exerts sufficient control to manage outcomes. More informally, governance describes who makes which decisions, who provides input and analyzes the issues, who sets priorities, who implements the results of the decisions, and who settles disputes when there is no clear consensus. Good governance processes will foster timely decisions, responsible actions, and the alignment of an organization's IT strategy with its overall mission and goals.

"Good governance processes will foster timely decisions, responsible actions, and the alignment of an organization's IT strategy with its overall mission."

Over the past few years, how have IT organizations changed in terms of governance? Many colleges and universities are currently examining their IT governance structures. My hypothesis is that many organizations have simply evolved to their current governance structure. They have never taken a disciplined look at how they should govern information technology with all the technological, economic, and political changes that have occurred over the past 40-50 years. Security, privacy, increased importance of IT in all disciplines, increased governmental reporting requirements, and more attention to IT budgets— these are all topics that signal it's time for a fresh look at how the 21st century college or university governs its information technology enterprise.

The most common question that I hear about governance from different campuses is, "What should be centralized and what should be decentralized?" There is no theoretically correct answer to this question. The answer will be different for different organizational cultures, for different IT missions and goals, and for different overall governance structures on each campus. The most significant change I have observed recently is that many chancellors, presidents, and faculty leaders now are asking IT governance questions.

What factors have precipitated this focus on governance? Certainly, technology itself plays an important role. For example, the emergence of departmental minicomputers, and then very powerful individual desktop systems, caused major shifts away from central systems to decentralized departmental and individual computing environments. Governance processes that worked for the mainframe environment quickly became obsolete when departments and individuals purchased their own systems. The importance of networking, both wired and wireless, led to requirements for campuswide, systemwide, statewide, and even national standards. Enterprise-level financial and human resources systems introduced another set of issues. Security and privacy concerns and copyright protection issues led to a different set of needs for campuswide policies and procedures. And now virtualization technologies have once again shifted the optimum balance between centralized and decentralized investments. Another major impetus for governance review is the change of a CIO, provost, president, or chancellor.

Given all those changes, are IT organizations keeping up and adjusting quickly enough? Often, these significant changes in our campus IT environments have not been accompanied by corresponding changes in our governance structures. However, I see evidence that many campuses are now examining their IT governance structures to determine if current needs are being met.

What are the impacts on IT leadership development? One of the most important factors affecting the overall performance of an IT organization, as well as the IT governance process, is the competence of the campus IT leadership team and its ability to work well within the overall culture and governance structure of the campus. A great leadership team can do wonders even when the formal governance structure is ill-defined or nonexistent. Conversely, a poorly functioning senior IT team probably will not do well, even with an excellent governance structure. However, such a team will not last too long, because an excellent governance structure embraces accountability and transparency features that should lead to changes in a poorly functioning senior team.

Will you continue your research into IT governance? Would you change your approach to the research in any way, in the future? Yes, I would like to continue to learn more about which IT governance structures work well in which environments. As I mentioned earlier, I do not think there is a theoretical "best" structure. There are several good models, and the best one for a particular campus depends on a host of factors: the culture of that campus; the senior campus leadership and its relationship to the information technology function; the role of the campus in a larger system or peer group; the role of trustees in IT governance; the level of decentralization of other important functions such as the library; and others. I would very much like to help develop several case studies of campuses that have well-functioning—but different—IT governance structures, and learn more about the features that make each of those models effective.

JACK McCREDIE will give the opening keynote at Campus Technology Winter 2007. Join us for two-and-a-half days of fast-track, all-day immersive workshops in eight key technology leadership areas, Dec. 10-12 in San Francisco, CA.

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