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Gonick: Embrace 'Creative Destruction'

Lev Gonick, former Case Western CIO, urges college and university technology leaders to get out in front of trends

IT leaders are in danger of becoming mired in irrelevancy, according to Lev Gonick, former vice president for information technology services and chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. In order to avoid that fate, he told attendees at the annual Campus Technology conference in Boston Tuesday, IT leaders need to embrace "creative destruction."

Gonick, who delivered the keynote address Tuesday at the CT conference, told attendees that they are in danger of becoming irrelevant if they continue to fight yesterday's battles about things such as outsourcing e-mail or PC versus Mac.

"Those things are irrelevant to our current students and to incoming students. We are mired in conversations that are arcane to our students, and that put us in peril of being ignored," said Gonick, who recently left Case Western to become chief executive officer of OneCommunity, a nonprofit organization that is helping to drive Northeast Ohio's digital capabilities.

In speaking about the pace of change in higher education technology, Gonick referred several times to the concept of "creative destruction," first described more than 50 years ago by economist Joseph Schumpeter. He asked his audience to embrace the fact that they are living in an era of churn, of revolutionary and incessant change.

"We have to think about what this means for our institutions of higher education and for ourselves as technology people," he said. He ran quickly through several trends he said CIOs must focus on if they are to remain relevant, including:

Acknowledge that the PC era is dead. Higher education overall spends about $4 billion on desktop PCs and support, even though sales trends suggest that desktop PCs are on the way out, Gonick said.

"Even when we can see these inevitable declines, we scaffold a technology with institutional realities that stand in the way of creative destruction, and our organizations are slow to make the move." The world is moving amazingly fast to tablets and smart phones, he added. "How many of you feel on top of tablet- and smart phone-based education?" he asked the audience.

Get ready for the personal cloud. Five or six years ago, universities started asking whether the cloud was really ready for prime time, but recent news stories about government surveillance is leading to a pause for some reflection on how to balance the scale of the cloud with privacy concerns, he said.

"In the next 20 years you will see personal cloud infrastructure evolve as a peer-to-peer encrypted environment," he said, and rather than resist this movement, he would like to see schools get out in front of the trend and experiment with it.

Embrace X as a service. With the trend toward infrastructure as a service, platform as a service, and software as a service, Gonick said he sees one of information technology's biggest challenges as having conversations on campus about what IT's unique contribution is.

"There's no doubt that X as a service is exploding in front of us," Gonick said. "If we don't want to be seen as a limiting factor, we have to get out in front of these trends," not fight rear-guard battles about holding on to roles and responsibilities as an entitlement, he added.

Pay attention to MOOCs. Once we get past all the hype and hysteria around first-generation MOOCs, the conversation about online learning will shift to a more profound discussion about the value of the university degree.

"That is what is at play," Gonick said. This year there is $1 billion in venture capital being spent on disrupting higher education, he stressed, much of it focused on the university's monopoly on granting degrees. In the next 10 years there will be valuable alternatives to traditional degrees, he predicted. "We need to grapple with that," Gonick said.

The reality is that higher education is under huge stress and too few academic leaders are focusing on aligning with IT on breakthroughs. "Our challenge," Gonick said, "is remain committed to creative solutions in a constrained environment."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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