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2014 Innovators Awards | Profile

Grassroots IT Leadership

A community-led group is helping NYU's highly distributed IT organizations collaborate better, build relationships, share information and impact IT strategy across the university.

2014 Campus Technology Innovators Awards

Category: Leadership, Governance and Policy
Institution: NYU Silver School of Social Work
Project: TorchTech
Project lead: Evan Silberman, IT director
Tech vendors/partners:

For a large institution like New York University, a distributed IT structure has its advantages. For example, according to Marilyn McMillan, vice president of information technology and CIO, one key benefit of having separate IT organizations across NYU's 17 schools and institutes is that it enables IT staff to respond quickly to emerging needs, through close communication with constituents.

But the tradeoff, she noted, is often weaker communication and coordination on IT initiatives with interdependencies. "Old methods of communicating amongst NYU's IT professionals are too much work and generally provide too little useful information too late," she admitted.

An antidote to that problem has grown up in the form of TorchTech, a new way for IT employees from all over the university to come together and share ideas. The brainchild of Evan Silberman, IT director for NYU's Silver School of Social Work, TorchTech is a community-led group focused on fostering collaboration, building relationships, sharing information and impacting IT strategy university-wide. Open to professionals at NYU who have an interest in technology, it includes participants from across NYU's various global IT organizations and academic units.

Evan Silberman
Project lead Evan Silberman (photo courtesy of NYU)

"As NYU becomes a global network university, we have administrators, faculty and staff doing work between Abu Dhabi, New York, Shanghai and Florence. There can be a sense of disconnectedness and technology has a tendency to perpetuate that," Silberman explained. "We are trying to humanize the experience by giving people time and space to physically connect and interact."

For instance, at a recent networking breakfast on user experience design, one person was participating via Google Hangout from Abu Dhabi. "No one in New York had met this person before and now he was connecting face-to-face," Silberman said. "And that is really valuable for relationship-building, which is the backbone of our collaborative work environment."

The group's genesis did not involve a great "aha moment," Silberman said. "We just recognized that there are a lot of smart people and a ton of talent at NYU, and there wasn't something bringing people together across the IT organization," he says. "So we brought together IT leaders from across schools and administrative units to talk about what a community like this would look like and what would it do." The effort has resulted in the first ever university-wide IT project directory, IT communities of practice and the start of an IT-specific membership directory.

TorchTech members talk about the importance of having a forum to share ideas with their peers. (video courtesy of NYU)

Since its inception in the fall of 2012, TorchTech has organized seven events with participation from 45 NYU organizations and 550 people. TorchTech's flagship events are called "UnMeetings" — based on the concept of Stanford University's "unconferences," facilitated discussions in which the attendees create the agenda and lead the conversation. "Our IT leaders spoke at the first event to set the context and then we opened it up to attendees to create the agenda," Silberman explained. "In 10 minutes we had 26 topics. People broke up into conversation groups. Some topics they can carry forward and spin into new communities of practice."

One highlight of the 2014 IT UnMeeting was a keynote speech by Clay Shirky, who holds a joint appointment in NYU Tisch's Interactive Telecommunications Program and the Department of Journalism. Shirky gave an inspiring talk on the integration of Internet technologies into academic practice, Silberman said.

The events also have more tangible value, pointed out McMillan. For example, at this year's UnMeeting, one group's chosen topic of conversation was identity management (IdM). At the table, folks from university IT, who are upgrading university-wide IdM services, shared the thinking behind their timetable, which was just being formulated. This gave IT folks from the units at the table the chance to decide whether to roll out their own local IdM solutions or to coordinate their rollout with the upgrade. "It saved work all around, refined the central timetable and gave everyone ways to stay in touch as the projects proceed," she said.

In addition to the UnMeetings, last year TorchTech put on a cloud computing event that brought to campus leaders from Google, Amazon, VMware and Gartner for a facilitated discussion on the future of cloud computing. NYU IT staff said they found it useful to connect what they do on a day-to-day basis with what they have to plan for in the future, Silberman said, as well as connect with others working in the same field at NYU.

Another TorchTech program involves IT groups arranging tours of each other's workspaces. "NYU has a huge footprint in New York City," Silberman explained. "Each school has its own set of offices and its own approach to IT and that is represented in its physical space. It is interesting to see where a person you talk to all the time works. You might walk away with a gem. Or you might be able to teach something."

TorchTech also developed a meeting called the Share Fair, which is an opportunity to display campus IT projects in poster sessions. The first fair had 30 presenters and 160 attendees. "It creates a space for people to talk about the work they are doing and learn from each other," Silberman said. "I hope that becomes regular thing."

TorchTech members use Google Groups and Google Hangouts to communicate, and Twitter and Google+ for social media. A WordPress-based Web site provides one-stop information on events, news and ways to get involved with the group. Recorded events are broadcast via in partnership with NYU TV.

A growing relationship between TorchTech and the NYU CIO Council takes TorchTech's grassroots influence to the next level. "The council was receptive to the idea that we join forces and it is a natural fit, because TorchTech provides a way to filter information up and sometimes filter information down," said Silberman. "It allows people at different levels of the organization to share their voice and to be heard."

"One of the Council's goals is to make the best possible use of NYU's limited IT resources, wherever they may be located," noted McMillan. "Linking TorchTech with the Council helps ensure that TorchTech operates and evolves as a strategic asset of the institution. Retaining, developing and leveraging the efforts of all of NYU's IT professionals is a critical success factor for the units and for the University."

The response from across campus has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Silberman. "Who doesn't want to meet the people they work with?" he quipped, adding that people are coming together around principles of collaboration, relationship building and sharing. "This just elevates all of us. When we know what others are doing and how exceptional their work is, it raises the bar for the community, and I think that is valuable for each individual and for the organizations involved."

For more information on the Campus Technology Innovators program, visit the awards site.

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