What Is An “IT Commons”?

A few weeks ago I shared a news item about the new IT Commons at Mount Holyoke College. Most of us, when we hear the phrase "IT Commons" probably think of a specific physical location on a campus, where IT resources are shared.

At the University of Michigan, however, "IT Commons" means something else. It's not a user-based idea; it's a planner and creator-based idea. It means a deliberate, campus-wide shift toward an IT strategic planning culture which is less centralized local-unit planning with incentives for wider collaboration among IT units and also a shift to realign IT strategic planning with "existing University governance, processes, and culture."

How is this working?

In 2003, the average, educated modern person who hears or reads the word "commons" may well think of the essay "Tragedy of the Commons," written by ecologist Garrret Hardin, who passed away just last month. Writing at the height of the Cold War in 1968, and drawing on earlier sources, Hardin bemoaned that when using a shared resource (the "commons," a central meadow where people grazed their cattle, individuals or smaller groups came, quite rationally, to perceive their self-interest as lying in behaviors (putting more of their own cows out to graze there) that eventually would destroy the commons.

There is an echo of that perspective in the voice of U-M executive director of Information Technology Central Services, Kitty Bridges, when she says "Technology has made it possible for everybody to do everything. So schools and colleges from the very smallest to the very largest are providing all services, across the board, resulting in too much duplication of effort." http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/0304/Oct20_03/07.shtml. In other words, each unit's resources may be used up first to handle the basics, like e-mail, calendars, and file servers, and there may be no energy left over to do work on higher-level things that could make a difference to the institution's mission, like support for research and teaching.

And no one at the University of Michigan wants a centralized dictatorship, either. James Hilton, associate provost for academic, information and instructional technology affairs, says that the IT Commons is "rooted in the core values and mission of the University, it reflects the diverse priorities of our many units and programs, and it emphasizes the advantages of creative collaboration" http://www.umich.edu/itcommons/3dmemo.html.

A slide show created for the University of Michigan's "IT Summit" about what at the time was called "the Roadmap Initiative" brings out some of the differences between where the university saw itself then and where it wants to be:

Old Ways

  • Coordination mostly through 'command-and-control' edict of hierarchy
  • No shared context for decision-makers
  • Locally-optimized, with little synergy
  • Shared capabilities, entirely central
  • Common capability as low-level infrastructure (e.g. fiber)
  • Inconsistent (perceived unfair) pricing

New Ways

  • Collaborative, shared purpose can be identified
  • Shared understanding of technology mission & decision-making
  • Locally tuned
  • Shared capabilities, sourced from best-in-class provider
  • An organizational architecture that fosters both independent & shared capabilities
  • Resources allocated through clear budget process and services offered at cost

Source: University of Michigan, http://www.umich.edu/itcommons/.

As Hardin noted about the Cold War situation he was addressing, there seemed to be "no technical solution" that could be imposed by a central authority. Indeed, at the University of Michigan, the vision "d'es not include mandatory centralization of services" http://www.umich.edu/itcommons/3dmemo.html.

The hope is to "realize cost savings that can be redirected toward unmet, discipline-specific needs." And the means for accomplishing that is to establish incentives that encourage collaboration in IT planning and its merger with other, existing planning processes, such as budget planning, position requests and searches, and unit and university-wide strategic planning.

It is likely that Hardin, who could be fairly irascible, would have loved to point out that what we referred to above as "incentives" he would call "mutual c'ercion, mutually agreed upon" a much less palatable phrase. Hardin, in fact, was something of a fan, overall, of fairly dictatorial management processes except perhaps in a select-population, resource-rich environment (which, maybe the University of Michigan is). And it should be noted that the University of Michigan d'esn't reference "The Tragedy of the Commons," anywhere in the IT Commons site, choosing instead to provide as related background reading such materials as Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly University, by Margaret Wheatley, 1992, and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell, 2000.

How is the IT Commons working out for the University of Michigan? Time will tell. Among the cross-unit collaborative teams currently at work are groups addressing authentication/authorization, directory, network middleware services, and massive data storage model definitely work best done in larger collaborative groups with proper incentives, rather than addressed by splintered, unit-based research groups. We asked Rich Boys, manager of computer systems services, School of Information, at the University of Michigan about his take on the IT Commons so far and he said "It's been a really positive experience so, and what's nice is that it's gaining momentum on its own," so clearly the participants find value in it.

What I like most about all the documents I read in researching this article was this statement from a "Next Steps" Summary: "Don't take it personally if you're left out of a process or meeting crash it if you want to". Whatever you say about the name, "IT Commons," that's certainly the right attitude and I may well be taking advantage of the offer!

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