The Transition from IT as Infrastructure to IT as Ecosystem


By Terry Calhoun

As anyone who reads my column regularly knows, I am constantly trying to find the connection between IT and environmental sustainability. Not just the implications of upstream and downstream waste in the production of hardware and its abandonment, or the use of electrical power to operate machines, but in a larger context.

A lot of the wonderful things happening in the world of sustainability came out of both systems thinking and the application of computing power to defining and solving environmental problems. So I was delighted to read an article titled, “Managing the Digital Ecosystem.” It d'esn’t make the kind of connection I was looking for, but it d'es take a big look at the evolution of our computing and networking tools into their own digital ecosystem.

The article is from Issues Online in Science and Technology and was written by Carnegie Mellon University CIO J'el M. Smith and President Jared L. Cohon. They write in the context of looking for leadership strategies that work in the increasingly complex system of higher education IT.

When looking at the evolution of IT in the last decade-and-a-half, they describe four major stages:

  • Twenty-five years ago: large, rare, expensive computational machines used by “island” communities, with only a handful of innovators.
  • Sixteen years ago: PCs and the first networks created infrastructure needs for the entire campus “world,” not just islands, although the number of innovators was small.
  • In the 1990s: Everyone on campus is in the user community, IT tools are essential, and the innovators on campus included a wide array of staff, faculty, and administrators.
  • Now: students come to campus and bring the innovations with them in bewildering variety; faculty and researchers also bring in other innovations, especially with regard to inter-institutional collaboration.

Twenty-five years ago was 1981. I was attempting to be a lawyer in Detroit, having just graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, and all I can recall of information technology at that time was how absolutely cool my Sony Walkman (tape player) was. Just six years before that I was learning COBOL and FORTRAN, carefully balancing three-foot high stacks of punch cards as I walked through the computing center at the U-M’s NUBs.

Who would have thought, twenty-five years ago, that discipline-specific areas within theater, philosophy, music, history, biology, and many other areas would make such intensive use of IT that it would become essential? And who would have thought that IT would have become as essential to just plain old teaching and learning as it has?

The authors also note the incredible pace at which users now expect each new technology to become a dependable infrastructure, even with all of the support issues that arise. But (and I love them for this because they appear to accept this statement as a given to be coped with), here’s what they say about IT’s responsibility regarding those expectations:

“The expectation of our constituents is that if a technology is available and it can help them accomplish their goals, the university should provide whatever core services are required to support it.”

I love that statement so much that I tried to get permission to use it in a PDF certificate you could download and print to put on your wall. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to get permission.

To address the challenges and reap the rewards of the new IT ecosystem, Smith and Cohon pose a handful of strategies:

  • [Create] more robust feedback loops between the members of the academic community who are generating IT innovations and those responsible for supplying a sustainable environment.
  • [Collaborate] with other universities to develop shared solutions for both intra- and inter-institutional support for academic IT.
  • [Select] for adaptive and non-adaptive technologies for resource allocation based on their contribution to our fundamental missions. Not based on how easy or hard they make your job. (That last sentence and emphasis is mine.)
  • [Revitalize] commitment to open standards in order to ensure the sustainable and evolvable development of IT in academe.

Although I agree with their statement that IT managers must make tough choices and not yield to demands to adopt new technologies without some rigorous proof that they enhance learning, I am less eager than they (as noted in previous columns) to pause and reflect on what little evidence there is to claim that multitasking reduces cognitive attention. Even if it d'es, I am not sure that it matters in terms of achieving the educational output.

I do agree with their call to level the walls that divide our administrative, operational, disciplinary, and even generational fiefdoms. If you have to make an unpopular decision, do your best to make sure it is the most informed decision you can make. To make the right choices about which services and innovation pathways to “starve” or to “feed,” constant, instantaneous, and meaningful informational feedback loops need to be in place and sustained.

In this column I drew a lot directly from “Managing the Digital Ecosystem,” because it is just so darned good, but do not let what you just read substitute for the real thing. You must also read the article itself! Once again, it can be found at
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