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In Search of Good Governance

An interview with Jack McCredie

Since his retirement in 2005, UC Berkeley's Associate Vice Chancellor and CIO Emeritus John W. (Jack) McCredie has devoted much of his professional energy to studying, writing about, and speaking about IT governance and leadership in higher education. Currently an ECAR senior fellow, he is leading Educause's study of IT governance to be released in early 2008. CT asked McCredie for his perspectives on IT governance issues.

In your career, you've had a strong emphasis on the study of IT governance. How did you become interested in IT governance? Large universities are usually highly decentralized organizations in which departments and individual faculty members have a great deal of autonomy. The same is true of many smaller colleges. At the University of California, Berkeley we observed that because of our highly decentralized structure, it was often difficult to develop and to implement important information technology 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 that we govern the IT enterprise and to develop a new model that would fit our current situation better than the one that has 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 inputs 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 alignment of an organization's IT strategy with its overall mission and goals.

How have IT organizations changed over the past few years 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 are all topics that signal that it is time for a fresh look at how the 21st century college or university governs its IT 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 theoretical correct answer to this question in my opinion. The answer will be different for different organizational cultures, for different IT missions and goals, and for different overall governance structures at each campus. The most significant change I have observed recently is that many chancellors, presidents, and faculty leaders are now 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 campus, system-wide, statewide, and even national standards. Enterprise-level financial and human resource systems introduced another set of issues. Security and privacy concerns and copyright protection issues led to a different set of needs for campus-wide 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 really keeping up and adjusting quickly enough? These examples of significant changes in our campus IT environments have often not been accompanied by corresponding changes in our governance structures. However, I see evidence that many campuses are now examining their IT governance structure to determine if it fits their current needs.

What are the impacts on IT leadership development? And what should IT leaders plan for in the coming years as they look to staff their IT organizations? My hypothesis is that 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 even nonexistent. Conversely, a poorly functioning senior IT team will probably not do well even with an excellent governance structure. However, such a team probably will not last too long because an excellent governance structure will have 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. I believe that there are several good models, and that the best one for a particular campus depends on the culture of that campus, the senior campus leadership and its relationship to the IT 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 a host of other factors. I would very much like to help develop several case studies of campuses that have well-functioning, but different, IT governance structures and try to learn more about the features that make each of these models effective.

[Editor’s note: Jack McCredie will give the opening keynote at Campus Technology’s new Leadership in Practice conference, December 10-12 in San Francisco.]

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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