One of the most common “issues” and topics of discussion among IT professionals in higher ed is our potential obsolescence in the face of the changing student population, the infusion of uncontrolled media, and non-university solutions for connection – IM, Facebook, etc.
There are various articulations of this fear, but the gist is that because of all of these changes, the way we have always done IT will no longer be relevant, and we will lose our jobs. Or, at the least, that we need to watch for and perhaps even fear these changes.
I am, as I begin this post, attending a keynote regarding the paradigm shift that social media, desktop servers, cloud computing, and other technologies present to (university) IT departments.
Let me rephrase that to work better for me: the SUPPOSED paradigm shift…
As I often do, I must preface the rest of this post with a bit of a disclaimer. The keynote is by Sheri Stahler,the Associate Vice President for Computer Services at Temple University. She is clearly an intelligent person and I’m sure she’s a great VP and manager. She certainly is a very affable and friendly person – at least she was when we ran into each other in the elevator at the hotel at which this conference is held. This is not a criticism much less an attack on her in any way. This is about the points being made. These perceptions are not uncommon in higher ed (certainly evidenced by some of my fellow attendees that raise their hands to certain queries posed by Ms. Stahler) and that truly and deeply worries me.
Ms. Stahler’s points surrounded a supposed paradigm shift caused by web 2.0, 3.0 (2.0 + federated ID via Facebook Connect, etc), social media, and the changing perspectives of today’s students. This shift jeopardizes the very jobs of IT staff in higher education. Our methods are no longer effective, and our jobs are in danger. This is a gross oversimplification, admittedly.
I had the pleasure of convening and attending a presentation by Dr. John Hoh, the Director of Information Technology Services at the Harrisburg campus of the Pennsylvania State University later this same day. While it’s awfully difficult to describe the entire session, the gist is that one must look strategically and quite critically at one’s service portfolio, identify what are commodity services that can be outsourced, what are high-maintenance, low-value services that should be handled by only a small set of staff, and what is the “meat” of your overall services. The stuff that you want to be good at, and that you want others to know about it. Determining this requires a very forward-looking perspective on matters. As Dr. Hoh said, the goal is to become solution-providers, not break-fixers.
Being a solution provider means that one can identify issues, see trends as they emerge, and move to take advantage of those trends as appropriate. If one is a solutions provider, then one’s job cannot be, by definition, in danger. It is the very nature of one that needs to see emerging technologies not just for the dangers they pose to our existing duties but also for the opportunities they present that future-proofs such staff from becoming obsolete.
Even without taking Dr. Hoh’s aggressive, progressive stance, I would argue that we are all in the business of analyzing the eco-system that includes technology and higher education. In the same way that we must now consider how to deal with the emergence (eruption?) of the tablet device or the commoditization of Help Desk services, IT departments had to previously examine the commoditization of personal computers and the emergence of computers as a part of everyday academic life and develop those very same Help Desk services.
In conclusion, we must look at ourselves as solutions providers, and ones that determine those solutions based on our ability to analyze changing scenarios. We have never just been IT folks, and we certainly should never be people that focus on how the “way we’ve always done things” is or is not threatened by change. Our jobs should be to analyze and change with new trends. While our duties might change, our job does not.