Educause Review Review – “A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?”

Disclaimer:  I realize my comments might be taken as criticism of other CIOs or of the intent of the writers of Educause Review. First, that’s not at all my goal.  My goal is to say that perhaps the time for us to discuss the “still changing” role of the CIO is past.  And should be past.  But saying this doesn’t mean that I necessarily think that I don’t fall victim to some of these thoughts and even practices now and then.  In other words, I’m saying that my house might be made of glass…but I don’t think I’m throwing stones.  At the very least, in terms of career accomplishments, I have no right to make these comments.  But if I always thought that way I would rarely write anything.  This is a general commentary, and is not about myself at any rate. 

Also, note that while I am highlighting an Educause Review article in this particular post, it’s mostly because it’s the most recent one on this topic.  I’m certainly not criticizing the publication nor its various editors and staff (many of whom I know personally).  If this is still an important question, then ER should be covering it.  However, I am not sure it is an important question.

In early June, Educause Review posted an article titled A Transformative Period: Is Higher Education IT Having an Identity Crisis?   The question being posed is whether, in light of all the changes in higher ed in general, IT is facing a set of changes so dramatic that the entire role of an IT organization must be reconsidered?  It asserts that “the IT organization must be prepared to engage with its institution in a number of ways in a fast-paced environment” and that this is an “issue of transformation.”

Several interviewees give a variety of answers, but I must admit that I am having trouble with the question, and the premise itself.  I don’t think there should be any transformation going on at all, at least not now.  More broadly, I don’t see why we are still having this conversation.  Shouldn’t we already be what this article is asserting we should be…changing into?  If we aren’t already there, then the problem isn’t about adjusting to change tomorrow, but about whether we can be effective leaders today.  So why the ongoing discussion?

On the one hand, if one looks at the field of IT unto itself, without the context of managers and leaders, then yes, there is a major shift occurring.  One can either acknowledge this change and take advantage of it to grow an organization, or ignore it and become irrelevant.  Essentially, in a time when many IT services are becoming commodities and students (and faculty and staff) are bringing in personal devices that are sometimes far more powerful and certainly more mobile than what departments have been able to offer in the past (BYOD), if an IT organization doesn’t think about change, then its role as a vital part of the institution will be greatly jeopardized.  But I think looking at just the entity, the set of services that make up IT, is a completely useless perspective.  What matters are the people and the leaders that are in place.

Any and all leaders in IT today must be looking at the landscape far beyond the technology.  Business processes, enabling innovation, supporting mobility, accepting BYOD, and pushing forward new and creative initiatives.  If a CIO isn’t already instinctively thinking about these matters, about the role of IT as part of a key, strategic and programmatic component of a rapidly changing landscape, rather than just a service provider, then there is a serious issue.  Again, the true, underlying question for me is why are we still discussing this?  Maybe we need a note on the side saying “hey!  make sure you’re thinking this way!” with each issue but surely Educause Review with all its great content can devote some pages to other topics.

The identity crisis is not about IT from the perspective of the IT leadership.  It’s one created entirely by the institution itself, if and only if it is not putting enough thought into the role of IT or ignoring the hopefully-forward thinking minds that lead such organization. Of course, this is in fact often the case – the institution is lagging behind the existing change in leadership styles in IT.  Even if there is a really creative IT leader that understands these dynamics, it’s certainly possible that other executives at the institution will disagree.  They will be the ones that relegate IT to simply a service provider, rather than an enabler or a creative entity that adds value.  This is certainly a big challenge.

But the article implies that the identity crisis is located in the IT organization, or is at least partly so.  This discussion therefore still doesn’t make sense to me.  A leader in IT, today, should be considering the department’s role in the institution’s long-term strategic planning all the time. Let’s look a bit closer at some of the comments, and I will take another probably-too-bold step in offering my own thoughts and responses.

I still can’t believe I’m actually writing this post…please note that I am quoting the panel members, but that doesn’t mean I am criticizing them.  

First, there are a lot of comments from the panel that suggest that are right alongside with me on this.  For instance, Bob Solis states that “[i]f we aren’t collectively acknowledging that higher education is going through a transformative period, then we are going to be in trouble.”  In other words, this shouldn’t be a new idea.  But then he goes on to say:

IT needs to be more focused not simply on delivering technology but in helping the business community, teaching, and research deliver on their targeted outcomes more efficiently and effectively. Today’s IT must focus its attention on and be completely engaged in partnering with the business community to achieving success in outcomes and performance. Given the global economic backdrop and the national spotlight on the ‘business’ of higher education, business process transformation is essential to becoming a more efficient and effective organization. My role as CIO is to fully partner with the business community at all levels in achieving this. [emphasis added]

Again, my point isn’t that these comments are wrong – they are actually all spot-on- but that I don’t really understand why they have to be said in the first place.  Solis’ point is completely right – IT should be engaged at all kinds of levels.  But we should already know that!  Why do we need an article to highlight this?  In fact, Solis, in the last (italicized) sentence, himself states that it’s his job to partner with the business side of the institution.  He gets it.  And my point is that it shouldn’t be surprising or “special” that he gets it.  Everyone should get it.

Joseph Vaughn makes a useful, deeper analysis when he notes that “it is now completely feasible for an individual or a department to source their IT from lots of different places. That’s a huge transformation.”  This is important, because it’s about why we should be concerned about these matters.  Maybe the article should be about what causes there are for this transformation.  Not a question about whether there is one. In fact, perhaps the line should be “That was a huge transformation.”  Past tense.

I find this comment from Butch Jeulg especially interesting, that there is a “requirement to show value (not just money spent); we also need to justify cost and to drive organizational change.”  Costing IT has been a topic for a while, and some very interesting methods have come up on the Educause CIO Constituent group discussion list.  And I agree that costing is a new thing, and something that leaders reasonably could be just considering recently.  This is a very interesting trend that certainly merits more discussion.  At the same time, haven’t all CIOs and IT leaders been trying to justify the costs of IT for ages now?  So we’ve started using new methods, from traditional to activity-baesd modeling, to portfolio-based fees vs. service-specific.

Solis suggests that being an effective leader is  “about relationships and communications throughout all levels of the organization. It’s a lot about the skills not traditionally considered requisite for IT or the CIO. It is about the soft skills: marketing and promoting ideas, and promoting the value that technology brings in achieving business outcomes and performance.”  Let me ask – has anyone out there not been thinking about and probably working on soft skills already?

And then there is this statement from Charles Chulvick, who says that “we have always had an identity crisis. Are we utilities, or are we service organizations that provide leadership?”  This is the kind of comment that confuses me the most.  Of course we are service organizations that provide leadership.  This should not even be a question.  This should not be cause for an identity crisis.  Chulvick does acknowledge that this problem “varies depending on your institution’s structure and your institutional leadership” and that therefore it’s likely external factors that can cause this problem.  But for an IT leader?  There should be no doubt, no question.

So, in the end, I’m saying that these ideas should be already understood, we don’t need to keep asking the question, and I really hope no one thinks I’m an idiot for posting this.

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