Amplifying Lev Gonick's 'The Year Ahead in IT'

Like many of you, I took the time to print out and carefully read Lev Gonick's essay "The Year Ahead in IT, 2013". The entire essay is worth spending time with, as you will find a number of challenging ideas and insights embedded in Gonick's writing.

January 8, 2013

Like many of you, I took the time to print out and carefully read Lev Gonick's essay "The Year Ahead in IT, 2013".

The entire essay is worth spending time with, as you will find a number of challenging ideas and insights embedded in Gonick's writing.

In this space I'd like amplify and highlight Lev's 10th point: "IT as a Service and the Future of IT on Campus." The 787 words at the end of the essay represent, in my opinion, some of the best writing on IT organization and culture that have been penned in any publication. The essay in its entity is worth sharing, but if you have only an elevator pitch worth of time to share ideas with leaders at your institution then please point them to this section.

To make things easier for you, I'm going to quote extensively (in bold italics) from this section of Lev's essay. This is the part of the essay where Lev focuses on the structure and culture of the IT organization. I think that we would be wise to think about and discuss within our organizations and our campuses the arguments that Lev makes for change.

First, Lev sets out the major themes and overarching context in which academic IT organizations now find themselves:

"The rollback of public investment in, pressure for access to, and indeterminate impact of globalization on postsecondary education all contribute to significant disorientation in our thinking about the future of the university. Couple those externalities with the commodification of many technologies once thought to be core to the service catalog on our university campuses and the dilemma is at once clear and confounding."

Next, having identified the narratives in which higher ed and academic technology are most influenced, Lev argues for the importance of decisive leadership and organizational innovation in meeting these challenges:

"As technology leaders in higher education assess how to align our organizations to these twin challenges, the time has come to consider discontinuous organizational change. Tinkering and tweaking with traditional organizational issues like the federated models for technology support across the university or whether or how to merge academic and administrative computing are inadequate and unlikely to help the institutions we serve with strategic value-add.  Expensive external consulting groups can tell our executives what we already know. Our IT organizations (and many other parts of the university) are products of a legacy environment that has, to varying degrees, become calcified and nonresponsive to the needs of the university going forward."

Lev is not mincing words here. He is clear that the organization and structure of our IT departments is no longer adequate to meet the needs of declining public support, increased competitiveness through market and globalization factors, and the growth of demand due to new services and the consumerization and communication of IT.   

Having defined the challenges, Lev now provides us with a path forward:

"Resistance to the secularization and commodification of IT as a service is futile. Collective and cooperative action in the form of shared service models is one pathway that is well-worn and will necessarily lead to the requirement to re-architect our information technology strategies. New skill sets like vendor relationship and service level management, portfolio and project management, and business analysts are the new IT jobs for the shared services economy of the future."

Embedded in this description is a call for greater efficiencies, through partnerships and shared resources, and a model for the recruitment and nurturing of a new type of academic IT professional.

Gonick then gets more specific about the problems of IT organizational structure, one that is set-up around operations rather than innovation, functional responsibilities rather than adding value and aligning to and leading larger strategic objectives:

"More fundamental re-examination of our organizations is in our immediate futures. Multiple IT organizations across the country are rethinking the inherited functional organization. The functional IT organization is layered following a traditional stack of services from underlying infrastructure like network engineering, servers and storage, data base and application services, academic and administrative technology subject matter experts, and customer support. Over time, the logic and reproduction of the functional organization has squeezed out innovation in favor of core operational services.  In many organizations 90 percent or more of the IT staff and financial resources are allocated to daily operations. Over time, the functional organization model will suffocate and strangle itself. Many IT professionals are as passionate about the academic and research missions of our institutions as our faculty. The functional organization model makes it increasingly more difficult for IT on campus to be a meaningful partner and contributor to the strategic future of the University if and as it gets painted into the corner of being an expensive infrastructure cost center."

Lev's alternative structure for an academic IT department subverts current spheres of authority and control, and attempts to move the organization into "solutions-focused", flexible, nimble,and service based orientation:

"The alternative models to the functionally organized IT organization are many. The challenge for IT leaders is to cede a modicum of control and embrace the need to experiment in new, more porous, organizational models that facilitate and support the co-production of innovative solutions that meet the needs of higher education moving forward. Becoming a solutions-focused and internal consulting organization is at the core of what I take to be the opportunity for IT in higher education."

Lev then closes his argument by challenging us to transcend current narratives around inadequate resources and increasing demands, pushing us to make the large scale cultural and organizational changes commensurate with the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly shifting postsecondary and technological landscape:

"No matter what kind of higher education institution you are affiliated with, the year ahead is predictably full of trepidation and constraint. If the organization becomes paralyzed through the psychology of scarcity we will have failed in our mission as IT leaders. The abundant and transformational contribution that IT can make to the mission of higher education is less about resource availability and more about leadership vision and commitment.  Leadership in the year ahead is no longer like captaining an ocean liner but more like whitewater rafting that calls for flattened organizations that can change rapidly and with significant agility, embrace decentralized decision-making, and motivate employees, and inspire relationships."

I find myself energized by Gonick's arguments, and grateful to be working in a field at the intersection of change in technology and higher education.

How will you academic IT organization respond to the challenges that Lev articulates?

What are the factors that help or block the organizational and cultural changes for your academic IT organization to meet today's and tomorrow's higher ed challenges?


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