Ungeeked: Implications for IT in Higher Education

At Ungeeked Chicago, Keith Privette talked about the role of the business analyst…I think. Forgive me Keith, but what stood out to me was one thing you said:

If your IT team tells you it will take 12 months or more to complete a project, cancel it. It will fail, because your needs will have changed by the time it’s done.

I know this applies to many industries, but I’d like to think about what it means for higher education. It’s no secret that when it comes to technology, the majority of U.S. campuses are behind what’s happening in the private sector, or even K-12 schools. If we start out behind, and then completion of a project takes a year or more, where does that leave us? Likely, even more behind than when we started.

I don’t work in IT, and I never have. However, I always try to develop relationships with the IT staff at my institution, and I think I have at least rudimentary knowledge of what goes on in that area. Many projects take at least 12 months to complete, sometimes even years. Whether it’s the development of a homegrown system or the acquisition of a paid solution, the process always seems the same at the public institutions I’ve worked at. It drags on and on—sometimes it’s because we need to gather requirements, or an untold number of committees have to approve the project, meaning everyone gets a say in the scope.

Often this situation is painted as an us (administration) vs them (IT) problem. Of course, I think everything would be better if we could just get along. But more than that, I think higher education needs to understand that one of the pillars of our organization, governance, may not be effective when it comes to IT. If a campus department has a problem, and IT has a way to fix it, what’s wrong with just going ahead with the solution? Does the entire campus have to be surveyed to see if they’d like in on the solution too, or could it later be adapted to meet the needs of others?

I’m just musing about possible culture change in higher education IT.  I’m not claiming to have the answers, but I am interested in hearing ideas and opinions about the issue. Do you have thoughts? Leave them in the comments.

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12 Comments on “Ungeeked: Implications for IT in Higher Education

  1. Liz:
    You raise a really good question. Part of our national culture is to try and find easy solutions to inherently complex issues. This is one of those situations.

    In my experience, slavish devotion to governance to the exclusion of common sense and what is overall good for an institution, is as bad as no governance at all. The trick is balance, which changes issue by issue.

    I happen to be a big fan of governance done right. It ensures buy-in, and thus less effort needs to be made on “selling” the solution. The best lessons I have learned have come from conflict situations where I have vowed not to make the same error again. Higher education has been largely stable as an institution for a 1000 years, so something about the way we govern must fit our mission pretty well. But we are now in an unprecedented time of economic challenge, and need to move much more quickly than we have needed to in the past. This situation argues for a leaner and lighter version of governance, in which core principles are protected and upheld, and the range of choices is more constrained than the past.

    My belief is that higher ed institutions that find the right balance between nimbleness and protecting core principles and beliefs, will start to move to the head of the line in their peer groups. Fun topic, and begging for respectful dialogue among committed stakeholders. Thanks for priming the pump! Bruce.

    • Yeah this is dead on accurate! The difference going into the nimbleness and protection is the people’s desire to build a better thing for tomorrow. Sprinkle on top of that is trust. If folks trust each other they are in it together to succeed and noone is trying to be the savior, everyone wins. To get to this point is probably the hardest hurdle to get over!

  2. I wish I had an answer to this. As you note, this culture clash happens a lot in the corporate world, increasingly so as the size of the organization goes up. I think potentially one source maybe the increase in “politics” that comes in larger organization. Power comes from control, and unfortunately many IT dept try to gain power.

    In an academic settting (often large organizations to begin with) this probably gets amplified. It is a shame, since in most cases technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. So few in the IT world recognize this. It’s part of the reason I’ve gotten out of it.

  3. Derek:
    My experience in higher Ed IT, is that a real transformation has taken place among most of the staff who support the education mission. In our organization, we regularly talk about the main mission, and that IT only exists to support that mission. Legacy control behaviors are deeply ingrained, and I think it would be mostly accurate to say IT professionals are risk averse. There is good reason for that, given that a small mistake can cascade tremendously, and really hurt the mission. This risk aversion sometimes gets in the way of nimbleness and speed.

    A healthy way for an organization to approach this is for the business side to make decisions about risks they are willing to accept in exchange for speed, light budgets, and nimbleness. If all risks rest on the IT professionals, they will be cautious.

    And of course at the heart of all this is trust. That is core element that must be addressed. If there are trust issues, you will be far to often “Going back to Go”.

  4. I beg to differ with the statement above that if a project takes more than 12 months, then it will fail. I work in IT and some of the successful projects I have worked on have been more than a year and these include an electronic medical record system, a disabled students program student information system, an international students/scholars information system, etc.

    What I do agree with is that the initial requirement will have changed many times during the course of the project and this is where sometimes projects fail when folks working on projects hang on to the initial requirements like it’s written in stone. A process that’s agile, iterative, continuous communication between customers/IT/stakeholders are needed.

  5. Liz – I work in central student affairs IT and sometimes even I get frustrated with paralysis over-analysis and the endless need to gather input from seemingly every level of the organization. In thinking about IT governance, I think it is needed given the needed to accommodate the competing technology interests of an organization and the sub-units with very limited budget and resources. There has to be a mechanism/process that allows communication/decision-making between IT and business leaders to make sure the efforts of IT are being directed to the right place.

    The biggest issue with IT governance is how it’s implemented. Years ago, I had to attend so many meetings presenting the same exact information to many committees and it became a waste of time and we couldn’t have productive meetings because there’s always some person missing and so decisions could not be made. Fortunately, we realized the waste of time these meetings were and they were scaled back and while we still have these meetings, they now have a clearer purpose and with the appropriate people.

    In my opinion, governance is not the same as day-to-day management, operation. There are meetings required for high level decision making and there are meetings on how to implement projects. When a governance group tries to tackle prioritization, operations, management all in the same meeting, then it becomes unproductive.

    Hope this makes sense.

  6. I’m loving this discussion. What I see in the comments so far is that we need to find a balance among competing forces: risk aversion, nimbleness, and power, trust, and institutional needs.

    In the Ungeeked talk I referenced at the beginning, I believe Keith talked about how the business analyst could be a bridge between IT, marketing/sales, and the executives in an organization. Who do you think plays the business analyst role in higher education?

  7. Liz:
    Specifically related to the business analyst role, yes, this is an incredibly important bridging role. Check out http://www.theIIBA.org. The way I view it, a business analyst has an important role to play in framing requirements. We use the IIBA approach at UWM and it works effectively when individuals are well-trained and follow the prescribed methodology. It does not work well when steps are skipped or the methodology is not followed.

    So my response is that this role is VITAL but must be done consistently in an organization. Chief among the benefits is having a common vocabulary, and common, consistent approach to framing needs. Use of a best-practice approach like this will help avoid poorly framed projects, which are at higher risk of failure. If you want more background, contact me offline.

  8. Business analysts are very critical in the success of tech projects. They/we do play the bridge role between tech and business units to ensure the systems being built or bought meet the business requirements. 

     In my organization, we have dedicated business analysts who are  embedded within the business units but belong in the central IT department. This serves the purpose of  business analysts not only understanding the business cycles but the culture as well.

  9. Joe and Bruce love your comments! Joe I like that you disagreed with my statement of “Cancel if longer than 12 months!” Then followed up with why. After reading your why, You may be the exception and good for the project!

  10. Hi Keith – definitely! I got the spirit of your statement.
    In addition to my statement of paralysis over-analysis as an issue, there’s also the concept called “astronaut architect” where systems are so complicated because systems are over-engineered to a point that system being designed is no longer what the customer wanted in the first place. And as business analysts, we both know business requirements have to drive the project taking non-functional requirements like systems constraints, politics, financial in mind.

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