New Year’s Awareness

It is the beginning of a new calendar year.  Circumstances have changed as they always do.  Prior assumptions about the pace and proportion of change probably need to be revised.  As a result, adjustments will be necessary (and not just annually).  Now is always good time to reflect and adjust by asking a couple fundamental questions:

  1. What have we learned about our value proposition from the benefit of hindsight that will inform our emerging strategy?  (Reflecting)
  2. What do we need to learn more about in order to fulfill our evolving value proposition and re-calibrate strategic areas of focus?  (Adjusting)

Performance metrics are an important source of information for reflecting and adjusting based on what can be learned from them.  For example, operational insights derived from performance metrics can be used to help calibrate strategic areas of focus, inform foresight and formulate strategic intent.  If management is attuned to the necessity of making adjustments over time, then what can be learned from performance metrics in order to adapt is essential.

Nevertheless, it’s also important to put performance metrics into proper perspective.  They are important.  But they are also subject to interpretation in terms of what the data may or may not validate.  Institutional mission, vision, intuition, and judgment shape expectations and influence analysis.  The following illustration one way to visualize how performance metrics are situated within a broader strategic and operational context:

Performance Metrics in Context

Performance Metrics in Context

Given the broader context, the challenge is to identify an agreed upon set of performance metrics that matter most.  One way to accomplish this is to determine which ones provide the kind of organizational learning that is needed to help guide pivotal decisions about; priorities for the allocation of resources, methods of producing value, focus of improvement efforts, and goal setting.  The following interrelated questions encourage comprehensive inquiry into these pivotal issues:

  1. Are we doing the right things?  (Guides Priorities)
  2. Are we doing things the right way? (Determines Methods)
  3. Are we doing things well?  (Provides Focus)
  4. Are we getting the expected benefits?  (Establishes Goals)

There are some commonly used techniques for assimilating information that can be used in an attempt to answer these questions.  Some of the more conventional means include:

  • Third party audits and self-assessments used to quantify the “maturity level” of specified capabilities.
  • Resource utilization studies used to quantify consumption of available capacity and gauge varying types of usage.
  • Surveys used to measure levels of satisfaction, indications of preference, perceived importance and/or demographics.
  • Indicators used to measure proportional investments, financial returns and/or non-financial benefits.

Each technique is capable of generating far more data than what most organizations can make practical use of in terms of meaningful learning.  However, if the temptation to focus biased attention on “vanity metrics” is resisted then it is possible to identify a limited number of metrics that matter most in terms of addressing unmet and anticipated needs.  In other words, the objective is to choose easily understood actionable metrics that can be used to guide priorities, determine methods, focus attention and establish goals for improvement (versus using vanity metrics simply to portray the organization favorably).  Doing so requires a high degree of integrity and trust.  As a result, metrics that matter must be used as a collective means of organizational learning rather than employed as the basis for appraising individual performance.

Within the domain of information technology, there are a number of methods that provide structured approaches to gathering information using one or more of the techniques previously mentioned.  Judith A. Pirani’s recent EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) Research Bulletin, “5 Guidelines for Instituting IT Value Measurement” includes a concise description of a few:

Balanced Scorecard:  A set of financial measures and operational measures that illustrate the desired outcomes and the means of achieving them.  ISACA’s generic IT scorecard covers the following areas: corporate [or institutional] contribution, user orientation, operational excellence, and future orientation.

Portfolio Analysis:  Considers IT assets not solely from a cost perspective but includes other elements like risk, yield and benefits.  The goal is to balance risk and payoff by investing IT assets that both support basic organizational operations and help create and address new or existing strategic opportunities.

Return on Investment Measures:

Value on Investment (VOI):  VOI is the measure of the value of soft or intangible benefits derived from technology initiatives, compared to the investment needed to produce them.

Net Present Value (NPV):  The NPV of an investment is the present (discounted) value of future cash inflows minus the present value of the investment and any associated future cash outflows.  It allows consideration of such things as cost of capital, interest rates, and investment opportunity costs.  It’s especially appropriate for long-term projects.  The bigger the NPV – other things being equal – the more attractive the investment is.

Others I would add to the list include the following:

Gartner ITScore Self-Assessment:  “Holistic sets of interactive maturity assessments designed to help CIOs and IT leaders evaluate the maturity of both the IT organization as a provider of IT services, and the enterprise as a consumer of information technology. Unlike other IT maturity assessments, a Gartner IT Score measures your organization’s capabilities within the context of an enterprise culture, behaviors and capacity for leadership – factors that dramatically impact IT’s effectiveness and it’s ability to contribute real business value.” (See Gartner website)

TechQual+ Survey:  “Measures a set of generalizable IT service outcomes that are expected of IT organizations by faculty, students, and staff within higher education. The TechQual+ core survey contains 13 items designed to measure the performance of the following three core commitments: 1) Connectivity and Access, 2) Technology and Collaboration Services, and 3) Support and Training.  In addition to the core survey, the project delivers easy-to-use Web-based tools for the creation of individualized surveys, for communication with respondents, for analysis of survey results, and for comparisons with peer institutions.”  (See the Higher Education TechQual+ Project website)

Measuring Information Service Outcomes (MISO) Survey:  Measures the views of faculty, students and staff about technology and library services by gathering data on frequency of use, relative importance, levels of satisfaction, perceived service orientation of front-line staff, and demographic information.  Nearly 70 critical services are included across a spectrum that ranges from support provisions to technological infrastructure.  Participating institutions can evaluate trends over time with repeated participation in the survey, and organizations can compare their responses to those at other institutions.  (See the MISO Survey website).

The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research has published numerous research bulletins that are very helpful in terms of understanding the full depth and breadth of methods available for gathering data and instituting metric driven continuing improvement programs.  Some of them are cited below:

Pirani, Judith A. “Five Guidelines for Instituting IT Value Measurement” (Research Bulletin).  Louisville, CO:  EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, November 13, 2012.  Available from here.

Consiglio, David, Laurie Allen, Neal Baker, Kevin J.T. Creamer, Joshua Wilson “Evaluating IT and Library Services with the MISO Survey” (Research Bulletin 10, 2011).  Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2011, Available from here.

Chester, Timothy M. “Assessing What Faculty, Students, and Staff Expect from Information Technology Organizations in Higher Education” (Research Bulletin 18, 2010). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2010, available from here.

Nelson, Mark R. “Assessing and Communicating the Value of IT” (Research Bulletin August 2, 2005). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2010, available from here.

A number of us will be gathering at the March 2013 Annual NERCOMP Conference for a “Metrics that Matter” preconference leadership forum seminar to consider some of these approaches and others not listed.  Each methodology offers something different even though they are related and sometimes overlapping.  More than one could be used in combination.  For example, my organization is using the Gartner ITScore self-assessments in combination with the MISO Survey.  There’s no single approach that is optimal for everyone.  But we all need to consider many of the same things.  For example, the financial and opportunity costs associated with adopting any of these methods needs to be proportional to the broader context at each of our institutions.  The preconference seminar will provide an opportunity to think about these things during presentations, panel discussions, and through facilitated exchange of ideas and solutions.  Forget new year’s resolutions.  Metrics that matter provide a new year’s awareness.

Good Read: “The CIO Paradox”

As any Chief Information Officer can attest to, establishing and sustaining productive working relationships within the context of our organizations involves confronting a series of contradictions that seem to persist even as circumstances change over time.    And the process never ends.  Welcome to the “CIO Paradox”.

I just finished my “advance reading copy” of “The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership” by Martha Heller.   The book is one of the few I’ve read that actually goes beyond a really well articulated description of the shared experiences of CIOs.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s some therapeutic value in that.  No doubt about it.  But I don’t have the time to just affirm my experience.  I get it.  I’m not alone.  Well said.  Let’s move on.  Often after listening to or reading about the many challenges commonly faced by CIOs I’m left with the same lingering question:  OK, therefore what?  Thankfully, Martha Heller’s “The CIO Paradox” does an artful job of articulating the essence of the inherent contradictions associated with IT leadership and (therefore) what to do about it.

The book frames the CIO Paradox in a clear and concise way:

Viewing the CIO role through this paradoxical lens really gets to the core of what frustrates many of us most about the job, but Heller does more than just remind us of our frustrations.  She uses them to focus our attention on what we can do to cultivate our full potential, and the organizations we help lead, given what most of us truly have to offer.

One of the overriding themes from the book is how relationships and perceptions permeate everything we do as CIOs.   At the core of any productive working relationship is a shared understanding of the answer to three fundamental questions:  What’s my role in this?  What’s your role in this?  What’s our joint role in this?  The answer to these questions for CIOs and our counterparts varies depending on what “this” refers to specifically and the lens through which others view us; the inter-personal, structural, political and symbolic context of our organizations.  I thought the book did a remarkable job of capturing the nuanced relationships between situations, roles and context with the anecdotes and guidance that are provided for each paradox.

The final chapter of the book, “Breaking the Paradox”, concludes with a checklist.  If I were to add anything, it would be a few challenging questions that could be used to determine what from the checklist really matters when answering; “What’s Next for the CIO?”:

Most of the book stimulates this kind of thinking throughout.  For example, there is extensive use of CIO quotes from conversations, mini case studies that are used to illustrate the practical application of suggested approaches and some self-assessments (some of which were developed by CIOs).  In each case, what the author shared was helpful and did not come off as shameless self-promotion.  Much of the book can be thought of as lessons learned from one CIO to another.

Other astute observations and insightful advice could only come from the unique perspective of the author as an executive recruiter, columnist, and organizer of peer networks for CIOs.  And some of the analogies and humor interjected throughout the book could only come from a (fellow) parent of teenage children.  Heller’s writing style felt more like the friendly counsel from a trusted advisor than sterilized frameworks from a detached analyst.  That refreshing combination was enough to make reading “The CIO Paradox” for me both enjoyable and informative.  I recommend it for any current and aspiring CIO.  Someone looking to hire and/or retain a good CIO would be well served to read it as well.  I can also see how the book can serve as the basis for some interesting discussion among peer networks.  In fact, it occurred to me that reading a similarly well written CEO Paradox, COO Paradox, CMO Paradox and CFO Paradox would also be worthwhile.  It would be helpful to understand these paradoxes as well.  Are there any sequels on the horizon?

Attracting New Talent to IT

A career as an Information Technologist is not what it used to be.  It is actually better now in many ways.  The kind of career opportunities available today offer far more options to match personal interests with meaningful work for people with an aptitude for systems thinking.  Anyone who considers themselves to be an innovative problem solver, enjoys creating or customizing things people use, likes to interact with a broad spectrum of other people, and is energized by continually being intellectually challenged should at least consider one or more career paths available to Information Technologists.  The real essence of the career experience, and the impact of what someone can contribute as an Information Technologist, embodies much more than the stereotypical perceptions of the profession as something only well suited for “geeks“.

The IDG CIO Executive Council recently co-produced a video that does a nice job dispelling the geek stereotype in an effort to promote why young people should in fact consider a career in IT.  Michael Gabriel (CIO of HBO) took a lead role in producing the video which was created by HBO and parent Time Warner.  The quality of the video is outstanding and I began circulating it immediately after viewing it.  More people need to think of a career in IT the way they are portrayed in this video:  I.T. Is IT – The Real Deal on Information Technology Careers

There’s something else I find interesting.  People often refer to themselves as a lawyer, a physician, an engineer, etc.  Some Information Technologists refer to themselves as a consultant, a developer, etc.  All of this is perfectly fine.  But many Information Technologists think of who they are separate from what they do.  They may say, “I work in IT” (for example) rather than refer to themselves as a “technologist” or something similar.  Some of the most accomplished people I know that could be considered Information Technologists (which could be broadly interpreted) are also musicians, outdoor enthusiasts, educators, entrepreneurs, etc.  Think about it.  A career in IT doesn’t define who you are.  It’s a profession that allows you to pursue personal interests with the flexibility to engage in meaningful work based on your particular aptitude for (fill in the blank).  There are many possibilities.  In fact, new “IT” career paths that do not even exist today will continue to emerge over time.  But there seems to be a disconnect between how many young people seem to view IT careers, and the current reality let alone what might be possible in the future.  It’s going to get harder to attract new talent to IT if this doesn’t change.

I typically get invited back to my Alma Mater twice each year as a guest lecturer to talk to undergraduates enrolled in a (required) management information systems course at the College of Business Administration.  I had worked for the professor, a former CIO himself, years ago at the very beginning of my 20+ year career in IT.  It’s a pleasure to give back (in some small way) to both my mentor and the institution I graduated from by sharing some of what I’ve learned so far with these students.  They are engaged and always ask intelligent questions.  But very few express interest in pursuing an IT career.

The topics I cover as guest lecturer range from the implementation of ERP systems to starting technology based businesses.  Regardless of the particular subject being discussed, I always begin with the same three questions and use examples to clarify.  “How many of you are considering a career working within IT at a company?”  (Normally only two or three hands go up).  “How many of you are considering either starting or joining a supplier of IT products or services?” (Typically four or five hands go up).  “How many of you anticipate playing an important role during the implementation of a customer facing online service or internal information system?”  (It’s rare to get more than six people raising their hand).  The total number of students in these classes is approximately 30 people.  I’ve been doing this informal poll for at least 5 years and the results are very consistent.  Maybe I’m not asking the questions the right way, or giving good examples, but there doesn’t seem to be a very high level of interest in pursuing an IT career from this small sample of business students.

Those of us already enjoying the benefits and privileges of an IT career need to do more to attract new IT talent by promoting the real nature of the profession and the kind of work life experience it provides.  The prospect of working in an environment with foosball tables and bean bag chairs with the potential of getting rich off of stock options in this economy isn’t going to persuade most people.  These opportunities may still exist to some degree.  But characterizing IT careers in this way doesn’t portray the substantive nature of a career in IT any more accurately than the geek stereotype.   We need to get involved more in mentoring programs, degree program advisory boards at colleges and universities, and other forms of outreach in order to cultivate a more positive image of our profession.

We also need to do things to manifest the kind of IT careers described in the video in order to attract and then retain the “best and brightest” as well:

  • Time to Learn: Provide more time within regular work schedules to discover and then implement new ways to participate in professional development, skills training and knowledge sharing.
    • Professional Development:  Expand awareness of emerging trends and provide opportunities to participate in workshops, conferences and take part in productive collaboration designed to foster experimentation, shared learning and innovative application of technology.
    • Skills Training:  Provide opportunities to increase proficiency with the use of technology, administration of systems, and management of information for varying levels of application and experience (i.e. novice, experience, and expert).
    • Knowledge Sharing:  Encourage and facilitate cross functional exchange of ideas, experiences and consultative input across different departments within the organization – and outside it if appropriate.
  • Opportunity to Experiment:  Explore new ways of doing things with technology through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective implementation and support on a larger scale.  (Failed experiments on a small scale are OK as long as they are not repeated and lessons learned are applied).

Promoting career opportunities in IT is a good thing.  Providing time to learn and opportunity to experiment helps cultivate the kind of careers that will attract and retain the talent that’s needed.

Chooser Support

Individuals are making their own educational technology choices.  What they select is based on a combination of how they want to do things, where they decide to do them, what they prefer to use and the amount of money (if any) they are willing to spend in order to address a need as they perceive it.  They are choosers, not just users, of educational technology.  And the number of choices can be overwhelming.

For example, the Tennessee Board of Regents’ “TBR eLearning Initiative” provides a resource to help people find and evaluate mobile apps for use in teaching, learning, workforce and professional development.  There are more than 40,000 educational apps to choose from.  This doesn’t even include the number of mobile devices to choose from that are used in conjunction with the apps.

There have been some very useful blog posts and other reading on the “consumerization of IT” published in recent years.  Most focus on issues related to the consumer oriented adoption of technology within organizations that get characterized as “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) and “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT).  But there are some others that take an expanded view of the issue in terms of how value can still be added despite the diluted influence of imposed enterprise-wide standards and conditional end-user support policies.  The following EDUCAUSE Review article, blog posting (and both embedded videos) are good examples and well worth taking the time to go through:

  • EDUCAUSE Review article “From Users to Choosers” authored by Ronald Yanosky.  His writing examines “central IT and the challenge of consumer choice” and gives thoughtful suggestions on what could be done to encourage individuals to choose “certified resources” that help them make prudent decisions based on  considerations that go beyond features, functionality and cost.  The article is very informative, well written and provides useful ways to frame the issues.
  •  “Unlocking the Value of Choice in IT Decision Making” posted on The Higher Ed CIO blog.  The author, Jerry Bishop, raises some very insightful and leading questions with respect to the more general topic of choice and its implications for IT organizations.  He also shares two very interesting TED Talks by Sheena Iyengar based on results from research she has done; “The Art of Choosing” and “How to Make Choosing Easier”.

All of this taken together suggest that value can be added to the process of individual choice by introducing a “curator” and “certifier” function in between choosers and suppliers of educational technologies.

Value Added to Choice by Curators and Certifiers

Value Added to Choice by Curators and Certifiers

The combined value added by the “curator” and “certifier” functions could be used to generate recommendations that consist of the following:

  • Research and evaluation conducted by a review team that determines what qualifies as “educational technology” and the criteria for published recommendations (e.g. ADA standards etc.)
  • A high level taxonomy used to categorize educational technologies for browsing organized groupings of similar technologies[1]
  • A defined list of attributes used to “tag” recommendations for searching by characteristics such as sub-categories, typical uses, compatibility with other technologies, the level of support available, technology provider, and cost
  • Certified resources based on verified conformance with applicable interoperability standards, information security requirements and other risk management best practices

Providing a simple way for individuals to choose from a pool of certified resources can help improve the selection process based on the qualified recommendations of expert advisors and trusted colleagues.   However, there is a cost.  In order to implement this particular kind of support, organizations will need to determine (collectively or individually) how to enlist members of a review team and what methods and means will be employed to provide recommendations.  This takes time to plan and coordinate, it may involve expenditures, and participation takes time away from other important work.  But “chooser support” is more than an added convenience.  To quote Ronald Yanosky, it’s a way to “[…] assess vendor claims and sort out the institutional implications of what might be a confusing tangle of competing products and standards.  Influence of this kind could substantially reduce institutional exposure and improve the consumer computing experience for everyone.”

Practical solutions will emerge to address this unmet need that will go beyond app stores and educational marketplaces and will resemble simplified variations of Merlot and the TBR eLearning Initiative.  Even these valuable resources (and others) have expanded to the point where each can be cumbersome to navigate and making choices can be complicated.  This presents an interesting opportunity for a somewhat different approach.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present a similar situation in many ways.  But that’s a posting for another time.


[1] A categorization system such as the Dewey Decimal System is not yet available for this purpose

Provision Alone ≠ Value

Information, technology and related support services employed by most higher education institutions are provisioned in a variety of ways.  Resources from centralized, decentralized, outsourced and self-provisioned sources are all used in combination.  They also overlap and change in relative proportion over time.  The diagram below illustrates one way to view these relationships:

The reality is that adopting a centralized, decentralized, outsourced and self-provisioned approach is rarely an all or nothing decision in the larger scheme of things.  But perennial debates about the comparative merits of each persist as if it were.  The options continue to often be framed as polarizing choices rather than optimal parts of a blended solution.

Value is not simply generated from how information, technology and related services are provisioned.  That’s why the provisional context at most institutions is not comparable to a utility like electricity or water.  There is far more to it than that.  One perspective on this was provided by President of California State University Northridge, Jolene Koester, in the EDUCAUSEreview May/June 2011  article she authored titled “Information Technology and Tomorrow’s University: A President’s Confessions and Advice”:

“For some time in my presidential role, I was comforted by the comparison of information technology to a utility.  Many of my colleagues in higher education told me that I simply needed to ensure that information technology, like electricity and water, was reliably available and functional for our faculty, staff, and students.  This seemed quite possible to achieve.  However, over the past several years, it has become clear to me that the role of information technology in my university is far more strategic, far more ubiquitous, far more integrated into multiple business practices, and far more integral to the core university functions of teaching and learning.  I no longer regard as valid the comparison of information technology to a utility.  And thus, disquiet occurs.”

President Koester’s disquieting reflections characterize the role of information, technology and related services as something that warrants “far more” consideration than an essential provision like a utility.

Ronald Yanosky expressed a similar perspective to President Koeser’s in his article titled “From Users to Choosers: Central IT and the Challenge of Consumer Choice” published in the November/December 2010 issue of EDUCAUSEreview:

“Though the utility metaphor may apply to some aspects of computing, it is a poor fit with others; computing involves processes and information regimes that cannot be reduced to the simplicity and fungibility of, say, electrical power.”

Apparently, the “Nine Core IS Capabilities” framework David F Freeny and Leslie P Willcocks developed from their research, which appeared in their “Core IS Capabilities for Exploiting Information Technology” article published in the Spring 1998 Sloan Management, still has relevance.  There is an overlapping dependence on an enduring core set of core functions and collective expertise that are vitally important to the organization – particularly as patterns of provisional context evolve.  An updated and modified version of the Freeny and Wilcocks framework might look something like this now, illustrating how core capabilities and competencies of the organization overlay the method of provision:

The following descriptions of the seven core capabilities shown within the provisional context above are derived in large part from the pioneering work of Freeny and Wilcocks as well:

  1. Consultative Support – The contribution of knowledge and expertise used to guide strategic uses of information, innovative applications of technology, development of organizational capability and evaluation of product and service providers.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  2. Information Resource Management – The application of agreed upon standards and obligatory controls for; the efficient capture, creation, use, transmission, retrieval, conversion, protection, and retention of shared information.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  3. System Design – The specification of an adaptive enterprise-wide technology infrastructure based on functional capability to support optimal performance as an integrated whole now and in the future.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  4. Making Technology Work – The resolution of problems disowned by product and service providers and the modification of prescribed solutions that for some reason are not fully adequate.  (This value is added within a centralized and decentralized provisional context).
  5. Supplier Management – The administration of contractual agreements to most efficiently satisfy demand, prevent cost overruns, ensure mutual compliance, and maximize the value of the relationship.  (This value is added within a centralized and outsourced provisional context).
  6. Service Management – The assimilation of selective best practices for; improving processes, developing software, providing customized training, delivering ongoing end-user support, ensuring adequate system performance, and coordinating changes.  (This value is added within a centralized and outsourced provisional context).
  7. Chooser Support – The promotion of compatible choices based on open standards and the personal responsibilities associated with the independent procurement and use of computational devices, software and online services that are not provisioned by the institution.  (This value is added within a self-provisioned context).

The seven core capabilities and competencies add value to the provision, regardless of the source, and they continue to distinguish the management of information and technology services as something far more strategic, ubiquitous, integrated and integral than an essential utility like water or electricity.

So what should the institution stop doing given the continual shifting of provisional context and the constant need to generate value from information and technology resources?  What should the institution start doing?  What should the institution continue doing?  What should be done differently?

Does Strategy Matter?

It seems like the value of strategic planning, particularly within higher education, has come into question more than ever before.  Criticism ranges from claims strategies are flawed based on how they are typically formulated, to the lack of their practical utility in terms of real decision making and how value is produced over time as circumstances change.  Many people raise legitimate concerns with an apparent disconnect between intended results of institutional strategies and what actually gets accomplished.  Especially if there is a real or even perceived sense that the most meaningful benefits are produced regardless of the plan (or even worse in spite of it) and resources are somehow allocated inconsistent with declared priorities.  Some argue that the structure of higher education institutions, their distinct organizational cultures, and complexity created by the diversity of academic pursuits all conflict with any effort to develop a comprehensive strategic plan guided by a long-term vision for shared “success” (however that might be defined).  These and other criticisms, frustrations and fundamental questions of relevance are evident from the Chronicle of Higher Education Commentary “The Strategic Plan: Neither Strategy Nor Plan, but a Waste of Time” which inspired numerous and sometimes visceral comments in response.

Despite questions about the usefulness of strategic planning most higher education institutions continue to engage in the practice.  One reason for this is that regional accrediting associations that set assessment criteria for evaluating strengths and weaknesses of colleges and universities include planning (and evaluation) as an indication of effectiveness and quality.  As a result, institutions seeking continued accreditation must develop and maintain some sort of plan for the ongoing evaluation of institutional performance.  But does strategy really matter beyond fulfilling accreditation requirements?

One way to determine whether or not a given strategy matters is to look for the presence or absence of certain essential elements and enabling conditions that indicate how it is formulated and then used to provide leadership, make decisions and guide collective action that produces value over time as circumstances change.  This sort of evaluation might include consideration of the following:

Essential Elements

  • Plainly articulated and succinctly described statements of intent that originate from specific areas of focus essential to fulfilling mission, upholding values, and realizing a vision based on foresight that illuminates what is most important to anticipate and plan for.
  • Clearly defined programmatic initiatives that translate the statements of intent into a coordinated “stream of actions over time”[i] (both deliberately planned from inception and as opportunities emerge or mandates are imposed over time) which collectively impact one or more indicators of institutional performance.
  • Easily interpreted performance metrics (or key performance indicators) that map directly to institution-wide strategic areas of focus and provide insight used to inform the development, prioritization, resourcing, management and evaluation of programmatic initiatives.

The following depicts one way to conceptually visualize the all of the above together in one graphic:

Essential Elements of Strategy

Plenty of documented plans include most if not all of the essential elements of a well formulated strategy.  However, putting the enabling conditions in place to evolve and execute an adaptive strategy over time is more elusive.  That’s because conditional factors are dependent on a blend of shared leadership, reaching consensus and making clear commitments to things that hold people jointly accountable:

Enabling Conditions

  • Consensus on the defining characteristics of the strategy  – specifically the degree to which it will originate from a combination of; “top-down” direction and control, “bottom-up” discretion and initiative, and boundaries shaped by the “external” environment
  • An agreed upon process and timeline for determining strategic imperatives (or strategic areas of focus), identifying an initial set of key performance indicators (KPI) and committing to programmatic initiatives that “move the needle” of KPI’s
  • An agreed upon process and periodic intervals for establishing feasible priorities, developing a realistic course of action to achieve identified objectives, and transparent allocation of resources consistent with declared priorities
  • An agreed upon method for periodically evaluating progress toward program goals, relevance of key performance indicators and alignment of strategic areas of focus with institutional mission, values and vision as circumstances change over time
  • A “core team” must be given the charge to assume an institutional planning role to draft wording that communicates the mutually reinforcing strategic imperatives for the university, set university-wide key performance indicators, and identify programmatic initiatives that bring different parts of the organization together in productive collaboration
  • The individuals charged with leading institutional planning should be appointed by the President and have the collegial support necessary to enlist the active involvement and support of the organization as a whole
  •  The President and his or her staff must continually demonstrate the importance of a sustained commitment to collective strategy by actively engaging in collaborations themselves that advance programmatic initiatives to maximize the effectiveness of the institution as a whole

Perhaps what really matters about strategy has to do with the evolving guidance it should continually provide for making informed decisions and inspiring coordinated action for the benefit of the entire institution.  It should be limited in scope to what the organization agrees to work toward collectively, why it is important within a broad context, and how success of the institution overall will be evaluated.  Simply creating a to-do list of what to work on does not constitute a strategy.  Checklists don’t often achieve much that matters in the broader context of how the organization generates value as a whole.

Instead of debating whether or not strategy matters, maybe we should ask what matters most that requires strategy.


[i] Henry Mintzberg and James A. Waters defined strategy as “a pattern in a stream of actions over time” in order to “operationalize” the concept of strategy to conduct research.  See “Of Strategies Deliberate and Emergent“, by Mintzberg published by John Wiley and Sons from the Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1985), pp.257-272.

Mobile Obligation

It seems apparent by now that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will soon be people’s first choice for accessing the Internet and making use of an expanding array of communications services, interactive media, and software applications.  In response, an increasing number of higher education institutions have accepted a “mobile obligation” to augment a student’s curricular and co-curricular experience by literally meeting them where they are with the information and technology services most often used.  For example, according to results from the 2011 Campus Computing  Project 55.3% of public universities have activated mobile apps or will do so during the 2011-12 academic year (compared to 32.5% in 2010).  The question for the other 44.7% is… if not now when?

Some of the higher education institutions that have accepted their mobile obligation are developing and executing “mobile strategies”.  Some examples include:

Online Convenience

EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger’s foreword to the 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology surmised that “…convenience drives student technology use and perceptions”.  Allowing students to retrieve information, receive communications and securely complete transactions online from a smartphone or tablet all provide added convenience.  Examples of these things may include:

  • Communication:  e-mail and text messaging (including emergency notifications)
  • Public Information:  maps, news, events, athletics, transit, dining, directory, and course catalog
  • Personalized Information: account information, course schedules, advisor listings and grades
  • Secure Transactions: registering for courses and making online payments

Most mobile applications seem to be limited to repackaging what is already otherwise available from a laptop or desktop computer connected to the Internet.  However, there do not appear to be many mobile applications deployed by higher education institutions that provide personalized information or transaction processing that require authentication and secure transmission of protected information.  As more of these applications eventually get deployed maybe they end up providing what is currently available from web portal applications too.

Pedagogical Experimentation

Higher Education Institutions are exploring pedagogical applications of mobile computing as well by experimenting through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective adoption and support on a larger scale.  Some well publicized examples include:

  • The Seton Hill University Griffin Technology Advantage – “the creation of a teaching and learning environment that would go beyond the confines of the traditional classroom in time and space; widespread use of mobile technology for instantaneous access to information; deepening of critical and creative thinking through interactive teaching strategies; increased student engagement in learning; and decreased costs for students through the use of e-texts.”
  • The Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) – “a multi-year program of experimentation, development and implementation of new and emerging technologies to explore their use in support of the university’s mission.”
  • The Abilene Christian University ACU Connected Initiative – “studies how mobile technologies can be used to enhance learning”.

The 2011 Horizon Report also provides interesting examples of “relevance for teaching, research or creative inquiry” and “a sampling of applications of mobiles across disciplines”.

These pedagogical experiments and forays into the provision of more online conveniences (among others) illuminate the interwoven complexities introduced by using mobile computing to do things in new ways which in turn impact everything from technology and support infrastructure to faculty development programs.

So the multi-part question is what mobile computing platform(s) should the institution support use of, to what extent, for what purpose, and at what cost?  The answers to these questions will vary widely from one institution to another but the following considerations are common to all:

  1. What are the unique educational affordances and added conveniences that have specific application for potential use within the context of learning environments and provision of online services?
  2. What is the current level of interest among faculty to make use of the unique educational affordances that mobile technologies might offer within the context of courses they teach or the research they conduct?
  3. What are the prioritized preferences among students for co-curricular mobile applications they want the institution to provide?
  4. What is the current level of use of different mobile device types (equipped with internet access) among students, faculty, and staff along with the most prevalently used software and services accessed from these devices?
  5. What sort of methods will be employed for device management (where needed)?:
    • Determining what devices and software should be provisioned by the institution and how, who they will be provided to, and under what conditions
    • Procurement of hardware, software and 3G/4G network services
    • Tracking inventory and compliance with software licensing agreements
    • Managing machine images, patches, software upgrades and configuration settings
    • Ensuring information security and privacy management
  6. The impact on and required changes to the technological infrastructure (e.g. campus network, websites, course management systems, identity management, system interfaces etc.)
  7. The impact on and required changes to the support infrastructure (e.g. tech support, skills necessary to develop applications, integration with “back-end” information systems, etc.)
  8. The extent to which the institution is willing and able to license and/or develop new applications specifically for particular mobile platforms, versus expanding the institution’s mobile web presence
  9. All one-time and recurring costs for the above

In the end, an institution’s response to its mobile obligation should be in proportion to the demand for additional online conveniences, pedagogical experimentation and capacity to adapt technology infrastructure, support services and faculty development programs.