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.

Collaborate? Why bother?

According to “Insights for a Changing Economy” (Volume 3 – Bulletin #4) published by Maguire Associates;  “Higher education institutions don’t leverage the contributions of their internal colleagues very well at all.  That’s why there is such a compelling need to encourage and reward greater collaboration within institutions, with less concern for protecting individual fiefdoms.”  This may often be true.  The question then is who should be collaborating on what – and more importantly why?  Participation in an open collaborative process can be time consuming and potentially disruptive in terms of interpersonal and group dynamics, as well as how groups and teams are organized to get things done.  Collaboration may also involve cultural change and require a willingness to explore new ways of doing things that might be outside the traditional boundaries of how a given profession may be defined.  Why bother?

For example, it seems self-evident that information technology services and the library should collaborate.  There are examples of such collaboration at many higher education institutions going all the way back to the 1990s.  But similar to other collaborations among internal colleagues the results have often been mixed.  However, there is more reason than ever before to move toward a collaborative model of providing library and technology services.  Even so, why bother?  It’s not easy.  Both groups strongly identify with their profession, traditionally defined as “librarian” or “technologist”, much the same way faculty might identify with their academic discipline.  Most of them need to be convinced there is a reason to collaborate more and that it is worthwhile to do so.  (And some may never be convinced).  But it’s still a worthwhile undertaking.  Here’s why:

The need for information technology and library services continues to change at an accelerating rate.  Librarians and technologists are playing an increasingly important role within the overall context of student development in terms of achieving information literacy and technology fluency.  The source of value from the services provided by both librarians and technologists are beginning to fundamentally shift from provisioning information and technology to helping make optimal use of information and technology.  At the same time, there are unmet needs and anticipated changes driven by enrollment increases at many institutions, continued expectations of personalized service and an accelerating rate of technological change.  Both support organizations also face increasing variation in terms of when services are in demand, the nature of the requests themselves, and the differing capability or even willingness to make use of self-service offerings.  Personal preferences are often the subjective basis for opinions of whether or not students and faculty feel well treated.  These are the central challenges of managing both service operations and the reasons why library and IT collaborations are worthwhile.

But what’s the best approach?  Possibilities include:    

  1. Matching the collective expertise of Library and Information Technology Services staff through the natural outcome of a well designed and ongoing professional development program that results in even more integrated services (over time) that will be highly valued by students and faculty. 
  2. Bringing the combined staff together organizationally as a way to collectively improve services that will better support academic programs and magnify the combined group’s joint contribution to the institution’s mission.
  3. Identify a specific set of collaborations that small cross-functional teams self-organize around and define an action plan for.
  4. Other?

The preceding approaches (and others) could be used in combination or independent of one another.  But they cannot assure buy-in and a sustained commitment to advancing the goals of an agreed upon collaboration.  Should formal rewards or consequences be used to incent certain behaviors?  Or should more difficult to craft normative means be relied on?  Is the answer to the question “Why bother?” enough?     

Strategic Foresight

I participated in a mini workshop yesterday led by Dr. David Staley principal of The DStaley Group titled “Futures Thinking for Leaders” while attending the 2011 SunGard Executive Summit.  He’s also written a couple thought provoking articles for EDUCAUSE Review titled “Managing the Platform:  Higher Education and the Logic of Wikinomics” and “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education”.  During the mini workshop he shared “9 Habits of Mind for Futurists”:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Imagination
  3. What if?
  4. Openness to Change
  5. Sense Making
  6. Systems Thinking
  7. Peripheral Vision
  8. Challenge Assumptions
  9. Anti-Thinking

These characteristics of how futurists may think (in part) describe a frame of mind and some ways of developing strategic foresight that might help with imagining and articulating what to anticipate and plan for.  These traits were further outlined in a handout from the mini workshop (provided below with permission combined with some of my notes):

Curiosity:

  • Interest in something because it’s interesting
  • Interest in the surrounding environment
  • Broad intake of all forms of information (written, audio and visual) outside of one’s primary professional interests

Imagination:

  • Ability to project change onto a volume of space and time
  • To look at a situation and visualize it differently
  • Three types of imagination – 1) Reconstructive  2) Substitution  3) Creative

What if ?

  • Most important question futurists ask
  • To increase situational awareness
  • To enhance visioning
  • “What if students no longer demand higher education?”
  • “What if the TED model becomes a new way to deliver higher education?”

Openness to Change:

Consider the history of the environment

  • How was the organization different a generation ago?
  • What are those areas of the environment most susceptible to change? (“Slippable”)
  • Understanding of disruption, discontinuity
  • Understanding of different degrees/rates of change

Corallary:  Openess to continuity

Sense Making:

  • Not just acquisition of data and information from an environment
  • Implications assessment: projecting the potential effects of an event
  • Via your own curiosity, when noting an important change in your environment, asking “what does this mean?”

Systems Thinking:

A system: a set of things interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time

  • Complex behavior not simple
  • Non-predictable
  • Simultaneity, not linear cause and effect
  • Feedback loops
  • Individual elements part of a larger whole
  • Small changes can lead to big effects
  • Connections across separate domains

Peripheral Vision:

  • Ability to “imagine the unimaginable” (high impact low probability)

Challenge Assumptions:

  • Ability to identify “load bearing assumptions” in a system
  • “Always” and “Never” scenarios

Anti-thinking:  (barriers to creativity, innovation and change)

  • Tradition/convention/social norms “The way it has always been done”
  • Ideology:  Knowing the answers before the question is asked
  • Constitutions, laws, rules, regulations “What we’re allowed to do”
  • World view: a lens on the world
  • Benchmarking that is limited to imitating
  • Certainty: mental brittleness (versus “mental flexibility”)
  • Fear, Anger
  • Confusion, panic
  • Myths
  • Stereotypes

It seems to me that strategy formulated from the preceding characteristic traits of futurist thinking can lead to foresight that illuminates visionary possibilities.  Good stuff!