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The Case for Strategic IT Leadership

February 21st, 2009 jonmott Comments

Lev Gonick, a friend and the CIO of Case Western, is the author of a piece in that appeared today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about IT leadership at colleges and universities. It’s a thoughtful, provocative piece which, coupled with a previous piece about leadership in the “wiki-way,” provides an excellent set of principles and directions for university IT leaders.

IT leaders must play an increasingly strategic–and not simply a tactical–role at colleges and universities. Accordingly, I agree with Lev’s assertion that IT leaders deserve a central, strategic role in presidential cabinets at colleges and universities. However, you have to have the right kinds of people (people like Lev) in these positions if that is what you expect of them. The day is past that we can consider IT merely a “support function” of the university. If we think of it as simply auxiliary, we will miss significant opportunities to transform (for the better!) our practices through strategic (not simply tactical) IT initiatives.

I would however, make one addition to Lev’s list of strategic directions for IT, and I’d put it at the top of the list. CIO’s should take an active role in working with the academic community to create a more a flexible, open, integrated toolset to support authentic teaching & learning activities. Our current tools help us manage courses and grades, but we can and must do much more than that to meet the challenges of educating the rising generation.

It is not enough to provide faculty & students with tools to manage the activities that occur inside semester-long courses. That might have been sufficient 5-10 years ago, but it is not today. Today, we need tools that allow students to build relationships with each other, with their teachers and with the content they access. Just as importantly, we need to support students’ creation of new content in the learning process and the discourse around that content. And we need to proactively build bridges between the tools we build, license and provide and the larger, often more dynamic online world in which our students live. CIO’s, IT personnel, and academic technologists must be critical players in the conception, creation, and implementation of tools that support such activities. Otherwise, we’re likely to see repeats past failed technology implementations that were tactically sound but that missed the mark because they were not strategically aligned with the mission of institution.

Beginning with the End in Mind

 When I think about technology, I always think about problems. Not problems with the technology itself, but about problems that technology can be used to solve. Far too often we technologists get enamored with a cool new technology (”It’s shiny!”) and we immediately begin looking for something to do with it. “Hey, this cool new hammer would work as a bottle opener if you hold it just right!”

 

But alas, a very long list of bad teaching & learning technology implementations can be cited to demonstrate why the “solution looking for a problem” approach is a bad idea. When I was an instructional designer at BYU’s Center for Instructional Design (now the Center for Teaching & Learning), I constantly fought this battle with faculty members who would come to the Center and announce that they needed a DVD, a website, an immersive 3D simulation, or some other such instructional technology creation. I would politely nod and we’d have a conversation that went something like this:

 

ME: Okay, so we can build the best (fill in the blank) possible, can you explain to me exactly what it is about your course that’s not going the way you want?

 

FACULTY: What do you mean?

 

ME: Well, once we’ve built (fill in the blank), what should be better about your course? Better yet, what should your students know or be able to do that they currently don’t?

 

FACULTY: Well, that’s a good question. What they really lack is . . .

 

From there, we’d spend some time talking about student learning and what the faculty member could do to better facilitate it. Then we’d explore how (fill in the blank) would help students learn better or faster. As often as not, we’d decide not to build (fill in the blank). Instead, we’d tweak some things in the course and build something else more appropriate to the problem the faculty member was trying to solve.

 

Based on experiences like this, I’ve developed a very simple approach to teaching and learning technology, academic technology and technology in general. Simply put, a technology is only as useful as the problems it solves. The trick for technologists, then, is to always begin with the end in mind. We have to get focused on the problem we’re trying to solve and stay focused on it. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “What am I trying to fix or improve? How will I be able to tell when I’ve succeeded?”

 

Once we know what we’re trying to improve, we have an objective. Let’s call it a “goal.” With our goal firmly in mind, we can then move to strategy formulation. I think of a strategy as a long-term plan of action focused on achieving a goal. From strategy we can then move to specific tactics or operational activities aimed at implementing the strategy.

 

Let me make this more concrete. Let’s say that the faculty and administrators on a campus are concerned that they’re using up too much classroom time on administrivia, e.g. collecting and returning papers, administering quizzes, etc. A GOAL aimed at addressing this problem would be to reduce time spent on administrivia during class time. One possible STRATEGY for accomplishing this GOAL would be to move most class-administrative activities to an online environment where they could be completed outside of regular class time. One possible TACTIC for implementing this STRATEGY would be to make a particular online course management system (CMS) available for faculty members and students.

 

The beauty of this approach is that it drives both goal-driven technology implementations (tactics) AND straightforward evaluations of those implementations. Was a technology implementation effective? That question can now be answered, first and foremost, by answering another question: Was the goal accomplished? If the problem is less severe or even non-existent after the strategy and tactics were implemented, you can declare success. If the goal wasn’t accomplished, at least you learned that the tactic (and perhaps the strategy) you picked didn’t work.

 

Admittedly, this is a simplistic approach to technology planning and evaluation. But it has served me well and I’ll continue to rely on it until something better comes along. The bottom line? Technology should be used to make the world a better place. If we’re not able to demonstrate exactly how and to what extent technology is improving things, all were left with is, “It’s shiny!”