Monday, June 2, 2014

Scale

If you’re a CIO or other senior level IT leader and you’re not actively looking to get out of the IT business, chances are you’re not doing your job right.

Economic challenges are driving systematic changes in higher education. Some might call it outsourcing and others might refer to it as shared services. For far too many, those words can refer to a loss of control and autonomy that appears disruptive to organizations, as it potentially leads to the loss of both service quality and jobs. At the University of Texas, over 100 faculty members signed a petition objecting to a University plan to consolidate common administrative functions – IT included – in order to save millions of dollars annually. Similar initiatives at other institutions, including the University of Michigan and the SUNY system, are underway and have encountered similar opposition.

The positive outcomes from these sorts of initiatives can be often overlooked. At my University of Georgia, when implementing the Banner student information system, we chose to host the system in our own data center but we contracted with Ellucian for system administration, upgrades, database administration, and support of the software. Our own IT staff focus on working with our business offices to use the Banner software, while the more routine “IT centric” tasks are managed by Ellucian. This strategy has been a resounding success, and as tough as the implementation has been, the operation and reliability of the software – even when registering 20,000+ students for courses – have never been in question.

Leaders in higher education need to drop the word “outsourcing” and the phrase “shared services” from their vocabularies, as the issue driving these new service delivery approaches is the need for greater scalability. Ellucian is administering Banner for the University of Georgia simply because they can provide better economies of scale when it comes to software and database expertise than we can create ourselves. The need for greater scalability has led us to take similar approaches with other projects.
  • Microsoft now runs UGA’s 120,000+ email accounts out of their Office 365 service, simply because they can provide greater reliability and service performance by aggregating our accounts along with those of thousands of their other customers. The outcome is far greater services to our faculty, students, and staff at a much lower cost.
  • UGA’s new learning management system (LMS), Desire2Learn, is hosted and administered by the University System of Georgia as a part of a multi-tenant instance of the software. As a result, three UGA full-time IT professionals now focus on support and faculty, instead of administering and taking care of the software.
  • New academic information systems for housing and facility activity information are hosted in Amazon’s Web Services Cloud, with software and system administration responsibilities provided by DLT Solutions. By leveraging the economies of scale provided by Amazon and DLT, implementation of these new systems no longer requires purchasing servers, configuring, and supporting them. We anticipate taking a similar approach next year, as we begin moving hundreds of University web sites off-premises under a similar model.
For IT organizations, these changes can be disruptive if not handled right. Taking advantage of better economies of scale doesn’t mean that our organization’s role is diminished – quite the contrary. But instead of focusing on technology, we focus on people and their use of technology – and that’s a far greater value add than anything we provided before. And that is what higher education institutions need from IT leaders and their organizations today. Developing strong skills and competencies in this area is a surefire way for IT staff to supercharge their careers for the next ten years or more.

How can higher education leaders pick and choose among the myriad of opportunities to leverage greater economies of scale? Here are a couple of criteria to consider.
  • Is the service asset-based (technical, content, or process)? Then look for ways to create better economies of scale, either internally by standardizing the service across decentralized units or externally by working with others outside the institution, including commercial partners.
  • Is the service connection-based; that is to say, is greater human connection an intrinsic or expected good? If so, those are the services that are best delivered in-house using staff resources whose knowledge of institutional history, culture, and context enhances the value of the service delivered.
Far too often, disruption occurs when connection-based services are converted into asset-based services, and the resulting loss of human connection (or fear thereof) diminishes the value of the service as greater economies of scale are realized. All too often, such attempts fail to deliver the efficiencies promised, as the positives of greater scale are diminished by loss of human connectedness. That’s why I have remained skeptical of online instructional technologies when used in a way that reduces the significance of the faculty–student relationship. While greater economies of scale may be realized, the learning experiences of our students, I believe, are ultimately less valuable than what higher education has traditionally provided.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Annual Planning Memorandum for the Next Academic Year (2014 - 2015)

Each year, at the end of the academic year, I prepare an annual planning memorandum for the IT organizations reporting to my office. This will be my third annual planning memorandum since I began my tenure at the University of Georgia in 2011. The goal of this annual memorandum is to highlight for the record our successes over the past year, discuss our progress towards our strategic goals, present our organizational priorities for the next year, and share my thoughts on challenges and opportunities that I see along the way. This year's memorandum was recently distributed at the University of Georgia and is available to others by following the link below.

Annual Planning Memorandum for the Next Academic Year (2014 - 2015)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Flinch and Other Traps

Everything that IT leaders do involves a negotiation in one way or another. Yet, focusing on negotiation skills is one of the last things we do when thinking about the professional development needs of our organizations.

Once, while thumbing through a magazine on a cross-country flight, I noticed an advertisement featuring a very distinguished-looking gentleman named Chester Karrass, whose testimonial stated, “In business as in life, you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.” Seeing this ad several times before, I decided “why not” and signed up for a Karrass negotiating seminar. While the content of the workshop was predominantly focused on buying and selling, what stuck with me was how applicable it was to the negotiations regarding the expectations and resources that IT leaders face every day.

This semester, one of my reading clubs – a group of mid-career IT professionals at the University of Georgia – is reading Karrass’s In Business as in Life, You Don’t Get What You Deserve; You Get What You Negotiate. But our group is less focused on buying and selling than on applying Karrass’s principles of negotiation to day-to-day discussions regarding expectations and resources between IT organizations and those they serve. All too often, the root cause of major IT failures has less to do with technical competence and is more likely to be rooted in a mismatch between user expectations and available resources – often the result of a negotiation that didn’t turn out well for the IT organization. Faring well in negotiations is key to avoiding a self-reinforcing cycle of over-commitment and underperformance, which destroys IT leadership credibility and leads to a downward spiral of deteriorating IT service performance.

Karrass’s point is that there are time-tested strategies for better outcomes in any negotiation, and his book’s Chapter 11 highlights two of the more common demand-and-offer tactics that often cause IT leaders to overcommit their organizations.
  • The Flinch – involves the use of body language such as arm gestures, shoulder shrugs, or other hand movements when expressing concern over an offer. Perhaps building, testing, and putting a new IT feature into place would ideally take a month, given other commitments. In response to that offer by the IT leadership, there comes significant concern or even disbelief that something so simple could possibly take so long, and that such a delay would negatively impact a business operation. A flinch, in this case, puts the IT leadership on the defensive, as they feel that they must relieve the obvious concern by defending why their offer is reasonable. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will often overcommit in order to save face, given the obvious expression of concern.
  • The Planning Purpose Trap – involves a request from someone for a rough estimate of time or cost to accomplish some IT-related objective. The person asks for a “rough ballpark estimate” for planning purposes should an initiative be requested later. Wanting to be helpful, the IT leadership makes some quick assumptions about what this initiative is, how it will impact current operations, how much time is required for completion, and how it fits in with other commitments – assumptions that many times prove to be way off. Only later, when the client makes the full request, do IT leaders dig into the actual requirements and discover that their original estimate was way too low – hence the trap. When pressed in this way, the IT leader will again overcommit in order to regain credibility lost when the original estimate was way off.
Ultimately, all conversations around expectations and resources are negotiations, but that does not mean that the individuals we work with are competitors or adversaries; they most certainly are not. All of us – those in IT and in the broader university community – are feeling the pressures of growing demands on higher education at a time when there are fewer and fewer resources. Stronger collaborations – looking for win-win solutions for both IT and those who depend on IT – is key to mutual long-term success.

For IT leaders, when negotiating with others regarding services you deliver, here’s how to keep the negotiation on a path to a win-win outcome.
  • Focus on understanding and meeting needs and not wants.
  • When listening, try listening to understand and not to respond.
When looking for win-win negotiations, there’s no better solution than to proceed with an eye toward understanding the true needs of those you work with – and the best way to accomplish that is through asking good questions and listening. Other tips for win-win negotiations include: understanding IT’s present constraints; knowing the difference between IT’s true needs and wants; investing in preparation by writing down questions or ideas that may lead to win-win outcomes; and bringing others to the discussion who can help you listen and understand better.

IT success – the kind that we all desire for our institutions – flows from the alignment of expectations and resources. The more that IT leaders understand that managing expectations requires negotiation – albeit sometimes difficult ones – the better their organizations will perform when it comes to meeting expectations and delivering value that goes above and beyond those expectations.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Operations – Concierge Divide

Of all the things I get to do at the University of Georgia, one of my favorites is my lunchtime reading clubs, which are groups of mid-career IT professionals who get together regularly to discuss an interesting book. Typically, half of each club’s members come from EITS, the central IT organization on campus, and the other half comes from UGA’s schools, colleges, or other units. This semester, one of the clubs is reading Gene Kim’s (@RealGeneKim) The Phoenix Project, and it is leading us through some very productive conversations on what service-oriented cultures really are – and more importantly, what they are not.

Broadly defined, a service-oriented culture can be said to be a set of beliefs and behaviors of a particular group, directed at activities that are deemed helpful to others. Within the context of IT organizations, those beliefs and behaviors typically revolve around being:
  • Reliable – seen as dependable, trustworthy, accurate, and infallible
  • Consistent – seen as adhering to the same principles, actions, and outcomes
  • Proactive – seen as prepared and controlled, especially when things are not going well
  • Responsive – seen as responding in a sympathetic or favorable way
Martha Heller (@MarthaHeller) talks about the paradoxes of IT leadership – and one that our reading group has identified involves one of the basic challenges of our profession; that is, from the viewpoint of IT professionals, service-oriented cultures are about IT services that are reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive. But from the viewpoint of those who work outside the IT organization, service-oriented cultures are about IT staff support that is reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive. We might call this paradox the Operations–Concierge Divide because efforts directed at the latter, if performed absent sound operating principles and practices, has the potential to disrupt the former. That is to say, IT organizations under pressure to be immediately responsive to unregulated end user requests can find it more difficult to deliver IT services that are reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive.

The story of The Phoenix Project speaks to this paradox. The driving force behind missed deadlines, service delivery failures, or unmet expectations is not technical incompetence, lack of supervision, or poor leadership, but unregulated work in progress. Failure to properly manage demand for services through sound project, change, and demand management techniques will create the conditions for poor service delivery. Every IT professional has felt the tension between working on planned tasks versus having to immediately respond to someone who has screamed loudly or dropped the name of someone high above the CIO. That pressure is doubly worse when one has to drop planned tasks to respond to an outage or to fix a major service defect.

The paradox of the operations–concierge divide is that efforts to be immediately responsive to unregulated end user demands results in a reactive IT culture whose performance spirals downward because of the cycle of over-commitment and underperformance. The only way to escape this downward trend is to place a moratorium on the introduction of new work into the system, so that the entire system can catch up and reduce the amount of work in progress. That typically requires an intervention of some sort – either new leadership or executive support that comes right from the top.

The trick to building a proper service oriented culture – one that is characterized by reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive IT services – is to avoid spiraling into the cycle of over-commitment and underperformance in the first place; and the way to do that is to not say no over and over, but build into the organization the proper project, change, and demand management processes for regulating the flow of work. That means investigating and learning about ITIL and other standard processes, and applying some of the lessons learned from The Phoenix Project. These include:
  • Recognize that performance improvements are truly possible only when applied at the constraints that are negatively impacting the flow of work through the organization. Improvements at other places will do little to improve overall service quality.
  • Identify and protect the critical resources in the organization, and do everything possible to make sure they are not dragged into serving ad hoc requests on demand. 
  • Control the flow of work by proactively deciding what work that is to be accomplished, as opposed to letting that be dictated by the tone and volume of ad hoc requests. That requires governance, which is key to deciding which projects should be deferred.
Controlling the flow of work throughout the IT organization is the key to building a service-oriented IT culture that is well regarded for reliable, consistent, proactive, and responsive IT services. Resolving the operations–concierge divide is another one of those paradoxes of IT leadership that are crucial for IT leaders to learn to overcome.