Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Day with Richard Hunter

On Thursday, Pepperdine’s IT Leadership Council held its annual retreat. Each fall, the council members are given a book to read that becomes the focus of the retreat. This year, the reading assignment was Real Business of IT: How CIOs Create and Communicate Value (2009). The author, Richard Hunter, joined us for the retreat and led the discussion.

Our discussion dovetailed quite nicely with the framework established in “Technical Skills No Longer Matter” and “A Roadmap for IT Leadership and the Next Ten Years”; namely, that the value proposition for IT organizations and individual contributors can no longer be defined and framed from within a technology centric view of the world. Our value is best articulated in an outcomes-centered view of the world that is framed around end user expectations, needs, and goals.

Other key takeaways from the discussion include:

First, our mindset must change. Moving from a technology centric view of the world to an outcomes view of the world, while easy to state as a goal, is very difficult to live out on a day-to-day basis. For example, we should stop seeing our colleagues throughout the institution as end users or customers and instead see them as our colleagues and peers. Another example might be to stop thinking about administrative systems as ERP deployments (instead of business process improvement initiatives) or network upgrade projects as, well, network upgrade projects (as opposed to increased collaboration initiatives). But, try dropping the terms end users, customers, ERP, or network connectivity from your strategic plans, your project charters, and your day-to-day vocabulary. It’s tough. Nevertheless, it’s necessary if we are to move away from the technology centric view of the world that limits the value proposition of IT and relegates it to commodity status.

Second, never separate cost from the concept of value. Far too often, we talk about the costs of IT services without putting them within the context of the quality of the service or the value derived from it. During our discussion, my mind harked back to a discussion that I had in 2007 with our CFO when attempting to justify the costs for a new Storage Area Network (SAN). Over and over, he would say, “I don’t understand why your disk storage costs are over $3 a gigabyte, when I can go down to Best Buy and buy a 500 gig hard drive for $50.” I finally said to him, “Well, if you want to store your general ledger on a USB drive plugged into your computer, with no additional backups available if the drive fails or if the building burns down, we can do that for you for about .10 a gig.” Finally, I got around to talking about quality of service and value – and he got it. The point – lead these conversations with the discussion of quality and value and not with the concept of cost. Leading with the latter relegates your efforts to commodity status every time.

Finally, show the value of an IT investment as an investment in business performance – either operationally or financially. Our VOIP implementation is about increasing collaboration opportunities between faculty, students, and staff, particularly for our programs delivered as a hybrid (part online, half face-to-face). Our Xythos disk storage project is about collecting, analyzing, and distributing unstructured content and data related to student learning outcomes. Lastly, our data warehousing initiatives are about creating and distributing key performance indicators in a proactive fashion to decision-makers across the institution.

The point is, by defining IT investments as performance investments, we keep the focus on the transformative power of information technology within higher education. If we continue to maintain a technology centric view of the world, manifested through the way we see ourselves within the institution, the ways in which we articulate what we do and why, and the ways in which we approach both challenges and new opportunities alike, we will find ourselves left out of key discussions across the institution. More seriously, a disproportionate share of expense reduction efforts will be expected of IT.

The challenge is – we must go beyond casual acceptance of these principles and start living them out day-to-day, one conversation at a time, across our institutions. That is the real work for IT organizations in higher education today.

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