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Who is driving the influx of new technologies?

In a word: consumers. Having been a technology professional since the 70s, I find it fascinating that technologists today often know less about the overall technology landscape than ‘digital natives,’ those ordinary consumers driving the present digital revolution. This includes many staff in the business units we serve and their end users. I observe many with mobile devices, often smart ones with apps on them.

What a change from the halcyon days of old when we alone were the alchemists who transmuted the baser metals into the gold of our modern age, our sacred technology! Today the alchemy of technology is progressively the handiwork of everyman.

I can illustrate this change very indirectly with the following simple diagram, a depiction of the explosive growth in use of vendor technologies by three student services business units at Stanford University.

Vendor explosion

By rapidly deploying vendor technologies to transform their business processes, often deployed from the cloud, these units have developed their own systems literacy and established their own identity as information technologists. Business staff led the transformation, often with limited assistance from systems and more often than not without any IT support whatsoever. This transition was accompanied by a comparable increase in technological literacy among business staff – a literacy shared by many of their end-users in turn – the students, parents, and faculty served. Many of the staff accepted an offer to give up their landline phones for a smart phone, a move that only increased their technical literacy. (They also get the connection between the cloud and mobile apps, actual or potential.)

Do we call these business units presumptuous? Maverick? Have they perpetrated a violation of our sacred space as technologists?

Whatever! This genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t going back in!

The real question for technologists is: How the heck do we respond? A bad response is to simply ignore this sharp trend, disappear on our clients while we run our increasingly backend systems, and avoid engaging our clients. Introversion won’t help build the ‘IT value proposition’! An even worse response is to try to fight the trend. And by the way, our trying to pretend we can outperform vendors with our homegrown solutions will be seen for the desperate attempt it is – unless of course there's no other authentic way to achieve client needs or … we’re really, really talented.

I will argue that technologists have an important role to play today -- but one requiring our radical adaptation. Here are some options for consideration, which describe the nature of the adaptation I believe is required. Idealistic? Practical? Wrong-headed? Spot on? You be the judge.

Be helpful. Try becoming very active in helping your business units realize their possibilities as wisely as possible. Lend an active hand in tangible, hands-on ways, such as helping your business units identify vendor options and arranging vendor visits and presentations. Help them establish new system requirements that lead to wiser selections. Help by stitching together incoming technologies with existing ones into a patchwork technological quilt that can benefit many units across your institution. Help by supporting their funding proposals.

Be a low cost option. Support campus units with as many services as you can for free or at least very low cost, in the better interest of your institution. Do this by giving up unnecessary tasks and diverting your staff to active business unit engagement. As you facilitate the absorption of technology by your institution you will play a more valuable institutional role than if you try to hold on and control the empire you’ve built. One of the great paradoxes is that one’s power increases as one enables others to be powerful.

Walk the talk. Require IT staff to give up landlines for smart phones. Buy the phones and pay for the data plans. The trade-off: They’re available 7x24. Insist they download apps and learn to speak the language and mirror the practices of end users.

Become a facilitator. Our identity has long been based on our perception that we do things: develop, install, license, operate, upgrade, ….  A new possibility is to do less and facilitate more. For example, you can facilitate the uptake of technologies within business units and assist them in their technological maturation without doing a lot. This may require that we acquire new skill sets that we might not have. To be of value in the emerging world (read: to have a job) we’ll have to acquire / develop facilitation skills – please read my forthcoming ECAR Bulletin on that.

Be agile of mind, light of step. In an age when the technology will change before your carefully written strategic ink is dry, the last thing your institution needs from you is another exhaustive study of technological options. A great example is mobile technology. I am perplexed as I frequently read of the ‘need for an institutional mobile strategy’ and of consulting firms’ claims that they can help you build yours. The truth is we all have very limited experience in mobile technology to begin with! But what is our knee-jerk reaction to new things? Let’s study them! We can be so hopelessly … academic. Meanwhile, new technologies gush forth from the wellspring every day. And what’s more, these new technologies, particularly mobile, require active learning through rapid prototyping, experimenting, changing, and yes, failing. We can be so … serious. Let’s have a little fun again! We can be agile of mind, light of step, and strategic all at once!

Give success away. Our potential is fulfilled as we look outside ourselves, check our egos, facilitate the resourcefulness in others, and learn how to make them shine. As a species of tool builders, our human potential is helped along as we realize the vast possibilities for using technology to remake society. We don’t, we can’t, have all the answers ourselves. But as we learn to give each other an assist, the light of others’ successes will also shine on us.

How is the mobile-aware, consumer mindset affecting you, your staff, and the role of IT at your institution?


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