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Rethinking the IT Core

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Key Takeaways

  • To align with the rest of the institution, IT departments should focus on supporting the core processes of teaching, learning, research, and public service.
  • IT responsibilities mapped against readiness and affinity to the core fall into two categories: those supporting the business of IT, and those supporting the purpose of IT.
  • Organizing IT along these lines, into its business and its purpose, allows serving the academic mission independently of business obligations.

A colleague recently handed me the September 2008 issue of Campus Technology and directed me to the short article “Cut to the Core.” In it, Adrian Sannier, the university technology officer at Arizona State University, describes IT in academe as less e-mail servers and Ethernet cables and more a world where teaching and learning are “core processes.” Everything else is context, says Sannier, and “it is the elimination of context that liberates the resources to do everything else.”

I, too, had come to the conclusion that we in the IT area of higher education are not here to passively support teaching, learning, research, and public service by providing IT infrastructure and hardware. We are here to actively drive teaching, learning, research, and public service by immersing ourselves in the education of our students. My professional raison d’être is to advance teaching and scholarship by contributing more intellectually and less technically to my university. I want to concentrate less on servers and wires and more on the content and information that is stored on these servers and traverses these wires. Sannier’s article confirmed my perspective.

Classification of Roles by Quadrant

After reading Sannier’s article, I began rethinking the fundamental role of IT in the academic enterprise. I looked over our IT department’s mission and vision statements, as well as our strategic directions and initiatives associated with those strategic directions. I did the same for the IT departments at our aspirant and peer institutions as well.

As I began listing and categorizing specific responsibilities of IT in the academic enterprise as indicated by this survey of IT departments, two major themes emerged:

  • Readiness
  • Affinity to the core

The campus expectation is that certain IT services will always be on, 24 hours a day, with little disruption of service (readiness). At the same time, the IT department is expected to provide services that contribute directly to the core mission of teaching and learning (affinity to the core).

In the process of correlating readiness with affinity to the core, I devised the grouping of IT roles shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Mapping IT Services to Readiness and Affinity to the Core

An interesting dichotomy emerges from these quadrants. On the left, quadrants 1 and 4 list services/roles generally related to the business of IT. On the right, quadrants 2 and 3 list services/roles that pertain more to the purpose of IT in the academic enterprise.

An Organizational View for IT

What if we organized IT along these lines, aligning the business and purpose of IT separately? For example:

  • Put the IT services representing the business of IT in the hands of a chief technology officer reporting to the chief financial officer.
  • Put the IT services representing the purpose of IT in the hands of a chief information officer reporting to the chief academic officer.

With this alignment, the business of IT can be run like a business. Cost savings will most surely result as resource allocation and sourcing for those resources become a part of the entire institution’s fiscal environment. Business decisions for IT can be made in the context of business decisions for the entire enterprise. IT goods and services become another commodity, benefiting from volume purchases and streamlined purchasing processes that are no different from other institutional purchases. And to conclude the win-win alignment scenario, separating the purpose of IT from the business of IT allows the academic mission to be served independently of the constraints of business obligations. Those who contribute technically have the opportunity to do so, concentrating on designing a cost-effective and efficient IT infrastructure that can fully support the needs of the institution. Those who contribute intellectually by delivering content and information that is processed, transmitted, and stored on this infrastructure are allowed to do so without concerning themselves with the business of IT. The context is not necessarily eliminated, just properly aligned.

So how do we go about the task of effecting this alignment? The conversations must begin at the top among open-minded senior administrators willing to view the function of IT according to these two distinct categories. A business case offered by the CFO compatible with a clearly defined vision of the academic purpose of IT articulated by the CAO will foster the collaboration necessary for the success of this cross-functional alignment. It will then be incumbent upon the president of the institution to present the overall case with attendant benefits to affected constituencies, including administrators and faculty.

This structure further refines the definitions of IT services and roles, separating the business of IT from the purpose of IT and allowing IT to best support the core responsibility of the institution: teaching and learning.

Figure 2

Figure 2. A Proposed Organizational Structure for the CTO and CIO

Albert DeSimone

As a former Communications Officer at the University of Georgia specializing in Information Technology, I have had the wonderful opportunity of assisting students, faculty, and staff with Web-related projects. I began working with online information delivery systems soon after joining my former employer,the University of Georgia,on June 14, 1983. Even though access methods have changed--from a command line interface on an IBM mainframe to the point-and-click Web browser--fundamental principles haven't changed. I still consider myself an information broker, just on a much grander scale than I ever imagined.

I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia in 1977 with a B.A. in English. I had planned to go to law school, but decided against it. So I stayed at UGA and received my M.A. in 1980 (also in English). I have presented papers at several regional and national conferences over the years, most on issues of document management and information delivery. Articles I have written have been recognized by the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on University and College Computing Services.

I was born in Scranton, PA, in 1955. My family moved to Carrollton, Georgia, 4 years later. I grew up there, leaving to attend college in Athens, GA. I liked it so much that I stayed and now live in Athens with my lovely wife, Brigitte, and our two fine boys, Wylam and Billy, and am often visted by my two other fine boys from a previous marriage, Daniel and Steven.



1 Comment

Let's Not Cut Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde In Two!


My good colleague, Bert, has so many great ideas about organizational aspects of higher education IT (HEIT) and has shared these with me occaisonally. I shared my reflections on this article with him and am posting them here for others to see. 
Bert's classification of attributes is good. However, there are many alternative solutions for resolving the dichotomy of left-brain/right- brain differences. I believe it is a hasty rush to closure to assume that the naturally bilateral HEIT organism must be disected and then articulated outside of itself. I would argue that the "new generation" CIO function is intentionally designed (and hired) as a synthesizing, bilingual mediator between these two domains. I believe the ultimate goal is holistic functionality, with the CIO performing a linkage between the two worlds that Bert has labelled "business of" and "purpose of" HEIT. I suggest that those who exhibit the tendency to gravitate toward disection have had bad experience in finding a holistic, bilateral and "bilingual" CIO. For many HEIT CIOs, their personal professional goal is to be one of these rare finds. In fact, this is the grand challenge for today for a higher education CIO: demonstrate efficacy in such a mediator/articulator role. We must understand both what "IT purpose" and "IT business" we are managing and how best to manifest the benefits of synthesis and alignment. 
Please! - let's not disect our poor lab subject when a living animal can be enjoyed for what it does naturally and gracefully! I would agree that the effective articulator would surround him/herself with more specialized leaders to manage the proper domains that Bert has identified. The CIO leader's role is to coach these specialists and broaden their perspectives, thereby seeing into their otherwise specific unveiwable dimensions. By helping all see the beauty of diversity across specialization areas and the quadrants of Bert's diagram, the bilateral HEIT CIO demonstrates her/his leadership.
Many of the disappointing environments I have seen are when a CIO tends to gravitate too heavily toward a left-brain, numerically quantitative management strategy. Often this ends up with the CIO becoming too business-like or analytical, and in some cases adopting the defensive strategy of always documenting itemized costs and why IT can't do services. On the other extreme, I have seen CIO's that swerved too extremely toward the right-brain side and only focus on qualitative expression of pleasant needs. In these cases they become too immersed in academic issues and lose their management sharpness. Balance is everything. Splitting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into two half individuals may be the only solution in some severley imbalanced or dysfunctional situations. But resolving the dichotomy by blending and balancing both components still seems to make more sense to me!

Posted by: reid on August 20, 2009


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