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The Vicious Cycle of "Blaming" IT Professionals: Breaking the Pattern

Michael Eleey
Associate Vice Provost, Information Systems & Computing
University of Pennsylvania

Lynn Oppenheim
Vice President
Center for Applied Research

Today, information technology (IT) professionals often pay a psychic cost for staying in higher education. They are often viewed as incompetent, unhelpful or unresponsive. This paper explores the resulting vicious cycle: IT expectations exceed IT resources. Users are disappointed by IT professionals. IT professionals feel unappreciated and become more open to external job offers. Many of the professionals leave and less experienced people take their places. The quality of service declines further.

You've hired the best technical minds you could find. You've seen these people work nights and weekends. You've watched them try to solve big problems with small resources. But what you hear from the EVP or the Provost is that the faculty is unhappy, administrative projects don't seem to get done, and when someone calls the help line they never get a person. The word on the street is that IT professionals say it's not their job, they don't keep time commitments and they can't solve the problem anyway.

These attitudes are not invisible to your staff--they feel overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated, powerless to change the forces around them. The only motivation this provides is the motivation to leave. When experienced service providers leave, it is hard to replace them. Those who do remain are often the ones less skilled. Customers get more dissatisfied. This vicious cycle leaves people, as individuals, feeling powerless.

What can you do that won't make matters worse? Imagine a staff meeting where you report the words of your boss to your staff. Everyone might just walk out the door to that consulting firm or about-to-be-IPO that's offered twice as much money.

What we are confronting here is "personalizing" the failure of the system. Faculty and administrators often don't have enough resources to support the IT needs effectively. However, they don't blame the "they" of the university, rather the people closest at hand, the support providers. So, to think about what would work, we need to look not at solutions for individuals, but systems solutions. What can we do to break the cycle of blame? And, increase the willingness of talented people to stay within the university?

We describe below a "systems perspective" to analyze the forces that create the vicious cycle and an approach to get beyond fighting fires. We identify two kinds of efforts to improve the situation: (1) Creating a shared perspective, an initiative that is most effective if authorized from the top of the organization and (2) Redesigning specific aspects of the system. When taken together, these efforts provide for authentic accountability, not inappropriate blame, both for IT professionals and for those who use their services.

Systems perspective

When we adopt a systems perspective, we look for the underlying forces that contribute to the creation of many small problems. The first of these forces is a lack of clear priorities; the difficulty that many universities have in putting one project ahead of another. The second is the discrepancy between the cost containment goals of many universities and the need for significant investments in IT. Lastly, universities now share their role in technology innovation with many other entities who compete for those who want to work at the leading edge. Each of these forces is discussed briefly below.

Universities have difficulty in setting clear priorities. This difficulty, we believe, goes to the heart of the university's mission, and is not easy to overcome. Universities are hot beds of innovation. One of the things that we know about innovation is that it is often hard to tell which project will prove valuable. The university approach is to encourage many ideas to bubble up, to not judge one potential contribution over another. While this may work well for research and instruction, it creates problems for infrastructure and support provision. Many IT providers find that they are implicitly (or explicitly) making decisions about the relative merits of technology investments and support.

Although information technology is widely recognized as central to the function of universities, it is often difficult for senior administrators to adopt a "return on investment" approach to the IT function while other functions are cut back. Capital investments in IT hardware and software are very large purchases that put additional pressure on cost containment in other areas. These tensions are exacerbated by very different labor markets for most university personnel and those within the IT function as well as by the explosive growth in demand for IT support. Budgets are often contested as people argue from very different frameworks about what kinds of investment and expenses are necessary and appropriate. Compensation levels for IT professionals are often experienced by them as inadequate, while at the same time seen by others as outside the range applied to everyone else.

One form of compensation that has historically attracted talented IT people was the opportunity to work at the leading edge of the technology. Universities may be at the leading edge, but they no longer own that edge. Innovation is outside the university as well as inside, and that helps pull talented IT professionals away from the academy.

When you confront a systems problem, it is important to adopt a systems solution to the problem. In this case, it means creating a shared perspective across the university so that IT professionals are working with administrators and faculty rather than for them. It is this shared perspective that will create the context that enables you to address problems.

1. Creating a shared perspective

Many senior administrators in universities recognize the importance of technology in their institutions, but lack the technical expertise to directly assess for themselves the performance of their CIO or IT managers. It's unclear what they should monitor--but they can't ignore the complaints.

For other administrators, IT is expensive and adds to the "tax" imposed by the university or school. While they may need to build budgets, they don't always understand their choices. We hear, "The IT organization provides cost data for my technology budget--but I don't understand it. All I know is that it never seems to work the way it's supposed to." This distancing from understanding makes it difficult for these administrators to know how to hold IT managers accountable.

While not being accountable may seem at first blush to be desirable from the IT perspective, sooner or later it leads to blame. In an earlier world with plenty of resources, the mystique of technology might have been worth sustaining. It allowed IT providers the autonomy to solve the most interesting problems. They were able to set strategies and priorities for themselves.

In today's environment of fiscal constraint, however, IT benefits from bringing the issues from musty corners into the bright sunlight of participation. Autonomous decision making becomes a trap. When decisions about funding and priorities are seen as secret and political, it's easy for distrust to develop and expectations to get out of whack. Open discussion that shapes those decisions helps rebuild trust across different parts of the community and can also clarify expectations. Clear expectations are needed to set limits on the unbounded demand for IT service and support in a world with quite bounded resources.

Participation in IT decision making is not by itself a panacea. From the perspective of academic and administrative managers, incentives are often needed to engage in IT as a personal management responsibility. From the IT manager's perspective, it may seem that clear expectations make it more difficult to act autonomously. But tighter linkages are needed to make the system work.

Getting participation is not easy. Committees and task forces abound in the university--often with little real impact. Giving a group a problem to solve, a timeframe within which to solve it, and continued support throughout the process makes a difference in the success of an initiative.

We've had good experiences at a number of universities in creating "flexible infrastructure" for participating in IT decision making. Task force structures, composed of faculty, administrators and IT providers who come together for a limited period of time to address a particular problem, can create the stage on which open discussions can happen. When CIOs or other senior administrators authorize these groups to solve problems, and their time together is structured effectively, productive dialogue ensues. Roles within this flexible infrastructure are shown in Table 1.

At the top of the chart are the executive sponsors, senior administrators and academic leaders whose role is to authorize and launch effort that help groups develop a shared perspective. For example, one group of executive sponsors convened a task force with the following directive, "You have nine months to decide how to organize IT support across the university. If you have been unable to do so, we will decide." In another situation, a Provost and EVP gave the following charge, "We have agreed to centralize support for IT. Your job is to figure out how." In still another university, the executive sponsors were more remote from the process. Their position was that they had hired a new CIO, the person the community had chosen, and that IT providers and users had to help the CIO make the necessary changes.

In a complicated process, where people take up different kinds of responsibilities, it's important to have a core group of people who are committed to making sure the process comes to fruition. The task force leaders, often supported by outside consultants, design and drive the process and make sure things remain on track.

The task force itself looks more like the traditional university task force. It includes stakeholder representatives from across the university. In decentralized universities, there may be some large and some small schools, some wealthy departments and others lacking in resources. Not every small school or wealthy department needs to be represented; rather, you need to have people who bring that perspective into the room. This enables you to have "the system in the room."

Task force members both represent their constituents but also integrate perspectives across the university. Not only are they integrating the politics of the university, they are also integrating work from various focused task efforts. They carry out the task integration by participating in one or more work teams, by bringing the full task-force perspective to that work, and by bringing the work-team perspective back to the full group.

Each work team focuses on a particular problem. The choice of problems depends on the circumstances. For example, in the university group whose charge was to centralize IT support and services, one of the work teams was a budget team. This team focused on how to pay for central IT support in a decentralized, cost center framework. They knew that they needed to provide a stable, predictable base and that IT costs were likely to grow rather than shrink. Without a stable way to pay for services, the centralization effort would resurface with every new budget cycle. In another university, one of the key issues was to create more awareness of academic technology, particularly web support for courses. They configured a work team to figure out how to coordinate web support for courses that would allow users and units to learn from each other. In still another university, they put in place a communication strategy so that they could overcome a sense of distrust that had developed over a period of years.

Using this framework, individuals take a particular role in the process that builds on their interests and concerns. Not everyone involved in the process need be at every meeting. In addition to the participation structure described above, others in the university community can contribute in focus groups, web sites, interviews and so on. Focus on key issues, integration across issues, and the link to implementation work well when IT providers solve problems with faculty and administrators instead of for them.

The shared perspective that comes out of participation enables you to address particular tactical concerns more effectively. Both users and providers of IT service understand the goals and constraints that guide particular decisions. Once the systems issues are made explicit, people can talk directly about how to balance different concerns rather than taking strong positions based on very different assumptions.

2. Targeted redesign

Whether or not a campus embraces the top-down participatory approach discussed above, there are a number of concrete areas that can be addressed to improve aspects of the campus IT service provision system. We focus here on four factors that: 1) affect our ability to provide appropriate compensation; 2) help match supply and demand for service; 3) prevent fires and; 4) support professional development.


There is a tight labor market for IT personnel today. At the same time, in most universities there is a push to contain costs, including compensation. There are, of course, non-financial rewards traditionally associated with working in higher education, including better employee benefits, job interest, autonomy and flexibility. However, even if these perceived rewards continue to be greater in the university setting--an assumption that is today under challenge from the marketplace--there is a danger if the monetary differential between the university compensation structure and that of the local market becomes too large.

In Table 2, we identify four common problems and potential solutions for each.

We all feel at a significant disadvantage with respect to the IT labor market these days, and we usually believe that our salary structure is not close to that of the market. However, at a number of universities we know about, objective salary surveys of the relevant regional labor markets indicated that universities were much closer to that scale than anticipated, usually within 10 percent of the prevailing scale for particular IT jobs in the area. This difference alone is not adequate to explain the problems we have with retention and recruitment of IT staff.

In the area of benefits, higher education's reputation is that benefits are very generous. However, the standard benefits package doesn't have the same value for every employee. For example, young employees do not derive the full benefit from tuition support programs for dependents, especially since they rarely stay in one job long enough to take advantage of those. Thus, some institutions are adopting a flexible or cafeteria approach to benefits. This approach, common in industry, gives individual employees benefit selection options so that they can maximize the value of a benefit package for themselves. When this happens, we get overall a better value from our benefit dollars in terms of employee satisfaction without materially increasing our total benefit costs.

Classification structures for jobs can also limit our ability to compensate staff. When job titles are very narrowly defined, and criteria are focused on size of staff, it inhibits the ability of managers and employees to achieve appropriate pay for the job and have appropriate variation in duties and assignments. Long cycle times to get jobs reclassified, people promoted or salaries increased also make responsiveness difficult. As an alternative to resolving numerous individual problems, a number of universities (and many corporations) have moved to "broadbanding" jobs. This involves wider salary ranges and more generic job descriptions; in turn, it gives us the flexibility to move people through the system and to match compensation with individual contributions and skills and to be responsive to labor market events.

One of the most difficult problems to resolve is discrepancy across units in pay for IT personnel. Although not inherently complicated, each solution carries political ramifications. In our experience, letting the internal market clear will work in a decentralized setting with responsibility center management. With enough time, even poor units will find ways to reallocate their resources to meet the local market demand. Smaller schools and offices at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, did not initially feel they would have the resources to meet the distributed support responsibilities of a new campus-wide model of IT organization; however, they eventually found ways to begin reallocating resources, in some cases within months, in the longest case over several years.

Nevertheless, departments will grumble, particularly when they cannot get their needs met because they cannot redirect resources quickly. There are a number of things that can ease this burden. These include distributed staff services and strategic subsidization.

With a "distributed staffing" approach, a central IT organization (or a school or external provider) trains and manages IT support people specifically for units that are not large enough or do not have enough funds to manage a complete IT shop on their own. Enabling small units to buy the level of support they need (or can afford) with training and management provided elsewhere, can ease tensions while keeping accountability clear.

Strategic subsidization can also ease transition. To be effective, the subsidization rules must be explicit. When the rules for subsidization are not clear and public, the process becomes untrustworthy. This gives license to ignore hard won agreements across units. One appropriate use of strategic subsidization is to encourage new behavior. For example, discounting the price of distributed staffing from full costs encourages its adoption. Penn created a distributed staffing unit that provides staff, trained and supervised, to work in local environments. Initially, departments were charged just the cost of the staff person, but with the clear understanding that management costs would be included over time. There was a two-year phase-in so that departments could plan for the additional costs. It is important to be explicit about when fully loaded costing will be in place so client units can anticipate and plan for full costing.

Implementing a distributed system of responsibility for IT, with departments accountable for IT as they are for other expenses, may take many years, during which the challenge is to manage the intermediate politics. Here, the participative decision process described earlier can be particularly valuable, because it makes the understanding of, and priority for IT services and support explicit and institution-wide, not simply the province of the IT management. This can be a solid foundation on which to navigate the politics of the transition.

Matching supply and demand

Galloping demand for IT support and services inevitably collides with constrained supply. We have identified five problems and potential solutions for each. These are summarized in the table and discussed in more detail in Table 3.

At any point in time, our supply of personnel is fixed--we can't, in the short term, expand personnel quickly to meet changes in demand. What can we do when we have inadequate supply? Some institutions are using "technical substitution." Help desks now have available to them problem management software tools that can greatly leverage the available human resources. Investment in these tools can substitute capital for labor. Adding a web-based front end (thereby providing access for those users who want the information directly themselves) can go a long way to serving more people without increasing staff.

One labor supply that is more available within universities than elsewhere are student workers. Several universities have been able to marshal and organize this resource by managing and supporting them with professional technical staff. They essentially leverage very skilled people in situations where less skill is needed or where other students are the users and availability of some support is key. Students are relatively low cost, and when properly managed and deployed, can add high value.

Flexible work arrangements can pull people into the IT labor supply who might not otherwise be available to work. Given the 24 x 7 nature of IT, and flexibility about how coverage is achieved, universities can attract technical support where others might be unwilling or unable to manage. Telecommuting, job sharing and flexible hours contribute to the creation of supply.

Adding to the supply of labor only works to the extent that that labor can be effectively deployed, but technical managers are often in very short supply. At Penn and elsewhere, consolidation of small technical units, or distributed staffing with one manager across a number of small units, has contribution to a more productive use of IT management talent. Supervisory costs are shared across more clients, creating savings for the units and the availability of dollars to adequately compensate the managers.

Even when we are able to increase the supply of labor, we are still faced with infinite expectations from our client base. We have found that Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are one of the best tools to attack this problem. The idea of the SLA has been around for a long time--namely, to bound expectations and create clear guidelines for accountability--but its apparent simplicity in theory is matched by its difficulty in implementation. A major reason SLAs are difficult to implement is they encounter resistance from both sides, to the extent that each is unaccustomed to accountability.

One fear common to both sides is that SLAs, like other contracts, can be experienced as inflexible. Thus, when creating a new SLA, it is important to build in procedures for modification, for example, by having explicit checkpoints to manage the inevitable changes. It is usually advisable to front-load the frequency of checkpoints. For example, begin with a 90- or 120-day review, with a subsequent review at six months, then annually. In starting new distributed staffing SLAs at Penn, for instance, we include an opportunity for the client to cancel unilaterally, with essentially no risk. Clients are also given veto power over the specific person to be assigned. (Once the relationship passes the initial six-month review and becomes renewable on the fiscal-year cycle, however, we ask the client for a notice at the end of the third fiscal quarter should they decide to discontinue, in order to provide us with the opportunity to plan the necessary staffing adjustments.)

It is also important to be realistic and not to overprescribe the agreements. It's not possible to reduce uncertainty to zero. Furthermore, the IT organization must communicate its readiness to accommodate modifications, particularly when there is a history of distrust. In the intermediate term, the IT organization has the more to gain--credibility, trust and influence.

Preventing fires

We all want to get beyond fire fighting and have the ability to think systematically about our responsibilities. In Table 4 we identify four common problems with potential solutions.

We want to be able to match problems and clients with the right service channel. To help clients know whether and where their needs will be met, we need to communicate that information. Some universities have focused on developing sophisticated web sites, others on paper publications, some on both. In our experience, redundancy is necessary: we need to use multiple channels and repeat the message frequently.

Adoption of standards for technology and products, for example, can greatly help reduce the personnel needed to support a given service level target. Carrots, positive reasons to standardize, are far more useful inside universities than sticks, punishment or withholding of service. For example, one CIO used funds from the central IT organization to create a transition plan that helped key units get on a replacement cycle for desktop machines that conformed to standards. In other cases, support from the university-wide IT organization for some platforms, applications, etc., encourage their use. Information about university-wide standards or preferences can simplify buying decisions rather than be seen as constraints. As the technology gets more flexible, the need for variability is declining--and similar systems will be easier to service.

Universities, as not-for-profit organizations and as leading edge users of some applications, are often the recipients of gifts from vendors and others. While it is very tempting to take "free" capital in the form of hardware and software, these "gift horses" have downstream costs. They are gifts that "eat." The support costs for non-standard software and equipment can be very expensive; building in the support and maintenance costs helps people realize those expenses and make rational decisions about accepting or declining.

Every year universities are faced with a whole set of new users--all at once--with the arrival of the freshman class on campus. The University of Pennsylvania now anticipates the first-year students' needs with "Fall Crush," a systematic program to establish key standards on an academic year cycle, put everything students need on a nicely packaged CD ROM, and coordinate efforts across multiple school-based computing organizations. Penn also has placed student support in the residences, using student workers who are themselves trained and supported by a team of dedicated IT professionals to supply support to students on every dorm floor. These combined programs have accelerated student computing and networking competence by months, increased curricular use of computing, and reduced the load on various central and school help desks around campus.

When Penn decentralized responsibility for student support from the central IT organization to the Department of University Life, the latter's management really took up the task of IT support for its student community. As a result, the educational mission was enhanced without corresponding demand on central and school IT support services. Productivity, satisfaction and effectiveness are much higher with this system.

At another university, anticipating new students on campus led the central IT organization to automate various identification and password distribution processes, thereby increasing service while decreasing costs. The students' first experience with IT was positive, inoculating them against the historically negative reputation of central IT. In addition to providing good service, this approach also supported the cultural change that new IT leadership was trying to affect.

Professional development

For many years, IT professionals who wanted to stay on the leading edge of technology found universities a comfortable home. Keeping in touch with innovation was often a powerful reward for bright and ambitious technology people and universities could keep talent despite other problems. Today, universities no longer own technological innovation to the same extent. While universities remain important players in creating new uses and applications for technology, IT research and development extends far beyond the ivory towers. As a result, it's important for us to think more systematically about professional development.

By systematically, we do not mean a rigid focus on budget allocation--for example, per-head formulas for training fees and conference travel. Rather, we would encourage thinking about how to provide people with opportunities that build transferable human capital. Two problems, with potential solutions, are outlined in Table 5. We will explore the second one in more depth.

People want professional development opportunities that build transferable human capital. While there are many ways to provide professional development, the most important tool for adult development is the job. Creating jobs that provide opportunities for learning, and matching the person who needs that learning to the job, is key to keeping talented, intelligent and ambitious IT professionals. We can partner with external institutions and match staff who are ready for a challenge with leading edge users. And, we can adopt a mindset that "not invented here" is not as important as "well used here."

Some organizations strive to develop budget formulas to provide training. While training opportunities--particularly if tied to certification--are important, training is not a complete solution. External or formal training needs to be driven by the job requirement on an as-needed basis to be fully effective. The half-life of training is very short when skills are not consolidated in the everyday assignments of the individual.

Distributed staffing, as defined above, is a good mechanism to help IS people rotate assignments, maintain key technical skills, learn how to obtain local knowledge quickly, communicate effectively with users, and consult on emerging issues. These are transferable skills that enhance the value of the individual to the university while building human capital.

The formal annual review process can be turned into ongoing professional development process. IS needs to adopt practices that are more broadly in the forefront of human resource management in other areas. For example, matching the individual to the job, understanding competencies required in the job, understanding gaps in competencies, recognizing changing needs of the organization and the need to realign individual roles with organizational needs. While job demands keep changing with the technology, the conversations that set the stage for developmental assignments are as important in IT as in other organizations.

The formal annual review usually implies some assessment of individual performance. Measuring performance requires knowledge of what matters and why, and organizational performance, in turn, needs to be linked to individual performance. In many settings, this is difficult, but when expectations are clear, it is easier to build the bridge from the performance of a unit to the performance of those within it.

Authentic accountability

Each of the four tactical steps we've described can be valuable on its own because it gives us the opportunity to attack parts of a problem. They are, however, most useful in the context of the participatory governance framework describe earlier. That kind of framework gives the entire campus the opportunity to engage with information technology, to understand it and to share in the responsibility for its effective use. When agreements about the role of information technology are in place, we can create explicit expectations and clear priorities. We can work on setting appropriate pay, benefits and flexibility for IT with an understanding of why we're doing this. We can more effectively match job scope and resources when individual units within the community understand why we have organized support as we have. In addition, we have more flexibility to improve professional development within the job context. When we do these things, we can move beyond the cycle of blame.

We have argued that blaming IT professionals for systems inadequacy creates a vicious cycle. Breaking the cycle and changing the pattern requires a shared vision of IT across the campus that enables:

Each piece alone can make a difference, but when these things come together, authentic accountability is created. Authentic accountability tightens the links between what IT personnel do and how it's perceived, between how they see themselves and how others see them, and aligns responsibility and authority for IT with the organizational structure of the institution--where it belongs.

Table 1




Executive sponsors

Senior administrators and academic leaders

Lend authority and initiate the work

Core group

Task force leaders and supporters

Design and drive the process to successful completion

Full task force



Integrate work across focused task efforts

Work teams

Experts and users in small groups

Focus on specific issues or problems

Table 2



Salary structure

(thought to be not competitive)

-Objective salary surveys against the geographical job market (often the differential is less than perceived)

Benefit structure

(may be too "cookie cutter")

-Cafeteria or alternative structures (to increase benefits flexibility)

Job classification structure

(may be overly restrictive)

-"Broadbanding" (increase flexibility and lubricate job mobility)

-Professional/technical track alternatives (advancement options to management jobs)

Discrepancies across units

("haves" vs. "have-nots")

-Let the internal market clear

-Provide alternative sources for personnel (e.g., outsourcing from within or outside institution)

-Strategic subsidization

Table 3



Inadequate human resources (Supply)

-Technical substitution—automate parts of process, e.g., provide more user help through software, web support, FAQs and the like

Inadequate funds (Supply)

-Leverage professionals with student workers, e.g., increase the number of support providers at relatively low cost

Inadequate pool of labor (Supply)

-Use flexibility to increase the effective size of the staff pool, e.g., flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing

Scarce talent to manage support (Supply)

-Offer distributed staffing so that each department does not need to replicate a full IT management structure

Infinite expectations (Demand)

-Define expectations through Service Level Agreements (SLAs)

Table 4



Users call central IT for any problem

-Communicate responsibilities of different providers via multiple channels

-Connect callers to appropriate help

Variability in software and equipment

-Motivate standards adoption through carrots, not sticks

"Gifts that eat"

(Yes, you do want to look gift horses in the mouth)

-Build in downstream support and maintenance costs to gifts, grants and contracts

New-student orientation to technology

-Get ahead of the problem through standards and organization

Table 5



Universities no longer "own" technological innovation

-Encourage leading edge users to push forward "technology in use" and create opportunities for staff to support them

-Partner with external innovators (e.g., industry leading vendors) to hold talent and create learning

-Provide IT staff with an opportunity to perfect products and applications (move from "not invented here" to "not perfected here")

Aligning professional development to the individual employee

-Structure jobs and opportunities for movement—match interest and time allocation

-Support transferable skills--e.g., job rotation advantage of distributed staffing

-Support documentable skills--create and support opportunities for industry certification