The blog post by Ian Cox about his new book “Disrupt IT” motivated me to offer some reflection on the type of IT Disruption that I have needed to employ for my slice of Higher Education. I have not read his book but I can tell that I would agree with his premise that IT has become the change agent. It is easy to connect technology to why change has accelerated in recent years. But change is not accelerating in Higher Education. Be clear, we do not need to change because of technology, but it is technology that has highlighted the need for change. And that is where IT may be the perfect change agent for Higher Education.
Higher Education is still avoiding the real technology elephant in the room, the “Internet”. We deal with a whirlwind of questions about how students learn and why does college cost so much and why isn’t it about students getting jobs. Maybe we should use more technology in the classroom or software to manage our student success. But it does just come back to the fact that Higher Education no longer controls the data which is converted into information which can become knowledge for anyone motivated enough to absorb it.
OK, back to disruption. I came to Missouri S&T because I wanted to make a difference in Higher Education for the STEM segment that I feel is critical for our future. I do believe IT needs to be the change agent and doing so at such a technology dominant university is the perfect challenge. Yes, I inherited an IT service model that was catering to our traditional decades old higher education culture. And Missouri S&T is facing the same challenges stressing many public research universities in the US. Challenges of serving increased enrollment with an aging infrastructure using an outdated business model. How can IT help?
First you have to change the culture of your IT staff while also laying the groundwork to change the university’s relationship to IT. This is all done by building trust. IT staff that are working in the traditional control service model may be reluctant to breakout of that comfort zone. IT staff love to be needed and that old model offered that, but what about innovation? IT staff should be the innovation leaders or at least they should want to be. I believe that path to a successful IT culture change has to build from IT being innovative and gaining pride from how that innovation can impact the university. And the key to unlocking that innovative spirit in your IT staff is to show them that you mean it. Invest in their ideas or at least let them own your ideas. And above all, assure them that it is OK to fail.
Gaining trust from your university is more tricky since some of your customers are very content with the old IT support model which may still support their outdated business model. However, the important customers are the faculty. The reality for them is that their job has only gotten more difficult to perform. Teaching loads have not decreased and research funding is more and more scarce. IT offering support for teaching load tends to point toward the utilization of technology and exploring online delivery. But IT does not need to push any of that, IT just needs to offer assistance in utilizing it. IT does not need to push online learning to secure their value in EdTech support. They just need to offer support, faculty need the help, leave the politics of course delivery to the Provost. And IT support for research needs to come again as the assistance model. A researcher used to get a grant that outfitted their lab with technology that was managed by a grad student and had enough fluff to allow some breathing room. Today it seems like more time is spent submitting grant proposals then actually fulfilling the research of the successful grants. IT has to find a way to be a trusted partner so that researchers can sell that support to win their grants. This is a budget dance, but IT has to find a way to free up researchers to actually do research.
When IT appears to be achieving positive repositioning, some strategic disruption can put it all together. IT departmental reorganization will inevitably be needed, but turn it into an opportunity. Gain some visibility for IT on campus by offering support to a much needed service. That might be a service to students it might be supporting another service provider like the library. Don’t lead with a software service disruption, that will come later and will probably be IT’s greatest contribution, but total trust is needed for that.