I was watching the Twitter stream for the ASCILITE 2009 conference this morning during the final keynote from @jamesclay with a certain amount of dismay as tweets regarding the ‘Innovation Prevention Department’ (IPD) started to appear. The reference was to IT Services organisations in tertiary education. Now I wasn’t at the conference so I don’t know the context of the IPD in James’s talk but I do feel the need to comment on this notion of innovation prevention by IT Departments [Edit: 10 December, 2009. Please see James's comments about context - in fact the notion of an IPD may be any organisational unit within a tertiary education institution]. Some of you may be aware that I am a senior IT Manager for one of Australia’s largest universities (70,000 headcount, 46,000 EFTSU). I normally only comment on general educational technology issues and not work related matters. I am going to make an exception this time.
I have worked with and for six universities in the UK and Australia over the last twenty years. The last eleven months have been my first in a central IT organisation. Previously I spent ten years as a lecturer and the rest of my time as a software developer/consultant/contractor/elearning manager. Prior to my current position it is fair to say that I have been reasonably critical of central IT organisations in tertiary education. It was a mutual dislike. A group that I once worked in was described as ‘rogue programmers’ by the university Director of IT. We, in turn, thought of them as being risk averse, conservative, slow and rigid.
Of course now I work in a central IT organisation I see that it is not as clear cut as I once thought. I still think we are risk averse and conservative but I know that there are reasons for that. I do believe that we are flexible and innovative but that our flexibility and our ability to innovate are often stifled by factors outside of our control. Perhaps most notable is budgetary constraints. There is continuing and growing demand for IT services that is simply unable to be met by existing resources. For example, we are in the process of planning IT projects for 2010. We have about 150 candidate projects on the list. After the mandatory projects are allocated resources (these are normally legislative requirements which also grow in number every years) then we may be able to include maybe another 10 projects. We have asked each area of the university to prioritise up to 5 projects. These will then be prioritised by the university IT committee before being further prioritised by the senior management of the university. I will emphasise here that the prioritisation of IT projects is not carried out by the central IT organisation. I’m not sure how this works in other universities but I’d be surprised if it was different.
Similarly, key decisions about enterprise wide educational technology are not made by IT. They are made a group of interested parties from across the university. Why then, do my staff constantly get told that IT have imposed X learning management system or y conferencing system? Clearly the message does not get across and I will admit that IT organisations have not been good at communicating in the past. I think we are getting better at this but we obviously haven’t got there yet. But it does cut both ways. Ironically, one of the reasons I was employed was for my background as an academic. It was thought that I would be able to communicate with academic staff better than a more traditional IT manager. I believe I can, and do, with some academic staff but I still find that introducing myself as being from the IT organisation leads to litany of criticisms most of which are unfounded and/or misguided. Let’s just say that the atmosphere isn’t exactly collegial. Interestingly I also deal with administrative and library staff for some of the other technologies my teams support and I don’t get the same level of antagonism that I get from many of the academic staff. It was this sort of antagonism that I saw displayed this morning from ASCILITE (of which I am a member, incidentally).
You have to remember that IT staff have feelings too. The vast majority are smart and hard working and will go that extra step to try and do what you want. But if you ask us to allow hosting surveys in the US (for example) then don’t blame us when we find we can’t because of the Privacy Act act and security concerns. It’s not you who would be blamed if sensitive data was lost.
As for being innovative, we try to be innovative and to foster innovation. We are working developing spaces for academics to easily create web apps safely, a more flexible approach to hosted services, a better blogs and wikis service along with numerous other developments that we would like to achieve.
Now I’m not saying don’t criticise when it’s justified but I am saying that ill informed criticism is just that and the knee jerk characterisation of ‘Vlad the Enforcer from IT’ is simply not helpful. Unfortunately it is very easy to blame IT for everything from global warming to the Melbourne traffic, particularly when educators are being challenged to use technology more and more in their practice. But it really is time we stopped the blame game. Universities more than ever need to work collegially to face some of the challenges of the next decade, if they don’t then they will fail miserably and a lot of people will be unhappy in the process.