Direct from the Innovation Prevention Department by Howard Gees by Howard Gees

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.

8 Comments On “Direct from the Innovation Prevention Department”

  1. Hi Mark

    Context is everything.

    When I have the chance (and the bandwidth) I will be uploading the audio recording of my keynote and I hope you get the chance to listen to it to hear the context.

    When I spoke of Innovation Prevention Departments, notice the plural, I said every institution has one, it may be IT Services, it may be HR, Estates, Finance even the e-Learning Team.

    The term which originates from Jon Trinder (@jont) is not a unique reference to IT Services, it applies to any department within an organisation that is not willing to change policy or procedures or even more importantly provide a solution or solutions to enable innovation.

    For some though it will be IT Services and that was where I suspect the tweeting came from.


    James Clay


    • Hi James,
      Thank you for your reply and your clarification. I appreciate it. Context is difficult when one only has the twitter stream to view. It was made slightly more frustrating because my #ascilite09 tweets weren’t showing in the stream.
      This was the first time I had come across the term “Innovation Prevention Department” and I guess my immediate perception was that it was a reference to IT organisations. This probably says a lot about my experience/perception of such organisations during my working life. I think it is true that, as you and Jon Trinder observe, the term can be applied to many different types of organisational units within tertiary institutions. I am convinced that the large size of some institutions restricts their ability to innovate and it may be that this is because there are more IPDs in larger organisations.



      PS. I have made an edit to my post with a note about context.


  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Direct from the Innovation Prevention Department | Mark Smithers --

  3. I certainly share your view on this. A similar experience led me to post this reflection some time ago:


    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your comment and the link to your blog post. It reminded about how I was informed by a member of staff that we needed interfaces to Google Wave for everything. This was back in June soon after it was demonstrated for the first time and long before it was available for preview. Now maybe we will, eventually but let’s have a look at the thing first.



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  6. Hi, Mark
    I agree with you we should avoid the ‘blame’ game regarding innovation. The critical point you raise is that IT decisions are no longer (and have not been for some time) the sole responsibility of IT professionals, nor should they be.
    George Colony, the CEO of ForresterResearch, suggests that we should change the term IT to BT – Business Technology – because IT is now essential for the core work of an organization. This applies just as much to higher education institutions as it does to commercial organizations.
    Conoly also argues that as a result, all senior management need a basic understanding of technology, because of the way IT impacts on their work.
    I strongly recommend the short YouTube video of George Conoly at
    In the meantime, we need to give much more though to how we can help all university decision-makers become more IT literate, so that we get better decision-making and less blame,

    Best regards

    Tony Bates


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