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IT Organizations are Missing the Woods for the Trees

Ken Ingle, CIO, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College
Ken Ingle, CIO, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

Ken Ingle, CIO, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

For a number of years IT in most organizations was based on a single word, control.  Everything within the IT organization revolved around control. The central IT group was all about control of access, control of equipment, control of software, and control of behavior. This heavy handedapproach worked for a number of years.  If a user needed anything related to technology, they call the IT department.  IT was the definition of bottleneck, a group of limited resource, managing the flow of all things IT. This lead to the perception that IT was slow, difficult to work with and it was often rude, obtusely technical, and just plain controlling.

In many ways higher education followed the model of industry. Although more liberal than many corporate environments, the need for control still remained.  In many environments the cost of technology was so high that the institution represented the group with the purchasing power for resources and thus maintained control. If the student wanted to interact with the institution, they needed to visit the College’s portal.  If the student needed to work on a paper or other course material, they needed to visit the College library or computer lab.  If students or faculty needed to perform research, they needed the College’s lab and research resources to accomplish their goals. Higher education IT faced the same perception as IT in general.

Today we live in a different world.  Consumer technology has become so advanced and cost effective that virtually any person is able to afford computing power that rivals many enterprises. Consumer technology is so simple that many users feel they don’t need the IT department to help accomplish their goals. 

The first step for an institution working to deal with the change to a consumer model, where control is far more challenging, is to simply embrace the change. The change has happened regardless of how far a central IT group might have their head stuck in the sand. The longer any CIO focuses on total control of the environment, the more control will slip away. Success may be found in utilizing a hybrid consumer and enterprise approach to achieve both fiscal and operational advantagesfor the organization.  It is important to learn where control is truly important, and where security may be protected while still allowing for personal devices.

Recently a study revealed that several users who work in organizations where personal devices are prohibited, still use a personal device in defiance of the policy.  This is telling for the IT organization.

Many large vendors are providing incentive programs for personal technology in higher education. Microsoft for example provides Office at no charge to students where their organization has Office 365 enabled. Other companies provide deep discounts on equipment for students as well as staff members. Utilizing technologies like application virtualization provides an opportunity for the organization to maintain security while reaping the benefits of cost savings through personal device purchases.

An aspect of control related to the organization is the persistent requirement that all hardware, systems, and services route through the central IT organization. The consumer space has moved passed this paradigm. Companies like Facebook no longer require users to visit their site on their computer in order to interact with the service, or other users. Instead, users are encouraged to utilize the tools and services they prefer while tying back to the core Facebook system behind the scenes. A teenager is able to open Instagram on their smart phone, take a picture and share the picture with friends on Facebook, all without ever visiting the Facebook website or application.

Higher education institutions are well positioned to make this change. Many of the consumer technologies being developed are focused on millennials and the “college aged” demographic.  College students are comfortable with an environment where multiple single purpose applications are utilized. In many cases institutions have already started to strengthen their wireless and personal device networks to handle the demands of student devices. The next step is to de-centralize the service organization providing a mix of college managed applications and external consumer applications to provide service. Institutions may select to post news updates to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, while using a custom mobile application to handle course registration.  In the future a student may never require a “computer” to interact with the institution, and may never use a college owned device. 

"The first step for an institution working to deal with the change to a consumer model, where control is far more challenging, is to simply embrace the change"

Employees are no exception to this change. If you walk into virtually any meeting on a college campus you are likely to see as many Apple iPads as the laptops. As budgets have become increasingly constrained, and the provisioning of new devices less frequent, employees have started using more up-to-date personal technology to do their work. In the same way the IT organization may utilize consumer tools, mixed with managed services (like application virtualization) to support a personal device friendly environment for students, the same may be accomplished for employees.

In reality succeeding during this change in technology landscape is not about managing hardware, software, or even the perceived loss of control.  It is about changing the IT organization from control oriented to service oriented. It is still vitally important for the organization to protect the security of data and the user (student or staff). The key is to focus on the elements that provide for data security at a service level without feeling as though all aspects of technology must be controlled. A sledge hammer will drive a nail into a wall, but in many cases a normal hammer will suffice.  The IT organization has been far too focused on the sledge hammer.

When the organization focuses on providing quality service through education, understanding, and a user centric approach, then the real advantages of all technology options becomes available. The real challenge is not about lack of control, but how IT can maintain a secure environment while utilizing all available resources to provide the best service possible to students, faculty, and staff.

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