In a video interview with eWeek, Ron Ashkenas from Harvard discusses complexity in information technology and how to cut out IT’s complexity. However, it might be more appropriately said that what he is discussing is eliminating unnecessary complexity in IT. One way that unnecessary complexity develops in IT is when technologists intentionally make things more complicated, often in an effort to ensure job security. While this approach may have worked 20 years ago, today people just want things to work and don’t really care (and shouldn’t have to) how things work so making things more complicated can actually backfire.
In his interview, Ashkenas identified four major areas where CIOs should be attentive to unnecessary complexity:
- structural complexity – complexity occurs at a structural level when IT is distributed throughout the organization; CIOs should be cognizant of this and guard against duplication and redundancy that has no true business purpose,
- product complexity – over time, organizations develop a large portfolio of IT products and services; CIOs need to ensure that there are processes and procedures for periodically evaluating the value and effectiveness of all products and services and phasing out those that are not valued or effective,
- process complexity – in a complex organization, processes may develop organically and in an uncontrolled manner; CIOs should ensure that there are methods in place for managing IT processes and ensuring these processes have useful outcomes that serve business purposes, and
- managerial complexity – unclear or redundant directives result in unnecessary complexity as people aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing; CIOs need to ensure that directions and outcomes are articulated clearly and effectively.
Finally, rather than move into “survival mode,” IT organizations should be proactive in working with the organization to improve processes and services. While budgets may be tight now, greater efficiencies and cost savings are best accomplished through reevaluation and improvement rather than simple cost cutting.
It seems that many institutions race to enable technology in their classrooms assuming that the simple act of doing so is an unquestioned good. While it may be nice to say “All our classrooms are technology enabled!” an interesting question that might be asked is “So what?” If the classrooms do not meet the needs of faculty and students, they are not a success for the campus or for IT. In this article from Campus Technology magazine, some of the most common failings related to implementing technology in the classroom are identified along with some considerations on how to avoid the failure in the first place. The failings include:
- Using technology for technology’s sake and forgetting about the teaching and learning requirements in the classroom,
- Designing without taking into consideration the proposed usage of the space,
- Ignoring the fact that technology will evolve over time, so design must be flexible to accomodate these changes,
- Not identifying a technology advocate from the faculty to help drive the decision-making process,
- Failing to provide training for faculty in the new technology,
- Not accounting for the natural resistance of many people to change,
- Not providing enough staff to address problems quickly as well as maintain the equipment,
- Not creating and implementing an appropriate technology replacement plan,
- Skipping post-implementation follow up discussions to identify any issues or problems that may exist in the rooms, and
- Failing to standardize technology across classrooms, creating an environment where each classroom becomes a technological adventure.
Spoiler alert – for the most part, addressing these issues is common sense – just do the opposite of what’s been outlined in the various points. The more difficult issue is when you encounter resistance to doing the right thing. Unfortunately, how to get over those hurdles is not discussed in the article.
In this recent article, Scot Finnie makes some early predictions for what will develop in the technology industry in the next year. Based on interviews with a number of reporters and editors at ComputerWorld, he has developed the following list of trends to keep your eye on:
1. Green IT - will resurface as a major initiative, perhaps with less of the hype and more emphasis on how it contributes to long-term cost savings,
2. Cloud computing - this trend isn’t going away and we’ll see more virtualization and internal cloud-based shared-services although that adoption will be done carefully and cautiously,
3. Mobile devices and smartphones – people are going to us these devices at work and to access our services, get used to it,
4. BI and analytics – with the increasing demand for looking at information from different perspectives, this is going to be a major topic this coming year,
5. Data de-duplication - eliminating redundant data can cut storage needs by up to 90%, so this is a no-brainer,
6. Videoconferencing - it’s mainstream today, so you need to have a plan for implementing this in your organization if you don’t already,
7. Security - as Finnie notes, it’s just a matter of time before a “next-order security threat” occurs. If a massive cyberattack were to occur, new regulations may come into place overnight, so you need to have an infrastructure in place to deal with that.
In this article from NetworkWorld, Patrick Thibodeau discusses some of the issues related to Hewlett-Packard’s announcement on June 1st that it was cutting 9,000 jobs. What is particularly interesting about HP’s action is that it really isn’t cutting 9,000 jobs but 9,000 employees whose skills are no longer in sync with HP’s needs. HP plans to hire 6,000 new workers but these people will work in different capacities such as system architects rather than system administrators.
A very telling quote from Anne Livermore, the executive vice president of HP’s Enterprise Business, explains the rationale for this massive shift in focus: “As we look back over the last five to 10 years, most of the activity in the services organizations as a broad industry statement was focused on the location of jobs, geographic locations of jobs and a lot on labor arbitrage. We think the next five to 10 years is all going to be about who can best use technology to automate the delivery of services.”
The important question for information organizations to be thinking about is how they we react to this trend in a way that preserves the integrity of the organization but also moves the organization and the people within it forward. Rather than laying off 9,000 people, wouldn’t it have been better to have anticipated the change and trained people to take on these new roles?
This blog post, raising your internal profile as an academic liaison librarian from the Research Information Network is a great summarization of many of the ideas I’ve heard from folks on how to make your library and librarians more relevant to faculty and students.
Some of the ideas I particularly like include:
- Creating a newsletter to all members of the university – but I would suggest it come out several times a year rather than only at beginning of academic year
- News on the library home page – keep it up to date!
- Liaison librarian web page – let people know who you are
- Talking to individual lecturers/department – teaching sessions for their courses
- Joint project bids with academic staff – an excellent way to get to know people and also become involved in the workings of the larger institution.
Although some of the suggestions in the original blog post are specific to the UK, it’s would be easy to adapt those ideas to other countries and contexts.
This short article from NetworkWorld reports on a new study by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology which indicates the women are more likely to be discriminated against in the technology sector because of the “hero mindset” to save failing projects. This mindset is the factor in creating the discriminatory environment because it works against employees with family responsibilities. According to the report, these family responsibilities tend to still be overwhelmingly borne by females.
Some interesting facts from the study:
- Men and women tend to value the same success factors which include, among other things, being: analytical, questioning, risk-taking, collaborative, and being sociable.
- Senior-level women in IT are much more likely to have a partner who has primary responsibility for the household when compared to women in entry or mid-level positions - 23.5% compared to 13.4%.
- Senior-level technical women are more likely than men to forego a partner and children to advance their careers.
Unfortunately, the study does not come up with any immediately actionable ways of correcting these problems. The two major suggestions from the study include:
- Interviewing all female applicants for a position because there is evidence women are eliminated from candidate pools during resume reviews in greater proportion than men are, and
- Developing a software tool that would detect bias in documents, such as performance evaluation and letters of recommendation.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the article Adapt or Decline by Anya Kamenetz is not the article itself but the subsequent comments. In her article, Ms. Kamenetz outlines a number of trends that have been discussed to varying degrees in other venues; for example, Richard Heller’s presentation on an unbundled education model at the PCF5 conference a few years ago. Some of the trends that she points are we’ve heard before: the open courseware movement, the ubiquitous nature of technology, and the reality that many of our academic institutions cater to “non-traditional students” meaning, of course, that our students are not full-time, 18-24 year old, full-time campus residents.
As is often the case in discussions related to technology, opinions are presented as fact and the taking up of positions tends to devolve into hyperbole. As one of the commenters to the article point out, the problem with many of these discussions is that they contain a lot of hasty generalization. Higher education is a broad community and different types of institutions fulfill different roles. The phrase “higher education” lumps together many different sorts of institution and practice. Institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton will probably not have to deal directly with the changes in higher education Kamenetz mentions. The same is true for many of the elite liberal-arts colleges. However, for the majority of institutions, the issues Kamenetz discusses are things that they will have to address in the next several years. For institutions that primarily focus on preparing people for careers, regardless of how the institution would like to position itself, competition from the private sector and other disruptive forces will only increase. While it is true that much of Ms. Kamenetz’ article is predicated on a noncritical assessment of current cultural forces and probably overemphasizes the important they eventually will have, to completely dismiss her points because of that does a disservice to the debate on higher education. While it’s debateable how large an effect these factors will have, it’s pretty clear they already are affecting most of our institutions and we need to really think about how we will respond. Based on the comments to Ms. Kamenetz’ article, it seems many are not ready for that discussion, which is too bad because things are moving forward regardless of whether they’re ready to think through the issues or not.
Rita McGrath recently wrote on her blog about squandering intelligent failures. Oftentimes, leaders will pretend that mistakes made within an organization are intentional (which doesn’t really fool anyone anyway) or try to hide the fact that a failure occurred. Both of these approaches are unwise and result in a “squandered failure” because they prevent people from learning from the failure. Leaders who operate from traditional mindsets failures have been ingrained with the mindset that failures must be avoided. As McGrath notes, quality techniques such as Six Sigma are predicated on a belief that all variations (i.e., failures) must be eliminated if there is to be quality in the product or service. While this is a noble goal, it also inherently assumes that the manager/leader must always be right whcih leaves no room for mistakes.
The problem with this is that research has demonstrated that organizations learn more from failures than they do from their successes. However, not all failures are necessarily useful to an organization. McGrath reminds us that intelligent failures are:
- Carefully planned, so that when things go wrong you know why
- Genuinely uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
- Modest in scale, so that a catastrophe does not result
- Managed quickly, so that not too much time elapses between outcome and interpretation
- Familiar enough so that what is learned can inform other parts of the business
Perhaps the most important point in all of this is that organizations should treat uncertain decisions as experiments and accept that failing intelligently can lead to quicker and deeper organizational learning.
Roberto Verganti recently posted an article on the unsustainability of user-centered innovation. For the past several years, many people have been proponents of fostering innovation by focusing on user needs and trying to better understand what they need to do. A lot of this work has involved intensive analysis of user behavior in their native environment. Verganti’s position is that this approach has led us to a place that is unsustainable because our current environment is unsustainable. Although other authors might not make the argument in this manner, Verganti’s point intersects with much of what we know about true innovation. Verganti uses the example of the Toyota Prius and how it was not created as a result of user-centered innovation. At that point, user-centered analysis would have indicated that gas guzzling SUVs were the wave of the future. The Prius, like many other innovations such as Post-it Notes and microwave ovens were never asked for and would never have been developed as a result of what user’s conceptions of what they needed were. The only way to move forward with sustainable innovation is to distance ourselves from current needs and envision new scenarios. As Verganti says “only leaders and designers who are driven by a vision and who explicitly search a priori for those sustainable behaviors can tune out the unsustainable needs of 99% of users and focus on the few exceptions.” Whether the answer is design-driven innovation or not, it is clear that we need to think about problems in new and creative ways and not continue to use the same paradigms that lead to stagnation.
Recently, Drake Bennett wrote in the Boston Globe about cognitive fluency which is a measure used in psychology of how easy it is to think about something. Not surprisingly, people don’t like to think about things that are hard. Cognitive fluency is a shortcut that helps us ration our attention and focus on the things that are truly worth thinking about. In light of other things we know from sociology and psychology this isn’t really that surprising but what is interesting in fluency research is how pervasive the effect of thinking about easy things is. For example, psychologists have found that companies with easy-to-pronounce names outperform those with more difficult names. Other studies have shown that changing statements so that they are easier to process mentally can significantly influence a person in a way that makes them more likely to believe the statement is truthful. Similarly, simpler statements can get subjects in a research setting to be more candid than they might be otherwise.
Interestingly, presenting ideas in a more complex manner can get people to think through an idea more deeply. This approach, known as disfluency, can also help people catch mistakes or consider a concept to be more innovative. This appraoch works works because it causes cognitive conflict, which triggers a response to think more deeply about the matter.
Clear, simple messages that are repeated frequently are used by people to convince others of the validity of ideas. This approach is also emphasized in management training as a way to help a group focus on issues. However, we’re learning from fluency research that this approach may not be the correct response in all cases. Increasingly, it appears that making a question or issue slightly more difficult to comprehend may be the real way to get people focused on the question or issue.