At the February 6, 2008, meeting of the Quality Advocates, Kevin Morooney, Vice Provost for Information Technology, spoke on “Thinking Strategically about Future Information Technology Investments”. When considering information technology (IT), many people focus on what hasn’t worked most recently with it. Thinking strategically about investments in IT before making financial investments and deciding the types of infrastructure to implement can help move the conversation towards a planning mindset.
Institutional concerns about issues as security, integrity of data, and restricted access levels continually bump up against the personal needs and desires of students, faculty, and staff who want open access, convenience, and new exciting applications. Conflict then erupts between infrastructure (on which the institution is focused) and innovation (on which the individual is focused). Morooney suggested that being strategic requires a change in thinking from “Infrastructure OR Innovation” to “Infrastructure AND Innovation/Transformation”. When considering IT as part of a solution, both the transformational dimension of infrastructure issues and the infrastructure dimensions of transformation issues need to be considered. Morooney gave two examples. The first was the decision that Penn State and many other colleges, universities, and businesses made in the past to invest in enterprise and national networking. These investments transformed every process within these organizations. A second example is the promotion and tenure process, in which there is an infrastructure component that can be used to transform this process by incorporating certain technologies.
If you know something is an infrastructure …, we should be looking at if from an efficiency angle, how can we do more for less? Doing more for less requires transformation and innovation within that infrastructure. Is there an area, like the network (an example from long ago), that you can invest in to effect broad transformation as you look at all you are trying to transform? If you’ve got four or five areas that you might be thinking about in your strategic plan … look at the IT components of each and every one of them. Maybe you need to invest a little bit in each one of them, or maybe there is a sweet spot, a bigger area you can invest in.
Morooney also pointed to the continuing erosion in the distinction between central and distributed services. Rather than the historic either/or perspective of central vs. distributed, to be successful, strategic investments in IT must provide both. Examples of such successful transformations include the ESSIC attendance system, the Strategic Information Management System (SIMS) in the Office of Sponsored Programs, eBuy, and ANGEL.
Another concurrent development is the need to balance the responsibility to share all data or information with others which is appropriate to share and the responsibility to protect the data and information that must be protected. Examples of this type of sharing include the Library of Congress’ recent decision to share historical photos with the public through the Flickr site and allow viewers to tag these photos with their own comments. Other examples include the astronomy community which shares their data for creating maps of the universe and police forces which share crime data with their communities, but protect the data. At Penn State, opportunities exist for sharing data in areas such as eLion and business transactions, but the data within must be protected and remain confidential.
The infrastructure of IT at Penn State consists of things that are typically thought of as infrastructure like power, space, cables, hardware, and operating systems, but also includes components such as enabling software, middleware, storage and security. All of these parts of the infrastructure build upon each other to provide a platform for scholarship, collaboration, and business. Organizationally, each unit within the University typically thinks about their own infrastructure, i.e., their own network, their own hardware, their own space. However, Morooney recommended that these artificial walls be obliterated because “we are all in it together” and referred back to the need to erode the distinction between distributed and central services. Instead, what units need to think about is an overall focus on capability, capacity, people, and skills which would provide the platform for scholarship, collaboration and business. Investments made in IT which look at this big picture would help to build the necessary platform.
According to Morooney, in building this platform, strategic investments should also recognize the need to promote and democratize innovation “while reducing the pain of failure and decreasing time to market for emerging infrastructures”. Morooney pointed out many nations and individuals are becoming big players in technology because the costs are low and that Penn State could lead the way in this area. For example, if Penn State is the first school to build an effective platform for scholarship, then Penn State faculty and students have a competitive advantage.
Discussion among the group at the end of the session focused on the security risks associated with increased collaboration, how IT fit into the overall strategic planning, and what the appropriate balance of centralized vs. distributed services looked like. Currently, the University is developing a data classification scheme to help individuals identify which security category their data fall and the security protocols that are associated with each category. As IT use grows, issues such as security, risk management, using data to learn about ourselves, and the divide between centralized and distributed services become issues for everyone. One commentator pointed out that maybe rather than Information Technology Services having its own strategic plan as a unit, information technology might need its own strategic plan across the University.
Slides from Morooney’s talk can be found here.
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