Last Tuesday, I met with a group of about 15-20 people in a Computing Commons conference room. I did a short monologue, recapping some of the themes in the blog, and then we did 40 minutes or so of question and answer. I wish I could remember all the questions, if for no other reason than to see if I'd give the same answers after reflection that I gave on the spot. I like to think I'd be pretty close, but you never know.
I can only remember three of the questions clearly.
The first, from the Skeptic, was along the lines of "Why do you think things will change here?" As an answer, I had a kind of "Howard Dean" moment I guess, full of crazy passion. Passion is an important component of change, for sure. Never underestimate the force of passion. But the most important reason to believe that ASU is serious about technological change is the strength of committment "at the top". From where I sit, it's clear that ASU's President is committed to creating a new gold standard for technology in the service of learning and discovery -- that he views technology as a vital part of the New American University vision. Hence the desire to have a strategic plan.
Now if you were to Google "committment at the top", you'd find some 873 examples of people and organizations saying "There has to be a commitment at the top to make employees see that the change is credible." It is a rare thing to have a President take up your cause. It is not an opportunity to be squandered. Dare to believe that significant, positive change is possible and participate in the process. Planning is the first step, identifying both the strategic vision for technology's role in support of ASU's futurea and the tactical, practical steps we will take to achieve that vision.
Committment at the top is hard to come by. Its usually the hardest part. Let's not waste it.
The second question I remember came right after that Howard Dean moment. It was something like, "OK, so suppose we believe that things will change, and we're willing to help define what the changes should be. What can we do?" I have to admit I froze for a second, like a rabbit in the xenon glare. To be honest, I hadn't really thought that far ahead. After four weeks, I was still in the mode of looking around, trying to get the lay of the land. I realized, as I sat there trapped by the headlight's beam, that while I had been saying that we would develop the plan together, I hadn't thought a lot about the practical aspects of that. Now, in front of all those people in that stiflingly hot room, I needed an answer, and I needed one fast.
So I just started talking about blogs and hoping for the best...
"I'd propose that we use a hierarchical set of moderated blogs backed by a wiki. My blog has been getting good readership in the community and I think I can continue to use it to raise issues (and tell scorpion stories) in a general way. As an issue -- and the opinion leaders that grasp the solutions to it -- emerge, it starts to require hard core, detailed work -- as opposed to analogies to Gothic novels and rock songs. So we'll identify it as a key issue, split it off the main blog, and I'll identify a set of leaders who will moderate a combination blog/wiki which they will use to develop a coherent strategic and tactical answer to that issue.
As the solution comes together, the moderators will close the blog to comment, but continue to develop the details of the solution in public. Once it has been developed to a sufficient level of detail, the blog will open back up for comments, to allow people to identify improvements, point out flaws and suggest alternatives. Then the moderators will incorporate those comments into a final cut.
This way the plan, both strategic and tactical, can come together in public, allowing policy to be developed with full participation, without the use of traditional committees.
Or not. If someone has a better idea for how to get a plan together quickly, I'm all ears. But no committees please."
I thought it was a pretty good answer for off the top of my head. The person who asked the question seemed satisfied with it, or at least was willing to let me off the hook. But the more I think about it, the more I think there's the germ of a good idea there.
I realize it might sound a little gimimicky. And that it might restrict participation to the technocrats, leaving out the vital participation of those most knowledgeable about our business processes. It may not be enough of a solution, on its own. But I think it could help us move to the next level of detail. And its the best idea I have right now.
Now I'm not talking about a complex network of hundereds of interconnected blogs and wiki's. I'm thinking maybe an organizational structure something like this:
- Web Strategy
- Other Affiliations
- Administrative Computing
- Data Warehouse
- Academic Computing
- Research Computing
- Stimulating research
- Driving research
- Doing research
- Library – Capturing and Sharing the Intellectual Assets of the University
- Organizational Challenges
- Improving collaboration between central and distributed IT
- Improving collaboration between distributed IT units
The 6 major divisions would be independently moderated blogs/wikis, each responsible for the development of strategy and tactics for that area.
Requirements are critical of course, but I think a hierarchical set of requirements is more important than loads of detail at the bottom. For success you need a clear and simple high level architecture, followed by a few more layers with increasing detail as you go down. But getting the top level requirements right is the most important.
So what do you think? Crazy idea? Just might work? Do you have other ideas for the high level breakdown? What's missing here?
Which brings us to the last question, which went something like:
"My time is pretty much spoken for. How can I find time to help you work on planning when I already have a plate full of things to do?"
Once again, something I hadn't really thought through yet. My first instinct was to say that I was looking for people who were willing to stretch a little in order to participate. And that's true to an extent. In my experience, the highest bandwidth people usually have the best ideas...not always, but often. So a little stretch in the beginning might be called for.
But basing the entire planning process on volunteerism isn't a sound idea. So I am going to have to work out a way, in conjunction with Dr. Lewis and other members of the leadership, to see if we can make planning part of at least some people's official mission.
Without bringing the train off the tracks, of course.
It could be done using pros I suppose -- outside consultants who would be paid to outline a plan after analyzing the organization. People do it that way all the time. But I'm not sure how much internal credibility such a plan would have when it was finished.
We're not looking for a plan for its own sake here, something pretty to put up on the web site and make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy inside. We're trying to make a map so we can follow it to the broad sunlit uplands of a new way. Which means we have to have buy-in from a large part of the group. Which is why I favor an open, participatory process.
So it may take some stretching to participate at first, but if you don't want to stretch too much, just read about the blogs and store your energy up for an issue you really care about. Watch to make sure we don't get too far off track.
Pull on your rope.