Monday, October 24, 2005

On Coconut Telegraphs

Lately I've been running around telling a mythical story about a made up Research Program and their quest to install a coconut telegraph. Not a word of it is true, of course. It's just a parable about responsibility centered management and what I think the impact will be on how information technology standards are driven at ASU.

Seems IT and Geodesign have been having a donnybrook. IT wants Geodesign to use a particular phone switch, but Geodesign has its heart set on deploying a coconut telegraph as its primary communications platform instead. (Major Parrotheads over there in Geodesign you know). Dispute rages on for some weeks, finally ends up in front of the university president. Having the better of the rational argument (despite the Professor's native ingenuity, the throughput and fidelity of the coconut telegraph wasn't even good enough to get Gilligan off the island) , IT fully expects Geodesign to be compelled to comply.

Shock is therefore the prevailing emotion at IT Central then, when the prexy fails to countermand the headstrong Geodesign and instead allows the clearly backward telegrammophone to be installed.

Asked about this seemingly irrational decision, the pres tries to make it clear. Says he, "It's all about excuses you see. If I tell Geodesign that they cannot have their telegraph, I am in the wrong position on payday, and everyone knows that."

From the surprise on the face of IT, the President can see that his decision is still unclear.

"You see," says the prexy, "every year the head of GeoDesign comes to visit me with a briefcase full of money. I open it, and count it. If she's $10M light, we both know what that means. There's no argument. But if I veto that telegraph, then when she comes in light, all we'll be talking about is coconuts. "I'd have brought it all, but you wouldn't let me do what I knew I needed to do."".

"So you see, if push comes to shove in RCM, the responsibility center has to win, so it can be held accountable later."

"What position does that put us in?", IT complains.

Says the pres, "I'm looking to you to see that push never comes to shove."

"Now hold on a second Sannier. Are you trying to say that the institution has no rules anymore? RCM or no RCM, ASU is still one institution. If we can't enforce any tech standards, we'll simply balkanize. What about all the things we hold in common -- the web, the network, information security? If those are compromised by one unit, they are destroyed for all of us. In the world you're describing, the center will not hold."

Which is true and false. Its certainly true that we hold things in common; things which if compromised by one make all of us pay a price. To preserve and progress, we do need standards. I'm just trying to point out that, as my Aunt Carrie used to say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I don't think driving standards by fiat is working so well. So I believe we are moving into an era when selling will be a more important force than telling for driving standards.

Take the portal as an example. Driving the portal by making a central technical decision and sticking with it has not succeeded in creating a unified portal vision for ASU, despite widespread agreement among all the stakeholders I've talked to that a unified portal is highly desirable. A unified portal will only come about when a coalition of central IT and distributed units comes together to drive a consistent portal vision that meets the needs of that coalition. When that happens, that effort will become the de facto standard for ASU, and the benefits for the remaining units to place their content within the common portal will outweigh the benefits of maintaining it in an isolated way.

But that approach takes selling. A champion has to create a shared vision among key stakeholders, listen to their requirements and forge an effective coalition of interested and able players to accomplish a compelling first product. Then that product must be "sold" to the next tier of content owners, and modified to bring them in if necessary.

Selling, not telling. Putting forward a vision, then building an effective coalition based on the articulated needs of the members. Driving a continual selling effort throughout the implementation process to keep stakeholders in the boat. Finish up with a little marketing when the first revision is ready, and you can pull in the remaining players.

In the responsibility centered world we are increasingly working in, standards will be driven more by cajoling than coercion. At least that's how I see it.


marty,  October 27, 2005 at 5:49 AM  

I'm wondering if large institutions can survive in a web world. I'm thinking the web favors small, light entities that can adapt and implement new ideas quickly. So is it really necessary to have an overall ASU look on the web? Maybe instead individual colleges or even professors (or whatever entity has a meaningful cohesiveness) should be free to develop their own web presence.


iacnld,  October 31, 2005 at 5:30 PM  

Selling not telling requires that you know your customers needs. It requires that you have regular interaction with your customers. It requires you to be empathic... putting yourself in the customer's place. Besides having a very large customer base for technology (and I care most specifically about administrative technology), ASU has a very diverse customer base. I think in some cases, we don't even really know WHO our customer is supposed to be. Is it the Dean of a college? Is it a secretary? Is it a professor pulling in research grant dollars?

I hope some folks have read "Thoughts on the Role of Central IT" on the wiki at Thoughts on the Role of Central IT
I believe in this view of the IT world at ASU. It is very difficult for folks in central IT to know all the customers of the big enterprise systems, but distributed IT is working with these folks everyday. We lack a good mechanism for gathering and coordinating technology needs. We also need a way to share solutions and to make them available for others to use or at least learn about.

But.. back to customers.. all systems need to have a well defined customer base and have regular communication with those customers whether the system is in central IT or distributed. Then we can work on getting customer feedback and having "satisfied" customers. Heck Ticketmaster does it for something as simple as buying ZZ Top tickets at the Fair. Why can’t we? How can we delight advisors with a Peoplesoft system? How many people will be thrilled to get upper and lowercase names that are not truncated because they are long international names?

Ok.. slight reality check... we probably can't satisfy every customer... (like those folks who want the dial in modems) but if we can't, we owe them an explanation of WHY something that is being done is an improvement for the University, even if it is an inconvenience to them. Selling not telling. We owe it to our IT customers. But watch out... selling does not mean lying. The customer’s trust is so, so important. .. and customers (especially at ASU) are very smart. And we technology folks, we are here to help them. Did you help anyone today? Anyone you know? Did you coordinate or collaborate with someone outside your department or area? Technology is like money. There is never enough to go around so lets share each others strengths, learn from each other and try new things. When they catch on... maybe we will call them a "standard!" Hum... how come I always end up sounding so hokey? I really believe this tho!
Nancy D.

jnickol,  November 7, 2005 at 8:13 AM  

I think I have to disagree with Marty. The web does not 'favor' any particular size of business. What it does do, is create a sort of level playing field. It is true that the web is more advantageous to smaller organizations that could not otherwise fund expensive advertisement campaigns, but that does not discredit the value of this cheap and effective advertising market. If this tells us anything, it should tell us that it is important to not only have a strong web presence, but a web presence that is stronger and more appealing than your competition. 'Get A Real MBA' was a dominating statement that a few of us saw hanging in HUGE letters just above the University of Phoenix on the 10, but far more people are subjected to the strong online presence of schools like the University of Phoenix. We need to get it in gear, gather our resources and put up a real fight on the most easily accessible face of ASU.