Sunday, January 29, 2006

Core vs. Context

Ok, so let me explain...no, there is too much. Let me sum up;

ASU is at the beginning of a 10-year plan to expand the size and scope of Arizona State University while simultaneously raising its academic quality. Costs must be contained while quality is increased, and all of this must be achieved in the face of mounting global and domestic competition, and a growing set of economic and technologic pressures. No other American university has become both bigger and better at this scale, at this pace. No other American university has even tried.

Clearly information technology will have to be part of the solution, but ASU's Near Follower strategy is not going to be enough. Leaving aside how hard it is to follow when technology is exploding so quickly, if no one is going where you are, its pretty hard to follow them there.

In his profile of Michael Crow in the November 18, 2005 edition of the Chroncile of Higher Ed, John Pulley quoted the president as saying he intended to blow up the status quo and reassemble the pieces into a model for 21st century higher education.

Not just for the sake of doing it, or for personal fame, or for profit, or for any other reason save the need to expand the range and effectiveness of higher education to meet the very real challenges of the 21st century.

I'm not bashful about saying that MMC's New Gold Standard message is one that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up -- like a James Taylor guitar lick, its a thing that rings so true I can feel it in my bones.
We are going to break with the ivory-tower pack and define ourselves by who we include, not who we exclude and we will simultaneously raise our academic achievment to proudly define ourselves not by the quality of our input but the extraordinary quality of our output...

If you ask me -- whether you think it can be done or not -- if the challenge of it doesn't stir you like the distant sound of Roland's horn , well maybe you're in the wrong game.

Clearly his is a bold agenda, one that will require significant and ongoing improvement of the academic enterprise, and dramatic growth in the research enterprise. Neither goal will be achieved without the help of technology.

According to Pulley, in order to accommodate the state’s fast-growing population of college-age men and women ASU enrollment will grow from 61,000 to 95,000 by 2020. Add to that an even greater increase in the number of online or distance education students and you're talking about a tall order no matter how you slice it.

Any ideas?

Well I suggest that, as far as the technology enterprise goes, we follow the advice of Geoffrey Moore, and set about separating the technology activities of the university into Core and Context.

Moore defines Core as those activities that set an enterprise apart from its competition; leadership in Core activities directly advances the mission. For companies, this means activities that, when improved, bring about direct recognition from the marketplace. By contrast, Context activities are those that, while critical, cannot in themselves distinguish the institution from the others in its market segment. Context is critical, but not strategic. Core is what an institution must continually innovate in to achieve and maintain leadership.

Vertically integrated enterprises can use a Core vs. Context analysis to focus resources to achieve leadership. Core activities are those which a firm must concentrate their own talent, management, and internal resources on, because they are central to the enterprise strategy. Context activities, by contrast, are those that might be reasonably provided to the firm in partnership with other firms for whom those activities are Core.

Improve the Core and more students come to ASU, and do better in the bargain. Improve the Core and more research wherewithal comes to ASU, with better output as the result.

For ASU, in the technology arena, I think the Core activities will turn out to be:


  • the ongoing application of technology to the Academic and Research missions,

  • the ongoing development of an interactive online environment that embodies the vision of "One University in Many Places" and

  • the ongoing development of a system to amass and disseminate digital knowledge assets.



Every other technology activity is Context for these Core ones. That doesn't mean those activities are not important. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't do these activities internally, or that we immediately turn the whole enterprise over to someone else to do.

But I do think it means we should consider whether and for how long we should continue to do some of these Context activities ourselves. A day comes when the platform rises.


What implications does a Core/Context analysis have for ASU's technology strategy in the Core areas?
From my point of view, it means that each of the Core activities will need a targeted strategy for achieving and maintaining leadership, a leadership that supports the goals of the New American University vision. On the academic side, that means a strategy for using technology to more effectively scale the higher education enterprise to accomodate growth, and to continuously improve the academic achievement of our students.

On the research side, it means developing the sustainable systems and services needed to support researchers throughout the ASU community. Developing the online experience will help ASU affiliate with K-12 students earlier and draw increasing numbers to an ASU made easier to attend because of excellent and comprehensive online services.

Each Core activity will require its own specific strategy, and those strategies must then work together to advance the New American University vision on all fronts. More on these specific strategies later.

What implications does such a Core/Context analysis have for ASU's technology strategy in the so-called Context areas?
Again, from my point of view, ASU should transition when possible from internal to external fulfillment of the Context activities. I believe this will better position ASU to track the exploding technology curves.

Can this happen immediately? No. Does it make sense in every case? No.

Am I just talking about outsourcing everything? No, not in the traditional sense. I'm looking for exponential advantage, not incremental advantage.

For example, if a company were to offer to house ASU owned hardware and an ASU developed software stack in their data center, managed by their employees instead of ASU's, well I just can't see it. Maybe someone might be able to run a data center incrementally cheaper, but maybe not too. Either way, the incremental difference isn't worth the risk. Traditional outsourcing is irrelevant to this approach.

But if ASU can find a strategic ally who can assume responsibility for a major part of a Context service -- an ally for whom ASU's Context is Core, an ally that provides that service at a scale orders of magnitude beyond ASU's size, a partner subject to competitive pressures that force it to adapt more quickly than ASU is capable of adapting -- then I say we should seek those alliances.

So I propose that, as part of its technology plan, ASU seek to establish a set of strategic alliances and work with those allies to build an integreated platform that provides those Context services going forward, a platform influenced by the technology visions of the allies as well as by ASU's goals.



In each sector, we want to identify the broadest swath of activity that would be Core to an alliance partner, and identify a timeline for transitioning more of this activity -- over a period of months, or even years if need be -- from direct ASU management and ownership in favor of technology allies whose core business is to provide those services.

I believe these alliances are the gateway to developing a technology platform that can more closely track the state of the art and allow ASU to focus its resources on the use of technology in its core businesses.


Are there potential pitfalls? No question. There are more ways to get this wrong than to get it right. But replacing tactical procurement with strategic alliance is the only way I can see to direct more of the effort of the enterprise toward those things which move us ahead.

ASU reported to the Regents that it spent $90M last year on information technology expenses, split roughly four ways...on central IT people, central IT stuff (hardware, software and services), distributed IT people and distributed IT stuff. That's almost 10% of ASU's budget.

But consider how the central IT staff are currently allocated. Of the approximately 300 people who work in central IT, roughly 100 are in adminstrative computing, another 100 in networking. The remaining third are assigned to several different functions, meaning that less than 30% of the overall effort is directed toward Core activities.

This isn't meant to diminish anyone's contribution. Under the current strategy, each of us has our role to play in contributing to the overall success of the enterprise. It's a system that has worked and is working. It just isn't changing fast enough to meet the demands of the New American University.

If we are going to effect the changes that the New American University requires, we have to become more nimble, more intense, more service oriented. We have to find new ways to do things and we have to be able to provide more focus on core activities; the technology activities where ASU must lead. That leadership won't come from greater resource allocation. Ten percent of the nut is as much as can be spent in that direction, give or take. And if it can't come from more resources, then it has to come from reorientation of exisiting resources, combined with growth and increasing economy of scale.

I may be mostly right. I may be mostly wrong. But one thing is certain. The degree of change and innovation required to achieve the vision will not come from pursuing the status quo.

As Gimli would say, "Certainty of death, small chance of success...what are we waiting for?"

2 comments:

Derwin January 30, 2006 at 4:21 AM  

Tolkien, Eh?

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

So as we’re dividing up the rings between staff and strategic partners the challenge is not unlike the one ring, the unifying commanding one ... the Enterprise perspective. Regardless of who is responsible for which components, core or context, if the user view is not a unified whole, we loose. Here’s to a successful redistribution, and hope that in the end ASU remains distinctively more attractive than Mordor. ;-)

lparsons,  January 30, 2006 at 11:30 AM  

The distinction of Core vs. Context is an interesting one, and something that I think is long overdue at ASU. Too often, we (IT staff) are forced to focus our efforts on providing basic services to large numbers of people, and must ignore "special" requests. In fact, "special" requests are even looked down upon, as if someone is asking for too much. In some cases they may be, it's tough when IT's mission is to give away our money in the form of services to the rest of the University. However, in many cases, it's the "special" requests that are so vital to ASU's continued success. Central IT must be able to support the basic IT needs on campus with enough resources left over to focus considerable effort on developing the specialized solutions our departments and researchers need.

A key component to the strategy is to ally with businesses who Core service can provide what is a Context service for ASU. This ensures that services that are provided to our users are provided by a interested and engaged entity. I don't meant that IT is not interested or engaged, but that it's simply not a core business to provide email, it's just a function that most people take for granted (at least they would like to ;-) ).

So, nice answer to my earlier question about which services will be outsourced. Now we need to be sure we understand what the Core needs of the University are that we are not meeting adequately. In some cases that is simple, however, for others, I suspect we are not even aware of the need, as it is being filled by someone outside or even being done without.