Saturday, January 21, 2006

Keeping it close...

One of my favorite movie scenes is about strategy.

It's a scene from The Princess Bride. Wesley, the Man in Black, has only just been saved from being "mostly dead" and now lies paralyzed on the palace wall. Inigo and Fezzik have saved him so he can develop a strategy to break into a heavily guarded castle and allow Inigo to avenge the death of his father. It's a great movie moment.

It's also a great reminder that castle storming strategies -- like all strategies -- depend on your goals, your assets, your liabilities, and your operating climate. Change the goals, identify a new asset, eliminate a liability and the set of viable strategies changes. What works for one time and place will likely be less than optimal as conditions change.

If you google "Near Follower", the lead hits are references to articulations of ASU's current technology strategy.

Our university strives for excellence in implementation of technology programs and services, and positions itself as a near follower in adopting new trends and capabilities.

Relying primarily on internal expertise, university owned infrastructure, and tactical procurement, ASU has built and maintained a technology system that supports the university's operations efficiently and scalably. ASU's IT organizations have focused on ensuring that no data is lost, that no transaction fails, and that every call goes through - and in that mission they have been eminently successful. Whatever else may be said, technology at ASU works.

However, the position of Near-Follower is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of exponentially expanding technological capability.

Like many universities, ASU pursues a vertically integrated strategy in providing the institution's technology infrastructure. ASU owns and maintains its own telecommunications networks, its own email service, its own network storage, its own web services, its own administrative systems. Most universities pursue this internally managed strategy largely because of their early leadership positions. As the inventors -- or at the very least the earliest of adopters -- of most of these technologies, universities had little choice but to provide these services for themselves.

When they first started dealing out .edu email accounts, there was certainly no company to buy them from. Hence the vertically integrated strategy. If you wanted to deploy a network in the '70's, you had to learn how to do it yourself. In the early days, universities were technology leaders. And like other universities in the country, ASU pursued that leadership. Information technology professionals built up a technology platform from the inside out, deploying and integrating a hardware infrastructure, then developing and maintaining a set of software applications to run on it. And even as tech gained ground in the private sector, universities remained mostly vertically integrated, though now as followers rather than leaders.

But over the past decade, as maturing technology firms began providing exponentially increasing capabilities at exponentially decreasing costs, that vertically integrated strategy has made ASU increasingly less agile than the world at large. University equipment investments can't be turned over fast enough to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. The rate of software innovation has outstripped an individual university development staff's ability to keep up.

At the end of the day, I don't believe you can be a near follower to an exponential process. You're either on the curve, or you're falling further and further behind, and the innovations that come to be taken for granted move further and further beyond your reach.

Consider the web as an indicator. In 1995, ASU's website was on a par with the best in the world. It used the same hardware technology, the same server software. It was written according to the same standards and provided roughly the same capabilities as the creme de la creme.

And over the ensuing decade, ASU has put serious energy, effort, and investment into its web strategy. Server hardware was expanded and upgraded. More and more bandwidth was devoted to web traffic. More and more people created more and more pages -- hundreds of thousands more -- while new services were incorporated using database technology, java applets, and new forms of content like audio and video.

But in that same time span, the commercial enterprises whose websites were ASU's peers in 1995 have created -- in the words of Cleese and the Python lads -- something completely different. In place of an online brochure and a shopping cart, technology leaders like Google, Amazon, and eBay have transcended the hierarchical homepage paradigm, replacing it with a truly personal, highly interactive web destination backed by a vast and ever increasing data cube that contains valuable, minable information about the likes, dislikes and habits of their users.

Unlike ASU's site, the world's leading web destinations now provide unprecedented access to a wide array of digital knowledge resources. They foster new forms of collaboration and distributed content development. Extensive use of data mining and collaborative filtering now provide personalized guidance based on the collective wisdom of spontaneously organized communities. (Cick here if, as you read this, you find the comparison to Amazon unfair or invalid.).

The gap continues to widen, and the web is only one example. On every technology front, commercial capabilities are outstripping ASU's ability to follow, nearly or otherwise. A new strategy, one to replace Near Follower, is required for ASU to take full advantage of the engine of technological progress, a strategy that allows ASU to maintain its tradition of reliability and security, while dramatically increasing its technical agility.

What I wouldn't give right now for a holocaust cloak...


carmean January 21, 2006 at 11:13 AM  

Perhaps, just in Princess Bride, we think we don't have a holocause cloak because we're not asking the right questions. Wesley didn't know he had a wheelbarrow, did he?
No one can tell you what the assets are until we have a broad sense of the need. Otherwise, much like the wiki at this state, we're doing really long laundry lists of 'stuff'.
You can do a tracheotomy with a sharp pen, but it would be better to find out what's in the backpack that might be more suitable.

Near follower: the strategy says we do so in "adopting new trends and capabilities".
Doesn't say we have to build them. The Amazon example is a good one, if we look not just at the dazzle factor, but the purpose. Their customers buy more because Amazon customizes the interface so that it's more responsive to the customer's need. Who's our customer? What do they need? How do we know? Can we use the same logic in comparison and ranking? Or can we ask them?
"What do you need?"
I know seven people off the top of my head that are ASU employees pursuing degrees. Eight counting myself. Only one is an ASU student.
We don't need to be as innovative as Amazon to find out why.
Sometimes, it's just about asking the right questions.

Nancy January 22, 2006 at 8:46 AM  

I see two problems with this approach to developing a strategy and they’re social rather than technical.

It seems that we, the information technology staff at ASU, are being asked to explain why each of the major services we provide should continue to be housed here. That’s valid from a business point of view: why waste resources on efforts that aren’t paying off? A similar query was originally posed as a topic on the TechPlan wiki, “Things to Stop Doing”. People didn’t seem to get the intent of that section. Most of the items on the list are general or trivial. But now we’re being asked, more pointedly, “Why should we let you keep doing what you do?”, or more professionally, “What is the business case for this service?”

Which leads to the first problem: if a business case cannot truly be made now for Service X, what happens to the staff? If the staff is not oneself (providing Service X), it may be someone you’ve worked with for 20 years, who has an ailing spouse or parents, or kids in college, and who has faithfully been on call, nights, weekends and holidays during their entire employment. They’ve found themselves working at midnight too many times to count. (I’m thinking of specific people here.) ASU seemed like a good deal because, even though the pay was low, the risks were also low compared to private enterprise, where people get laid off just to make a quarterly report look better and earn the millionaire CEO a bonus. So now some of those ASU tech folks are in their late 40’s or 50’s, and because of their age and often, technical background (we’ve established that ASU hasn’t stayed technically competitive), we’re talking about off-loading services and presumably jobs. I think it might be hard to get informed participation under those conditions. If there were a clear intent to retrain and reassign technical people whose former services had been contracted out, or offer early retirement to those who were close to retiring, or some combination of remedies, staff engagement in this discussion would probably improve.

ASU’s chief decision-makers (not “ASU” because ASU is not a person) could say, “well, tough, those are the breaks; no one guarantees anyone a livelihood. Even IBM doesn’t take care of its people anymore. This corporation is not your mother…” But wait. Universities are not corporations. Another reason many of us work here is precisely because they’re not. We’ve invested our time, the best years of our careers, in SOMETHING THAT MATTERED, something bigger than personal profit and advantage. It remains to be seen whether that’s worth anything.

The second social problem has to do with time and responsibility: until there’s a clear, agreed-upon request for staff time allocated to the strategic planning process, the best that many technical people can do is wring whatever they can out of personal time. We’re not talking about simple problems that can be resolved in an hour or two over beer. We’re talking about reframing what we do around a new vision of the functions of universities in general. The popular phrase “information explosion” doesn’t begin to express the growth we now see in the global exchange of ideas. This stuff takes time and good minds. But until there’s more than a general public request to take the time, we are obligated to do the things we’ve been hired to do, and have to trust that those are the right things.


Jammer,  January 23, 2006 at 3:02 AM  

That's about the nicest Outsource presentation I've ever seen... and the "O" word was never even used! Ignoring for the moment the human consequences (so eloquently stated in Nancy's post and which in the end we CANNOT and MUST NOT ignore) we must first consider whether we are actually in competition with the commercial markets.

I have never quite got on with the Amazon/GoogleASU comparison. The two former entities have essentially two purposes: to do business within their respective competencies and to make money, lots of money.

What is the business of ASU? Education, research, a place and life experience within which our young people can learn and grow. ASU provides an education certainly, but it also provides a journey, and in the end that journey is perhaps more valuable and lasting than the education.

So should primarily support that mission. There is room for improvement, certainly. Things are too hard to find. The portal ( or if you lose the superfluous dot) is not on measure with sites such as San Diego's BLINK. But we're getting there... and if we can get IT out of their quintessential committee mentality we will in short order take a leadership position in our web presentation.

Being a Near Follower is not so terribly bad. In fact it has its advantages; others do the bleeding on our behalf. Witness Sony's recent experience with the Rootkit fiasco or AOL's ActiveX debacle. If we remember that Technology is a process facilitator (and not THE PROCESS) it becomes much more palatable to be in the second or third position.

And before we get too far down the "O" path... we need to realize that in the end it is horribly expensive, the loss of control significant, and the loss of a caring and dedicated staff incalculable. In a typical outsource scenario, all assets are sold off and the staff is laid off (or given the "opportunity" to work for the newly vested interest).

I am not aware of any of our peer institutions that have done such or are considering doing so. Let's think on this one for awhile...

lparsons,  January 23, 2006 at 10:52 AM  

Adrian makes a compelling case for outsourcing, especially from a manager's point of view. However, I find it curious that even as we discuss outsourcing, there is a project in the works to provide Blogs and Wikis to ASU faculty, staff, students, etc. using ASU resources (i.e. not outsourced). If we assume there is a need/desire to provide students and staff with easy access to their own Wiki and Blog, the question becomes why do it at ASU? It seems we have decided (as a reaction to high profile external Blogs and Wikis perhaps?) to develop solutions internally, despite the ready availability of commercial resources. Maybe there were concerns about loss of control, or loss of privacy? Or maybe we want to prove that "we can do it", as a matter of pride and/or job security?

A key component to a successful IT strategy at ASU will involve a critical review of what services we do and do not support. However, we must also raise the bar for ourselves and find a way to add value to the services that we provide, above and beyond what a commercial entity can accomplish. That may be better support, more customized interface, or better interoperability with other campus resources.

vinnys,  January 24, 2006 at 5:42 AM  

I am not debating the pros and cons of outsourcing. I understand that you and the President of this University are going to do what you both feel necessary to increase revenue and to bring the University in line with what you consider to be current technology standard practices. However, my point is more about people than it is about things. If it is the University’s intent to outsource any IT functions it should be done with dignity and respect for IT employees. The plan should be put on the table for all to see. List what will be outsourced, who will be affected, and a timeline stating when and how the transition will take place. This is the right and honorable thing to do. The employee’s of IT deserve to know what the future holds for them.

Dwoerman,  January 25, 2006 at 9:58 AM  

I’m really flabbergasted by the term “near follower”. This was from an IT strategic plan that was last modified in March of 2001, over a year before Dr Crow became our 16th president. Everyone knows that since Dr. Crow has arrived, things are very different here at ASU. I agree that IT could be more of a curve breaker, but that really entails technology pruning, something that ASU has never excelled at. Also it must be recognized that IT is a service organization supporting the general populace of ASU, and not research. When asked for Technology enhancements, IT has stepped to the plate; the High Performance Computing is a good example. From my perspective in the IT trenches, IT is always willing to tackle new projects, and has a vast amount of knowledge that has implemented revolutionary technologies without interruptions to the ongoing core business of the University; Clean Access in the dorms, guest access for wireless users are two that come to mind.

There are several things that should, and could be outsourced; Cable television, web hosting, and Internet access in the dorms are a couple of ideas. I think we/ASU should look carefully before we send IT’s core competencies offsite. Maybe a closer relationship between Computer Science and the IT organization would create a “far-flung monarch” of technology.

Nancy January 26, 2006 at 7:41 AM  

Someone prove me wrong: The claim that there are around 1000 IT people working for ASU is misleading. I would be very surprised to learn that there are more than, say, 500 salaried technical staff here, not counting secretarial help, student workers, lab attendants and so on. By "technical", I mean people who boot servers, write code, upgrade database software, analyze systems with some knowledge of their technical implementation. Maybe the line is a little fuzzy (do we include managers? That's a joke...) but at this point, the "1000" number seems unlikely to me.

Someone prove me wrong: The idea that our current Web technological advances are due to innovations by Amazon and eBay, or any profit-oriented entity, is somewhat off-target. My sense is, without checking (I'm supposed to be on vacation), is that they have been quick to utilize advances generated by two basic forces: shared code and standards agreements.

By standards agreements, I mostly mean XML. "Conversations" on the Web, and within the computing world, in general, have been hampered by the lack of agreed-upon data structures. Finally some agreements are being made, enabling people from all parts of the world to speak the same "language"; an advance of inestimable utility. These agreements are made, for the most part, by organizations such as W3C or industry groups such as PESC. Sun controls Java standards but it's arguable how profitable that is.

By shared code, I mean open source, Creative Commons licensing, and other non-profit innovations which enable everyone to learn at the same speed. Private companies don't give their secrets away for fear of losing competitive advantage. But people who can somehow manage to work for free do it all the time, and the current explosion of Web-based technology is greatly based on their free labor. What OS runs most Web servers? Linux, I bet: free. What Web software hosts most sites? Apache, I bet: free. My reference to the definition for Creative Commons, above, is located on the MediaWiki-based Wikipedia: free. I installed a blog on my personal Web hosting service this morning using WordPress, arguably the most popular blogging software: free.

Where is ASU in this? If Knowledge Entrepreneurship is one of the University's priorities, then let's get innovating. It may be that we need to restructure, and get some easily "canned" things be done off-site, but I hate to think we're saying that private industry is technologically more limber and thoughtful than we are.

pchorner,  January 27, 2006 at 7:35 AM  

First, before I go off on my soapbox, I would like to thank Adrian for citing the vertical integration paper. If you are a manager with experience in the academics of business, you would understand the correlation between the tools (formulas based on empirical and tested observations) presented and ASU's strategic planning needs.

The reality for ASU, as I see it with this analogy, is with ASU likened to that of a cruise ship. The ship is designed to move people (ASU is designed to educate). The ship has core components that are necessary in order to achieve its goal- a captain's deck (administration), berths (classrooms), engine room (instructors), infirmary/tour guide (student affairs), kitchen/food services, electrician, janitor, and other crew (support staff/infrastructure). The boat is only so big. To increase capacity, you have to reengineer or come up with a new strategy. If you continue to reengineer, after a while, the integrity of the ship and/or quality of service degrades, and you probably start to lose customers- you have lost your way. You could make room by reducing the size of the kitchen and outsource meal preparation to be preloaded on your ship before departure, but you are still confined to the physical size of the single ship. Another strategy is to increase the size of your fleet (add another campus), but each boat has its own captain and support staff, each with different methods and means. Unification is under the corporate ownership of the fleet (ABOR, Office of the President), but operationally there is differentiation and some disconnect (ASU's current state of being in my opinion). What do you do? Design an agile fleet from the ground up, then look at what resources are necessary and their sources. Agility is they key predicate here.

What does this have to do with IT? A lot. It may be more effective (cost or otherwise) to employ a welder on the ship to do small repairs, while outsourcing major welding work for the ship to a company at a port that the ship services. A weld is a weld which is governed by procedure. There isn't a special ASU weld to differentiate. Now I could see that we would need our own welders if there were not any welders in serviced ports, but that is not the case. I could go on for quite a while with this analogy, but hopefully you can see where it is going. An organization the size of ASU needs to really pause, inventory itself, align goals, and develop methods that make those goals achievable.
As for Amazon not relevant to ASU, I disagree. Amazon at a macro level has the same process components- advertise for customer interest, provide customer with a product, entice the customer to return by providing relevance and value. At its core, Amazon has the ability to retain your interest and awareness. The intelligence behind Amazon's systems and business model gave them a "first mover advantage" in the ecommerce marketplace. What I believe Adrian is trying to inform us about is that ASU has the possibility to take "first mover advantage" with technology to support the New American University plan. How? Maybe by removing people, politics, and resources from the picture and use some of our UML/object-oriented modeling approaches we could design backwards- from Goal/Vision to the mid-layer of component detail. To remain agile, the mid-layer should be designed to accommodate change beneath it without affecting the product/outcomes above.
If you are still reading this... thanks for your time :)

Craig Mason,  February 23, 2006 at 9:58 AM  

I am not sure that I understand the comparison between ASU and Amazon/Google, correctly. If we continue with the web page example, it indicates that ASU has not kept up with Amazon. However, this is where I get a little confused. For example, when I was a student here at ASU in the early 90’s, when registering for classes, one had to go down to a registration site, find out what classes were still available by scanning a list that was posted on the wall, fill out a paper registration form, wait in line, and finally turn in the form to someone sitting at a computer, who then typed in your information into the system. Since then, this process has changed dramatically, in my opinion, and is now completely done on-line. Recently, I registered for a class and was blown away by how easy it was. Furthermore, it’s even linked with the ASU Bookstore so that you can get all of your books at the same time. And taking this a step further, we are able to use ASU Interactive to pay tuition, check application status, and obtain parking permits, to name a few.

So, here is where the confusing part comes in to play, for me at least. I purchased a couple of books on Amazon not too long ago. And I am assuming that we all have done this before, for the most part, so I won’t detail the process. However, the experience for me, with ordering a book from Amazon and registering for a class at ASU, was very similar. That being said, what am I missing? Is there really that large of a gap between ASU and Amazon as depicted on the graph?

In addition, what are the names of other universities that are using and/or planning to adopt/implement this new strategy similar to ASU’s?

Paul,  March 2, 2006 at 9:52 AM  

(A continuation and reply to Craig Mason's post)

I'm currently a student and an employee here and I've never had an issue with the way I register for a class during my academic career here. The only problem I ever had was trying to drop/add a class during the first week of school. Compared to other Universities' registration systems that I am familiar with, ours is far better. For example, I have friends that attend Loyola University Chicago (a tiny school compared to Arizona State University) and all I've ever heard were complaints about their system and how jealous they were that it took me 5 minutes to enroll in the classes I want and am done. We don't need the system to do too much, from my point-of-view as a student and from what I've heard from fellow classmates, the online services provided are excellent.

The only difference I can see between Amazon/Google and ASU is that ASU doesn't use datamining of any sort. The reason Google is Google is because of their excellent algorithm for retrieving relevant information on a search query. The same with Amazon, each time I log into Amazon, it will suggest what books would interest me based on previous purchases/sales. I could see ASU suggesting what courses you could take next based on the type of schedule you would like, could be useful. However, to make ASU like Amazon/Google,it seems like you need to focus your goals on money, not overall student satisfaction. Maybe I'm not seeing the key differences between ASU and Google/Amazon, but from a student's standpoint, the services being offered to me are excellent. From an employee's stand-point, there's always something more I can offer to make the student enjoy their stay and want to come to ASU. I'm interested in comparing our services against those provided from other schools since they are the ones that can sway a student to go there, Google and Amazon can serve as an inspiration.

University Technology Officer » Blog Archive » Like Technology From An Advanced Alien Culture… October 16, 2006 at 7:52 AM  

[...] Regular readers of this blog will recognize the curve on the left from a previous post, where I described how I believed that the fate of “Near Followers” would be to fall increasingly further behind the state of the technical art relative to industry leaders like Google and Amazon. ASU recognizes that if we are to realize the full potential of this rapidly evolving technology, our internal IT organizations must somehow leave behind the provisioning of underlying service and climb the value chain to focus on the application and integration of rapidly emerging capabilities to continuously improve the university’s core activities. [...]

Ken’s TEK (Technology, Education, and Knowledge) » Blog Archive » Zimbra vs. Google April 14, 2007 at 10:34 PM  

[...] So far in our debates, the tally below indicates our current thinking between the two possible alternatives. Our analysis will evolve as we continue with our present “near follower” strategy and engage in further research to develop a better sense of what the best fit for our environment is. [...]