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...