Agility – it keeps me up at night

Our last CIO, Annie Stunden, used to talk about “what keeps her up at night”. These were the big intractable things or the big high-risk, highly visible projects she was working on. For me, it’s agility. How does an enterprise that prides itself on tradition and autonomy of everyone at every level become agile – that is able to embrace change and implement new ideas and technology quickly.

Agility is the ability to change course or direction with ease and grace.  An agile athlete can cut and leap while making it look effortless.  An agile enterprise can implement new technologies or embrace changes in the world with ease and grace.  Universities are not thought of as being agile but rather the opposite – steeped in tradition and long-deliberating on new changes.

There was an announcement about a new (worthy) initiative to improve the education skills of our faculty. Faculty are highly trained in their fields. They have spent years becoming expert on some are of study. We hire them for their great intellectual achievements and their promising research careers. And then we ask them to teach a class. For many, this is the first time they have been asked to build and run a course. So, we have a new initiative to study  ways to improve the teaching skills of our new (and old) faculty. I fully support this effort in case there is any doubt. It is pretty easy to imagine a time-line that looks something like this:

  • Year 1:  Research and Planning
  • Year 2:  Implementation, pilot and roll-out
  • Years 3 – 4:  Early adopters and success stories
  • Years 5 – 6:  Majority adopters and general improvement

This is me guessing at the time-line but I think it makes approximate sense.  If, six years from now the new program for improving teaching and had reached 66% of the faculty and shown a improvement in overall education; it would be a great success.  I think that it is likely that it will do so.

What I think about when I hear of something like this is agility.  Students today have a laptop with 1GB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, 10 – 50 Mb/second wireless connections.  They have an iPod with 80 GB of storage with a screen that has a 640X480 screen.  Their cell phone has a web browser, MP3 player, camera, video camera and a suite of messaging clients (text messaging, voice messaging and email).  If we follow Ray Kurzweil’s thinking and  Moore’s Law; then the student who comes in at the end of this 6 year plan will have 2 to the 4th more computing power at their fingertips.  The 1 GB of RAM will be 16 GBs.  The network speed will be 160 – 1000 Mb/second wireless connections.  Their iPod and laptop both will hold a terabyte of information.  Their cell phone will have a high definition video camera and a 16Mb still camera.

These are just the attributes that are doubling – the capabilities increase dramatically as these technology pieces double.  What happens when I can point my laptop camera at an object, have it recognized and instantly retrieve high-def movies about the object to my cell phone?  What does that mean to instructional style?

The technology and the students are highly agile.  Vendors are designing products for launch 2 years out expecting technical capabilities to double in the meantime.   What is too big, too expensive and requires too much computing horsepower now; is perfectly reasonable 18 months from now.  The students who are entering college now have had access to the World Wide Web their entire educational life.  They have always been able to “look it up on the web”.

There is another project that is on-going here which I’ll call “anonymous”.  They are also on a 5 to 6 year adoption plan.  Their vision is to pick a standard software package and then hope that people migrate to it.  After 5 or 6 years, the majority adopters will be using the system and then more rigorous standards can be developed for its use.   This is a common approach in higher-ed where there is no top-down approach and where autonomy is highly valued.   The shortcomings of this approach are that: (1) it takes the approach that each software solution is a silo which has no effect on any other activity in the enterprise and (2) it assumes a stable environment – “we have 6 years for this to be adopted and that’s okay because much else won’t change over that time”.

Back to my student with 2 terabytes of data and high definition video capture and gigabit wireless everywhere – does a system we think of now take into account the rapid change of our user’s world?   I’m not a futurist but I do see, and I agree with Ray Kurzweil, that  paradigm shifts are coming more and more quickly.  The world is changing with greater and greater rapidity.  The way to deal with that change is through agility.  We need to be able to change with greater and greater agility.  Fortunately, technology can help us to some extent.

SOA and Web Services, when fully implemented, allow for changes in business process and new applications to happen at a much higher level in the enterprise.  These changes become almost configuration changes rather than whole new applications stacks that are implemented.  But technology is only part of the solution to this problem.

The greater more difficult problem has to do with culture change.  The academic culture is thick with individualism and heritage.  People still complain about changes that were made a decade ago or two or three.  This individualism allows our institutions to foster great experimentation and wonderful debate.  Faculty and students can state disagreeable viewpoints in the safety of the institution and their rights.  Departments can experiment with new ways to deliver their courses and information to the world.  Researchers can band together with whomever they want anywhere in the world to chase an idea.  All great and marvelous stuff.

But this leads to a belief system that has two elements: “You can implement any technology you want as long as I can do what ever want however I want”. And the partner belief, “you can implement a new system as long as I don’t have to change anything that I do.”

How do we become agile as an institution is this environment of individualism, autonomy and self-determination?  How do we shorten those projects from 6 years to 3 or 2?  How do we get people to see that each project is actually part of larger whole and that we each need to give a bit of autonomy to increase the overall functionality of the organization?  In some ways, our institution is more like a colony of early single-celled organisms.  Each one with its own complete functions.  Somehow we need to grow to that next stage where there is differentiation so we can move up the evolutionary tree.  That means that each cell will give up some functionality to become a specialist but overall all of the functions will be better carried out.

How do we become agile, not just technically but also organizationally, this is the issue that keeps me up at night.