Last week the annual EDUCAUSE 2012 conference, for Higher Education IT people, took place in Denver. As usual, there was a buzz of stories that appeared on HE news websites like The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What struck me, following the news and discussions, was that there's a real focus on the pace of change happening (or believed to be just around the corner) in higher education, and the fact that the 'old ways' of doing things just aren't going to work in a world dominated by rapid change and consumer-led thinking of your customers (whether that's external customers – students, research funders) or internal ones (the faculty and administration that choose to use IT services).

Out of the hundreds of hours of talks, and tens of thousands of words that happened at the conference, here's two quotes from two different parts that struck home:

Clay Shirky at EDUCAUSE 2012

Clay Shirky, in his keynote kicking off the conference, talked about how he believes that technology is changing everything across education, from research to publishing to studying. And his idea for the conference was about the benefits of, and revolution possible through, a spirit of openness and collaboration created through social media. There's a short summary on The Chronicle of HE, but I'd recommend watching the whole session here, as I'm only going to highlight one single soundbite from a much longer, brilliantly engaging keynote (at 58:30 in the video)

Here's the two sentences that struck me as completely pertinent to Australian universities (start watching the video at 52:45 for the analogous story):

  Do not put together an interdisciplinary team from 12 departments and give them a budget of a quarter of a million dollars, and a year and a half deadline. Find five people and ask them what can you do in a month—for free. I think the results will surprise you.  

Start-Ups at EDUCAUSE 2012

And this quoted make me think of another session from EDUCAUSE, where education-technology start-ups were pitching to venture capitalists for their money. It was the last three sentences in The Chronicle report, quoting the founder of one of the start-ups, Matthew Racz, that struck me:

 

…ed-tech start-ups faced a challenging market because colleges move so slowly in adopting new products.

“There’s a 9-to-18-month decision cycle,” he said. “That’s a little too slow for innovation to happen.”

 

So here's my question: Can IT keep up with innovation?

Why did I find these two particular quotes important? Well, as I reflected on the statements above, it challenged my thinking about IT in education – and made me reflect on projects in the past. I've often seen IT projects at the leading edge – where IT has been enabling and driving change, sometimes at a speed that is faster than users can easily adapt to. And here we are being told that change isn't fast enough. Have we been banging our head against a brick wall?

No, I don't think we have. But the challenge is the way that projects and procurement processes can support an agile, innovative organisation.

Example: I once worked with a university on a project that could deliver an ROI for an investment in energy reduction in 7 days (ie the project paid for itself in a week). But it took them 9 months from start to finish on the procurement process – which meant that 97% of the time, they were throwing money down the drain.

I've no doubt that IT teams can keep up with the speed of innovation in education, but to do that, some of today's processes are going to have to change. When…

  • It takes longer to write a specification than it does to create the final project that results;
  • The specification process takes so long that the specification is out of date by the time the project delivers;
  • It costs more to run the procurement process to choose a product, than the actual cost of the product;

…then it's time for change. I often see exactly these three characteristics above in projects for Business Intelligence systems and also for CRM systems

IT can keep up with the speed of innovation – and continue to lead change. But some of the approaches to project are likely to have to change significantly to allow this, especially with the fragmentation of control and decision making that we're facing by individuals, managers, leaders, and departmental organisations.