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Tech Management for Nontech Managers

A broader understanding of the function of technology is necessary for leaders and nontechnical managers.
University Business, Sep 2007

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN a comprehensive understanding of computers and technology was limited to those who chose to launch a career in IT. But as software has become a more complex and an integral part of our daily lives, it is clear a thorough knowledge of the complexity of how software interrelates is necessary for effective strategic planning and institutional operation by administrators throughout any college or university.

This principle holds true in corporate America and is equally important in higher education. External to the campus community, society has become increasingly dependent on information technology. The generation of students now entering the college classroom has been raised in a technological world and has come to expect the availability of certain tools. The internet and wireless capabilities, for example, were once considered luxuries, but they have morphed into necessities.

The technological infrastructure of the campus community is a separate factor. It has become increasingly apparent that individual departments are dependent upon technology to perform day-to-day duties.

Each of these factors contributes to the need for colleges and universities to stay ahead of technological developments that could affect institutional operation. This isn't an issue that rests solely on the shoulders of the chief information officer.

Students raised in a technological world expect the availability of technology tools.

Instead, information technology must be comprehensively planned at the institutional level, engaging the attention of executive leadership. Because technology now touches everything we do throughout the campus community-how we operate, communicate, facilitate-a broader understanding of the function is necessary on the part of leaders and non-technical managers.

To effectively meet the challenges facing campus information technology, a governance structure must be developed that incorporates the knowledge of IT professionals with executive leadership and advisory groups in an integrated strategic planning process. It is important for this process to include a comprehensive view of the bigger picture technological landscape, as well as the potential for change that exists as upgrades are made and alliances are formed within the software industry.

The software sector has become a world unto itself-a community of products interacting to sustain a larger operation. Let's consider these as small world ecosystems.

The most important point I can make here is this: Competition has morphed into collaboration. More and more software producers are forming alliances necessary to meet the needs of end users.

This concept has been personified by Hollywood. Six Degrees of Separation, the theory that anyone on the planet can be connected to any other person by a chain of acquaintances that has no more than six intermediaries, is a 1993 movie based on a play by John Guare. The theory was solidified in pop culture with the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," wherein the goal is to try and link various actors, through their film roles, to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less.

To whichever form of the theory you subscribe, the concept is very relevant when it comes to managing a college campus, regardless of the size. Be it the smallest of institutions or the largest and most intricate of universities, as the technological climate changes, the potential for any operation to come to a crippling halt exists, especially if competitive moves are not anticipated. In fact, the focus of competition has shifted from the individual firm to the network.

What does this mean to the institutions that have come to rely on such corporations as Blackbaud, parent company of Raiser's Edge, the lifeblood of almost any fundraising operation? Or Datatel, which offers tools to aid in effective enrollment or financial management? What does the future hold for these mainstays? With whom are they aligned? What impact will those alliances have in the future, especially if a key partner makes a move unbeknownst to either corporation? These are the questions we should be asking, rather than assuming the status quo will always be maintained. A realistic assessment needs to be made of how much change may occur, how ready the community is to embrace such change, and how willing the institutional leadership is to promote it.

For example, the introduction of open source programs in the past several years has added to the question of long-term harmony and viability. Course management systems, such as Moodle and Sakai, have eliminated the confines of the classroom and effectively enabled students and teachers to communicate and manage coursework via the internet. They are still considered too recent or "new" to be factored in to the big picture of the technological landscape. But the growing popularity of both programs will certainly provide enough opportunity for input from the early adopters.

Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, and Google are all examples of how the climate has changed external to academia. Each is connected in a complex and ever-changing web of competition and cooperation. On the outside, each competes for consumer market share, but beneath the surface, they have provider partnerships in common. While no one firm can supply every software product that customers need, developers have recognized the necessity of forming alliances among manufacturers to provide the goods and services required by a large and diverse group of end users. This history also offers a glimpse of what higher education can and should expect. To ensure interoperability, firms share information on the features and functionality of products, as well as to coordinate product release times. Since software has evolved at such a rapid pace, alliance formations must be dynamic to respond to technological shifts.

Developers recognize the need to form alliances among manufacturers that benefit end users.

As these landscape changes occur, non-technical managers need to become more technologically savvy and not rely solely on the skill set of IT employees. Non-technical personnel must be able to anticipate what impending changes within the industry could mean to the future use of software by the college or university.

There are five metrics that can help you determine how comprehensive a network might become. They are:

1. The average number of links a firm has with another firm at any time

2. The average degree of partners

3. The path length

4. The clustering coefficient

5. Network density

Links can be direct or indirect and are illustrated by the path length or the number of steps it will take to reach a specific firm in the alliance. This is where the six degrees of separation is demonstrated. The clustering coefficient merely refers to the extent to which a firm's partners are also partners with each other. And the network density is the ratio of links that exist to the number of potential links that could occur if all possible partnerships are consummated.

As software firms grow increasingly specialized, they become more focused on alliance activities, which ultimately reduce the density of a network. Not every firm does the same thing; therefore, the competition is less, and the need for a strong alliance to serve the customer is apparent.

The business ecosystem has emerged as a new point of reference for strategy formation. Mapping the ecosystem in terms of interfirm connections is important in order to understand how firms access complementary resources through relations. A diagrammatic representation of the ecosystem with key relationships provides the context for strategy formation and implementation. This will help those seeking to understand software networks.

For strategic purposes, creating a dashboard of historical patterns that have occurred within the ecosystem will help managers understand stability or shifts and give points of reference in order to anticipate what the future may hold.

The usefulness and practicality of a network perspective can be seen through the development of a scorecard, which reflects how an individual firm seeks to leverage network positions for competitive advantage. But this is something that should be tailored to an individual business operation. After all, small world ecosystems are entities unto themselves and may not be useful to a high number of end users.

Network scorecards aren't periodic summaries of positions. They are dynamic dashboards that rely on frequent updates of networks of relationships. This ensures the network representation allows for continuous adjustment of how best to navigate under fast changing conditions.

With the ability to design and deploy an executive dashboard of network positions, the information will go a long way to enhancing a manager's ability to comprehend, analyze, and act on moves and countermoves by the different players that comprise their own small world ecosystem.

N. Venkatraman teaches information technology strategy and strategic management at Boston University's School of Management.

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