Collaboration: not an option, but a necessity

collaborationI’ve spent quite a bit of the last six months trying to encourage Computer Officers to co-operate for mutual benefit.  I’m the current Chair of the Departmental IT Management Group (DITMG), formed to foster and support collaboration and co-operation amongst Computer Officers.  To my surprise (probably naive) it’s proving difficult, and I’m trying to work out why.  On the one hand, co-operation is natural to humans; we evolved as tribal groups, acting together to achieve more as a community than we could as individuals.  At Cambridge though, Computer Officers frequently act as individuals, or in very small groups (i.e. their institutional IT team).  This can mean they achieve less than they could acting as part of a larger group.

This ‘silo’ mentality has always puzzled me, as it seems opposite to the collaborative ethos demonstrated by the programmers and technologists which developed the world-changing open source movement.  Open Source software development is surely one of the best examples of collaboration across institutional and even national boundaries for mutual benefit.  Personal experience and discussion with other IT staff at the University leads me to believe there are three contributory factors at work here;

  1. Historically there has been little motivation or support from the departments and faculties to co-operate
  2. The funding model and centrally provided IT services (unintentionally) supports a ‘silo’ approach
  3. The stereotypical Computer Officer is a ‘technical hermit’, and whilst this is a universal generalisation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t often true!

Something has to change

It’s clear now that the pressure on funding will definitely provide the motivation to co-operate, as top slice funding is reduced and that reduction leads to institution wide reviews of all expenditure.  At least one School at Cambridge is reviewing its IT provision across the entire organisation, and there are signs of a review of IT provision at the highest level of the University.  When the planning model assumes a minimum 2% reduction every year for 4-5 years, how likely is it that the University will allow IT Departments to continue reinventing their own wheel?  As I said at the DITMG General Meeting this week, I think the time has come when we either co-operate of our own volition, or co-operation is thrust upon us.

How could it work?

It’s difficult to predict what form co-operation will take, as Cambridge is quite different to most other HE institutions (with multiple autonomous institutions operating in a federated structure), but you can extrapolate from recent developments in IT provision at Cambridge to identify three possible models;

  • Centralisation.  One option is for a school to merge a number of smaller IT departments into one centralised unit which is funded by a ‘top slice’ of the budget for the school, which has the advantage of economies of scale in purchasing and implementation.  The success of this option seems to vary depending on the institution.
  • Chargeable service model.  The Clinical School Computing Service is an example of a centralised IT department providing services on a chargeable basis, with a per unit cost of PC’s and other services.  In a geographically close context this seems to work very well.
  • Co-sourcing/merging.  Institutions including the University Development Office and Institute of Continuing Education (my own institution) have chosen to co-source their IT service provision to the Management Information Services Division, and merge their IT staff into that division.  This provides a larger pool of resource to service each Institution without extra expense.
  • Informal Co-operation.  There are a number of institutions exploring less formal models of co-operation than those above, where the individual institution IT departments remain the same, but co-operate on purchasing, implementation and staffing.

All of these models could provide a solution for the financial climate IT providers will be facing over the next 4-5 years; but whether co-operation evolves organically in a ‘bottom up’ model into less formal arrangements, or the pressure from above leads to shared/outsourced/cloud provided services has yet to be seen.  For the IT staff at the University who will be affected by these changes, my message is that your future could be in your hands, but only if you get out of your office and start collaborating.

One thought on “Collaboration: not an option, but a necessity

  • November 9, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Hi Richard,

    The open source movement is possibly not the best collaborative model for you to consider. From an open source ocean only those fish that *want* to swim in a shoal come together. Whilst you have a massive fish tank there, ultimately the fish that are swimming around in it are the only ones you’ve got and if they don’t appear to shoal naturally…

    From personal experience I would also like to state what may be the obvious banana skin for collaboration with the centralising model; redundancy. Individuals that recognise the duplicity (polygamy…?) of a single IT function across many satellite offices (in conjunction with the national term de jour; fiscal reduction measures) will be reticent to centralise voluntarily. Someone is going to lose their job and why should anyone make it easy for it to be them or one of their team? Granted, this may seem like the urban ostrich myth and in some cases, yes, even the smartest among us bury our heads in the sand from time to time, but I guess this comes under that tribal banner of human nature that is “territorial”?

    And *do not* get me started on outsourcing.

    So, my question is; “with your specific circumstances what is the benefit to an individual for collaboration?” If you can answer that question with positive, building, statements maybe you can get your fish to shoal. (“Redundancy avoidance” is not a building statement…!) Looking at the bigger picture is fine when it hangs pride of place in the Louvre but to get to that point the painter must pay very close attention to detail; maybe you have to go to a fine grain and look at each individual to see what boxes need ticking for them to buy into collaboration? (I would hope there is a better panacea than personal gain, I don’t know your colleagues well enough to say, but after 26 years in business I would be surprised; altruism, no matter how many experiments with Monkeys say otherwise, is a very rare virtue.)



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