Collaboration: not an option, but a necessity
I’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;
- Historically there has been little motivation or support from the departments and faculties to co-operate
- The funding model and centrally provided IT services (unintentionally) supports a ‘silo’ approach
- 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.