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Defining the Factors that Affect (or Block) a Shift Away from the Status Quo

The EvoLLLution | Defining the Factors that Affect (or Block) a Shift Away from the Status Quo
A few key, but often uncommunicated, factors in whether or not a committee decides to shift away from the status quo include organizational maturity, the type of project and the proposal writer’s ability to appeal to organizational objectives.

The Evolving Nature of Common Factors

Most organizations of higher education are painfully conservative, perhaps reflecting the conserving nature of university mission and life. Our experience has been that the dual objectives of predictable financial performance and positive institutional reputation, have significant impact on areas not well understood by principally lay boards of trustees and university councils, and non-technical chief executives. Information and communication technology (ICT)  perhaps represents the quintessential fear- inducing aspect of enterprise functions, resulting in generally conservative approaches to expenditure and development. Paradoxically, ICT is also seen as an important source of efficiency and innovation, creating an ongoing tension between risk aversion and risk acceptance. The tension results in a continuing discussion about investment, performance, competitiveness and return on investment.

With these factors in play, those responsible for the advancement of information and communication technology and services tend to develop governance processes designed to attain organizational goals and meet expectations within cultural norms, while creating capacity that assesses and applies appropriate levels of compliance. While developing, refining and guiding the governance process at USQ, our intent was to create a level of transparency inviting participation in decision making and forums for discussion that balanced views on investment priorities, assessments of project performance and need for intervention.

Over the past five years, ICT governance has moved the discussion to balancing our project portfolio in terms of upgrades to major systems, investment in needed enterprise capacity, educational technologies, and enabling new initiatives. Meanwhile our focus has moved from supporting isolated projects on an annual basis, to programs of projects with a variety of horizons. Recognizing that our project management regime requires diversity and governance that values and enables strategies based on agile methods and open practices.

The ICT governance process at USQ is intended to force discussions about the results the status quo is delivering relative to the universities’ cultural appetite for change in a manner that manages the tensions respectfully.

Under these conditions, the most common factors that push a centralized ICT governance committee to make decisions that promote the status quo or change is entirely contextual and indicatively includes:

  • Maturity of the governance process (scope of stakeholder participation, transparency, reliability, monitoring, etc.)
  • Potential impact of the proposed project on organizational performance
  • Comfort with level of control the university has regarding project outcomes and inherent risk (cloud, consortial relations, etc.)
  • The nature of current university priorities
  • Risk disposition of university governance and executive management
  • Organizational respect for ICT governance process
  • Capacity for the organization to manage (digest) change expressed through multiple projects

These are among the factors that will influence a decision-making committee and which, if understood and appreciated by the proposal writer, can be used to their benefit. Functionally, the role of governance and project management is to responsibly nurture the impulse toward questioning the status quo and embracing change. To do this we try to a) build processes that provide confidence in the university’s ability to deliver improvements on the status quo, b) implement new technologies and services that support known universtiy needs, and c) develop methods to support experimentation and use of technologies.

Different Factors for Different Objectives

Requests/proposals for different types of projects, will have different factors and different levels of appetite for status quo and change. In some ways these terms are subject to interpretation. For example, status quo can mean maintaining no change in the current state, but it also might refer to reluctance to make changes in ongoing plans or changes that will impact university policy or common and tested procedures. Typical indicative factors that governance committees may consider relating to different types of projects may include:

  1. Large Service and Maintenance Projects (maintenance of enterprise systems)
  • Risk of cost overrun
  • Schedule slippage that impacts system dependencies and disrupts business operations
  • Reputational risk associated with a major deployment failure
  1. New Enterprise/Business Systems (Contracts, Research Management, Inventory Management, Fleet Management, Safety Management, etc.)
  • Improved efficiency of current process and workflows
  • Transfer of costs due to process and time improvements
  • Potential disruptions and benefits to university-level processes, not anticipated at the local divisional or departmental levels
  1. Educational Projects (learning management, library and research management, classroom-based technologies)
  • Measurement of benefit – these are strategic and highest potential value
  • Balancing investment in business enterprise and educational mission
  • Evidence of interest on the part of the academic staff
  1. Small projects (enterprise and administration)
  • Management overhead as a percent of project
  • Potential for shared use across the university
  • Is the problem being addressed of local or broad interest
  1. Experimental
  • Remove stigma of failure – otherwise boundaries aren’t tested and learnings are limited
  • Challenging dogmatic adherence to current compliance regime
  • Testing assumptions about reducing the costs to test new ideas

Concluding Thoughts

The decision of an information and communication technology governance committee to maintain status quo or embrace change tends to depend on a combination of organizational maturity, the type of project being proposed, and the ability of the proposal writer to appeal to organizational objectives that are mediated through the dominant culture. Although these factors may not be explicitly communicated to the community and will likely evolve at different paces at different times, they will play a role in decision making.

At USQ we continue to test, reflect and learn to continuously improve our capability to deliver value internally between IT projects and stakeholders, and externally in service of our educational mission.  Flexibility and agility should be more than just a methodology.  It is a mindset open to continuous adaptation and improvement.  This is the necessary state to deliver value and succeed in a fast-moving future while managing downside risk. Opportunities will continue to emerge, business needs will continue to change and organisations must have the tools, mindset and confidence to embrace this. Building these is a key focus for the future.