IT Strategies through An Agile Lens: Growth through Collaboration and Teamwork
If we start with the established framework most widely used for agile software development, which has been around for 15 years or so, we can envision for ourselves a set of strategies for central IT.
Both my current experience in higher education and my former career in the business world convince me that agility is indeed a critical ingredient for success in myriad environments. As a start, some of the elements of the seminal Agile Manifesto are worth our investigation, albeit contextualized for our IT worlds. This creative repurposing is one reason that recent developments and attention to agile thinking are becoming popular and relevant. This leverages the long-established software development paradigm, effectively making its applicability much more broad-based.
Central IT can become more agile by performing as champion and leader for cross-departmental technology-focused discussions and high-performance teams. When dedicated professionals self-organize or join existing groups, these individuals can infuse the assemblage with much-needed agility and even affect related behaviors. Collaboration becomes a powerful force in IT when like-minded professionals share best practices and then use that as a foundation for actually changing and improving the manner in which they engage each other and support their constituencies. As Isaacson said in The Innovators, “great innovations are usually the result of ideas that flow from a large number of sources.” We know that written contracts or negotiated service level agreements, for example, are anathema to the tenets of agile thinking and performing in an agile manner. It is, instead, about getting to launch something real that works as opposed to detailing who is going to do what. Oftentimes establishing and detailing those finalized assignments takes longer than introducing a product or app that simply works and with which most everyone seems to be satisfied if not excited.
IT can become more agile by being more transparent with its systems, support and strategies. When transparency exists, everyone involved can focus on the challenges at hand rather than wasting time attempting to determine who stands where and what can be gained in one realm (read: silo) or another. Bowen and Tobin advised those of us in higher education that “a key is to establish trust—an elusive but critical determinant of success or failure.” Siloed mentalities and frameworks are anathema to agile thinking and performance. The challenge in higher ed has always been the relatively small size of the pie, so to speak, at most institutions anyway. Departments, be they academic or administrative, all vie for limited funds, personnel, space and other resources. Agile thinking never confines itself to legacy or pre-determined boundaries.
IT can become more agile by leading discovery initiatives and finding new ways to utilize existing resources. Most central IT units invest in and support tremendously complex systems and applications. By definition, most are also quite expensive. A more effective agile approach would be to deepen the vertical of the “T” than to broaden the horizontal of the “T.” That is, use as many features of the system you already own as you can instead of acquiring something new, seemingly at every turn. Innovators, in part, find new and exciting ways to repurpose existing things.
With central IT behaving more like a partner than a vendor to internal constituencies and end-users, it makes itself more agile by default. This facilitates continuous quality improvement, by design, which always plays into agile processes. When conversations focus on growing and accomplishing together, rather than stopping with an internal service mentality, real and meaningful outcomes can surface. At our institution, we have never had charge-backs or central IT affordances, training, or support. To do so would create unnecessary overlaps (read: waste) and delay implementation and adoption. Administering charge-backs, alone, would also erode what little revenue central IT might bring in anyway. Our model enables us in central IT to really work with end-users to find collaborative solutions that we can both move on.
Finally, when the core IT department serves to leverage what it already funds and supports instead of simply acquiring more assets, it increases IT agility. We like to use a phrase that focuses everyone: access versus assets. It starts with getting everyone onboard with what we already own and support. Using what we already have in new and exciting ways energizes everyone; it gets the creative juices flowing. The resulting synergies bring untold benefits to individual units, the entire institution and, ultimately, stakeholders across the institution. We do not need more apps. We need more training and support and understanding of the dimensional array within the assets we already have. Very few of us have done true, collegial and inclusive deep dives into existing IT-related assets. The outcomes of these kinds of explorations could potentially uncover more agile access to, and use of, those assets.
Ultimately, an agile IT unit can support the growth and progress of the entire institution. As passionate IT professionals we must take the lead in collaboration, inclusiveness and open dialogue. This will help us transform our operations to become more transparent, champion collective discovery, recast central IT as partner rather than commodity supplier, and increase end-user access to a wonderful array of existing assets.
All of us will better serve our students, faculty and other constituencies in the offing and concomitantly increase our own effectiveness. The academy will be the better for our efforts when we can become increasingly agile IT operations.
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 Isaacson, W. (2014). The innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses and geeks created the digital revolution. Simon & Schuster, London. (p. 84)
 Bowen, W. G. & Tobin, E. M. (2015). Locus of authority: The evolution of faculty roles in the governance of higher education. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. (p. 212)
Author Perspective: Administrator