Slowing change and persuading academics

Linda Larsen has posted a summary of a presentation – “Aligning IT Innovation with Institutional Strategic Priorities” by Freeman Hrabowski (his bio is somewhat impressive), the President of the University of Maryland.

A major point he tries to make is summarised in these two quotes

  • “our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change”
  • “Again, working with faculty in the persuasion mode is the most appropriate and successful way. Don’t force all incoming instructors to use IT. If forced, they’ll find ways to get around it. Have conversations –…PERSUADE! ”

This is an idea I agree with, so obviously it’s a good idea. I wrote about this in an earlier post

An interesting mis-reading

What I’m really interested here is unpacking a mistake. When I first skimmed through the summary I read the first quote

our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change

as something completely different

our real challenge in the academic is to slow change

CQU, my place of work, currently has underway a project to upgrade its ERP – Peoplesoft. The project has been going for a few months. The somewhat funny observation is that a new version of Peoplesoft was released in December, 2007. The CQU project is upgrading to the version before this.

Anyone who knows anything about ERPs and upgrade projects knows that this project is not cheap. Millions of dollars. More importantly, there will be significant change associated with staff having to adapt to the new technology and new processes.

So what was the rationale behind the upgrade? Was it because the upgrade, and the expenditure of the large amount of money, was connected to the institutions strategic goals. Is the rationale to grow the business?

No, the rationale was that the version of the software CQU was using was about to become unsupported.

The institution is being forced to change. There is additional change happening to the organisation that wasn’t necessary.

This is what I mean when I say/think that universities need to slow change.

The source of change

In our paper, The Teleological Brake on ICTs in Open and Distance Learning, some colleagues and I draw on Introna’s (1996) distinction between teleological and ateleological design.

The vast majority of what passes for design or development in universities fits under (or at least claims to fit under) teleological design. Purpose driven, some rational person/group decides what to do and then all work from then on is aimed at achieving that purpose. Usually by breaking down the work into small bits done by specialists.

Introna (1996) suggests that the intermediate goal of teleological design is effectiveness and efficiency. The scope of design is usually set at part of the problem. So the IT folk only see their problem of dealing with Peoplesoft. The evaluate what should be done on that limited scope. In that scope it is most effective/efficient if they are running a system that is supported by Peoplesoft.

They don’t, and no-one else really is empowered, to look at the broader picture. To ask the question about whether or not it’s in the best interests of the entire organisation to upgrade.

Because of this problem, the entire organisation is required to undergo change and invest a lot of resources.

The ateleological alternative has as its intermediate goal equilibrium and homeostasis. In this model, change does happen but it is small-scale change that contributes to and enhances the current understanding of the organisation rather than radical change that may interrupt and cause disconnections.

Change is minimised, change is slowed.

So, what’s the solution

The question I’ve then been asked is, “How do you solve the problem of Peoplesoft not supporting our old version?”.

According to Introna (1996) the design process for ateleological design is local adaptation, reflection and learning. Design management is decentralised but always keeps as the design scope the entire organisation and the intermediate goals of equilibrium/homeostasis and the ultimate purpose of wholeness/harmony.

So the IT department should be focusing on minimising the change experience by the rest of the organisation. They might take time to reflect, and possibly learn, about whether or not the organisation can afford to spend X million dollars every few years to upgrade to the next version of Peoplesoft. They might ponder if there are approaches by which that amount of money could be minimised.

All the best practice literature around ERP implementation says that ERPs are hard to customise and that it is cheaper to change the organisation and its processes to fit the ERP.

An alternative approach is to put an intermediary information system (almost certainly multiple information systems) between the organisation and the ERP. This is assuming that the organisation isn’t ready to admit the folly of ERPs and write off its investment.

The aim is that the intermediary information system is implement using an ateleological approach that slows change. While the ERP can continue along its teleological path.

References

Introna, L. (1996). Notes on ateleological information systems development. Information Technology & People, 9(4), 20-39.

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