For universities, the Internet world has fundamentally changed

November 11, 2009

Once upon a time, the Internet was just something that you used to communicate with other universities (and companies). One consequence of this was that the university needed to provide everything for its own people; all of the services they needed needed to come from the university.

This is no longer the case for universities. Increasingly, people no longer want you to be their service provider (partly because they already have their own), and on top of that other people can do bits of it better than you can (consider Google Mail versus your typical university webmail interface).

This is a major, wrenching change in how you think about providing services, and part of what makes it wrenching is that expectations have to be changed too. To put it bluntly, you can't be held responsible for the service being available, because there will be times that the service is unavailable or broken for reasons that are completely beyond your control.

This is, I think, not a trivial thing. 'Responsibility' is burned very deeply into organizations; it's in people's attitudes towards their jobs, in mission statements and organizational descriptions, and in expectations by higher administration. Letting go is hard, because it is such a fundamental change; you stop being responsible for user email, for example, and instead become 'responsible' merely for making the best choice of outside provider (or running it yourself, but let's be honest here, Google is better if you can use it).

(This assumes that you do just become responsible for picking the best outside provider. If in practice you will be held responsible if something unforeseeable goes horribly wrong with the outside provider, then the sensible and predictable managerial response is to keep doing as much in house as possible.)

PS: application to the general university tension between locally provided services and centrally provided services is left as an exercise for the reader.

Written on 11 November 2009.
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Last modified: Wed Nov 11 00:54:52 2009
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