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.

Comments on this page:

From at 2009-11-11 09:31:19:

This is a great point. Universities seem to be slow to adapting to the idea of doing things externally. I've been pushing the idea that if basic needs such as e-mail and calendaring are offloaded to an external provider, the university can then devote more resources to developing tools and services unique to the academic setting.

From at 2009-11-12 05:47:59:

I would argue that it's only become this way because the available things such as webmail and calendaring aren't much good. If there were better solutions, or the option of having in-house installs of the external apps such as Gmail, then there would be no need for the universities to change the way they work.

I can completely understand why they do this, as they are providing many services which they need to guarantee, and they need to be sure that users receive important emails and so on, and to be able to check that the mails arrived and were read (or not..). External services rarely give this level of flexibility (yet!).

From at 2009-11-12 06:46:00:

"If in practice you will be held responsible if something unforeseeable goes horribly wrong..."

This is always the case with university-supplied services, whether internal or external, and I would say is the major reason for the slow pace of change for university (central) IT services.

When you have 20,000+ users who will all phone the helpdesk/complain about how much they're paying in fees/whatever to say that they can't get their mail if it ever happens, then you want to be sure that it works reliably... :)

From at 2009-11-16 08:36:26:

This is a very timely and fascinating topic. In a future post can you detail out specific steps your department is taking to address the changing needs and landscape?

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