Strategizing About Change

Some years ago the communications director at my institution gave a presentation on the keys to good communications and the ways to make sure your message is heard: "Keep your message short and simple." "Repeat your message at least five times." She had other things to say about good communications, but throughout the talk, she interspersed, "Remember what I said? You need to say your message at least five times." By the middle of her presentation, all of us in the auditorium formed an impromptu chorus each time she uttered "Remember," and we finished the exhortation right along with her.

Cloud computing vendors must have heard a similar presentation. Not a day goes by without multiple e-mail and voicemail messages from vendors who want time on my calendar to pitch their offerings. There is a cloud provider for just about everything my IT organization does. You must be receiving all of these messages, too.

There are backup services from Iron Mountain and virtual server systems from EMC. Blackboard is happy to run your course management system for you from their location. If you are interested in e-mail and collaborative applications, then say hello to Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many others eager to deliver these services for you. Do you really need to deploy another server in your data center? Consider compute cycles from Amazon and IT security services from various vendors.

I am not suggesting that each of us should decide to outsource IT services to external vendors just because the services are available. Instead, I am thinking about how best to strategize about which IT services we continue to provide directly and which IT services we might contract with vendors to provide. How do we decide?

Is IT Broken?

At my own institution, I have observed two general responses to the question of sourcing IT services in new ways. The first reaction is something along the lines of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I was curious about the origin of this saying. The Phrase Finder attributes the saying to Bert Lance, the director of the Office of Management and Budget during Jimmy Carter's presidency.1  He wanted the government to concentrate on fixing the things that were broken. We follow this practice in IT, rapidly applying the latest security patches to the systems we manage or restarting services that have failed. We even make elaborate plans to handle failures and disasters that have not yet occurred.

So why should we pay attention to change or improve things that are not broken? Suppose your IT services appear to be running smoothly. Everything is good, or good enough. What would be the motivation to consider doing things differently or to consider alternate IT sourcing strategies? Recently, the economic recession provided ample motivation for cloud vendors to suggest (at least five times!) their services will save money. With the recession proving difficult to shake off, their message has a certain appeal.

Develop Guiding Principles

Every organization needs guiding principles to stay on course. The guiding principles serve as our ship's rudder. Without them, we would be adrift, responding to every one of those e-mails and voicemails coming from the persistent vendors.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is one approach to deciding what to do next, but I believe that approach misses incredible opportunities to help shape the future. Consider this instead: "When it ain't broke may be the only time you can fix it." Another way to say this might be, "Do fewer things well." Focus on the things that will set your unit or organization apart. Instead of struggling to fix broken things, strive to enhance the services your group already does well. Define ambitious goals to excel in those areas for which your organization wants to be known. Let go of the things for which your organization does not have ambitious goals.

How do you implement a vision for doing fewer things well? It will be a long process of conversations and telling your story. According to my communications director, the story needs to be short and simple. You'll need to repeat the story multiple times and to tweak it a bit for different people.

Your story and your guiding principles will be unique to your institution. Here are a few general principles to get you started:

  • Leverage the existing investment in technology and standards
  • Use a cost-benefit analysis to help support your decisions
  • Ensure security, compliance, continuity of operations, accessibility, usability, and maintainability of new and existing services
  • Streamline unneeded redundancy (shadow systems, duplicated activities)
  • Manage to your build-buy-integrate balance point

Your principles will help everyone affected by changes in your IT services understand how the decisions were made. Whenever there is disagreement or confusion, decision-making principles help us remain consistent in our analysis and approach. They will provide structure to your stories.

A set of agreed-upon principles for making choices about an IT service can ultimately help you focus your resources on the things that matter most to your institution.

Join the Conversation!

Does your organization have decision-making principles when it comes to evaluating the many cloud-based IT services? Do you have a cloud computing strategy and process of evaluation you are willing to share? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and invite you to join the conversation.

  1. Gary Martin, "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It," The Phrase Finder (January 21, 2010).