The End of the Gatekeeper

min read

The role of IT departments has evolved to one that is increasingly defined by a simple concept: who has control. To be successful in the changing landscape of technologies and user needs, IT will need to become a partner rather than a gatekeeper.

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Credit: kendoh / Shutterstock © 2018


Control is one of the most loaded words in the English language. Equal parts ominous and auspicious, the term can quicken feelings of confidence or dread, depending on the context in which it is used. Control even occupies a primordial place on your keyboard, vaguely and mysteriously connected to some combination of keystrokes that will either efficiently execute a routine function or destroy your computer in a flash of blue light. Easily expressed in zero-sum terms, control is a thing you wouldn't mind having a little more of in exchange for someone you know having a little bit less. Welcome to IT.

IT as a Utility

Over the course of many years, and certainly predating the modern internet era, computing technology and your access to it depended greatly on the IT department that existed in your organization. Simply put, you were the consumer and IT was the provider. The advent and spread of the PC did little to upset the paradigm, given that in most organizations, the issuance of the PC, how it was to be used, and to what centralized computing resource it was to be connected remained firmly under the authority of the IT department. Given the business unit's dependence on IT, the IT organization gained a remarkably high degree of insight into the function and inner workings of the various groups within the institution.

Selectively Permeable Membranes

During this period the IT unit's understanding of business operations grew exponentially, to the point where IT had become more than a provider — it had become a principal consultant to the business unit across a range of topics. By the early 2000s, IT's ranks had grown to include business process specialists, data and reporting analysts, and project managers. Meanwhile, the utility-consumer dependence continued to be reinforced by the expansion of the ERP within the institution. Getting what you needed from the ERP required more than the right computer and the right access. Now you had to provide the context behind your request. You had to describe what you were thinking. And you had to get in line.

Passport Control

The mid-2000s saw tremendous growth in IT-led project management. Job descriptions were written, staff hired, managers created, software built (or purchased), certifications obtained, and conference after conference filled with new ideas on how to bring some sort of order to all the project proposals — large and small — coming into IT from all corners of the institution. IT was front and center but was not without its detractors. For many users, another gate seemed to have been erected, one through which you could not pass without taking a number (a number that had little to do with how long you might wait). IT project lists grew so long that institutions had to come up with methods of identifying and fast-tracking proposals that were most closely aligned with the prevailing strategic plan. And what of the smaller ideas that at first blush did not appear central to the current direction of the institution? What were essential priorities to some might have only been tangentially relevant to others, and for many staff the probability of quick attention to their projects seemed very small. Meanwhile, the idea of a monolithic ERP was beginning to feel tired. People desperately wanted to create efficiencies in their units without having to wait for and then absorb the full project management treatment. You can imagine the thought process of academic and business unit managers across higher education: "If only there were a way I could scrape together some of my budget and go out and find what I need off the shelf. I could do it myself, I wouldn't need IT, and I wouldn't need ____ (insert brand of your ERP here)." That's exactly what many of those managers did, challenging IT control in the process.

Have It Your Way

While IT departments were fretting over go/no-go decisions on enterprise service alternatives such as cloud-based email, units from across the institution were hearing from both boutique and major software houses alike offering turnkey solutions for nearly every business challenge within the organization. Even those units still highly dependent on the ERP were shopping for side-car applications that would allow them to do what they wanted with the data. Tapping into the consumer desire to skip the project queue, part of the standard closing pitch for many vendors went something like this: "I've seen customers implement this product in as little a few days." Sold! And what of the reality check that units faced when they walked into IT, purchase order in hand, only to find out that implementation of their new product would be more difficult and take more time than they were led to believe? This only served to further a growing perception that the rules of IT engagement were as much about control as anything else. This narrative, of course, was unfair. Strategic priorities do matter. Resources should be carefully managed. Projects that begin with thoughtful objectives and clear communication among stakeholders are much more likely to succeed. And the fact that IT departments had expanded into these areas was certainly not the result of any ill intent but rather a response to a changing environment. Still, the narrative was there, and IT customers could not un-see the options available to them in the marketplace. But as challenging as this dynamic was shaping up to be, the aggressive growth of government compliance regimes would further complicate the scene.

Driver Does Not Carry Cash

For the past several years IT departments have been living a dual reality. The pull of the cloud has represented a fundamental shift away from what for decades represented the traditional foundation for IT control — centralized systems and data as a means of lowering risk. At the same time, the tremendous legal exposure faced by institutions maintaining protected data in a highly threatening online world has led many IT leaders to utter a phrase that might have been seemed premature 10 years ago: "Get it out of here." The likelihood of suffering a cyberattack of one kind or another by attackers who deploy powerful tools is no longer remote, and the attention now paid to mitigating the consequences of eventual exposure has grown in kind. This brings us up to the present day and to a question that many IT leaders now face: With institutional partners emboldened by a cloud-enabled sense of entrepreneurism, and a compliance environment in which a risk-sensitive IT department is often a pass-through for services it no longer owns, how can the modern IT organization frame its relevance in terms other than control? In other words, if IT isn't the gatekeeper, then what is IT and what makes its partnership essential?

Switching Seats

Rally racing is a popular motor sport that generally dispenses with closed tracks in favor of real roads and has traditionally engaged drivers at the wheel of, for the most part, "real" cars, a version of which one could reasonably expect to find in the consumer market. Around the world, rallying attracts amateur drivers, both male and female, who relish the thrill of whirring through the countryside, senses heightened by the rapidly changing contour of the road. But it is also an inherently dangerous pastime, and as the competition increases in the upper ranks of the sport, so does the demand for a racing performance that is at once well planned, precise, timely, and above all safe. Other than the person whose hands are on the wheel, much of the responsibility for a great finish falls to the co-driver. Without a talented co-driver, there is a limit to what a rally driver can accomplish alone.

The array of co-driving responsibilities is impressive. Successful co-drivers understand the business side of racing and are involved in the planning and logistics leading up the event. They are knowledgeable mechanics and possess the troubleshooting skills to resolve technical issues and get a stalled vehicle moving again. Co-drivers work closely with the driver to research the course and prepare detailed notes that, when communicated to the driver at precisely the right time during the race, will keep the team's progress on track and the risks to a minimum. Finally, co-drivers have earned the complete faith of their driving partners, who depend on them to be trusted, reliable colleagues who will stay calm under pressure, account for and address any number of variables at once, and do everything possible to help the team be successful. Sound familiar? Keep in mind that co-drivers do all this and more from the passenger seat.

The Future of IT Partnerships

Moving from gatekeeper to co-driver might seem like a step backward to some, but IT leaders and staff need to embrace these changing times as an opportunity to help lead institutions into a new era. The millennials (and post-millennials) filling vacancies in our organizations will be living in a digital information age that is personalized by default. They will expect a dynamic information environment that is available to them in any medium they choose; will opt to collaborate in transient micro teams enabled by applications like Slack and its competitors; and will routinely ignore arbitrary structures that define departments and even processes that feel unnecessarily restrictive. They will expect to drive.

Racing against their competition, these partners will not be able to account for the myriad ways their work will impact other units, the due diligence required to navigate the choices they face, and the process and compliance obstacles that lurk just around the next bend. They will need a co-driver. The good news is that the modern IT professional group possesses the precise mix of experience and skills required to do the job. The challenge? IT organizations need to be as nimble as their customers strive to be, finding ways to simplify methods and bring a responsiveness to partnerships that hints of spontaneity, an acceptance of a little risk, and a willingness to revisit the rulebook. Above all, IT organizations need to ensure that what they are aiming for is a cultural norm that extends to every staff member on the IT payroll.

Budgets matter. Compliance matters. Cybersecurity matters. Sustainability matters. But the importance of these issues will become increasingly difficult to convey if the customer relationship is defined by IT-based control. How to make the shift to co-driver in a way that incentivizes partnership, reduces risk, and strengthens the institution? That's a conversation that IT professionals should be having, in the office and at the next conference.

Joshua Singletary is Chief Technology Officer at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

© 2018 Joshua Singletary. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.