Future Slant: Challenges of Scale

min read
Diana G. Oblinger and Joanne Dehoney
Higher education information technology is shaped by trends in the academy—and in information technology. Well-recognized issues in higher education include affordability, productivity, college completion, and workforce development, to name a few. At the same time, IT capabilities and service models are changing rapidly, independent of sector. These changes create additional pressures on CIOs and IT departments.
To help higher education IT professionals better understand how the CIO role is evolving, this series of blog posts will describe five “metatrends,” drawn from a review of articles in industry IT press. These five trends appear to affect CIOs in all IT sectors:
Each post in the Future Slant blog will describe one of these trends, suggesting implications for higher education
First up is challenges of scale. The cloud and “bring your own everything” (BYOE: devices, applications, and services) illustrate that the organization—whether a small business or a corporation—may not be the optimal scale for provisioning information technology. As noted in the Executive’s Guide to the Future of IT Leadership, “The dissolution of the IT department began with outsourcing, but it’s cloud that’s likely to reduce it even further.”
In his “10 Predictions for What the CIO Role Will Look Like in 2020,” John Brandon elaborates: “The IT department won’t be physical. . . . IT itself will move to the cloud. The concept will shift from a department that manages cloud services to a cloud service itself. . . . IT will become a service provider to individuals, making sure their gadgets, software, and systems work.”
Many services are more efficiently and effectively provided at “consumer” scale. For higher education information technology, this trend has the potential to call into question the role, the size, and even the physical presence of traditional campus IT units.
In the past, the CIO’s primary job was to build the infrastructure to provide IT services. Now, commoditization and cloud services are reaching into areas historically managed by campus IT experts, areas that include the management and provisioning of the data center and of core application services such as human resources (e.g., Workday) or the learning management system (e.g., Coursera, Canvas).
In the EDUCAUSE Review article “Speeding Up on Curves ” Brad Wheeler writes, “The increasing digitization of education and research favors greater scale while it also enables potential new substitutes for colleges and universities.” CIOs are leveraging extrainstitutional collaborations to achieve scale and affordability (e.g., NET+), aggregating enterprise services above the campus. As these shifts occur, IT units may need fewer staff; others’ roles will change from providing services to managing vendors and partners. 
The challenges of scale are not just about finding efficiencies in the cloud, however. Scaling can also mean personalizing instead of aggregating services. For example, analysts predict that in the hypernetworked world, end users will no longer work in groups, and IT services will not be planned for or offered to departments or units. Rather, IT services will be offered directly to individuals, who will fluidly form and disband work groups through Facebook-like enterprise networks.
Understanding how best to scale information technology is a challenge facing all of higher education. Many opportunities are available for structuring and providing IT services, and the consequences from decisions about which path to pursue can be significant. Charting the best course means including the right people and asking the right questions: 
  • What is the right scale for institutional services, and what factors affect decisions about scale?
  • What are the trade-offs of locally provided IT services versus those sourced from outside the institution?
  • Does operating information technology at a consumer scale mean similar services across colleges and universities, or will certain offerings serve as institutional differentiators?


Stay tuned for more blog posts in this series examining some of the predominant forces driving information technology and what those movements mean for higher education.

© 2014 Diana G. Oblinger and Joanne Dehoney. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0).