Background

This document illustrates a simple framework detailing high level service descriptions and the three primary roles a central IT organization must fulfill to ensure institutional impact: identifying general services for the university community, delivering effective building block services to distributed IT professionals, and acting as an organizational mentor in facilitating technology adoption.  Understanding the relationship between services and their communities can help central IT organizations better execute in their key role as an institutional service provider.

Discussion

Information Technology (IT) at a university is not, in itself, the goal of the institution but an effective means to achieve the institutional mission of research, teaching, learning, and outreach.  The success in each of these areas is strongly dependent on effective and efficient IT services.  As such, the success of an IT organization is defined by its overall contribution to the institutional mission rather than its ability to execute any specific system or service in isolation.

An IT Service is a capability, feature, or benefit conceived to be responsive to the needs and interests of the community and delivered subject to the abilities and resources of the organization. It represents the effective and pragmatic balance between these competing considerations. The service is either delivered or facilitated by the central IT organization (the provider) to the institutional community (the consumer). All centrally provided services exist within the context of a service environment consisting of the provider, the consumer, and all associated support elements. All services are defined from the perspective of the consumer and not the provider, meaning that internal tasks or elements that are necessary but not sufficient for the success of a service are not, in and of themselves, services. For example, the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) and the Domain Naming Service (DNS) are both centrally provided features of the institutional data network, but the university community does not view these as services.  Neither DHCP nor DNS is consumed merely for their own benefit, but rather are required to effectively utilize the actual service visible by consumers, the data network.

A service manager represents a role performed by an individual with the purpose of ensuring both the relevance and sustainability of a service, regardless of its delivery model. These individuals are public and responsive points of contact with the authority to implement and evolve specific services and with the accountability for their respective value and success. They must be responsible for the effective management of all transactions that occur within a service environment. In general they are identified with a specific service by a service catalog, which is a marketing tool that accurately and simply describes a service to consumers. It makes clear what a service is or what a service is not from the perspective of the consumer.  Service catalogs effectively documents the relationship between an organization and its community of customers.

The first role of a central IT organization is to identify those general services or capabilities that have significant institutional impact and are best provided centrally. The scope of any such service or capability and any other relevant qualities must, first and foremost, be assessed in relation to specific segments of the university community. This is not to say that a service targeting all members of the university community is wrong; it is merely to say that a service that is meaningful to a specific and significant subset of the community should not be compromised from its primary purpose simply to expand its demographic impact. Centrally provided services must be delivered efficiently, robustly, and at scale to those constituencies where they are most meaningful.

Generalized central services are typically delivered using a Business-to-Customer (B2C) model with the express purpose of ensuring that typical members of the university community can be effective consumers of any provided service.  Interaction between provider and consumer is typically supported best on the provider end via online information and a help desk. Ideally, B2C services display relatively low surface complexity and allow customers to extract immediate benefits without a steep learning curve. Additional benefits may be obtainable as expertise builds, but unless reasonable capabilities are available, a B2C supported service will not be well-adopted and will not have a meaningful impact. If basic access to a general service requires detailed and specific knowledge or expertise, it is unlikely to be effectively delivered via the B2C delivery model.

The second role of a central IT organization is to identify services representing effective building blocks for other services, allowing central IT organizations to deliver them efficiently to distributed IT professionals.. Rather than building in isolation, such services are often obtained by analyzing complex services and factoring out individual elements. This method has the benefit of identifying building block services that already have relevancy (the service they were originally a part of) and increases the likelihood they can be leveraged by other areas at the institution.

Factored or building block services are typically delivered using a Business-to-Business (B2B) model with the express purpose of targeting IT professionals as the consumer. In this model, interactions between the provider and consumers occur on a fairly technical level specifically because transactions consist of IT professionals on both ends. Building blocks for, or low-level elements of, services are not intended to be consumed directly by the university community. Having them provided by and consumed by IT professionals permits a degree of technical complexity that would make them inaccessible by a general audience. An example of a B2B service would be the university’s Active Directory (AD) service. It is certainly critical to the support of customer workstations, but it is not accessed directly by the university community. Instead, one would expect that an IT professional, either central or distributed, would utilize this service in order to construct a desktop service that the general community would consume.

The third role of a central IT organization is to effectively leverage their position of knowledge and access to champion the adoption of technical and productivity solutions by the university community in general. This is not the same as providing key services, but rather it represents a transition of the IT organization into the role of guide and mentor. Services that permit direct community interaction best fit into this model.

Community centric services and capabilities are typically delivered using a Customer-to-Customer (C2C) model where the provider and consumer are specifically intended to be the same. Instead of the central IT organization being an explicit provider of a service, they play a key role in facilitating an environment where consumers can support each other. The main challenge for a C2C service is that they cannot persist without the necessary qualities. They need to be simple enough to exist without central direction, but must be useful enough that the community itself will readily adopt them. Fairly simple software can be delivered to the institutional community using this model. This model presupposes that the majority of consumers will not need direct support and that they constitute a sufficiently large and dense demographic that they can assist others. It is certainly possible to construct such a dynamic from disparate elements, but this is not a likely path of success. It is far more certain to identify existing communities that already have mutual interests and connections and to introduce to them simple services or capabilities that already meet a basic need.

Conclusion

Central IT organizations have unique responsibilities within the context of an institution of higher education. They have the authority to identify, facilitate, and evolve systems and capabilities that have a direct impact, or an indirect impact through other organizations, on the institutional missions of research, teaching, learning, and outreach. This alignment of IT to the institutional mission is not automatic and university IT must thoughtfully act in order to achieve success. They must function as members of a broader community to appreciate and understand the challenges faced and use this external perspective to inform internal decisions.  They must embody the discipline of conceiving and making available robust and efficient systems and capabilities. They must exhibit vision in identifying those trends and capabilities that are both impactful and attainable. They must inculcate a technology ecosystem that humbly supports adoption across appropriate segments of the community. And finally, they must engender the wisdom to understand where and when these disparate challenges exist and how best to proceed so that the value proposition that IT represents can be effectively leveraged for maximum effect by the institution, both today and tomorrow.