The Innovation Prevention Department: Why?

The final keynote at ASCILITE’09 was by James Clay and was titled the Future of Learning (this is a link to an apparently earlier presentation by same author, same topic). Many aspects of the talk resonated with many in the audience, however, the one that perhaps resonated the most was that of the Innovation Prevention Department.

James, as he describes in this comment was suggesting that most organisations have one department that seems to hold back innovation. The comment reveals James’ use came from Jon Trinder (slide 6). A quick google reveals the phrase being used as a chapter title in this 2002 book. So, it doesn’t seem to be a new concept that there always seems to be one department within an organisation that prevents innovation.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that in giving a list of departments that could possible fulfill this role, James started with the information technology department and that’s about where most of the audience seemed to stop listening. Many didn’t hear the other suggestions in James’ list. From where I was sitting, as soon as IT was mentioned most of the audience started nodding their head and remembering specific examples of where their IT folk had thwarted some innovation. It wasn’t long before “the Innovation Thwarting Department” play on information technology department was doing the rounds.

As it happened, there were a couple of IT folk in the audience and another couple listening to the tweet stream. Not surprisingly, they were somewhat chagrined at this disparaging label for the work they do. Mark Smithers talks about his dismay at seeing the tweets from ASCILITE mentioning this. Nick Sharrat shares his thoughts about

the frustration I often feel when my profession is disparaged for actually just ‘doing it’s job’, especially by people who often display an incredible naivity about the real world of IT.

Not surprisingly, people don’t like being disparaged.

Is there something there?

Both Mark and Nick give lots of examples of the difficulties that IT face in doing their job. The constraints, which are many, within which they have to operate. They give examples of where the request or idea from the user is significantly flawed from a different perspective.

However, isn’t it a worry when a significant percentage of the audience at a conference like ASCILITE’09, when presented with “innovation prevention department”, immediately though of the IT department? Rather than simply explaining why IT folk are rational, professionals working in a complex environment, shouldn’t there be an interest in understanding why the ASCILITE crowd are thinking this way?

Given that ASCILITE is about computers in learning in tertiary education the folk at ASCILITE are keen to use computers effectively for that task. Given that IT professionals are be a key component/enabler of this work, shouldn’t they be getting on?

I can’t see how the two groups can work together effectively if there exists this gulf in perceptions. If the source of the gulf is understood, perhaps that will enable the gulf to be bridged.

Does anyone know of any work that has sought to document the causes for this gulf between IT and L&T folk? What about identifying strategies for moving forward?

My suggested reasons

Both Nick and Mark give a variety of reasons/problems for why/how IT function. The following is a start of some reasons that I propose for why L&T folk have formed the “innovation prevention” impression of IT. I’m doing this because I believe this is the first step in moving forward. Let’s have both sides get their cards on the table and then figure out ways forward.

I must emphasise that the following list is based on my experiences, reading and perceptions. It is not meant to be definitive and may not describe what really happened, however, they do capture my perceptions of that reality. Please understand that the perceptions people have of what goes on is what drives how they act. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that the reality is otherwise. People will react based on their perceptions, not yours.

I should note that I have an IT background. I’ve taught IT professionals. Some of whom have worked within IT departments in higher ed. I’ve also run a large scale IT system that was not part of central IT (though it is now).

The assumption of objectiveness, rationality and professionalism.

Nick argues that

So, next time your IT department seems to be out to get you, give them a little more credit – you need to trust that they are proffesionals making very difficult compromises.

Being a professional brings with it the aura of objectiveness and rationality. The trouble is that people are not information processing intelligences that make rational decisions. Our intelligence is based on pattern matching, our pattern matching processes are rife with biases and shortcomings. For example, the following was the finding reported by the technical team (consisting mostly of IT professionals) on the comparisons between different LMSs being considered at my institution in about 2003/2004

strongly feels that the Blackboard product has the best overall technical fit and provides the best opportunity available to meet our tactical needs while minimizing support problems and costs

. This is in spite of the observation that Blackboard had never been run on the existing infrastructure, one of the other LMS was a locally grown system that had been running on existing infrastructure for a number of years, and that a year or so after the implementation of Blackboard the institution had to invest in an entirely new server infrastructure due to problems in running Blackboard on the old infrastructure.

And that’s before we get into politics. I’m sure any number of people within organisations can point to situations where the politics of the situation has driven the decision. IT departments are not absent of politics.

Note: this does not mean that L&T folk are better, more rational, than IT folk. It’s just that both sets of people are prone to irrationality and biases.

Who specifies the needs around innovation?

Nick specifies the role of IT professionals as

to provide systems that meet the business needs. That’s ‘needs’ and not ‘wants’

. The trouble is that when it comes to innovation you can’t specify, you can’t plan. I use a quote from Joseph Gavin Jr in my email signature

If a major project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and its exact schedule at the beginning. And if in fact you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete.

It’s the emphasis on specification and planning that is in-built into most IT projects that is a direct anathema to innovation.

Limited understanding of the nature of teaching and learning.

This continues on from the previous point. IT is focused on specification, global solutions, the same solutions for all. Learning and teaching is all about diversity, variability and change. Features that do not match well with traditional IT processes. I’ve argues this in a recent presentation video (and slides).

IT assume that the same processes they use for student records systems will work for learning and teaching.

The user deficit model.

Nick’s comment about people with “an incredible naivete about the real world of IT” in some IT folk (but by no means all and I don’t know Nick so this is not meant to be a characterisation of him) demonstrates a user deficit model. i.e. the users are stupid, we need to make the decisions for them, we know what’s best for them.

This type of model is embodied in the acronym PEBKAC and it encourages a blame the user approach to thinking. Read the criticisms of PEBKAC to see how often user error/stupidity is due to the lack of quality in the IT systems.

There’s a trite little saying

There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users. The computer industry and the trade in illicit drugs.

It may be trite but it shows a mindset that can and does exist in some IT folk.

That said, there’s also a similar mindset towards/deficit model of teaching academics held by L&T support staff.

The wrong rules

While I was writing this, the following tweet came from Matthew Allen tweeted a point made by Skewes at the Broadband Futures event in Australia

the problem is not technology; it’s the rules which prevent innovation

. This ties in somewhat with the first point, but it’s also more than that.

The vast majority of the practices of IT folk arose from a period when IT resources and the ability to use them were scarce and expensive. Increasingly with the advent of social media, the cloud, SaaS etc, I think we’re seeing the rise of a period of abundance in terms of the ability and availability of certain types of IT resource (some others may remain scarce).

The rules for handling scarcity are the wrong rules for handling abundance.

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