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IT Governance: Do you really have buy-in?

IT Governance is growing in importance for higher education, and is consistently listed as one of the Educause Top Ten Issues. Certainly governance is crucial for higher education organizations to be effective, however, I worry that too often we think of governance from a top-down perspective, often basing the case for governance on such abstract concepts as alignment. Rather than thinking of IT governance as something we need to do, I think we should focus on the challenges our organizations face and then determine how governance could help solve these problems.

In this note, I’d like to focus on getting real buy-in for IT initiatives – buy-in that results in decisions and follow-through on those decisions. How can governance help you gain support and engagement from the whole organization?

I don’t know about you, but seldom have I heard people discussing a project say “Boy, we’d be a lot more successful if IT initiatives were in alignment with overall institutional strategy.” If you do hear that statement, I’m willing to bet that you’re sitting in a committee meeting thinking about a new game of buzzword bingo.

While we need alignment, these abstract discussions miss an opportunity for governance to be relevant to major IT initiatives. What I do hear from people discussing a project is something closer to “Those guys in the College of Engineering seem to fight us every step of the way. Why do they always feel they need to use their own system rather than work with us in central IT?” Or, how about the lament that “We do have a steering committee for our system-wide LMS initiative. We just can’t get half the campus to actually use the new system.”

IT governance boils down to effective group decision-making. This is much more than getting to an official decision – effective group decision-making implies that the organization supports the official decision. In other words, do you really have buy-in? How do you engage a broad range of stakeholders to gain real buy-in for critical decisions?

In 2003, one of our clients faced the challenge of implementing their first-ever campus-wide course management system. As Molly Langstaff, the Director of Academic Technology at the time, explained in an interview:

“…it was difficult because the faculty members had learned certain systems, and there were certain things about them that they liked, that met their particular preferences. So moving to one became a challenging task in determining whaťs the best system for all of us, rather than the one system that works best for you as an individual. Getting people to think beyond their own immediate needs and to a larger picture, what was needed for their college or what was needed for the university, became the task. . .

“[We] had had several false starts in trying to address this question and bringing the issue before advisory groups, talking to administrators around campus, trying to devise different processes for “Leťs make a decision, this isn’t really the way we want to go forward,” and just had not succeeded. Each of those, as I said, false starts. I’d get so far and then run into a brick wall and end up going nowhere and continually being frustrated.”

Just having advisory groups did not translate into real decisions. Then, after implementing a new IT governance framework designed to enable group decision-making, the situation changed.

“For example, there were some concerns expressed by a small number of the group about distance learners – nontraditional learners, we came to call them. And they were a small voice in the group. But [we] gave them voice by saying, “Well, you know, maybe we should take this group and move them off to the side, and they should have discussions about the very special issues that they have using these course management systems, which are different from the more traditional campus-based user.” And that was very effective in that, again, [we] acknowledged that they had their concerns and their voices, but he also gave them a method for working together and sort of bringing forward those issues to the larger group.

“[It is] important to bring [key stakeholders] together to give them an opportunity to voice their concerns, but also to share with others, whaťs happening in their particular colleges. But also, eventually, they figure out that these are problems that are across the university, that they may not be exactly the same in College X as they are in College Y, but they’re very similar. And connecting people and allowing them to network with each other built a community, and from that community, then, they begin to make decisions together or even to talk about their problems together, so I think iťs that building community thaťs really important.”

The result of this change in approach started with the E-Learning Assessment Initiative, continued to the highly-successful implementation of their campus-wide course management system, ICON, and continues today.

The purpose of IT Governance is effective group decision-making, and one of the key tests of an effective group decision is whether the organization supports the decision after it is made.

We are planning to host a webinar on March 23rd on Community-Based Decision Making, brought to you by the same people – Molly Langstaff, Maggie Jesse, and Boyd Knosp – who pioneered these techniques at The University of Iowa. The webinar is based on their workshop at Educause 2009 (also planned as a workshop at Educause Midwest 2010).