Beyond the IT Service

Pleased to able to use this blog to present the thoughts of a colleague, Stuart Brown from Oxford Brookes University, who’s been working with other UCISA Director colleagues on our Leadership agenda. We’ve just held our second Directors’ Forum and it was intended that we distributed this paper for comment at the meeting but we were so busy being challenged that the time never materialised. So with Stuart’s full permission here are his personal thoughts – comments are welcomed.


This paper attempts to summarise the distinctive features of a new relationship between the information systems and technology operation (IT) and its host organisation. Industry commentators suggest that this change in the position and role of IT is significant across all industry sectors and worldwide. But here our focus is UK Higher Education, which we suppose to be subject to the same trend.

The impetus for this document has been the UCISA Directors’ Forum, which has exposed some of this new thinking within the sector. The Directors’ Forum is primarily concerned with the implications of these changes for senior IT management. But it has also recognised that many, possibly all IT staff in Higher Education will probably be impacted. To explore this further, initial discussions have been held with the UCISA Staff Development Group (SDG). One conclusion has been that all staff need to understand their place in the big picture. And if the big picture is changing, we need to know what it looks like if staff are to re-orientate themselves successfully.

This document may be regarded as a sketch of the big picture. In its present form it is doubtless incomplete and may be inaccurate. But it is a starting point. Its is intended that it should be refined and developed with reference to the Directors’ Forum so as to become a guide for future activities, including those of the SDG.

Game Change: How is the Role of IT Changing?
IT is moving from a service provider role to that of a full partner in the development and delivery of university strategy .

This does not mean that service delivery is unimportant – quite the opposite. IT must have a demonstrable record of good quality service delivery to attract the trust and confidence that underpin greater influence.

Rather than act as a supplier for sponsors drawn from other parts of the organisation, IT must pro-actively sponsor change including changes that impact other parts of the organisation. This may be seen as a change from a “what do you want IT to do?” to a “you must do this” approach.

This role is risky and requires leadership of high quality. Rapid technology change and poor understanding of IT by non-IT management compound the challenge.

The extent and pace of these changes varies from one organisation to another, even within the same sector. Only time will tell if this is a general historic shift or localised effect confined to certain organisations.

Relationship with Senior Management

1) Procedural
IT needs to operate IT strategy and governance processes that not only allow it to exert its own influence, but draw together all parts of the organisation in a strategic partnership. These processes must interlock with wider corporate strategy (strategic alignment). The objective is to utilise IT to the greatest effect for the benefit of the organisation. These processes require the active participation of senior management.

2) Structural
Senior IT roles must participate fully and influentially in the strategic processes of the organisation. This is often seen as a requirement that the IT Director must report directly to the Chief Executive as well as being a member of the Board of Directors. This is both problematic and contraversial as IT does not have this political position in many organisations, including many in Higher Education.

Capabilities Required by IT
In order to fulfil this role as a proactive business change agent, a number of capabilities become important. Some of these are somewhat removed from the capabilities which may be traditionally valued in IT. The extent to which these newly prominent capabilities displace as opposed to supplement established skills and expertise is a moot point.

Influencing and Communication

IT tends to cultivate a detailed and technical perspective, which is not appreciated by other professions and disciplines. It is important that IT is able to present itself in a way which accords with the perspective of the rest of the organisation.

Professional Service Delivery
As mentioned above, the delivery of well regarded services is essential and this requires high quality professional management (ref. ITIL).

Business Engagement: IT must exploit and develop its understanding and influence on the organisation through disciplines such as Business Systems Analysis and Business Process Review.

Sourcing and Procurement
IT systems and services may be delivered through an increasingly diverse range of options, many of which are essentially outsourced. Expertise in procuring and managing these solutions is increasingly important and may operate at a number of levels from a single system or part of a system right up to the delivery of an entire IT service.

Project Management
As the sourcing of solutions becomes more diverse, the role of IT increasingly needs to embrace the overall management of projects involving out-sourced suppliers. In some cases, the internal IT organisation may have relatively little traditional technical input.

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