Wrangling Academic Computing & Technology

When it comes to technology in education, some say the tradition of academic computing is all about herding cats. The more I work with institutions, the more I believe leading academic computing on a campus is akin to wrangling cats on a Hollywood movie set.

Wranglers in the film industry locate and coordinate like items and groups (people, animals, cars, etc.) and then coax, handle, and guide them (where appropriate) to do what the director desires at the appropriate time within a scene knowing full well that:

  1. an individual may choose to do something different at the critical moment,
  2. the momentum of the crowd may overwhelm one’s best efforts and lead to unexpected results,
  3. and variety is okay provided it falls within the context of the desired activity.

Herding, on the other hand, is all about keeping groups together in an effort to head toward a common goal. Although leading groups toward a goal is important, the key downside of solely herding is that it allows little room for the unexpected. That’s where wrangling and herding differ and why I believe the former is more akin to the world of academic technology than the latter. Let me explain.

A shepherd needs to make sure the flock gets to the grazing location with as little fuss as possible. That limits action or options because there’s a singular goal in mind with probably only one chance to achieve it. Wranglers, on the other hand, need to understand the vision of the director and then possess the creative and technical know how to guide masses of crew, actors, and extras to accomplish tasks that match the director’s vision. If things don’t go as expected, the director and wrangler can be inspired by what went awry and incorporate the error into a new vision or at the very least, do another take.

In wrangling and unlike herding, there generally is a second chance to get something right. I believe variety, randomness, and the ability to try something again if things are not quite perfect are all essential elements in higher education’s DNA, so the idea of wrangling seems to be more appropriate as it best reflects what actually happens on campus.

When it comes to supporting an institution’s academic mission through technology, my experience has shown that the challenges are much greater than many believe or fully understand. Academic computing falls in a strange place between enterprise information technology and research and development, exists within the two campus worlds of academe and administration, dances around scalable services and boutique solutions, and floats in the gray area between financial return on investment (ROI) and business value on investment (VOI).

Living in all of these different spaces is essential to continual success, but juggling the differences and leading in a coherent manner can be a huge challenge. In short, academic computing and technology (ACT) is much more than technology, services, projects and processes. Although these fundamental building blocks exist within the realm of ACT, the selection, integration and adoption of these components typically break the norms IT deployment and operation, and the success or failure of a leader in this field is often determined by the way he/she navigates the space and balances all of the seemingly opposing forces.

As for me, I became the director of Instructional Technology at the University of Chicago in 1998 and later, senior director of Academic Technologies (which includes research as well as teaching and learning) in 2002. When I started down this leadership path, I found little in terms of resources to help me sort through the various pieces of the campus puzzle and to guide me toward success in my position. I learned on-the-job, and trusted my instincts and the advice of those around me to deal with specific situations and issues. I was fortunate to have participated in education-focused professional development programs such as the EDUCAUSE Management Institute and the Information Technology Leaders’ Program, which provided me with additional tools to help lead and succeed.

Now that I’m on the other side as a strategist and consultant for Blackboard who helps universities tackle learning and teaching technology issues, I can say without question that creatively applying what one has learned toward of both tactical decision-making and strategic planning within the context of a campus is crucial in this field. What I’ve seen and experienced firsthand is that leading an academic IT organization is like putting together the pieces of one grand, ever-changing puzzle. It takes a broad range of skills to succeed, but all the parts are never there when you need them and the individual pieces are very often similar but don’t necessarily fit together in the same way.