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Walking the Tightrope

In November of 2001 my then new work colleague Roger Salomon and I made a conference presentation on being a distributed technology leader.  This is currently located on a server that could go away someday so I decided to move it to someplace a bit more permanent.

This was a fairly new idea, having high level distributed technology leaders located, and under the leadership of, the academic school or college.  There have always been individual faculty who played leadership roles, in their department, or even at the larger level (school, college).  This was, however, an idea thats time had come.   A year later EDUCAUSE started the Distributed Technology Support Constituent Group and it became one of the fastest growing and most active of the groups.  There was a real desire, and need, for these two side (us/them, central/distributed) to talk with each other and see that many of the issues and challenges were not unique to just their school.

Walking the Tightrope: Middle Management – The Distributed Leader

By AJ Kelton and Roger Salomon

Depending on the structure and scope of the university or school, a distributed leadership model of management for information technology integration provides many benefits to both faculty and the technology structure alike. In this article we will define the distributed leader as it fits into our campus environment. We will also provide a description of the technology structure of both of our academic units, how they fit into the campus paradigm, and discuss what the benefits and potential stumbling blocks might be for other institutions.

Initiated by the Academic Deans, Montclair State University (MSU) has, over the last three years, aggressively moved from a structure where all services and support were provided by a single, central unit (IT), to a distributed structure, funded and located within the academic units directly.

The “distributed leader” (DL), or Tech Liaison as we are referred to at MSU, is the technology person designated to support a specific, defined organization such as a school or college made up of associated departments. Ultimately, all financial issues are central to the university itself, but the line of responsibility changes when the Tech Liaison answers to the Dean and faculty directly as opposed to the IT structure, which is administrative in nature.

Distributed leadership should be constructed so that the TL can see the issues of technology that are important and explain to the academic side, in a language clearly understandable, why things are the way they are. Additionally, having the TL within the academic unit has many of its own benefits. The technologist can act as a champion for the needs of the faculty and staff with a good knowledge of why these needs are important and how to best move forward to help implement them.

Although each unit, and the IT relationship to that unit, is unique, there are some similarities that transcend all units. IT provides basic services such as email, ISP, network access, telephone, networked printing services, as well as first and second level help desk support when needed. The basic concept is that IT “brings service to the door”, and with the exception of telephone and network wiring services, the “local provider” is then responsible for all other services.

The distributed leader is in a unique position when answering only to the specific unit/college. As opposed to the centralized structure, whose responsibility is to the university campus as a whole, each DL concentrates his/her attention on the specific faculty and staff members in that particular unit. This allows him/her to gain a greater understanding of specific faculty and staff needs by being on the “front line”. The TL is not only able to understand immediate concerns, but also plan for future needs as well.

The College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) is the largest academic unit at MSU, representing 40% of the total semester hours taught. The CHSS is comprised of 6 Humanities departments and 7 departments of the Social Sciences as well as many Programs, Institutes, and Centers, with a combined faculty of approximately 170. In addition to full time faculty, the CHSS is supported by nearly 20 administration and staff members as well as roughly 200 adjuncts each semester.

The formal title for the “tech liaison” in the CHSS is the Coordinator of Administrative and Education Technology (CAET). As head of the Administrative and Education Technology (A&E Tech) unit, the CAET reports directly to the Dean of the CHSS. In addition, there is also a Technology Services Specialist (TSS) who concentrates on database and web services, in addition to assisting with the in-house technical student staff. A&E Tech deals with all issues that relate to education and administrative technology which include: computers, printers, scanners, faxes, copiers, software, and locally operated teaching labs. The CAET manages the CHSS Tech Team, which (as of the Fall 2001 semester) employees 5 student technicians and 3 student assistants.

The School of Business (SBUS) consists of five major departments and employs 68 full-time faculty members, 17 part-time adjunct professors, 8 administrative assistants and an Information Technology/Services (IT/S) Coordinator. Also known as the tech coordinator, the IT/S coordinator reports directly to the Dean and assists the entire school in the implementation and use of technology in their work. The tech coordinator normally has two student technicians reporting to him, whose responsibilities are to trouble-shoot hardware and software, make repairs, and give onsite training to faculty and staff of SBUS. Along with these responsibilities, at least one of the technicians is proficient in web authoring.

The technological needs of each department diffuse to individual faculty members. The scope of faculty knowledge ranges from the most advanced or power users to those who don’t even check their own email. That is where the importance of the TL comes in. The ranges of knowledge are not endemic to just the School of Business and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ faculty, but throughout the academic schools and administrative departments.

Although we feel the benefits to this paradigm far outweigh the negative aspects, there are some issues that become relevant when dealing with local support. Having a technology administrator and technical staff located in the same building as the constituents using their services can be a real challenge to productive work scheduling. It is difficult under any circumstances to explain to someone standing directly in front of you why the numerous prior calls need to be handled first.

In addition to being in the middle of “the action”, it can, at times, be a challenge for the TL to be physically removed from the central IT structure. It is essential to the success of a DL model that there be a good working relationship between the satellite (distributed) information technology structure and the central technology unit. The impact of the physical distance between IT and the TL will depend on this relationship.

Finally, without a finely tuned network of technicians or in the absence of an excellent relationship with the central technology structure, getting away to conferences such as this one becomes a difficult challenge.

Negatives notwithstanding, it is our opinion that the positive aspects of this paradigm outweigh the negative. Having an office within the building of those being served allows for quick response to issues and problems. Whether large or small, the faculty knows they can go a short distance to get help. In a centralized structure, response is often not immediate. If a call came in from the SBUS to the central Help Desk, located on the other side of campus, a return phone call, let alone a physical response, takes longer than with a TL in each academic unit.

Along with the close proximity of each TL, knowledge of each faculty members’ personality, knowledge level of technology, and technology needs provides a great advantage. As situations arise, the TL has a better understanding of particular problems and an easier time in solving them. In addition to the TL’s understanding of the faculty, the faculty members also become familiar with their TL, providing a continuity of service and support. This continuity is furthered by the direct report relationship between the TL and the Dean. Regular and direct access to the Dean allows for a smooth and balanced integration of technology while keeping an eye on, and in relationship to, the larger issues faced by the specific unit.

The goal is to establish a ‘one-stop shopping’ feel, where faculty can bring any technology issue and have their questions answered or at least have a dedicated starting point. It can be very frustrating for a faculty member to not know which IT department or representative to call to have a simple question answered. The distributed leadership model provides that starting point.

Training that concentrates on unit-specific needs is also a very positive result of the DL model. Such training may involve formal classroom training, IT organizational meetings and even attending trade conferences. At trade conferences like Syllabus, TLs can obtain an abundance of tips and suggestions from others in their field. Tech Liaisons should attend specific sessions that focus on faculty development and support issues, emerging educational technologies, and other sessions that may focus on a particular school or department.

And the knowledge is not only gained at formal sessions. As with all conferences of this type, networking with other support people, between sessions, at lunch, in the vendor halls, etc., is an excellent way to exchange knowledge.

It has been our experience that the distributed leadership model of information technology services is superior in providing the greatest benefit to both faculty and staff. By being able to provide fast and specialized support, as well as being able to focus on the academic side of technology, the Tech Liaison structure has worked well at Montclair State. Given the construction of the university or school, this model should certainly be considered as an integral part of total information services provision.