In school districts, curriculum and technology experts often sit on other sides of the table. Why the great divide? For starters, K–12 technology leaders typically bring a business perspective to the educational world. For most working in IT, this is a reasonable world view. But when you ask teachers their thoughts on the importance of enterprise-wide solutions and the merger of administrative and instructional technologies, you’re liable to see some raised eyebrows. The bottom line is that for many educators, IT is a service or a process, not part of the core instructional mission.
For CIOs, dealing with this “personality split” between instructional services (IS) and IT means acknowledging different world views and exploring ways cultural conflicts can arise. What follows is a wholly subjective list of typical tensions that may sound familiar to you.
Short-term vs. long-term perspective. Educators’ world views often look to near-term solutions, while technologists tend to concentrate on the mid- and long-term. IS staff focus on a school year and respond to changing curriculum standards, while IT staff plan in the three- to five-year range. Potential solution: Ensure thetechnology plan clearly reflects both views and that instruction and technology are integral parts of the vision and planning processes. In Fairfax County Public Schools, we have several IT architects who align technology with the long-term goals of the division and support instructional services at the same time.
Experimentation vs. stability. Educators are more willing to try new approaches, embrace new pedagogies as part of the learning process, and perhaps even fail. The IT department’s impulse is to minimize failure, manage risk, and avoid experimentation. Potential solution: When planning new initiatives, separate thetechnical requirements from the functional requirements and agree with instruction on non-negotiable items up front. Utilize innovative methods for project planning or service delivery and emphasize the ways in which technology solutions can support new processes.
Qualitative vs. quantitative decision making. This is the “art versus science” argument. As a general rule, delivery of instruction, particularly at the classroom level, is a series of qualitative decisions (such as the adjustment of scope and sequence). IT, on the other hand, is driven by quantifiable processes or measurable outcomes. Potential solution: Define a measurable set of outcomes or service-level agreements that include qualitative and quantitative factors—for instance, a satisfaction survey that allows for numeric and open-ended responses.
Content vs. design. Educators choose function over form, while IT staff value design and work flow.For example, when examining math software, IS evaluates the content of a question and the reinforcement of mathematical concepts, while IT concentrates on the “back end” functioning correctly. Potential solution: Allow product reviews to take place in independent environments. “Blind” processes can mean the very best solutions are brought forward; they also assure decisions have equal weight and validity.
Micro vs. macro. In weighing the importance of the local versus global solutions, educators zero in on the classroom and school, while technologists focus on the enterprise. Classroom teachers are generally not focused on the storage, reporting, or retrieval of information. Potential solution: Look for standards to educate all stakeholders on the level of impact of IT initiatives on the organization. Agree on pilot procedures and best practices for implementations and create matrices for evaluating risk and weighing cost benefits.
Education vs. business. It’s human nature to draw upon common or significant experiences when making decisions. Instructional folks generally draw from educational experiences while technologists draw from business backgrounds. Potential solution: Focus on change management and common language and tools that can improve organizational climate.
Be forewarned: navigating the IS/IT split requires taking a hard look at your own beliefs, attitudes, and practices. For CIOs, understanding individual differences is vital, as is exhibiting flexibility and creativity—skills highly valued by educators. In addition, CIOs need to recognize that they are the interpreters and ultimately arbiters of the IT culture. This requires a unique ability to be empathetic and sympathetic, a team player and coach at the same time.
And for those in instruction, try to understand the IT perspective. Don’t withdraw from conflict or difference of approach, embrace diversity, and seek solutions that leverage strengths. We have much to learn from each other.
Alan S. Brody is coordinator of IT functional application support for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Virginia. Thanks to John Newberry and Deeb Kitchen for their input.
Five ways CIOs can improve IS/IT relations.
- Broaden your professional development to include instruction-related issues.
- Review the organization chart, looking for duplicated services or areas of consolidation.
- Encourage organizational change and change management as a subject for common ground.
- Empower customers by building walls around processes, not people or departments.
- Speak in simple sentences and avoid jargon.