DAILY INSIGHT: It's the leadership, stupid!

What's more important: tech knowledge or leadership skills? 
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What's more important: tech knowledge or leadership skills? 

By Miguel Guhlin, CIO Advisor

"It's the economy, stupid!" is an exhortation that caught my ear. As one considers how leadership is handled in some school districts in regards to technology, it's not an exaggeration to say to myself: "It's the leadership, stupid!"

Dr. Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant) makes a point that has finally come home for me in the last few months, and, at a deeper level than I understood it before.

"...most of the leadership problems we run into regarding school technology implementation and integration have less to do with the technologies and more to do with failure to enact good leadership practices. It's likely that if school leaders aren't facilitating appropriate training or time or funding or support or policy for technology initiatives, they probably aren't for most other, non-technology initiatives either."

As a young technologist, I often found myself bemoaning how technology implementations were being planned, put into place, etc. If we only followed best practices, I thought, things would work out for the best. But then, everything would get bogged down in politics. You know what I mean, right? The leader responsible for advocating for the initiative would micromanage the implementation or planning, often killing the initiative before it was done. Or, if through stealth planning and leadership, the team could get something done, it would die in the rarified atmosphere of superintendent's cabinet, where new initiatives are lined up and shot periodically. (Ok, I'm engaging a bit of hyperbole at the prompt executions of expensive, technology implementations.)

The problem is, I was looking at best practices from a technologist's perspective. The truth is that managing a technology department isn't about knowing the technology; it's about better leadership on the part of the director. It's not just a little about leadership...it's ALL leadership.

That has profound implications for all of us who advocate technology. Could quality leadership that has an inkling about technology be sufficient for us in schools? The leadership and technology challenge also has an interesting implication: If someone is skilled in leadership, then is it possible their ignorance of technology skills might NOT matter so much? If you have someone who can get people to the table, set measurable goals and expectations, is that worth more than a technology expert?

The answer is a resounding YES! I've been in situations in which there is leadership that is completely ignorant of technology but willing to learn. In these situations, you have a leader that is constantly learning about areas they are ignorant in, but can actually get farther than someone else...because the objections that arise do NOT stop the conversation.

"What instructional goals do we want to accomplish with this iPad or netbook-running-Linux implementation?" someone might ask, unbalked by the fact that the district doesn't currently have the infrastructure it needs. "Ok, so what do we need to do to get the infrastructure and filtering that we need to be ready?" If the leader is willing to listen, research, learn, and can bring people to the table to set goals, objectives, and answer the "who will do what by when," then progress can be made.

Scott lists several common problems in his blog entry about the issues we encounter, but here are a few more scenarios:

  • Your district needs to videotape and broadcast an important event with state, or even national, media. How you approach this in a way that will reflect well on your district? Do you and one other person handle it or do you call together an executive team that makes sure you're "unleashing" the knowledge and skills of the entire support team? This is fundamentally a leadership opportunity because you need to bring people together that can solve technology problems you may be completely oblivious to.
  • Your district finds itself encountering spyware/malware attacks on every campus, and bandwidth is wiped out so that no one can use the Web-based instructional assessment tools. You've already spent your budget on filtering software but it's languishing in the server room because your firewall configuration guru is on vacation. How can you address this situation now and in the future so you're not stuck implementing a major initiative without your key player?
  • Your district leadership—trying to respond quickly to a problem—needs to implement an enterprise-level solution to a problem but sets the full implementation deadline five months out. Unfortunately, no one has told them that 1) hardware is not in place; 2) human infrastructure is lacking and you can't get there from here with the staff you have; and 3) end-user implementation is likely to be slow because they are committed to an old, archaic system but are unaware of the problems. 
  • Your district just launched ZohoWorks but you notice no one is using the cloud-based productivity suite. Apparently, the higher-ups expect the training to happen all face-to-face but there's only one person to do the training (maybe it's you). How can you change the conversation so that you can require staff to complete training online, leveraging natural consequences of a situation so that folks are motivated?

What other scenarios can you think of that affect technology that are primarily about our failure to have crucial conversations/confrontations and consider the sources of insight when trying to encourage others what needs to be done to the benefit of the organization?

Often, when one criticizes leadership, no solutions are available. That's why I like the Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations books so much. They provide practical suggestions and processes for helping you and your stakeholders figure out what you want, what you don't want, how to move forward without alienating, and identifying sources of insight so that you can determine and rely on the natural consequences of a situation to motivate people.

Miguel Guhlin is director of technology for a 5A school district in Texas and past president of the statewide TCEA Technology Education Coordinators group. This blog is cross posted at Around the Corner.