Age of Assembly

Eric Hawley, Ph.D, CIO, Utah State University
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Eric Hawley, Ph.D, CIO, Utah State University

It’s an exciting age, we find ourselves in! An age of assembly. Of course, assembly is not new. With industrialization it’s been part and parcel for generations. (That industrial assembly line, traditionally, having been under the near-comprehensive control and purview of the experts)

No more. The power structure of the assembly is changing. New distributed simplicity, independence, interconnection, availability, and abundance of components is enabling complex creation by the consumer (or business unit!) without deep technical expertise. This is shifting control to the chooser. We are in an era I have begun to call the Age of Self-Assembly.

How cool, and how easy, has it become to build a great family vacation? Book a good flight at a competitive price (KAYAK?), reserve a car (pick whatever you want from the aisle on-the-fly, don’t have to line up or talk to anyone), inexpensively borrow the house of another (Airbnb? VRBO?), have someone else grab the groceries you need (Instacart?), pick a good restaurant for later (LocalEats?), or “travel off the eaten path” and connect for a regional meal with a local in their own home (EatWith? Traveling Spoon?), then maybe head out with our new found friends to a great movie (Rotten Tomatoes?)

(Any of you remember the days of travel agents? My kids certainly don’t know who they were or what they did.)

I believe the “I” in CIO now stands for “Integration,” a “Chief Integration Officer,” if you will. But let’s not kid ourselves, in the modern age of self-assembly, everyone is becoming their own Chief Integration Officer!

We source, we mashup, we create, we build. Everyone. Not just the experts. Components from SaaS, Cloud, whatever the label. The best are like Legos and enable us to snap blocks of different color, form, and function together to see what can become.

“Become platform focused, provisioning configurable technology that other units can access and use creatively, and securely. Empower the edge to play!”

In traditional IT, this is a sea change. IT can no longer safely be the “travel-agent”–an “only-path” legacy provider of the old way of doing things, as gatekeeper, offering a limited but stable menu of old-school ERP and infrastructure to a captive audience.

The future is platforms! The future is connected-SaaS! Specialized blocks – apps that someone else built, that are deep and efficient, but which interface easily and well with others to create something awesome. IT will have continued ownership of some (central systems of record and authentication systems, for example) while colleagues and constituents (and even IT) will more often partner with outside SaaS to bring other “blocks” into the party. How well and how easily can they all snap together to create, like the family vacation, the necessary, more complete end-to-end experience? And who will orchestrate the build?

This shift means IT must:

• Become platform focused, provisioning configurable technology that other (non-technical) units can access and use creatively, and securely. Empower the edge to play!

• Create common quick-snap interfaces for access to enterprise data and authentication systems.

• Be bolder in utilizing third-party SaaS systems to speed deployment. (Less formulation and operation of our own raw material and more leveraging, integrating, and securing SaaS components from world around us.)

• Be more aware and involved in the unit/business needs, desired outcomes, and options around us.

• Spend less time supporting servers, base-code, and wires and more time assembling diverse, pre-built, but configurable blocks to meet these human and organizational needs.

• Shift IT staffing up the value chain and become great architects and builders with other’s blocks. Becoming trusted integration advisors to units.

• Configure and not customize (what we cook, we must support!)

• Implement User Centric IT

• Create strategies to transition data between diverse services and providers.

This shift means SaaS/app developers must:

• Collaborate with and support common interface standards. Develop with interfacing standards in mind!

• Recognize (like IT) that they are only a component, no longer the end-to-end be-all solution, but a part, best of class in its area. A service and a platform. Recognizing that allowing great interfaces empowers users to create amazing combinations.

• Create platforms that can be configured and stand the test of upgrade cycles and flexible use. • Create transition strategies for getting client data and metadata in and out of the service – never holding someone hostage.

This shift means units, business leaders, and institutions must:

• Be willing to change their processes to fit configurations that are supported “out of the box.” (If you want to arrange travel the old way, the new apps will confuse and frustrate you—you will need to be willing to try a completely new way to have a chance at new benefit.)

• Like their technical mashups, create cross unit “people mashups” to build a greater organizational and a collaborative vision outside of the individual silo.

At Utah State University we take a SaaS-first approach wherever possible. But we look at interfaces, security, integration and configurability— no SaaS is an island!

Selected SaaS or hybrid-SaaS blocks to date include:

• Box.com (file share, storage, and collaboration)
• ServiceNow (distributed service catalog, distributed knowledgebase, comprehensive workflow business process)
• Panopto (classroom capture)
• Instructure Canvas (learning management system)
• Google Apps/Office 365 (office suite SaaS, e-mail and groupware)
• HireTouch (Employee on boarding and jobs systems)
• SciQuest (eProcurement)
• Digital Commons (digital repository)
• Digital Measures (faculty e-portfolio)
• Physical Security (police, parking, ticketing systems)
• Argos (Web-accessible reporting systems)
• OU Campus (Website content management systems)

But blocks are just blocks—power comes from LINKING

Box interfaces cleanly (as one) with Office 365 office systems, creating more functionality together than either can do alone. The LMS interfaces seamlessly with the classroom capture systems, content sharing, and other services (students don’t know Panopto vs Instructure, again, like one.) Examples go on and on: Some blocks brought by academic units, some blocks identified through operations units, some blocks brought by IT, but the building together, now there are the future and the fun!

I am glad to live in a world where I don’t have to raise my own cattle to build a great cheese burger (though I still prefer a tomato from my own back yard).

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