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Real Versus Ideal

Real Versus Ideal

When it comes to information technology, theory and practice-unlike love and marriage, ham and eggs or clients and servers -do not necessarily go together. CIOs usually have to improvise, trim, adjust, compromise and sometimes even give up on their most cherished ideals and goals.

Nowhere is this truer than in the groves of academe. From Maine to Montana, in schools both public and private, academic CIOs teach classes in IT management. Flip through course syllabuses and you'll find classes on just about every aspect of the IT industry. One class at Marquette University in Milwaukee deals with how to prepare for an enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation. Another, at Yale in New Haven, Conn., focuses on security issues after Y2K. CIOs who teach courses like these say they're training the IT leaders of tomorrow. Of course, if they were really preparing them for their future jobs, they'd be telling their students to take everything they say with a few pounds of salt. It's not that they're willingly misleading their students; they simply have no choice.

Take Frank Sirianni, vice president for planning and information technology at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. Charged with handling technology for a system with more than 20,000 student and staff customers, Sirianni is constantly faced with limited resources and the pressure to perform. He says these circumstances create a disconnect between how he actually runs his department and what he teaches students in his management information systems seminar. Sirianni insists that this doesn't make him a hypocrite; it just proves that managing IT is a job that requires more practical panache than book learning. "Theory is theory-it's supposed to be an ideal," Sirianni says. "There are a number of things I do as CIO [of St. John's] that I'd never tell my students. If I did, I'd be giving them the wrong idea about how IT should be run. They need to know what they should shoot for," he says. "Beyond that, it's up to them to determine how they can incorporate those ideals into strategies of their own."

Take Your Time, But Hurry Up

Sirianni's lecture about procurement is heavy stuff. Some of the 20 MBA students in his class have been known to take pages of notes during this one lecture alone. While working off a transparency projected onto the chalkboard in the front of the room, Sirianni lays out a formal procurement procedure similar to one used by many corporate CIOs today. First, he explains, comes the information-gathering process, where IT leaders should learn all they can about the products available. Next is the request for proposal (RFP) phase. Sirianni warns students to read each proposal carefully, paying special attention to the fine print. Last is the decision-making process. Sirianni teaches his students not to base their product choice on cost alone but instead on the value the product can provide to the business as a whole.

An observer might gather that Sirianni believes the key to a successful procurement strategy is taking the time to get things right. And the observer would be right-in theory. In practice, however, time is something Sirianni just doesn't have.

Sirianni started at St. John's in 1994. Soon after, members of the school's board of trustees initiated an aggressive expansion strategy that included more students, more buildings and, therefore, more technology. Since then, because St. John's has grown so rapidly, school trustees have requested that IT deliver solutions ASAP.

Given the resources at his command, Sirianni says there is no way he can keep the school's systems running and still have enough manpower to make fully informed procurement decisions at the speed his board demands. As a result, he and his 150 IT employees address procurement issues on an ad hoc basis, often in their spare time. Forget about learning everything about all the available products. Sirianni's department usually researches only about 50 per cent of the candidates for major purchases. In the past, he adds, this haste has led to some poor decisions and some potentially disastrous mistakes.

Such was the case earlier this summer when a senior member of the school's executive team requested that Sirianni wire a handful of off-campus buildings previously not connected to the school's private phone system. Sirianni says the executive wanted cost estimates within a week and pressured Sirianni to deliver them so that the buildings could be wired by Sept. 1. The buildings were wired by the deadline, but Sirianni admits he did not have enough time to investigate all the products and services local telecommunications companies had to offer. In retrospect, Sirianni wonders if the school might have gotten a better deal if he had had the luxury of shopping around.

"I would have preferred to give somebody a month to look into the issue, then have made a decision based on that person's recommendations and findings," he says. "Instead, we accepted an estimate that may not have been the best value. If I were able to practice what I preach, that never would have happened."

Devise a System-Then Throw It Out the Window Procurement isn't the only subject Sirianni teaches using a formula that he can rarely apply in real life. His project management lessons propound a formal, step-by-step strategy. Reading from voluminous notes, Sirianni recommends that his students create stable teams to implement major IT initiatives such as ERP and others. He also recommends a step-by-step process that includes keeping physical records of every task so that you know how much progress you've made at any given point during the project; keeping lists of all your financial and human resources so that you know what kind of firepower you've got in reserve; and maintaining calendars marked with milestones and anticipated project completion dates. And always, always, having contingency plans in place in case something goes wrong.

But Sirianni and the other IT directors at St. John's are far too busy to follow this strategy in all its particulars. Because of the school's breakneck expansion, Sirianni says his staff is increasingly overworked. His employees see time spent chronicling their progress on a particular project as time that could be better spent getting the job done. What's more, the department is so understaffed that Sirianni has to shuffle employees from one project to another, a practice antithetical to the philosophy of maintaining stable project teams.

"I tell my students that where they have dependencies and contingencies across divisions within IT, it's important to identify the resources and do whatever you can to provide a sense of consistency," he says. "I wish I could abide by that. When there's a fire over here and I need help putting it out, I can't pick and choose my help. I take whoever's available and throw my project management system out the window."

According to Sirianni, the best demonstration of this project-management dilemma occurred last year when some of St. John's IT superstars created an enterprise-level application to assign courses to classrooms at the beginning of every semester. In the beginning, project leaders plotted tasks, listed resources and developed detailed timetables. But once the project got off the ground, Sirianni had to transfer some of the leaders to other projects. The result was predictable. Originally scheduled for completion within four months, the project dragged on for nearly a year.

How to Select the Worst Option

Limited physical resources and time squeezes aren't the only things that force Sirianni to teach one thing and do another. A lack of money has also resulted in a divergence between theory and practice. In class, Sirianni tells his students that his standard preference is for home-grown software rather than off-the-shelf products. He believes that proprietary programs are usually more efficient because you can build them with your specific needs in mind. He adds that although programmers are expensive to employ, they're worth the investment because they can provide support for their own products. Like a lawyer presenting his case, Sirianni outlines the benefits of developing applications in-house point by point, consistently reminding his students to focus on the business value of any endeavor. This lecture is one of the most compelling Sirianni gives. The subject is close to his heart. It is, however, based mostly on the experience of others.

In 1994, shortly after Sirianni arrived, the board of trustees told him there was not enough room in the school's $4.5 million IT budget to develop proprietary applications. A recent student-athlete data repository was the first major application St. John's in-house programmers have developed since the early 1990s, and Sirianni notes somewhat ruefully that maintaining this system is so easy that it would have cost twice as much to buy a similar system somewhere else.

"We try to avoid [writing programs ourselves]," he says. "But I think if I told my students to bring a black-and-white [no application] policy like that with them into the workplace, they'd all be out of jobs in a matter of weeks."

Sirianni doesn't say such things lightly; hiring, firing and other personnel issues are topics he discusses in class for a good week. Again, these are areas in which Sirianni sees a significant divergence between his lessons and his reality. In the lecture on benchmarking, he urges students to survey the industry and base the salaries they offer on what their competitors pay. In the class about retention, he tells them to brainstorm regularly about creative benefits packages and nonmonetary incentives. By linking fair compensation and good benefits to job satisfaction, Sirianni makes these lectures easy to understand.

But, the reality is, Sirianni can't pay his employees as much as IT workers at well-endowed institutions such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Harvard. Compared with companies in the private sector, IT salaries at St. John's are even lower. The average IT worker earns about $US45,000 at St. John's, slightly less than the norm in academia, and roughly $US10,000 to $US15,000 below the average salary in the private sector.

Low salaries are only part of the reason why Sirianni has difficulty attracting and retaining good people. Because St. John's is a private, not-for-profit entity, the school does not have profit in which its employees can share. Without the possibility of stock options, benefit packages focus on the school's strength-education. Employees, their spouses and children can attend St. John's for free, a program worth over $90,000 in tuition, room and board costs over four years. While this is a nice benefit, Sirianni acknowledges that it doesn't work for everyone.

The Real Versus the Ideal

OK, so Sirianni doesn't exactly practice what he preaches. But follow-through on his lessons isn't as important as doing his job and doing it right. This is the subject of his final lecture-a lesson he considers to be as, if not more, important than all the rest. In this class, he explains that every CIO's experience is different and that no management strategies should be set in stone. He urges his students to identify goals, evaluate reality and creatively find ways to merge the two. This, he adds, is the key to success.

"There's more to [being a CIO] than making technology work," says Sirianni. "It takes time, creativity and most of all an understanding that what you want to do and what you can do aren't always the same. I've learned that during my time here. If my students can take away the same thing, then I know I've done my job."

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