Friday, March 27, 2015

Anticipating emerging technology

An article from the January edition of EDUCAUSE Review discusses Managing constant change. In the article, Jonathan Blake Huer, Director of Emerging Technologies and Media Development at Ball State University, mentions the problems we all face in technology: what is the next new technology that might change how we work?

Huer says this about Ball State University:
At Ball State University, we tackled these challenges by creating a nimble administrative unit that puts professional staff and student employees side by side in a fast-paced, project-oriented work environment. With the strong support of our visionary CIO, Phil Repp, my Emerging Technologies and Media Development unit has developed a system, refined over the past six years, that provides the right balance, safeguards, and administrative lattice to support the academic side of the institution at the pace of technology. At the core of the unit are eight diversely skilled professional staff members. The student employees (known as the "Digital Corps") average around forty in number and come from across the campus. Because students graduate and move on, at least 80 percent of the office turns over every three years. This ratio provides a constant source of new ideas and fresh approaches (along with new interests in technology) while maintaining enough consistency to keep projects moving forward and institutional memory intact.

In the Emerging Technologies unit, we divide technology into three longitudinal foci: experimental, disruptive, and pervasive. Experimental technology is our playground. We test new gadgets and see what future value they might have for the academy. Frequently, experimental technology has little practical value, but occasionally it is the solution to a problem that is discovered later. Disruptive technology is a new low/no-cost solution that replaces or enhances a technology already in use. This provides the greatest source of opportunity. Pervasive technology is technology that is easy or common enough that we introduce it but do not support or create for it. Generally speaking, technology that we consider pervasive is disruptive to others (e.g., collaborating in real time using a Google Doc).
It reminds me of a time when I recently joined the University of Minnesota in the Office of Technology's new Web Development team. The Web Development team was a very "young" unit and did not want to be "burdened" by process. Developers frequently incorporated new technology in their projects without fully understanding how it worked or the benefits for using it—or the trade-offs for long-term support. But I realized we needed to do better investigation into new technology.

I wrote a proposal for our Director, for the three of us to create a "50% time" sub-group called "Web Advanced Labs" that would examine new technology. I identified two other team members who were interested in learning new technology, and who understood the need to do a proper examination.

We created a 5-step process to examine new technology, with each step a separate document. Working together, we compromised on how much documentation to add, and created short documents that tracked progress and explained what we learned.

The Web Advanced Labs project was one example of converting the organization to dual-mode. I believe this duality is an important feature of IT organizations of the future: You need to have part of your group moving at "enterprise systems" speed—slow and steady, to support your enterprise systems well. And another part of the group needs to operate at a faster pace—to explore new technology, and to respond in a nimble manner to new challenges.

Some organizations allow staff to examine new concepts as part of their standard work week. Google is famous for their "20% time" policy where engineers can use 20% of work time to work on whatever they please. Gmail and Google News have their origins in 20% time. If Google did not have this policy, Gmail might never have been created, and Google would simply be "yet another" web search company. 3M also has a similar policy using 15% time for their engineers. Examples of "15% time" projects include Scotch Brand Tapes, Post-it Notes, Scotchgard Fabric Protector, automobile window treatment films, multilayer optical films and silicon adhesive systems for transdermal drug delivery.

How are you staying ahead of technology trends? Do you have a separate team dedicated to exploring emerging technologies?
photo: tracyshaun

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