The Starfish and The Spider (and higher education)

Recently, I finished reading the book “The Starfish and The Spider – The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.  It served to be a very interesting and thought provoking read on many fronts, especially as it relates to information technology in higher education.  The basic premise of the book is there are different types of organizations that can be plotted along a continuum, from Starfish (decentralized), to Spider (centralized) and Hybrid (somewhere in between).

The concepts presented in “The Starfish and The Spider” are especially apropos as they relate to management of the Information Technology division at Notre Dame.  Over the past few years there has been much discussion over whether or not we are too centralized and should be a more decentralized IT organization.  This is particularly pertinent as we focus on the goal of becoming a preeminent research institution and the needs of our colleges and business units grow.  This is a timely topic as our organization has undergone some considerable management changes in the past 6 months, with most of our upper management leaving, and as a matter of fact a new CIO starting on Monday August 14.  It seems that the trend in higher education is to move towards a more decentralized model, as IT services and support needs have grown in all corners of college campuses.

There are certain things that make sense to decentralize; field support would be a great example.  It has become a necessity to have IT field support (oftentimes referred to desktop support), as close to the end users as possible.  With the intricate, complex and ubiquitous IT systems that are in place on US college campuses (and elsewhere), it is important to provide that safety net of close support – a user that cannot access network resources or an ERP system, puts them out of commission.  There’s very little a staff member can do without access to IT services.  So, where at one time it made sense to house the IT support group in a central location and have users bring problems to them (either physically, or through a help desk) – it is now imperative to have assistance local.  Not just in proximity, but also field support that has “local” knowledge of the business needs of their respective user populous, be it a software application used by Mathematics or Architecture faculty or a financial system for Accounts Payable.

The need for distributed IT support has become very apparent especially as I lead a network security project on campus.  It’s easy to see which areas have been growing their resources for years, while other units either have little to no IT assistance and rely heavily on central support services.  Like anything, this is a maturity process of the organizations on campus, including mine.  Some have been preparing all along to meet their particular business needs, and some are still flying blind.

Now, on the other hand, there are functions within the IT division that make sense to keep centralized – not just from a technical perspective, but a financial angle as well.  Areas that stand out as perfect candidates to maintain central control over would be infrastructure items – Networks (voice, video, data), DNS/DHCP, Information Security, Email, Identity Access Management, etc…Economies of scale come into play when making large hardware purchases, for example network switches or storage or when providing bulk video/voice services.  In addition, maintaining prime control over technical functions like the data network (plumbing) leads to easier administration. This is particularly important when running any enterprise service that requires end-to-end service functionality like IP Multicast (IP Video) or VoIP.

In conclusion, I see great arguments for both, or better yet, a hybrid approach.  Where some services proceed down the continuum towards a starfish, while others gravitate towards spiders – and of course some in between.  I’d strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in organizational dynamics or business theory.  Props go out to Ken Banks, a thought leader in the ICT4D field for recommending this book on his blog.


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