Avoiding Glassy Eye Syndrome

We had a very productive meeting yesterday.  (Don't you wish you could say that?)

My development team met with the people responsible for curriculum and pedagogy at our school.  I know what you are thinking... "Sounds like a snoozer to me".

But it wasn't, and let me explain.  (Warning: Longish Post)

First, a bit of background.

At Appleby College, we offer an exceptionally rich program to our students, with a rigorous blend of academic, service, arts, athletics, and global citizenry all powered by innovative use of technology in the learning spaces (what classrooms need to be).  Running rich programs is not inexpensive, and our tuition is not insignificant, especially when it is compared to the price of public education.  This is not to dismiss public schools, but rather to highlight how everything we do must demonstrate the added value of the Appleby educational experience to the parents.

There is no public funding, so every dollar that come in is based on a value proposition.

In this, we are not much different than most organizations, and the IT department  is a critical player in supporting the mission of the school. My development team has built a significant number of "applications" on top of MS Sharepoint and other tools, incorporating our Financial System, our Student Information System, our Learning Management System, our Philanthropy Management System, our Web Content Management System, our scheduling system, collaborative tools, and have automated many of the administrative and academic information processes and eliminating much of the paper flow.  (This is not your average school IT department).

So... back to our meeting.  The people we met with were looking at some significant changes to the flow of the curriculum, incorporating cross discipline, self-directed learning modules.

Normally, when you put developers together with people who have big ideas, it is a recipe for trouble... and our meeting started out that way.

As an IT leader, my team will never grow if I run every meeting, so in this case I let the development team take the lead.

The meeting opened with our academics getting a lesson on what's new in Sharepoint 2010.  Predictably, the eyes of the non IT people started glassing over rather quickly.  The "solutions" from the developer started flying out faster than the requirements could be articulated.  It actually became uncomfortable for the "customer", but the developers didn't pick up on the signal.

Time to intervene... and this is the point of today's posting.

I asked one of the academic team "What does this new way of doing school look like to a student?"  With that, he went to the board (a very comfortable medium for a teacher) and described in story form (rather than process), what the interaction might look like.  The energy in the room picked up significantly.

By keeping technology out of the conversation, we were able to derive a much better understanding of his needs.

We left the meeting with several action items, and a couple of issues that the brilliant technology folks could research offline (not in the meeting).

This form of gathering requirements was well known to my team, but for some reason we IT folk forget this and start speaking in the language of technology rather than the language of our customer.  All of the great work this team has done has been as a result of learning our customer's needs in their own language.  Yet even though we were versed in this, my team fell back to the old way.

Being fluent in the language of our customers, whether finance, operations, executive leadership, or other group, is a crucial survival skill for 21st century IT leaders.  It helps us see things through their (non glassy) eyes.


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