Thursday, November 30, 2006

The challenges of cultural and institutional change: Lotus Notes as a metaphor

The primary software AU uses as a standard for email, calendaring, address books, Blackberry support and a variety of other functions is called Lotus Notes. Notes’ ancestor, Plato Notes, was first developed in 1973, Notes, itself, first emerged in 1984, one year after I first purchased my first personal computer (An IBM PC XT).

The functionality of Notes for basic tasks is a subject of debate. The most uncompromising supporters are Office of Information Technology Staff members who are tasked with maintaining the system. One of AU’s most able staff members (in any division) has this as her primary responsibility. Principal detractors are AU faculty and students, particularly those who work extensively off campus. Most have simply voted with their feet by adopting other systems that better meet their needs.

Before becoming Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, with some responsibilities for academic computing, I never used Notes. But when I assumed these new responsibilities in 2002, I decided that personal experience with the systems set as university standards was essential I have struggled with the system ever since, gaining an appreciation for the features praised by supporters and criticized by detractors. Moments of frustration with the system occur almost daily. Notes is never functional on-line when I am working at home, via satellite connection, except through a complicated system of work arounds that I have devised. When I travel, I must switch to an alternative email system and lose other connectivity features with AU. Notes is the only software that crashes my new Mac powerbook on a daily basis – or ever.

But I have not made a change. This illustrates the power of long embedded institutional commitments to partially dysfunctional structures. Change has simply been too difficult, in terms of time and personal relationships with Notes proponents, despite the fact that short-term costs would produce long term gains, measured in greater efficiencies and lessoned frustrations. Other systems that pose similar challenges include Microsoft’s partially dysfunctional Windows and Internet Explorer software, the internal combustion engine for automobiles (and the corporate structures of Ford and General Motors), and ‘fighting the last war’ doctrinal rigidities in military organizations.

An early example, though I have not researched it, must have been the challenges posed by moving from the Ptolemaic world view of a geocentric universe to the Copernican heliocentric world view. As a student, I learned that the Ptolemaic system, with its complex structure of epicycles served quite well for a variety of predictive and navigational functions (and can still do so, today). Ptolemaic epicycles remind me of the numerous fixes and patches required to keep Notes, Windows and Explorer functioning in the Twenty First Century Copernican age of computing.

Historian of Science Thomas Kuhn listed the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric world view among his major ‘Scientific Revolutions.” It was a revolution, literally, in which blood was shed, lives were lost and dissenters were burned at the stake. Galileo was forced by religious authorities to recant his theories.

Let us hope those who believe Lotus Notes should be honored as a historical artifact, but now supplanted by a twenty first century alternative, do not suffer a similar fate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would hope that at least the Director for the CTE would have some kind of influence in OIT (and other impenetrable bureaucratic offices at AU), but I guess institutional inertia is worse than I thought.

11:50 AM  

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