On Decisions

I realized something recently.

I am, in many ways, quite cynical.  The reasons are numerous and varied, and perhaps not entirely all good.  It’s not that I don’t care about anything, it’s that sometimes other people care a whole lot about things I don’t consider important.   This came about when I said that most of the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis in our work, things like what software to use, what specific methodology, etc., basically don’t matter.  Or, while we might agonize over the criteria used to evaluate one item over another, many of the differences in choices are not discernible before implementation, and may not even be discernible after implementation.

Perhaps a significant example of this is when we were choosing between Datatel Colleague and Sungard Banner for migrating our legacy administrative system.  Once it got down to these two choices, we probably couldn’t have made a bad decision.  In fact, we liked Colleague’s Recruiter product better than Banner’s BRM product, although we implemented the latter successfully.

Of course, Datatel and Sungard Banner merged  shortly after our product selection.  And in fact, Ellucian has phased out the BRM product and is moving all BRM schools to Recruiter.  We had no way of knowing that would happen at the time.  No amount of analysis could have reached that conclusion.  Even if we attempted to do an analysis of a potential merger (which in hindsight considering the stable marketplace of higher education ERP we should have considered) we could not have predicted the product line mix that would happen, nor can we predict what will happen in the future.

So we made our decision based on unavoidably incomplete data, where either choice could have been disastrous or successful based on trajectories and circumstances entirely beyond our control.

Then there was the faculty member who insisted on buying a Syquest drive for data backups, even though the IT organization had been using Zip drives.  This faculty member had plenty of information on why the Syquest technology was better, but it was less relevant when Syquest went out of business a few years later and stopped making the media.

An example that hits close to home for me is when 3Com spontaneously decided to leave the enterprise networking market in 1999.  After I had made the decision to build our campus network on 3Com CoreBuilder switches.  Before that, 3Com had hit the sweet spot for price/performance in our environment, and having to replace them with Cisco gear was a great increase in our costs with not nearly as much benefit.  I had made the right decision to use 3Com, and my decision became utterly wrong in an instant due to some consultant who told 3Com’s board to give up on the enterprise market.

We want to believe that our destinies are entirely in our own hands, that our successes and failures as IT organizations are solely a result of our hard work and making “the right decisions”, when in reality the effects of externalities will obliterate the impact of our actions in many cases.

So that’s why I’m cynical.

When I shared this insight, I realized just how horrible this actually sounds, and how it could be seen as fatalistic, nihilistic, and generally apathetic.   Why do anything?  It’s just going to get messed up anyway.

But that’s not what I believe.  I know there’s a difference between doing a good job and doing a bad one, between making good choices and making bad ones. This is where your principles and goals come into play.  Knowing what you want-“excellent customer service”, “mediated classrooms that are flexible and easy to use”, “administrative users to be able to gain intelligence into their operations”, “students to be able to use the network for academic and recreational purposes”-those are the decisions worth making. The specific technologies you implement will be based on other factors–price, inertia, the vendor landscape, the limits of the technology–in a way that may limit your choices, or make a specific choice irrelevant.   But you can’t worry about that, you need to implement as well as possible, understand your fundamentals, and roll with the inevitable changes.

All too often we let the spectrum of choices and the pressure of getting it right paralyze us (I have certainly fallen into that trap many times myself.)  It’s generally better to make a decision than not to make one  (the words of the philosopher Neil Peart notwithstanding).

You will always have to change course, to make corrections.  Don’t live in fear of the ocean, or the winds, let them guide and steer you a bit as well.  But make sure the boat is sound and that you brought enough supplies, and that your crew knows how to run the boat, so you can handle whatever nature and fate throw your way.



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Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.