Returning to Harvard: Rip Van Winkle and information tech

If you stare at your watch it's hard to see it moving but if you don't look at it for an hour it's easy to see how it has changed since you last looked. The same applies if you've been away from an organization for a long time. Gradual shifts that might not be noticed by the person around the institution the whole time will hit somebody who's been away with much more force.

When I left Harvard in the summer of l993 the Kennedy School didn't yet have a local-area network or an e-mail system. I had known however that the school had gotten Internet access shortly after I left and I had constantly used e-mail in the government so I was ready for that. But returning to Harvard after four years changes in the use of information technology around campus struck me immediately and quickly made me feel like a Rip Van Winkle waking up from a lengthy sleep.

Soon after arriving I called the student employment office to put in a notice for an undergraduate research assistant. "Enter it directly onto our Web site " the voice over the telephone told me. "What if I'd like to give it to you over the phone?" I asked (the undertone in my voice conveying the added thought `Like I always did.'). "Yes you can do that " came the reply. "But you'll have to wait until next Monday when we have somebody available to take notices over the phone." Because this was Tuesday I decided that the Web site would have to do so I got a secretary next door to help me.

Next I needed to work out office routines with my own new secretary whose office is one flight down from mine. When I started to ask about maintaining my calendar and was just about to mention that it would be easier if my secretary could be responsible for setting up lunches because he would have the calendar in his physical possession he noted that we would be using an interactive calendar on the computer that either of us could update at any time. Some people at the Office of Management and Budget did have some version of a computer calendar although most senior government officials I knew had paper calendars - done in pencil to allow for the many changes in a senior official's day - and 3-by-5 daily schedule cards we put in our pockets. When I asked how he would get me phone messages because we are one floor separated - my image was of little pink "While you were out" phone slips shuttled across stairwells - my secretary laconically replied "I'll send you an e-mail."

Then there was the ID card. When I had left students had picture IDs while faculty carried staid cards in Harvard crimson with the university seal that simply read "Officer" (as in Officer of the University). The cards still carry the "Officer" title but now they're more jazzy and include a picture. How would I get a card? A Kennedy School administrative staff person whisked me down the hall and took my picture with a digital camera. The picture was then transmitted over the network to Harvard's central administration office the card would be available for immediate pickup or mailing.

These changes all involve the use of IT for ancillary functions outside the university's core businesses of teaching and research. Just as in the federal government changes in the core business are slower to come. One change Kennedy School faculty have noted is that students have now started sending e-mail to professors. Many are straightforward requests ("Is the memo assignment due at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m.?"). But others are substantive questions about the material that often come from students who would have been too shy to ask in class.

I have been told that the Harvard Business School is much further along the road in introducing IT into the classroom. The B-School has recently developed some multimedia cases for classroom use to replace traditional paper-based ones. These feature film narrative and sounds along with interactive exercises. Kennedy School faculty who viewed one of these cases were blown away I was told.

The introduction of IT into the academic core mission also has created new management challenges. The B-School now requires that all students own laptops - scholarship students are loaned money to buy one if necessary - and be hooked into the school's network. The new technology however has enabled an unfortunate expansion of the traditional student study groups of five or so. Such groups traditionally have not only discussed class assignments together but often divided assignments among the group. Previously the ability to divide up the work was limited by the time and effort of photocopying and distributing sets of materials to other group members. The network however has eliminated this cost and apparently created sectionwide "study groups" of a hundred students each doing one-hundredth the class preparation. Sound like some unintended consequences familiar to those introducing new IT applications in government?

It's also nice to log onto Netscape and not be faced by the full-paragraph warning together with the requirement to click your acceptance of the rules that appears on a White House computer every time a person prepares to enter the Internet. The message is a reminder that Internet use is restricted to official government business and that users may not send e-mail over the Internet because all White House e-mails per Oliver North-era court order are official records and must be preserved through the White House e-mail system. Every morning now when I come in I indulge my long-standing interest in Swedish politics and take a look at the online version of a Swedish daily newspaper. My wife checks out The Washington Post on the Internet as well but hidebound troglodyte that I am I take a look at it in the Kennedy School library.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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