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product's design through a "deep understanding" of the
people it's meant to serve. To gain that perspective, they
follow people around to see what they do, how they do it
and how it might be improved. In one case a student team
tracked bicycle messengers who tended to work with one
earbud in to listen to their dispatcher and the other earbud
in to listen to music. Switching back and forth broke their
concentration and tended to lead to accidents.
The team's prototype design was simple: a Staples "Easy
Button" worn on the rider's vest. Recalled Kossuth, "You
push the button and it switches from one to the other and
you don't have to lose your concentration in terms of how
you're manipulating the bike."
The IT staff has taken a les-
son from that approach to lure
students into working for IT.
For a while, said Kossuth, the
department was having trouble
hiring students "because it
wasn't sexy and intriguing
enough for them. Why would
they want to do that when they
could do something more
fun?" So she challenged her
team "to look at hiring people
and not just saying, 'Okay,
you're going to repair hard-
ware until you're purple,' but to
say, 'Here are some of the
other issues we have that are
challenging for us. How would
you help us solve them?'"
The result: "This year we seem to have an abundance of
people who are interested in helping us. I think [problem-
solving is] a big part of the culture. The more we can incor-
porate it, the better off we are."
Continuous Innovation Mode
Kossuth's IT organization has learned to put itself into con-
tinuous innovation mode just like the population it's serving.
Traditionally, IT has a reputation "for being the 'No' guys,"
said Kossuth. "Some of that is because there are legitimate
concerns around safety, security, privacy. It's also due to the
fact that for a number of years IT was really in a centralized
position of control. It's often hard to give that up."
People in IT have learned to think of themselves as solu-
tion providers, she noted. "We get paid to find ways to
make things happen. It's difficult to have people under-
stand that listening to what the users need is a part of that
solution. And what they want is to feel vetted; they want to
feel participatory and have buy-in, and they don't want IT
to walk in and say, 'Here is how you should do it.'"
For example, while Olin has Blackboard as its learning
management system, faculty aren't really expected to use
it much at all. "It's utilized a lot with visitors and adjuncts
and folks like that who are used to it," said Kossuth. At one
point, IT was having a conversation with its "academic col-
leagues" about the possibility of adopting a social media
TRIAL BY FIRE
TRADITIONAL ENGINEERING SCHOOLS are often characterized by an intense com-
petitive atmosphere, noted Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of
Young People Who Will Change the World. "I interviewed kids who were at MIT and they
said in the first year it felt like it was all about competition --- very competitive, cutthroat, and
you really felt you couldn't make a mistake," he pointed out. At Olin College of Engineering
(MA), in contrast, "One woman said to me, we don't talk much about grades here. But we
talk a lot about iteration, the idea of reflecting on what worked and didn't work in a project
or course and applying it to your next effort. That quote has always stayed with me."
Olin trades that cutthroat trial by fire for something more literal: The school has gained
infamy for its Fire Arts Club, a student group that performs art with fire. Said Joanne Kossuth,
the school's founding CIO and VP of operations, "Most people look at that and say, 'That's
really dangerous and crazy.' But when you look at the process they went through and what
they have for safety manuals, it's easy to see they take safety really seriously."
No doubt, plenty of students have gotten burned as they've figured out the rules and pro-
cedures for twirling fire for fun. The same may be said for Olin's overall grand experiment of
which IT is a part of the fabric. Much of what's tried may not work in its original manifestation
--- so the college backs up and takes a new direction. "It's a risk management question to
us," said Kossuth. "We're all going to learn something and see what we can do."
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