Michael Nanfito: An interview by Bob Morris


NanfitoMichael Nanfito is the executive director at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). Mr. Nanfito sets the vision and strategic direction for NITLE, working closely the member community. He has a background in networked information resources and technology-related entrepreneurial activity, ranging from the development of large data-driven web environments to consulting for small academic libraries.

Nanfito has worked in networked information resources since the late 1980s, at that time developing databases in the library database industry. In the 1990s, Nanfito served as a consultant to the Microsoft Corporate Library to identify information needs across the organization and to develop a strategy to implement web-based library portals. He subsequently worked as an entrepreneur and consultant in a variety of capacities in the Seattle area, including developing large data-driven web environments and consulting services to bring small libraries up to speed on emerging online library resources. Before joining NITLE in 2006, he served as director of instructional technology at the University of Puget Sound. One of his primary interests and efforts while at the University was the development of a digital asset management program to digitize, organize, and provide access to academic resources housed in departmental collections. A 2002 Frye Fellow, Nanfito holds the M.L.I.S. and a B.A. in history (San Jose State University).

His book, MOOCs: Opportunities,Impacts, and Challenges: Massive Open Online Courses in Colleges and Universities, was published by CreateSpace/An Amazon Company (December 2013).

Here id an excerpt from my review of Michael. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Nanfito: I “discovered” the Internet, quite by accident in 1991. At the time I had enrolled in the library and information science program at San Jose State University and was working with an advisor on a research project. Initially the project was to center on “information equity” issues but changed when she asked me why I had enrolled in the program. I responded that I was interested in the impact that information services have on the process of global democratization. The attempted coup in the (then) Soviet Union had just occurred. She decided my question was more interesting and re-wrote the grant to reflect the shift.

As I looked into the coup I discovered that a California State University professor of computer science, Dr. Larry Press, had just returned from Moscow immediately prior to the coup attempt. He had been working with some start up groups (this was the time of perestroika and glasnost) to get budding “commercial” software development services going.

(Not coincidentally, in 1989, the US Department of Commerce had allowed TCP/IP Internet services to be accessible in the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries so academic institutions in each of the soviets had internet access at the time of the coup.)

I learned that resistance to the coup was aided by communications from academic institutions in each of the soviets, made possible by the use of something called the “internet.” As I investigated farther I learned that in addition to the “internet” the resistance made use of another murky service called “BITNET.” BITNET (the Because It’s Time Network) was exclusive to academic institutions (read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BITNET). I realized that I was at an academic institution and that I could probably get on this thing, whatever it was. I asked at the campus computing center and they gave me an account, pointed me to some things called “listserves” to learn more about using the “BITNET” thing.

I was brand new to both computing and online services. In point of fact I knew nothing about either and was an admitted technophobe – if not an actual luddite. When I had initially expressed my interest in learning how information services were influencing democratization, I was clear that I meant print services. I had just recently purchased an IBM 286 (clone) computer with the help of a friend and he had had something called a “modem” installed when they built the machine. I had no use for the modem – until I got my BITNET account. All of a sudden I was tooling around computers out there somewhere in a green-screen mode using TELNET, Archie, and FTP. It was all sort of fun but the content on these computers I was visiting was mostly about, well, computers and computing. Nothing that really applied to my query. That is, until I found Project Hermes.

One Saturday morning I was stumbling around the BITNET/Internet thing using my new 286 PC and modem, looking at files via TELNET and FTP. Then I saw a TELNET reference to Project Hermes, an experimental online repository of Supreme Court decisions. I picked a case at random (involving then Governor Clinton of Arkansas). The record I had stumbled on was not merely a bibliographic citation of the case, it was the full text. I recognized that this BITNET/Internet thing had utility. Then it got better, I discovered I could “download” the record. To my home computer. And print it. So I did. I timed it. It took less than five minutes to search for the record, download it, and print it off. I got so excited I had to go outside and walk around for a while. I realized that this would change everything. Citizens would be able to gain access to information of value and make use of it. Libraries would never be the same. My own graduate program suddenly seemed ridiculously antique.

The light bulb had gone off for me and I have been working with online resources ever since. And for me it is still about how to help people make sense of and use this extensible resource in the service of making the best decisions for themselves and their organizations.

A long answer to your question but it truly was an epiphany.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Nanfito: Attending educational institutions provided context for my real learning to happen. In both my undergraduate and graduate programs I made extensive use of special studies, the maximum allowed in both cases. This freed me to do some real work. I enjoyed most of the lectures I attended but I felt pretty disengaged overall. I was energized by the narrative I was developing for myself.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Nanfito: (Formal) credentials are not the only measure of ability and don’t (necessarily) mean as much as we wish they did. I wasted a lot of time believing I had to wait until I had received external authorization to really contribute. I no longer believe that and I don’t really look at people’s credentials much when hiring. I want to know about the person, what they are excited about, and whether they want to change the world or not. Transcripts and degrees don’t tell me any of that.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Nanfito: Moneyball leaps to mind. In our consulting work we emphasize the need and the value of taking the time to really identify the real problem at hand. Too often we leap to (comfortable) solutions before we have accurately identified the problem to solve. For me, Moneyball was in part about rejecting an old business model and asking better questions in order to understand an actual problem facing the organization and work at a solution for that problem, not the one we are comfortable with.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Nanfito: East of Eden: “Thou mayest not sin.”

We have choices. The more common – and apparently inaccurate, at least according to Steinbeck’s character in the book – representation of that edict is “Thou shall not sin.” It is a command, a directive that is absent choice. The former version requires choice. In business, we have choices and we should cultivate curiosity and a culture of experimentation. Directives and excessive structure make it easy to abdicate our responsibility to make choices and decisions. Active involvement in the organization requires that we take chances, do our best, and take responsibility for our decisions.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Nanfito: In our collaboration consulting work for higher ed we emphasize the need for shared leadership. Hierarchy – which is firmly entrenched in education – is a tool. When it becomes the program, real sustained, programmatic collaboration is impossible and we are less than we can be.

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Nanfito: Programs are best when they are about the substance and not the personality. Work to help others own your best ideas, make them their own, and thus help them build something useful.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Nanfito: Convention is comfortable and comfort is a trap. Real change requires real change (there’s a cliché for you). Foster choice, risk-taking, and participatory decision-making. Work to make your innovation tomorrow’s boring cliché. That may be a measure of success. If everything I do is always “innovative” where is it’s utility?

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Nanfito: I learned a long time ago that once I believe I know something I stop asking questions about it. Curiosity about the given ubject or object is blunted. I stop learning. The real fun lies in the questions, not in the answers.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Nanfito: Someone advised me a long time ago not to “make problems that don’t exist.” Focus. Understand the real issues at hand and address them with discipline and humility. Avoid working on (or worse, inventing) questions to demonstrate your ability to answer them. Leave that to the trial lawyers.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Michael cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

The NITLE link

The Academic Commons link

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