Monday, 30 November 2009

Go Mos

Had a great lunchtime today - just over a month ago a colleague in CiCS decided that it would be a good idea to support the Movember charity where men grow a moustache during November and are sponsored to rise money for prostate cancer research. He asked for members of the department to join him, and soon he had a team of 11 brave men (the CiCS Mo Brotherhood) who started their Mos on 1 November and began fundraising. Today being the last day of Movember, we had a lunchtime fund raiser, to boost their sponsorship and also to raise money for a local charity - the Cavendish Centre.

People donated raffle prizes - and what prizes - homemade and beautifully decorated Christmas cakes, a box full of home grown veg from an allotment, books, chocolates, champagne, whiskey, an iPod. They also persuaded suppliers to donate prizes - including digital photo frames, a TomTom and a DVD home cinema system. A request for cakes for the lunch table generated the most amazing array of home baked cakes. And of course, we saw the 11 Mos in all their glory and awarded prizes to Ian for being team leader, and Bob for the best Mo. One very important Mo was missing - Ian, the team leader and the person behind it all, couldn't attend for family reasons - such a shame and I'm sure when you see his picture at the bottom of this he would have been in with a chance for best Mo!

So far, the team have raised over £1400 in sponsorship (it's not too late to donate here), and in raffle ticket sales and contributions for lunch, we raised £800 this lunchtime. Fantastic effort - well done everyone - I'm proud to be part of the department.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Gone Phishing

So, tonight I'm in the pub, halfway through the quiz, (which we lost), when I get a text from Rory Cellan-Jones. Normally I'd be over the moon at this, and gloating to my friends about how Rory and I often chat about technology developments _ "just like that, me and Rory". However that would be far from the truth. Rory follows me on Twitter (because I sponsored him to do so for Children in Need - but wait, it gets worse....), and the text was actually telling me I had a direct Twitter message from him. He was telling me my account had been hacked and I was sending spam messages to everyone (told you it got worse), including him.

Quick interruption to pub quiz while I checked my Twitter account on iPhone (and everyone in pub thought I was cheating by looking up answers), and I realised he was right. Bit of googling later and I worked out how - I'd been caught by a very straightforward phishing scam. I read this post and realised exactly what had happened. Earlier this weekend I'd had a DM from a friend with a weird message about following a link to take an IQ test. I ignored it, thinking maybe his account had been hacked. Later, he posted that it had. So, for some reason, I went back to his DM and clicked the link - just to see what it was (duhhh - why?) - it looked like an IQ test page so I ignored it. Now, I use tabs in my browser and have lots open at once, and sometime in the next few minutes went to one which looked like a Twitter log in screen - so I typed in my user name and password. Duh!! I rarely have to log in to Twitter , and when I do Firefox autofills in my username- it was a spoof site. So - straightforward phishing scam.

Feel so stupid - how many emails have I sent to staff and students telling them to beware of phishing - and I get caught!!! And the BBC Technology Correspondent pointed it out to me. So - be warned - don't click on any links in DMs unless you're absolutely certain they're for real, and never put your log in credentials into a web page unless you're sure it's genuine. I just looked daft to a load of people - depending on the scam, it could be a lot worse.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Web 2.0 Changes the World

There's one session from CISG last week that I haven't blogged about - and it's the one I had a starring role in! Well, I say starring role, I was mentioned a couple of times and a rare photo of me rapper sword dancing appeared in it. It was from my mate Brian Kelly from UKOLN, and was entitled What if Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything. Blogging about it is made considerably easier as Brian has published his talk and his slides on his blog. As usual it was entertaining and thought provoking - I thought he was particularly brave to describe the audience (predominantly MIS based) as slow moving and controlling, and not particularly innovative, risk taking, agile or user focused. He did of course recognise that you couldn't take many risks with running some backend processes such as the payroll. He then went on to explore how the sector needed to change and embrace Web 2.0 and social network technologies, moving from a risk averse to a risk management culture.

In the very valuable networking that goes on over coffee and in the bar at these conferences, Brian, myself and others had many discussions about some of the opportunities these technologies provide, and some of the issues perceived as barriers to adopting them. I think it's fair to say that there's a number of us who are very frustrated and at times depressed at the lack of enthusiasm and adoption in parts of the sector, made worse by the knowledge that there are still parts of our sector (and large parts of other sectors) actively blocking access to them.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

One commmittee ends, another starts

Yesterday saw the end of our SAP Programme Board - several years (4?) after it was formed to oversee the implementation of our Finance, HR and Payroll systems - with the go-live of our e-Recruitment system we've finally finished the projects. It's been a long journey, and one that's seen a lot of hard work, team working and cooperation from many areas, including ourselves, Finance, HR and all of the users out there in departments. Of course, no implementation is ever finished - we have ongoing enhancements and development - and just as the Programme Board was winding up, we were setting up a new project group to manage the major upgrade that we'll have to do in the next 18 months. Preparatory work has already started, and we'll be doing a technical upgrade as well as looking at how much new functionality to implement.

Also yesterday was the first meeting of our Drama Studio User group. As I've said before, this is a wonderful venue and great asset to the University. It has a an academic function supporting Drama teaching and research in the School of English, as well as being a performance venue for other departments including Music and some of the language departments. It's used by the Staff Dramatic Society, as well as student society (SUTCO) which is one of the leading student theatre companies in the country and provides an excellent opportunity for students who aren't studying drama to gain theatre experience. In addition to these University users, the Drama Studio provides a venue for many local amateur dramatic societies. Add into this mix the University's objective to expand its academic drama provision, and attract professional companies to the Studio, we have a lot of needs to balance and a lot of users to keep happy. Hence the User Group - a very positive meeting yesterday and a will to work together, as well as some very complimentary remarks about the Studio and the staff who manage it.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Mastering the Hype

Last session at CISG last week was Mark Rascino from Gartner talking about the Hype Cycle for emerging technologies. I've written about this model before - it's simple but I find it very useful, particularly for explaining the maturity of technology to non IT managers. I've seen the cycle many times, but it was very interesting hearing explained in more detail where it comes from. We all know about the hype that surrounds an innovation - and how that innovation is going to be the next big thing. a peak is reached, and then the hype is replaced by cynicism, and the innovation is criticised for not delivering. At the same time as this fall from grace, developments take place, there is progress, and the innovation matures and becomes productive. These two processes combine to give us the hype cycle...

Gartner publishes about 70 hype cycles a year, and in this session Mark picked out some of the key features of the emerging technologies one.

Things about to reach the plateau include location aware applications and speech recognition. Interesting that speech recognition is an emerging technology as it's been around a long time - it's just taken ages to become productive.

Techologies on their way out of the trough and on the way to the plateau include electronic ink (being used in thin, flexible displays such as on the side of USB sticks to show how much space is free) and various Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis.

In the trough is public virtual worlds - apparently only in the education sector is Second Life and other such virtual worlds finding an application.

Over the peak and heading towards the trough is microblogging (70% of Twitter feeds from corporates are inactive), and mesh networks (might be past the peak but there are some great applications of this technology, including using energy generated by trees to detect forest fires - read about it here).

Cloud computing is apparently at the peak - after the recent hype, there's cynicism starting to appear. Joining this are ebook readers which are due to plummet soon!

On the way up to the peak is augmented reality (apps already being developed for the iPhone), and right at the bleeding edge are augmented humans - Bionic eyes are only a few years away.

As with all new technologies, you have to know when to adopt, and when to give up. Adopting too early or too late, and giving up too soon or hanging on too long are traps we need to avoid.

Great talk as always, and a thought provoking way to end a good conference.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Vendor management and a lean university

An interesting presentation from Kings College London on vendor management yesterday. Kings have taken some very bold steps in their IT provision over the last couple of years as they've outsourced a lot of it - their email system, instant messaging, sharepoint installation and their global desktop have all been outsourced to a number of vendors. This has led to some interesting shifts in roles as they have to put a lot of effort now into managing the relationships with the vendors and the contracts.

An early action was to discover who in the organisation was talking to the vendors, and what was being said to them. It was important to make sure consistent messages were being given out, therefore restrictions on who spoke to who and what was said had to be introduced - I imagine this took some getting used to by staff, especially in the technical areas, who had been used to a rather more matey relationship with suppliers. Very good presentation which really highlighted how much work and effort you have to put in to getting the best out of an outsourcing relationship - it is not just about signing a contract and forgetting about it, but the opposite. An interesting side effect was increased resilence - particularly in having services run outside of London. One of KCLs data centres is in an area which has been told not to expect a stable power supply until 2020!

One of this morning's sessions was about the Lean process which has been implemented at St Andrews. This is a method of improving and simplifying processes with a view to improving the user experience and saving staff time. There is a lot of theory on their web site, and as an example of how it's been put into practice they showed a case study of a simple process of a student requesting a letter confirming they were studying at St Andrews. There's a video of it here - it's an incredibly simple process but took 7 to 10 days for the student and 30 minutes of staff time. An even more simple solution resulted in a 2 minute wait for the student and 2 minutes of staff time. You might laugh as you watch the video - but I bet we all have similar processes that haven't changed in years. Interestingly, until they got the right people in the same room, no-one had ever seen the process end to end - everyone did their little bit of it One of our priorities this year is reducing complexity and these are the sort of things we need to be looking at.

So, the conference is over, I'm on the train home - it was very enjoyable and in a beautiful venue. Just a shame the only time I managed to get into St Andrews it was pouring with rain! Still, I had a fantastic view over the bay from the hotel room and this morning the sun was shining. A couple of excellent sessions this morning to finish which I'll try and write up over the next couple of days.

The Art of War

JISCinfonet used one of yesterday's sessions to launch their new infokit on preparing a Strategy. Steve Bailey gave a good presentation on some of the issues we all face when defining a strategy and getting buy in from the rest of the institution or department. Many people are confused abut what a strategy actually is, and one definition is the art of war, which might apply in some institutions, but perhaps a more appropriate definition is the process of defining an orgsnisation's direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its capital and people - straight from Wikipedia!

What Steve covered in his talk was why some strategies are not fully accepted by the organisation - the most common being I don't know what it is. Closely followed by it's not relevant to me. The other issue of course is that often they're full of motherhood and apple pie phrases - take several mission statement from different Universities or organisations and try and guess which ones are from which - the guess is that they are usually so similar that it would be hard to do.

So, the toolkit has been put together to share good practice and to provide tools to help draw up an effective strategy. The JISC infoKits are normally pretty good so I would suggest that this is worth a look.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Green IT

First session this morning on Green IT from Rob Bristow from JISC. A useful overview of the problem, as well as some suggestions for reducing our carbon footprint. Some interesting facts and figures - in HE and FE in the UK there are 760,000 PCs and 215,000 servers consuming 512Mwh of electricity and producing 275,000 tonnes of CO2 at a cost of c£116m. Worldwide, IT accounts for c2% of emissions - often referred to as the same as the airline industry, but this is not a good comparison as that applies only to the planes and doesn't take into account things like the running of the airports.

A typical PC generates 66kg of waste and produces 1tonne of CO2 throughout its life. Suggestions for reducing footprint of PCs are well know to us - automatic power down using wake-on-LAN if necessary, procuring low energy PCs and extending their life wherever possible. Also, the case for thin client needs to be carefully assessed. There's a good toolkit on the JISC SusteIT site for comparing the costs of thin client and traditonal thick client desktops.

Then there's the data centres - described as big hungry beasts - which consume 1% of the world's energy globally. And demand for them is growing as demand for processing power and storage increases. Rob used the often quoted statement that a heavy user of Second Life consumes more power than a Brazilian (the nationality, not the wax I assume....). Not sure how real that is, but it did prompt a Second Life user to point out that they also generated savings in that they didn't get out that often! Lots of things we can do to make our data centes greener - well documented so I'm not going into them all here but they include hot and cold aisles, better colling management, power efficiency, reusing waste heat and virtualisation. There was also a suggestion that we should run our data centres hotter as limits have increased.

Of course, my favourite topic, printing, got a good mention. Staff printing is out of control said Rob - and how I agree! The HE sector consumes over 21,000 tonnes of paper a year and printing accounts for c12% of ICT related energy use - most of the energy associated with printing comes from making the paper. Interesting that most of his suggestions for reducing printing were the same as the recommendations from our environmental printing review.

Sheffield University was one of the case studies in looking at the carbon footprint of HE IT use, and Rob showed some of the figures that came out of that study, and some of the findings which suggested priority areas for action - PCS and servers, then networks and printing.

The final point was that the reduction of energy use and carbon footprint must be part of strategic planning and not carried out in isolation.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

For the sake of the kids....

The next sessions here at CISG09 were on Information Management, and Data Quality. Not necessarily riveting you might think, but Alison Allden (Chief Executive of HESA) used a storytelling approach to set the scene on Information Management. We were treated to stories of the Holy Grail, we came up against the Forces of Evil and met Heros and the Heroic.

I'm sure we all had a lot of sympathy with her examples of the Holy Grails of Information Management and the Forces of Evil (some of which are different sides of the same coin). So - the things we've been striving for (and have just about got there in some cases) - single sign on; interoperability; a single point of data storage (the one true database..); data quality; and standards. Those nasty forces of evil included bad data; multiple systems and consequent reconciliation; standards (the overhead of having them); variation - the diversity of not only institutions but the way thing are done in different parts of the same institution); the exceptions - those little things we don't do because they're in that last little bit of the system that we didn't quite get right.

Very interesting talk raising a number of issues which we'll all have to address, and a worrying conclusion that when things are too expensive or difficult we talk about them a lot rather than doing anything about them. That could happen over the next few years to issues which we really should be addressing including data preservation and curation, documentation and electronic records management.

The next session on Data Quality was also good, and included this rather amusing illustration of the importance of data quality:

We're dooomed (part 2)

I'm in St Andrews at the moment for the UCISA CISG conference aptly named Tips to Avoid the Bunker as we're surrounded by golf courses - and the sea of course. The first session was entitled Hard Hats Time and was given by Derek Watson, Quaestor and Factor of the University of St. Andrews. Interesting title - thought it meant VC, but it's a sort of Finance/Estates Director role, and the only one in the country.

The talk focussed on the current economic climate, how we got here, what it means for Universities, and what we can do about it. Fascinating talk, and his explanation of how the world changed in 2008 and the economy came close to collapse was illustrated with some scary numbers. So far the world economy has lost $2.8 trillion (a huge number - 11 noughts!), begs the question of how the hell did that happen, and did we have it in the first place! It's equivalent to the market value of Oracle and Microsoft added together and multiplied by 8 - that's a lot of money to take out of the economy.

In talking about how this will affect Universities it is useful to reflect on what they are. Universities were established to promote teaching and learning and research, and although they are in receipt of significant public funds they are are not public bodies but independent charities. The financial pressures being felt by us in the summer of 2008 (or those heady days as as they were referred to) included inflation, a looming pay settlement, rising utility costs, the rising cost of technology and other initiatives, student demands, and public sector funding not keeping up with costs.

Now, we are facing pressures on earnings, no investment funding, endowment funds which have lost value and rising pension deficits. That's as well as all the pressures we were facing a year ago - they haven't gone away. So, to quote Private Frazier, "we're doooomed". Well, maybe not, but we have to achieve financial sustainability - and for the non accountants like me - put simply that means earning more then you spend and creating a surplus to pay for new buildings, equipment etc.

So - how do we get out of this. Well the message I picked up can be summarized in one word - change. If you do what you've always done, you get what you've always had. The world has changed, the rules have changed and we now have to change. We need imagination and the courage to make tough decisions about what we can stop doing and what we can do differently. IT can lead to business transformation, and we can use it to help the rest of the institution change.

Overall, the world has changed, but the old problems are still there. This is illustrated beautifully by a quote from 1663, where the Scottish Universities complained to the government that their staff were not being paid enough, the buildings were poorly maintained, and if it wasn't sorted out, society would suffer. Sound familiar?

And why part 2 in the title of this post? This is why. Sound familiar?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Procurement and programmes

Programme Board meeting today - looking at progress on a number of important projects. Most going well (especially eRecruitment as I mentioned the other week), and some slower than we'd hoped. Several big ones on the go that if they come to fruition within our agreed timescales will mean we have a new portal, a new VLE and a new managed desktop all going live over next summer. Will require some careful resource management. Our replacement desktop is the one I have the most concerns about - it has been a priority for some time but we can't seem to find an ideal solution. How do we deliver over 250 applications of very different types (some standard like office, some requiring a great deal of graphics processing like CAD, some a great deal of processing power) to our 1500 student open access computers, all of the lecture theatres and to personal devices such as laptops wherever they happen to be. Thin client/web-based would seem to be the answer but this doesn't work for every application (especially the large ones) and requires a fairly significant investment in the infrastructure. Hopefully we'll have a solution soon - answers on a postcard please.

Also had a meeting with colleagues from our Procurement Office to discuss matters specific to IT procurement. Included many of the old chestnuts such as when is an upgrade not an upgrade, and how long does a tender last, as well as some new issues. Services that cost nothing, such as our recent Google outsourcing, have thrown up all sorts of issues for procurement departments. How do you evauate open source software against commercial software was another area for discussion. Very productive and informative meeting, but I do get very despondent when a we're told that situation we have in place with suppliers which works really well and provides best value to the University is no longer possible because of a change in European law. Off to find out what other IT departments are doing about it. Surely someone will have found a way round it, oops, sorry, a different interpretation of it.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

CSR and uSpace

Good CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) committee today. Started with a quick demo of uSpace by yours truly - tried to show that we don't want it to become a document repository and it works best as an interactive, collaborative tool. Documents need to be created within it, not uploaded as .docs or pdfs, and comments and discussions encouraged.

One of the main items on the agenda was how we can reduce our carbon footprint - we're part of a project called Degrees Cooler which is about changing the attitudes and behaviour of students and staff. Simple things like switching off, not printing, sourcing local and reducing water use can make a big difference.

Had another discussion about uSpace earlier in the day as we're trying to create a page which pulls together all the blogs that staff and students are writing to make them easier to find from both within and outside the University. Unfortunately despite what we were told by the company when we bought the product, this isn't as easy as we thought. However, I'm confident that as we have the best brains in the business working on it, it will soon be finished and will be wonderful. (I'm not trying to hurry them up with flattery, honest....)

Incidentally - ever since I came into this job I've wondered why software doesn't seem to come under either the Trades Descriptions Act or the Sale of Goods Act - we wouldn't put up with a washing machine that didn't work because we had to wait till the next version was released!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Now to sort out staff mail....

Following our transfer of eMail and calendaring for students to Google we now have to decide what to do for staff. We have several options of course - do nothing being one of them. That would leave staff with a calendar with good scheduling functionality but without the ability to subscribe to different calendars, and with a clunky webmail client and nowhere near as a much storage as the students have. Or we could implement an integrated calendar and mail client such as Zimbra for staff. This would give a better user experience in both mail and calendars, but wouldn't solve the filestore problem, and there would be a cost to us for licenses, hardware and support. Or we could move staff to Google. That would give staff and students the same experience, reduce our support and licence costs, and give staff the same filestore as students. But, currently the calendaring functionality for scheduling meetings is not as good (although we're told improvements are on the way) and there are some data security and privacy issues which will need addressing.

So, pros and cons for all options (and many more than above - I've just summarised the main ones), so we've just started a quick review of the options with a view to making a decision in time to implement for the next academic year. One of the most difficult tasks if we decide to move to a different calendar will be to transfer existing diary entries. Fairly straightforward for your own individual calendar, but not as straightforward for meetings in multiple diaries, repeating meetings, multiple attendees etc.

My own personal view, and I must stress this is a personal view and it might not be shared by all members of the team, is that the Cloud is the way to go. Yes, there are issues, but they are not insurmountable. But, there's more than just me on the group so we'll see how things go.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A grand social experiment and then home

The last session of EDCAUSE was another keynote given by Brenda Gourley who was Vice-Chancellor of the Open University until her recent retirement. It was a fascinating history of the OU, which was founded 40 years ago by Harold Wilson's Labour government - with Harold Wilson writing the original paper which established it. It was a grand social experiment - a University set up with no entry criteria so that anyone who wanted to could study for a degree and achieve their potential. I hadn't realised how the academic establishment at the time had reacted very negatively, claiming that this would compromise academic standards.

Of course, it has gone on to be a huge success story - 2.5m people have studied at it and it is the largest UK University with over 225,000 students currently registered. It has led the way in the production of distance learning materials, particularly in the production of very high quality multimedia - who can forget those wonderful programmes in the 70s and the amazing kipper ties that seemed so fashionable at the time?

Of particular interest to me was the OU's work outside of the UK - in Africa where it has reached over 500,000 teachers, and in India and Pakistan where is has helped to establish other OUs. It is also involved in prisoner education in the UK.

The OU's story was used to illustrate the importance of universal education in a time of recession and to developing worlds, and the importance of widening participation and part time study.

So, the conference is over, I'm back home, slightly jet lagged and back to a full diary with back to back meetings for the next three days. It was, as ever, excellent. Some sessions were better than others but that's always the case, and Larry Lessig's session on copyright is my highlight - get to watch it if you can.

The networking was excellent - both with UK colleagues and friends, and those from farther afield. The Twitter backchannel proved useful for getting feedback on sessions I couldn't attend. All in all, a very useful event - and in a lovely City with stunning views of the mountains from almost every road you looked down.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Looking into the future

During the EDUCAUSE conference I went to a couple of sessions given by CIOs about their experiences and their views on the future role of CIOs and the changing nature of technology.

The first concentrated on the role, and how the scope and complexity of IT now spans the scope and complexity of the institution as a whole. Because of its reach, security, compliance and risk management issues are taking an increasingly dominant place in the responsibilities of a CIO. With the increasing role of SAAS and the Cloud, contracting and vendor management has grown significantly and will continue to do so. Everything is becoming much more complex, (including the data centre), and more critical to the institution so that things like upgrade windows are becoming increasingly hard to negotiate.

All of the above I agreed with, but then it was suggested that CIOs are seeing increased demands to maximise the value of existing investments rather than embark on new projects, and to focus more on delivery rather than strategy. I'm not too sure about this - and I tweeted so, to get a variety of different responses, most suggesting that this was a very noticeable difference on the different sides of the Atlantic. Most UK CIOs felt as under pressure to be strategic and deliver new initiatives as ever, while the US ones were coming under pressure to leverage the considerable sums of money spent in the last decade.

The other session focused more on what technology developments we are likely to see over the next few years. He had some interesting comparisons of computing back in 1969 which he compared to today, and then projected 40 years hence. A computer costing $1m dollars back in 1969 now costs $1000, and will probably cost about $1 in 2049, and he had figures for the speed of the network (1969 - 10 kbps, 2009 - 10Gbps, 2049 - 10 Pbps?), CPU speed, disc speeds etc.

What these increases will mean is perhaps harder to predict - look back at 1969 and work how much of what has happened since you could have predicted. He had a few suggestions though including autopilot personal transport devices (or self driving cars), space planes that will be able to travel distances long distances at high speeds, augmented and virtual reality in business applications, and automation induced high unemployment. What will we all do with out 115 year life expectancy?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Hurricanes and a giant blue bear

As Chair of the University Business Continuity Operations Group, I'm always interested to hear other peoples experiences of dealing with incidents. In recent years I've been to presentations on how Universities coped after hurricane Katrina, floods, and forest fires. This year it was the turn of the hurricane. Yesterday I went to a session given by two Universities, about 150 miles apart which explained how they'd dealt with the effects of a hurricane which had passed right over one University, and the other was on the edge of it.

Both had evacuated all staff and students from the University campus, and both had suffered serious flood and storm damage. One had reopened after two weeks, the other had relocated all their classes to another campus over 100 miles away (can you imagine the logistics of that).

In terms of IT, the University at the centre of the storm had closed systems down and sent all staff home. The other had kept systems running for as long as possible, and 3 IT systems staff had volunteered to stay on campus to monitor things and had "hunkered down" with the campus securty staff. Volunteers to do that if a hurricane every hits Sheffield? Apparently they provided some pretty good reports of what it was like.

Some useful lessons from their experiences. Have a communication plan - relocate your web service if you can but don't underestimate the length of time it can take for ISPs to recognise DNS changes. The mobile phone network becomes jammed almost immediately - they used texts but they sent several out which didn't arrive sequentially - leading to confusion. Get good links with your local news media - local rdio and TV. Have good shut down and start up procedures for servers and virtualise where you can. Move services to the cloud if possible, and be aware that not critical services can become critical. For example, they had determined that their accommodation system was not critical and shut it down, but when they had to move students to housing at another campus, they needed it.

Some of the pictures they showed of what the campus looked like were pretty horrendous - the door to their machine room covered in mud, boats which had been lifted by the storm surge and deposited in the middle of the campus. A good sessions, and one of the things I will take away from it is that you need strategic plans - not tactical ones. "Planning is everything, the plan is nothing".

I thought I'd share with you a picture of the giant blue bear which peers into the Denver Convention Centre, looking as if he's trying to get in. He's cute!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Criminalising our children in the copyright war

There's not many people can make an hour long keynote presentation on copyright both interesting and informative, but Larry Lessig can. To a packed auditorium Professor Lessig spoke passionately about his belief that the copyright laws are wrong. They were put together at a time when it was never envisaged that they would impinge so much on our daily life, and were designed to cope with printed material. Copyright law regulates copies, and with a book you can buy it, sell it, read it, give it to someone, lend it - all of these actions come under the fair use principle and do not involve "making a copy". But, and this is a really big but, technology has changed - enter the net - where every single use of a digital object involves making a copy.

Lessig talked about the ecology of creativity - the concept of different ecologies for different sort of content creators. The business model that Britney Spears operates under for example where she depends on the exclusive rights to distribute her work, is very different to that of a scientist producing an academic journal, or an amateur content creator. The use of our current copyright laws is harmful to the dissemination of knowledge, and his advice to us was - stop it! he even gave us a certificate of entitlement to question the current copyright laws, signed by a Harvard Professor of Law (himself).

He used some interesting examples of where things are not working - the preservation of documentary films for example, where in order to put these onto DVD and make them available requires that the copyright holder of every single snippet of film has to give their approval - this can take years and his fear is that the vast majority of twentieth century documentaries will turn to dust before copyright clearance has been obtained to distribute them in a different medium.

So - how to sort out this problem. There are 3 options. First is change the law which he opined was hopeless (and he should know - he's a lawyer).
Or change the way we operate - he was a founder of creative commons licences where content creators can assign rights of use to their content without the intervention of a lawyer.
Or change fate - learn from our mistakes.

He finished with the fear that in the war on copyright that is being fought, the terrorists are our own children - we are criminalising them. There is no way to stop technology, and our kids may eventually rebel against the laws - which may not be the best outcome.

The talk is on line here at the moment (you need silverlight installed and he starts at about 27 minutes into it) and I would strongly recommend that you watch it - it has been the highlight of the conference for me.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Twitter - The Mile High Debate

The next session was also a debate - on the usefulness (or otherwise) of Twitter. Very well attended sessions - standing room only, and about 40 people in the room actively twittering and others following the debate on line and contributing. We had our own hashtag and tweets were projected on the screen.

It was a real showdown, and began with the theme tune from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly followed by excellent role play from the two presenters. The loud, excitable academic who wanted to use twitter with his students, and the CIO who couldn't see the point, and in fact got annoyed with the audience for not paying attention to what he was saying because they were tweeting. At one point he likened the CIO to an orange cone, preventing staff from falling down potholes!

Very interesting debate, and best followed on Twitter - the hashtag was #edtwitter - and you can see the tweets here. Last time I checked there was 36 pages of them - but it's worth a read - I think you'll get a flavour of the session. And of course, once the role play was over, almost unanimous support for the Twitter, but I suspect it was a self selecting audience!

There's a good video here on the UTA Twitter experiment here if you want to see how Twitter can be used in education.

Cloud computing - Hope or Hype?

One of the session types at Educause is "Point/Counterpoint" where two peolpe present opposing sides of a debate. This morning I went to a "Cloud Computing - Hope or Hype" session. I'll summarise the arguments on both sides:

  • It's inevitable. It's the way the industry is going. It gives us new economies of scale and cost effectiveness. Commodity services can be provided better and cheaper externally. We can't put our heads in the sand and pretend it's not going to happen.
  • Services can be delivered with as good as or better service levels than we can provide. We need to question what is the strategic reason for running an email infrastructure for example.
  • We can reduce costs and transfer resources to better serving the strategic needs of the institution.
  • Cloud services give the user what they want with better features. They're agile services, able to respond quickly to changes in user demand and deploy changes quickly.

  • It's not inevitable. And if is is we should be looking at why, not when. It's just a way of cutting costs. Service levels can't be guaranteed - Gmail does go down.
  • There are security and privacy risks with not knowing where your data is being stored. The vendors aren't mature enough yet to deal with these issues.
  • How can we say it reduces costs when we don't know what our costs are, and anyway, putting services into the cloud is only putting cots into other areas of the institution such as legal or procurement sections.
  • Vendor lock-in is a problem. What happens if the pricing structure changes or the vendor doesn't meet the SLA, or goes out of business?
So that was the debate in a nutshell. I went in firmly on the "hope " side but tried to listen objectively, and I must say my mind wasn't changed! The "hype" arguments came over as defensive and ill informed. She made a big thing of it just being a cost cutting exercise, but in the current financial climate I couldn't see what was wrong with that! Many of the other issues she raised we've dealt with - vendor lock-in is something we're all familiar with (hello - Microsoft anyone?). The privacy and security issues are being addressed, and the service levels of many of the vendors are better than those we're providing - we're just lucky that when our services go down they don't hit the press!

Good to Great

Opening keynote this morning was by Jim Collins, author of the best selling book Good to Great. It was in a huge auditorium - there's about 8000 delegates here I think - and like all American conferences, started at 8am! Very well attended, and a good start to the conference - he's an excellent speaker.

He talked about what it meant to be great, as opposed to good, and why some enterprises became great whilst others were only good, or fell into decline. Although his research for the Good to Great book was based on businesses, much of what he found and talked about can easily be applied to our sector. His premise is that greatness is not a function of circumstance - it's a function of conscious choice and discipline.

There are apparently 5 stages of decline:

1 Hubris born of success - the arrogance that goes with thinking you're great (and the moment you think you're great, you're not). A good leader has humility, and a good CIO in his opinion could lead the whole institution. The power map in a University is very diffuse - he likened academic staff to a thousand points of no - and so leadership is very different to in an organisation where the power all lies with the CEO. We have to architect the conditions for the right decisions to be taken as if concentrated power existed.

2 The undisciplined pursuit of more - organisations that introduce too much innovation, too much development, too much complexity, will fail. That's where discipline comes in - concentrate on what the core values are.

3 Denial of risk and peril - you have to confront the brutal facts. It's only by confronting them that you will overcome them, and you have to share them with your staff, and be realistic. He illustrated this with the Stockdale Paradox, which you can read about here. Another good soundbite which I will take away is that if you were in a room where everyone was asked to put their troubles on a table in the middle, you'd take yours back.

4 Grasping for salvation - when things are falling down around you, don't come up with another good idea to get us out of this fix. Be disciplined enough to go back to core values. Disciplined people taking disciplined decisions are what's needed. There is no quick fix - most overnight success stories have been many years in the making! Everyone has a to do list - what we should have is a stop doing list.

5 Capitulation to irrelevance or death. Lesson - don't get there!

Lots of good stuff about preserving core values and core purpose, consistency, and discipline. Build pockets of greatness - it doesn't matter whether you're a CEO or the manager of a small team - build a pocket of greatness. Then he gave us 10 things to go away and do, in order to build this pocket:

Carry out a diagnostic of your team to see whether you're good or great- he has a handy tool on his web site for doing this!

Be disciplined about your team - look at getting the right people round you

Build a personal Board of Directors

Get young people in your face - surround yourself with them. They're the ones with the ideas

Build white space into your day for thinking with no gadgets, phones, emails etc

Look at your questions to statements ratio - you need more questions - good leaders know what the right questions to be asking are

Stop doing things

Suspend titles in your team and have everyone articulate their responsibilities

Take away the blow water line risks, ie those that if they happen will sink your business

Set a BHAG!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Google roadmap and marching bands

Went to the Google Customer Advisory Board this morning - a session where Google told us about their road map, and got feedback from their customers. Mainly US Universities there, and we will need to work with Google to get something similar in the UK.

Very interesting session - they have 6.3million active users of Google Apps for Education which is rising daily - growth is currently in th US, but there's a very recent increase in the UK - the result of many Universities going with Google this September. Gmail is the dominant product, and Google are seeking to address this my marketing their other apps such as Google docs more. We had a discussion on the implications of moving staff to Google apps - some US Universities have done it - but there are still concerns about privacy and security. Interestingly the LAPD have recently decided to implement it - if they have the security issues sorted then I would have thought it can't be too difficult for the rest of us!

So - what are Google planning over the next couple of years? Lots, as you might expect - the following I picked ut as being interesting to us:

  • Lots of integration - between apps and with other partners
  • Google groups - user administered groups for sharing and collaborating
  • Mobile Google - developed mainly for Google Android phones obviously!
  • Document preview in Gmail
  • Real time collaboration (mainly in Wave)
  • Voice and video conferencing
  • Intelligent meeting scheduling in Google calendar (very interesting for us as we would need this if we are to move staff to this)
  • Improvements to the docs application - they aim to make this the only product you need. Lots of new functionality being developed especially around formatting.
  • Improvement in performance of spreadsheets
  • Intelligent workflow in the docs applications
  • Co authoring collaborative functionality in docs with version control
All good stuff but scary how much overlaps with our other services. Some tough decisions coming up I think.

After the roadmap presentation we had a demonstration of Google Wave by the team who had developed it who had been flown in from Sydney. I've had a play with it and was unsure of what tto do with it, but they demonstrated collaborating on a document and made it look so easy, and so useful! We will have to have another look at it I think.

I know I shouldn't still be surprised at this - but there were 14 laptops on the table - and 12 of them were Macs!

I've also spent a couple of hours in the exhibition talking to vendors - not quite as big as in previous years as I suppose the recession has had an effect, but still useful, and they still dream up new ways to get you to their stall! This year there's mini golf and basketball competitions - I got a hole in one on the mini golf and am in the running to win a Wii. Bizarrely there's also a marching band going round!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Rocky Mountain High

Had a day off today before the conference starts in earnest and a group of us hired cars and drove into the Rocky Mountains. The weather was amazing - bright sunshine, clear skies, and snow. We went for a walk and climbed to over 7000 feet - walking through snow but wearing only light clothes because of the sun. the air was very thin and we were soon out of breath - but it was worth it for the views. We were also lucky enough to call at the Stanley Hotel - Stephen King's inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in the Shining. When Stanley Kubrick made it into a film he used a different hotel for the filming which didn't go down too well with Stephen King who commissioned a TV version which was filmed here. I'm a great fan of the book (but not the film) and bought a REDRUM mug.

After the walk we drove up to over 9000 feet which is where the air feels very thin, and we got out of breath just walking up the road to take photos. On the way back down we saw a group of male Elk. Obviously we had to stop to take pictures and managed to get quite close to them, without even wondering if they were dangerous. It was interesting though that the Americans stayed in their car to take pictures - only the Brits got out and walked up to them.!


Well, I've arrived in Denver - the mile high city, and although 12 inches of snow fell last week, it's remarkably sunny at the moment. Still snow on the mountains though which are visible at the bottom of every street. Will post some pictures when I'm feeling a bit less zombie like due to the 7 hour time difference,

I was thinking about back home earlier, as today sees a major system go live - our eRecruitment system. Part of our SAP deployment, it's been developed by the HR department and CiCS working in partnership, and it's the first SAP system we've deployed without significant consultancy - so well done to all of the team.

The eRecruitment system has made huge improvements to our current processes - for example it's really streamlined the approval processes for vacant and new posts. What used to take several weeks can now be done in a matter of days, or even hours. Our record as a pilot department is 48 hours from inputting the details to having the post cleared for advertising. The applicants also get a much improved experience.

We've been running it live with pilot departments (including us) for some months and this has enabled us to respond effectively to user feedback, and provide a significantly better system for the main go-live.

Sorry not to be around for the final deployment but well done everyone and thanks.