Tuesday, 27 April 2010

World Cafe

Yesterday we had the second of our departmental World Cafe events. As usual it was well attended - we had 60 places available for each sessions and both were full. The sessions have a number of aims - one is to bring people from different parts of the department together. We are 200 staff in 11 different locations, with a wide variety of functions and the feedback we've had from previous events is that people like to talk to and share opinions with people they don't normally work with. So - we mix people up on the tables to start with by giving them a sweet as they go in, and they have to sit with people who have the same type of sweet!

We used the sessions to look at a number of key challenges facing us, and looking for suggestions and ideas - lots of blue sky thinking - and only the tablecloths to write on. Each table discussed a different challenge, and everyone got the chance to sit at each table - we looked at reducing our carbon footprint, reducing complexity, doing things differently, diversifying our income and reducing space. I've had a quick look at the tablecloths - and there's lots of great ideas (as well as some more dubious ones, but that's part of the fun) - some very illegible writing in places, so I pity the people typing them up!

Finally we looked at some more specific things we could do - using the Stop, Start, Continue process we've used before. All will feed into our planning process, and we'll be reporting back to the department on the outcomes later in May.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Sharing things...

We had a lot of things to discuss at last week's UCISA meeting, but we kept coming back to one topic - Shared Services. It's a well known secret that there is a view in some quarters in government that Universities are inefficient (note the comments made after Mandy's Christmas letter on the cuts that we could absorb them and not affect learning and teaching or research). Discussions about sharing services have been going on for some time - in fact for so long I felt a distinct sense of deja-vu during the meeting.

So, could we make large efficiency savings by sharing services with other Universities? Do we need all to be running our own back office systems (by that I mean Payroll, Finance, HR, Student records). This wouldn't necessarily be a re-run of the mac initiative (for those old enough to remember), as that involved groups of Universities commissioning systems to be written - now we'd be looking at using software which already exists, and possibly being hosted outside of the University environment. Could a group of us get together and run the same version of SAP as our Finance system, or could one of us run it for the rest? How about putting the functions as well as the systems together - paying invoices for example?

There are some shared service projects which should soon be coming to fruition, but it's been a slow process - sharing data centres for example. There seems to be a real fear of loss of control though.

Outsourcing is another option for reducing costs - including commodity services such as email, where we can currently get suppliers to run systems for us for free.

We mustn't forget that we have some really good examples of shared services in the sector - JANET and UCAS being two of the most successful. Although by some definitions, these aren't shared services at all, because we have no choice but to use them.

The government is pointing to huge savings made in other areas of the public sector such as the NHS when shared services were introduced, but I think we are starting a different point - we are already quite lean and efficient in many of our back office areas. I remember sitting round a table with a number of other IT Directors working out how much we would save if we outsourced our payroll, and it was tiny in comparison to the savings made in the rest of the public sector.

But, and a big but - hard times are coming. Our back office systems will have to become more efficient and cheaper to run if we are to continue to put our efforts into supporting teaching and research. Hard decisions will have to be made, and some of our users will have to accept compromises in the level of service we can offer. For example, we are currently consiering outsourcing some more of our functions to Google, including our diary. The Google one is not as functional as the one we currently have, but it is much cheaper to run. As I said earlier, difficult decisions....

Watch out for a UCISA Shared Services Summit later in the year.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Security update failure....

It's a well known fact in the department, that stuff happens when I'm away. This week's trip to Oxford was no exception, as we were hit by the McAfee update debacle. Basically, McAfee (our virus scanning software), issued an update on Wednesday afternoon which gave "false positives". I love how innocuous that sounds! What it means, is that it thought a perfectly valid file was in fact a virus and deleted it. Unfortunately this had the effect of turning the machine off, and it then wouldn't boot properly, or connect to the network. All very bad. Especially from something that's supposed to protect you from threats.

Luckily, it only affected PCs running XP, and we were alerted very quckly that there was a problem, as our PCs are set to update at 5pm, and calls immediately started to come in to the helpdesk. So, our incident procedure swung into action, and we kept an eye on what McAfee and other places were doing - lots of good information swapped between those Universities which were affected. Unfortunately, not a lot from McAfee at first because their web site went down! Pleased to report that the team did a great job, and everything was handled well. But, something we could have done without!

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Networking with UCISA

I'm in sunny Oxford for a UCISA Executive meeting at the moment - this is the second of our major planning meetings of the year and will be focusing on links with other organisations. We'll be talking to the Director of Research, Innovation and Skills from HEFCE, and the Executive Secretary of JISC, as well as discussing our relationship with JANET, and touching on Shared Services.

As I've had a couple of hours between meetings, I've been reflecting on what being Chair of UCISA for the last year has been like. It's gone quickly - that's the first point to note - and I can't believe I've got less that a year to go. It's also been busy. As well as attending the executive meetings, I've been to most of the other conferences, including CISG and the Advisory and Support staff symposium, and been a part of other consultation groups. Speaking at conferences and symposia has always been something I've enjoyed, and this has also increased - I'm currently preparing 4 talks to be given in the next couple of months. Well, I say preparing - I'm thinking about it.

Taking part in and influencing various initiatives and consultations is part of UCISA's role, and the permanent staff do a great job of drawing up responses to many documents, and i have been involved as much as I can. A particular issue this year has been the Digital Economy Bill (now Act), which as regular readers of this blog will know, I was particularly enamoured with!

Building relationships and networking is an important part of UCISA's role, and over the last year we've met with JANET ,and AHUA. This year I particularly want to get a relationship going with the heads of University Estates departments, AUDE. Most IT department have to work very closely with their estates department colleagues, and I think it's important that we understand each other and our issues better.

So, my last year as Chair is starting, and I am looking forward to it, but with a bit of trepidation. There are difficult times ahead for the HE sector, and they will affect us all. There's an important role for IT departments to play in helping our institutions do more (or even the same) with less. We'll need to work together and share best practice more than ever. I heard a quote a few weeks ago along the lines of "there will be no need for the government to divide and rule us when we seem quite capable of doing that to ourselves." UCISA represents the whole community, and through its groups and activities can help to bring us together to ensure that we collaborate, communicate and influence decisions that might affect us.

Friday, 16 April 2010

One number

Yesterday it was Our University Collaboration Improvement Programme Board, (or UCIP as it's affectionately known). The board concentrates on benefits and strategy, and we like to demonstrate new services to them so that they can give us advice on how they could be used in the wider University to improve services. It was the turn of the telephony twins again yesterday to talk about some of the features of the new phone system which we put in about 2 years ago.

Most of the benefits of it have been hidden to the users so far. The system allows us to run VOIP - (Voice over IP, or phones over the data network), and there are a number of infrastructure benefits - the system is now more resilient as we have the kit split over two data centres, we have much more capacity for expansion, and we are saving on cabling. It's also a much greener way of providing telephony as it saves on power. Now that the system is bedded in, we're looking at rolling out some new features to users. Starting with those areas of the University who use call centre functionality - including our own IT helpdesk - but also including other helpdesks and enquiry lines, including ones we set up during clearing and major incidents. The system provides real time infomation on the number of calls waiting, the average time to answer a call, time spent on calls, abandoned calls. Standard stuff in major call centres, but not things we've used before.

There's lots of features for individual users as well. Providing staff with the ability to make work related calls via the University switchboard from wherever they are for - working from home for example. It should also avoid the very high costs of making phone calls from hotels. We'll also be able to make calls from mobiles using your deskphone number, avoiding having to give your mobile number out, and have calls follow you round campus - ie ring on your deskphone and mobile simultaneously. All good stuff.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Scales that can tweet your weight?

Spent most of the last couple of days in meetings or preparing for a talk I gave this morning at SROC - the Student Records Officers Conference. I'd been asked to cover Web2.0 in HE, and specifically address it for a non IT audience. I cheated slightly and expanded it to cover new technologies in general - including phone apps and cloud computing.

I used the wiki dictionary definition of web 2.0 - "The second generation of the WWW, especially the movement away from static web pages to dynamic and shareable content and social networking". There's loads of definitions out there, but this one is nice and concise and easy to understand. I also stressed the importance of user generated content and collaboration.

The CLEX report published last year - Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World - is still relevant and I used a couple of quotes from it to illustrate their conclusions:

Web 2.0, the Social Web, has had a profound effect on behaviours, particularly those of young people.....They inhabit it with ease and it has led them to a strong sense of communities of interest linked in their own web spaces, and to a disposition to share and participate.
The world they encounter in higher education has been constructed on a wholly different set of norms..... hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured.
The two worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change....they are making such adaptations as are necessary for the time it takes to gain their qualifications.... This is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating.
I also talked about the consumerisation of IT - technology and the internet are all around us. Internet enabled fridges, and bathroom scales that send your weight to a server over your wifi network are already with us. I can see the benefits of being able to connect to your fridge from the supermarket to see how much gin, oops, milk you've got left, but I really don't want my scales checking up on how much I weigh and tweeting me telling me to go easy on the chocolate!

So, we then had a look some of the technologies out there including Facebook, Blogging and Twitter, and also about some more "controlled" web 2.0 environments such as our own uSpace service, demonstrating how they can be used in an HE environment. I think I also successfully demonstrated how mad I can appear to non-users of this technology when I showed a picture of my desktop the night I was watching the debate on the Digital Economy Bill - with BBCiPlayer, Tweetdeck, Twitterfall and the Guardian live blog of the event all open at the same time and me actively reading, watching or participating in all of them. And watching the final of Masterchef at the same time.....

A demo of our mobile phone app CampusM, some thoughts on Cloud Computing, and we were on to the perceived risks of these technologies, including privacy and security of data, loss of control, copyright/IP issues and the ephemeral nature of some of the services. My view is that this is all about risk management - you have to know and understand the risks, and then decide which ones you're prepared to take and how you're going to manage them.

A good discussion followed, so I hope I made the audience think a bit about about how these technologies might be used to improve the services we provide to our students.

Friday, 9 April 2010

To infinity and beyond.....

A couple of days ago I published an extract from our planning statement giving our achievements for last year. We also had to include our objectives for 2010 and beyond (I couldn't help myself when this was being drafted in changing this to infinity and beyond - and then had to remember to change it all back before submission....).

Just so you're all up to date with what we're doing now (I know you're all interested), here they are:

Learning and Teaching

Strategy: to improve the quality of teaching space and to maximise its usage; to introduce systems and services that support innovative teaching; and to realise our commitment to provide the best possible learning experience for students.

Objectives 2010 and beyond:

Bring together all the functions associated with teaching space into one place.

Ensure that learning spaces are being used as efficiently as possible

Ensure suitable technology is available in all learning and teaching spaces

Provide training and awareness sessions to support staff using innovative spaces and technology

Investigate, evaluate and develop the use of innovative technologies for teaching and learning

Implement a new portal and provide new and improved services via this route

Revise and update the managed PC service to allow remote access to applications

Implement a new version of MOLE (my on-line learning environment)


Strategy: to increase support for researchers; to facilitate improved collaboration; and to increase our support for both technical and non-technical researchers.

Objectives 2010 and beyond:

Implement new research support strategy

Respond to need for cheaper storage

Pursue appointment of research co-ordinator and improve liaison with research community

Work with groups seeking procurement of new super HPC

Communication and Collaboration

Strategy: to improve the resilience of the communication infrastructure; and to introduce new technology and services to ensure that staff and students had access to the widest range of cutting edge collaboration and communication tools.

Objectives 2010 and beyond:

Promote and support uSpace

Investigate and implement options for staff email/calendaring

Extend support for mobile devices

Improve integration of collaboration services with other services

Improve experience of CMS for web content editors

Build on to the voice network upgrade and investigate unified communications, use of text messaging and voice interactive services.

Help and Support

Strategy: to improve access to our help and support by providing self-service and remote access facilities; to work more closely with those who provide IT support within the faculties; and to better target our training.

For 2010 and beyond:

Develop and expand access to support and service through ‘self-service’ and the use of remote support

Liaise with all faculties to determine their training requirements for their staff

Improve induction to CiCS services to raise awareness, uptake and effectiveness of our services

Explore integration of different card based services onto the UCard


Strategy: to improve the resilience of key services; to increase data storage capacity; and to improve environmental management.

For 2010 and beyond:

Review file, print and directory strategies

Continue to increase resilience and flexibility of server provision and the voice and data network

Create and start to implement a strategy for the extension of the wireless network

Plan and implement formal backup strategy

Continue to seek reductions in energy usage, in particular plan for cooling upgrade in main data centre

Review Identity Management system

Corporate Information

Strategy: to make information available to new devices and in new formats; and to change existing systems to meet external requirements and to comply with legislation.

For 2010 and beyond:

Comply with requirements of UKBA, UCAS, REF, HEFCE, HESA

Upgrade SAP for technical and functional improvements

Implement technology strategy and increase integration of services with MUSE and MOLE

Implement an Enquirer & Applicant Portal to help recruitment

Scanning and Student eFile projects: saving paper, improved and more efficient processes

Business Activity

Strategy: to project manage the efficient introduction of new services; to improve the environmental impact of printing; and to invest in the business units to offer the highest quality services in a competitive market.

For 2010 and beyond:

Move to a Portfolio Management approach for CiCS developments, dealing with all our developments not just formal projects and integrating with Services and departmental and institutional strategies.

Develop a coherent and effective methodology for business process improvement

Reduce the environmental impact and cost of printing within the University including implementing the PASS project (Print Audit and Submission Software)

Maximise the Octagon revenue generation and continue a programme of refurbishments.

Trial a common approach to timetabling, deliver personalised staff and student timetables and provide a basis for the provision and recording of student attendance.

Overarching Objectives

In addition to the seven service areas listed above, there are a number of overarching and departmental objectives:

Improve the user’s experience of our services through the introduction of service management, understanding the needs of our users, and better communicating what we do.

Develop our staff by continuing to invest in our Management Development Programme, documenting and developing good practice; and ensuring that we focus on key services.

Ensure our services are appropriately secure, resilient and robust – further develop CICS’ Business Continuity capability, develop and lead on University Business Continuity capability, improve University Information Security policy and processes.

Continue to innovate and support the university to work more effectively and efficiently

Reduce the environmental impact of our activities

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Who's right about the DEB? #debill

So, last night I watched the third reading of the Digital Economy Bill - not impressed with it at all. Some good speeches from some rebels, but the lack of grasp of technical concepts was astounding. So, its been passed. I'm too fed up of it to write much, but there's lots of other good blog posts about it, and lots of unrest - especially from people who've never really seen our democratic process in action before. Less then 40 people in the chamber debating it, but within minutes of the division being called, 260 appeared to vote - just as their whips had instructed them to, with no regard for what had gone on in the chamber. The bars must have been busy! One can only hope that as it's so badly worded, it won't last long!

Today I've been to a RUGIT meeting - the IT Directors of the Russell Group of Universities. A number of interesting discussions, including outsourcing services to the cloud - we're not the only University considering this. We also talked about shared services - especially shared data centres, which we seem to have been discussing for years. We always have someone from JANET at the meetings which is very helpful, and today we talked about some of the misconceptions around their Acceptable Use Policy and their Connection Policy - especially around what Universes can use JANET for and what they can't. It's a common misconception for example that we can't use it for conference delegates - which we can, or for University commercial ventures - which we apparently can as well.

Finally, we all have a chance to ask the others a question - so I asked if any of them had concerns about the Digital Economy Bill. Guess what - hardly any of them did (or did they not know about it?). So, are they wrong to be unconcerned - or am I wrong for worrying about it?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Review of achievements in 2009

After all the depressing news about the Digital Economy Bill, something a bit more cheerful! Last week I posted that we'd completed our planning statement, and as part of that we'd done a review of achievements over the past year. Thought it might be interesting to share it a bit more widely - it's very short as we had to keep it to less than a page of bullet points, but I hope gives a flavour of the sorts of activities we've been involved in. Will post list of current objectives/projects soon. Achievements listed under our seven service area headings.

Learning and Teaching

Continued to implement innovative technologies to provide the best learning experience for students.

Implemented lecture capture tool to allow streaming of lectures over the internet. Reviewed underlying system delivering MOLE (on-line learning environment).

Improved speed of the managed desktop. Replaced 120 PCS in teaching rooms.

Recruited a Teaching Space Manager and established a programme to pilot timetabling at Faculty level to increase efficiency in space utilisation.


Research support strategy written.

Improved collaboration facilitated by implementation of uSpace.

Web portals for submission of jobs to HPC implemented.

Introduced Research Publications database as part of REF.

Collaboration and Communication

Launched uSpace - a collaborative environment for students, all staff and external contacts - which allows co-authoring of documents, blogging, and discussions.

Launched a new email service for students based on Google technologies.

Developed and launched a mobile application for students, CampusM, giving access to location data, library information etc on mobile phones.

Help & Support

Improved access to our help and support systems by introducing helpdesk self-service, remote support, service status page and twitter notifications.

Improved the quality of the customer experience by improving communication, decision making and processes across the whole department through the introduction of key elements of Service Management including problem, incident and change management.


Major services moved to clusters of computers in two data centres,

University connected to JANET by two independent links

Consolidation of servers and storage using virtualisation techniques, increasing the resilience of services while reducing carbon footprint, space usage and running costs.

Corporate Information

Improved access to management information through the implementation of MIView - a management information dashboard for senior decision makers.

Completed the SAP implementation programme and continued to improve services through the implementation of eRecruitment - streamlining the application and the recruitment process.

Responded to changes required by the Points Based Immigration Scheme.

Business Activity

Continued to promote good project management practice in the department and University through help, advice and considerable resources on project support web site.

Established the University Print Management Team and completed an EU Tender for outsourced print to improve the environmental impact of printing within the University. Installed the latest high volume Mono and Colour Digital Printing equipment, improving quality and reducing cost.

Completed significant refurbishments to Drama Studio including introduction of video relay system.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

More intelligent debate on Twitter than in parliament #debill

Today was a very dismal day if you've been following the progress on the Digital Economy Bill. Despite a vigorous campaign against it, thousands of letters and emails to MPs opposing it, numerous critical analyses of it on blogs and in newspaper articles, it passed its second reading tonight, in a very, very poor demonstration of our democracy in action. Only a handful of MPs turned up to debate it - I estimate about 30 to 40 started, but there was less than 20 at some points. The LibDems who'd promised to oppose it, backtracked, and it was patently obvious to us watching the debate live that virtually non of them present understood technology at all. There were one or two enlightened MPs who spoke against it - but not enough.

This is for something that for several hours today was a trending topic on Twitter - worldwide, not just in the UK - so, more people talking about it, debating it, and understanding the issues on a social networking site than in the place responsible for it becoming law. There were some very spurious arguements in its favour, quoting figures with no citation or verification, and obviously provided by the rights-holders.

In the words of one tweeter, @alnya - " a bill proposed by the unelected, debated by the ignorant and voted on by the absent". Excellent description.

Oh, and in case you wondered, my MP did NOT get back to me - despite me emailing him four times - all polite. As I'm in the mood for naming and shaming, it's Richard Caborn, and as he's retiring now, I copied my mails to the prospective parliamentary candidate, but he didn't reply either. So much for our opinion counting.