Friday, 23 July 2010

BBQ and off

Another successful departmental BBQ over - thanks to everyone who helped with preparation and clearing up afterwards. There's some pictures here.

There will now be a short interruption to blogging as I'm off on leave for a couple of weeks. If you're really interested in what I'm doing I will be updating Twitter occasionally. Otherwise, see you when I get back.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Great Expectations

Good plenary session from Stuart Lee, Director Oxford University Computing Service on meeting the expectations of users with the limited resources at our disposal.

He began by looking who our users are - they've gone from being just staff and students, to including prospective students, alumni, parents, auditors, government agendas and in fact the rest of the world. He illustrated much of the talk with video clips (a great way to keep your audience awake in the early morning slot after the conference dinner...), and for this used a lovely clip of Rolf Harris and Basil Brush! An important question is can we we keep extending our services to meet these new users?

And how do we know what they want or expect? Surveys etc can be used but occasionally throw up unexpected results. A recent Oxford survey of what staff wanted to improve their teaching had "bigger desks in lecture theatres" as the top answer - nothing to do with technology, but something that had obviously been worrying them..

Stuart then took a look back at what technology had promised him when he was younger - he'd put together a wonderfully nostalgic set of film and TV clips demonstrating what the technology of the future would be - the Bionic Man, Dr Who, flying submarines in Marine Boy, cool new weapons from Star Wars, teleportation (Star Trek of course), jetpacks, James Bond type cars, telepathic communication, and my favourite - Thunderbirds!

Of course, much of that has never happened, but some things which were predicted are now possible. Stuart postulated that it's no longer possible to wow users with technology anymore - they're no longer amazed by what might be possible. The IT department are no longer the wizards who can wow the users with technology. I actually disagree with this - I think it is still possible to wow them - some of the consumer technology being developed still gets a gasp when I show people. It might be true though of technology in Universities...

So, we have more and more and users, with different expectation who are no longer impressed with anything, but feel they have the right to comment on everything. Something I did agree with totally is that sometimes we have to do a sanity check on whay users are asking for and emphasise that we are the professionals and experts in our field.

Some solutions - go for quick wins - find out that they want and give it to them. Oxford had produced a guide for academic staff on how to use IT to enhance the impact of their research which had been very popular.

Create sense of joint ownership - users must fell they have a say. They must however understand that IT is mission critical. It isn't a tax, or a drain on funding, or part of a faceless "centre". Get out and about - use their communication networks, don't set up your own, and let them know how much services cost. You can use budgets to manage expectations.

And most importantly - most of our users are at the University to learn, to teach, or to do research, not to test our IT systems.

A great talk, as always, from Stuart.

User Support Conference

I've been at the UCISA User Support conference for the last couple of days. Yesterday I gave one of the plenary talks on Web 2.0 and mobile apps - how can we use them to help our users, and what support issues are there. I covered what Web2.0 is, why we should use it, how we can use it, and what some of the benefits are. Gave some examples of how I use it - blogging, twitter, uSpace, - and how some other senior managers and IT staff use it. Mobility and the wide range of mobile devices and the services we can offer took up the middle part of the talk and a brief case study of our implementation of CampusM, our mobile app. I finished with a look at the funding issues we're going to face, and how we're going to have to look at different service delivery models - self service, out sourcing, and cloud. Finally, my vision that we are no longer the gatekeepers of information or systems, but we will have to be more facilitators and educators. But, even in the face of what could be severe financial cuts, we must not forget to innovate - it will not be enough just to keep the lights on.

Later in the afternoon there was a debate - the two statements being argued were:

"Should we continue to do more of the same , but do more with less as the unit of resource decreases?"

Supported by Ajay Burlinham-Bohr from Anglia Ruskin University.


"Should we leave the bread and butter stuff to other and concentrate on developing more specialised, bespoke and higher quality services?"

Supported by Mike Roch from the University of Reading.

There was a lively debate, with both statements being ably argued. Mike starting by pointing out that we came into Universities to achieve excellence, not mediocrity, that we have the talent to do that but have to be selective how we deploy it. We should concentrate on what we're good at, and share things more. As a wonderful demonstration of spreading things too thinly he used the loo roll provided in the college, which was decidedly thin....

Ajay argued that we should face reality, and that IT in HE was a hobbyists paradise. commercial organisations wouldn't tolerate such technical diversity, and we should get our own houses in order before outsourcing our problems.

A lot of overlap between the two statements, and much tongue in cheek, but very entertaining, and a surprise win for Ajay who'd stated behind in the initial vote.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Student Union unveiled for graduation

It's graduation week again, with 9 degree ceremonies taking place. I always love this time of year - makes me realise why we're all here. It's great to see so many students with their parents, friends and supporters celebrating a successful completion of their degree. The Octagon Centre looked great - it even had a blue carpet down for the occasion.

This year it was really good to see the hoarding finally come off our new student union building. It's a bit quirky, but I think it's great, lots of angles, gold cladding and very interesting spaces inside. Another good capital project nearing completion, and the campus is looking great. Even the Arts Tower is starting to emerge from its plastic wrapping to show off its new cladding.

As well as attending degree ceremonies this week I've been involved in lots of financial and budget discussions, in between fitting in lots of meetings before going on annual leave next week.

And for those interested in the Digital Economy Act, UCISA has just responded to the latest Ofcom consultation. A recurring theme in all our reponses to the Act has been a lack of clarity in some of the definitions used - especially ISP and subscriber. Despite some attempt to provide clarification in the Initial Obligations Code, we still can't say with certainty what a University would be classified as.

Off to Oxford again tomorrow for the UCISA User Support Conference where I'm giving yet another plenary session - hope not too many people have been at my last couple or they might be getting a bit fed up of seeing the same slides...

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The backchannel

One of the things in common about the talks I've given in the last couple of days was the the backchannel - the on-line discussion that goes on during the conference on Twitter. The IWMW had a very extensive back-channel - there were over 3,400 tweets from 314 twitterers with the IWMW10 hashtag, most from the UK, but some from further afield including Spain. There was a twitterwall prominently displayed on plasma screens around the conference venue. The plenary talks were streamed live and there was a big remote audience - I think the maximum number of connections to the live stream was 93. The Oxford conference yesterday also had its own hashtag, and although the audience was larger it was only for one day, and there were 168 tweets from 30 twitterers. That's not surprising - the web people are early adopters of new technology and have sought to amplify their conference as much as possible

For a speaker, this can be interesting! I'm not in favour of being able to see tweets during my talk - unless for a specific reason such as asking for feedback or questions - and this practice does seem to have faded. However, it is very useful during the Q and A at the end to have someone monitoring them and making sure the remote people get a chance to have their questions put to the speaker. It's also fascinating reading them later. What did the audience pick up on? What did I say that was interesting? What did they agree/disagree with? A quick analysis of the stats shows that there were about 300 tweets while I was speaking on Monday. Most were positive but some questioned what I was proposing - which is good, if everyone agrees then maybe I'm not being provocative enough :-). The biggest surprise seemed to be the cost of some government web sites (£105m for business link), and the most debate was over shared services and cloud provision and whether they could deliver benefits. I was pleased that the most positive comments were about my conclusion that IT departments have to change and become facilitators, advising and educating customers.

You do wonder sometimes, what you've said to provoke this, halfway through the talk:

"Odd feeling. In one moment inspired. Then, deflated"

So, I'm all in favour of the backchannel, - if you're in the room it provides an insight into what others are thinking and allows you to discuss and explore ideas, if you're following a conference remotely you can join in with the discussion, and if you're a speaker you can get immediate and honest feedback on your presentation. I was pleased to see that one of the presenters has already responded to the feedback he received in a blogpost.

However, I am still hugely disappointed at the low take up of these technologies by most of the HE IT managers - how many senior IT staff blog, or are on Twitter? They are missing out on such a good way to communicate to their staff, with each other and to keep up with what's going on in the world. Sigh. Tiny rant over....

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Same talk, different audience

Today I've been to the Oxford ICT Forum Conference to speak on the challenges facing an IT Director in HE. The conference is open to all IT support staff in Oxford (and Cambridge) - those employed by the central IT service, the departments, and the colleges. The set up is very different to that found in Sheffield - the central IT service only provide the network up the outside of buildings for example. And I discovered that no-one knows how many university web servers there are as anyone can set one up (unlike in Sheffield where the firewall prevents web traffic going out unless you specifically apply for an exemption). **edit - I may have got this wrong - see comments

There were a LOT of people there - maybe 350? I gave the same talk as the one I gave to IWMW on Monday, (although I did remove the picture of Brian Kelly dressed as a woman on a bike) and it seemed to go down well, with a lot of comments and questions afterwards. I did think I might need a police escort out after suggesting that IT should be seen as a shared service within the institution before we start to look outside, given that they are so devolved - not even the business systems are in the IT department for example. However, perhaps I can get away with mentioning the unmentionable. It does seem to me, as an outsider, to be a remarkably inefficient way of running things.

During lunch I managed to catch up with the live stream of the closing session from IWMW10, to hear Brian Kelly making me out to be some sort of saint, and then Owen Stephens bringing me back down to earth with some good criticisms of my talk. You see, I have blackmail-able photos of Brian, but none, as yet, of Owen.....

PS - thanks to Tony Brett for the photo - but as he pointed out, it does look as though I'm having a Time Warp moment, and a jump to the left is about to happen!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Pan galactic gargle blasters anyone?

After the excitement of IWMW10 yesterday, today I had a very good meeting with our Professor of Internet Law Lilian Edwards. Lots to talk about including our response to the current consultation on the Digital Economy Act. I also learned about Gikii - the legal workshop equivalent of a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. The programme looks fantastic - wonder if they'd welcome some real geeks? The interaction between technology and the law is a fascinating subject and one which I look forward to discussing further.

Then it was on a train to Oxford for a UCISA meeting with the Chair of AUDE - the Association of University Directors of Estates. This came about because one of the things I wanted to do during my period of office as Chair of UCISA was to build up relationships with other organisations. Estates is an area where there is a huge amount of overlap with IT - from designing and installing the network infrastructure in new and refurbished buildings, to the provision of teaching and learning space including the technologies and timetabling. There's also the whole sustainibility agenda - power, data centres, etc. One of the topics we discussed at length was Business Continuity - as two of the main infrastructure providers we are often the departments turned to to get services back to normal. We're also the departments that are most likely to be mentioned in other depts business continuity plans as being able to solve the impossible! A system which integrated all data which might be needed to manage a serious incident was also something we discussed - buildings, occupancy, hazards, contact details, scheduled events.

It was a very profitable meeting and we agreed that there's a real need to understand each other better. I'm sure some joint projects, events and case studies will result.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The Web in Turbulent Times

This week it's the Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW2010) which we're proud to be hosting here at Sheffield. It's taking place in our new conference facilities at The Edge, with all technical support provided by our department. The network team are making sure the wireless facilities will cope - with over 170 delegates, many with more than one device - we've put in extra access points to up the number of connections we can cope with. The IT Support team are on hand to make sure people can connect OK to eduroam - they had a steady stream of people to help, mainly those running XP or where their host institution hadn't configured eduroam in the same way we have - aka correctly :-).

The web team had created the web pages, including an interactive map of local pubs and places of interest (mainly pubs). Technical services had set up the live video stream, including keeping an eye on server and network capacity as we peaked at 93 connections today. And last, but definitely not least, our teaching technologies team had set up all of the AV equipment, including twitterwalls on the plasma screens, cameras, microphones and lecture capture software to record the sessions. A good team effort, and everything worked well on the first day - thanks to everyone involved.

I was there to give the opening plenary session - the theme of the conference is The Web in Turbulent Times, and I decided to set the scene by giving a personal view as an IT director of what I thought the turbulent times were, and how they might affect the way we operate. The problem I had with writing it was deciding what challenges to include and what to leave out, but hope it ended up a a reasonably balanced viewpoint.

As well as being streamed live, all the plenary talks, including mine, are available here soon after they've finished.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Slides in advance?

It's conference season at the moment, and I'm giving 4 talks in the next few weeks. Three of the organisers have asked for my slides in advance, and all have said that they want to make them available before the conference on the web site so that delegates can print them off in advance - presumably to take notes on.

I have a number of issues with this. As my preferred style of time management is the just-in-time variety, I tend to be still making changes to presentations on the way there, or even as I'm waiting to go on. The thought of actually finishing something a week before fills me with horror! Secondly, encouraging delegates to print off slides - particularly when they contain images - isn't very environmentally friendly when most of us are doing all we can to discourage printing. I also like to know that my slides, which contain a lot of images, are going to display exactly as I intend them so I use my own laptop.

But I suppose my main concern is around the concept of what a presentation is. It shouldn't centre around powerpoint slides - death by powerpoint is one of the worst experiences of a conference. It should be as much a performance as a presentation - and I don't want the audience to know what my performance is going to be in advance. I like to keep the element of surprise!

So, I refuse to give conference organisers my slides in advance. I turn up with my trusty macbookpro, my vga adaptor, and just plug in. It's never failed yet. Of course, I'm more than happy to have the performance streamed live, and to make slides available after the event, or to make them available to remote attendees during the event.

I'd be interested to know if anyone agrees, or if conference organisers think I'm being decidedly selfish!

10 things to tell the Executive Board

Yesterday I had a chance to talk to our University Executive Board. Always a pleasure, but doesn't happen often enough in my opinion - there are so many things to cover that I have to miss so much out or rush through things. I decided to concentrate on 10 things - 5 challenges I'm facing as an IT Director (and if I'm facing them, then so are they as as IT underpins everything the University does), 3 challenges the University is facing and how IT can help, and 2 questions I needed their help on.

The 5 challenges we're facing as a department are:

Funding (obviously!) - but not just internally. Vince Cable's letter to VCs telling them that they should consider cutting IT projects to save money hardly helps our cause does it? But, as I pointed out yesterday, IT projects in HE don't have the same reputation for overruning and going over-budget as those in the rest of the public sector. And anyway, we shouldn't be talking about IT projects, but business projects. IT is part of the business, not something separate.

Mobility - covered in previous blog posts

Consumerisation of IT, which leads to

Increasing customer expectations. At a time when our funding is being reduced, our services are more in demand than ever. And not just more in demand, people have higher expectations of good user interfaces, 24/7 support etc.

Data - storage, management, access to etc.

The three University wide challenges which I picked out to talk about were:

Reducing our carbon footprint
Doing things differently
Reducing complexity

Lots of cover in all of those, and I particularly emphasised different models of service delivery including out-sourcing, and simplifying our business processes. Both will have big impacts on the University. Designing to one good business process and reducing some departmental autonomy in the way things are carried out may not be popular, but I cannot see how diversity in basic processes can be justified in the current economic climate.

And finally - what did I want their help on? Well, the first was perhaps rather cheeky. How do we as an IT department know we're being successful? Particularly to them as an Executive Board when it sometimes seems as if we're judged on how quickly we can fix their phones or PCs?
Secondly - back to the Stop, Start, Continue debate we've been having. What can they do without so that we can stop doing it, what aren't we doing that we should start, and what should we continue doing that we're doing well?

I look forward to the answers.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Reducing costs and repealing acts

UCISA Executive meeting in London last Thursday. I'm getting used to the early morning trains to London now, but I still find the lack of connectivity frustrating - even the phone signal isn't enough to have a reasonable conversation for any length of time. Not that I usually want to in public of course, but getting and sending the odd email would be nice!

As a membership organisation, UCISA has a responsibility to help its members, and one of the main things we discussed was how we could help in these times of financial constraint. All of our organisations are reporting it as their main concern, but it isn't up to us to tell IT departments how to save money or manage themselves. What we can do however is give advice and share good ideas and best practice. A recent UCISA seminar on How to reduce Your Infrastructure Costs for example had presentations from a number of organisations, including how Westminster University estimate they have saved £1m by outsourcing their email, personal storage and productivity apps to Google, savings to be gained on printing, and a keynote from a Gartner analyst. All of the presentations are on the web site.

We discussed what other things we could do, other events we might organise for example, including tips on renegotiating contracts, showing the value of IT, outsourcing and outhosting options. As I've said before, the government is very keen on shared services at the moment and one of the areas we touched on is IT as a shared service within the institution. Many of us who run relatively centralised IT departments are still aware of the many IT support staff out there in departments, file servers lurking in corners, IT staff re-inventing the wheel as they write their own systems for doing things instead of using centrally provided ones. Surely, we need to look at IT spend across the institution, and look for efficiencies in how we provide it, which will mean bringing distributed staff into bigger teams, physically located still in departments but with a much closer relationship with the central IT department.

We touched on a number of other topics, including a forthcoming meeting with the Chair of AUDE (Association of University Directors of Estates), where we're going to discuss a number of areas of overlap between IT departments and estates departments - more next week after the meeting.

We also were brought up to date on the Digital Economy Act and the effect on us. The more I look at this, the more of a mess it is, and the more I think we should be using the Government's web site to vote to repeal it! Peter Tinson wrote a good blog post back in May about the next steps for the Act. basically, the consultation on the cost of implementing the measures in the Act has now finished - both JANET and UCISA responded, and now the consultation is on Ofcom's code of practice. This initially focuses on ISPs with over 400,000 subscribers. There is still no clarity on what an ISP is, and whether University's (or even JANET), are ISPs. So, watch this space - I'll post on news on this Act as I get it.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

How would we cope?

How would we cope if a student took two handguns out of his bag, shot into a crowd of students waiting for an exam to start, and then shot himself? That was the scenario we were faced with yesterday in an incident simulation staged to test our Incident and Business Continuity planning. Scary stuff - very reminiscent of what happened at Virginia Tech, and made even more real by the recent incident in Cumbria.

We were set up in 4 teams with people from different areas, which during the morning were mixed up, had people taken out etc to represent what would happen in a real incident. Initially there would be lots of confusion, some people hearing gunshots, some seeing students running in panic, some hearing sirens, and some seeing stuff unfold as posts were quickly made to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. When asked what would be the initial reaction, and how they would find out what was going on, almost everyone there said they would ring our control centre or the head of security - putting undue pressure on them and their phones.

As the morning progressed, and the scenario became clearer and more information given to us we discussed how we would set up an Incident Management team and where, how would we handle the thousands of calls expected from worried parents, friends, press. How would we handle the press? Logistically in terms of their physical requirements - space, access to power and internet, parking for their satellite trucks, to who would speak to them, what we'd say, and what advice we'd give to students and staff if they were interviewed. What support could we provide to students and their families, and how would we handle the disruption to exams - especially for final year students.

Drawing on the experience of Virginia Tech and other high profile incidents we were able to see how the use of the iternet and in particular social media sites has changed the way the world now communicates. Information would be on Twitter and Facebook before anywhere else - including the names of those dead or injured. In the VT incident, the shootings were over by 0950 and the first activity recorded on Facebook was 1023, and the first wikipedia entry at 1115. By 1113 a Facebook group had been set up in tribute to those killed. Names of students killed were being identified and published way in advance of VT announcing them at 1915. One of the questions we were asked during the exercise was would we believe the postings on Twitter and Facebook, and I was stunned by the number of people in the room who said no!

A very well spent morning, and an incident I hope we never have to deal with, but lots of lessons to learn which can be applied to many, less tragic, incidents.