Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Local CIOs get together

This morning I had a meeting with South Yorkshire public sector CIOs - from local authorities, the NHS and Education (represented by the two Universities) - in a forum which has begun to meet regularly.

We talked about lots of areas of mutual interest. The first was around data and information sharing. A big issue for local authorities and other bodies who deal with the public. We (as members of the public), usually want joined up services, rather than having to provide our information multiple times. Not easy though, especially where multiple services are involved.

A Yorkshire and Humber Public Sector network is also under discussion. Currently most organisations procure their own network services from ISPs - at a considerable price. We forget how luckily we are with JANET. Hopefully they'll be able to build on the success and possibly the infrastructure we already have in place.

And of course we had the obligatory discussion of how we might make some savings. Lots of ideas - many of which we've already taken on board - better procurement, careful examination of software and maintenance contracts, virtualisation, self service, managed printing. As well as outsourcing of course. We're lucky in that we have suppliers offering to give us services for free - others aren't so lucky.

We've just announced our move to Google mail and other apps for staff, which will enable us to focus more of our efforts on supporting key University objective of teaching and research.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Wonder what this cable does....

Interesting day today. Was supposed to go to a meeting in Wolverhampton, but it got canceled because of bad weather (it's snowing!). So, thought I'd got a free day to write lots of reports. Unfortunately it didn't turn out like that. Morning got taken up with various things, and in the middle of the afternoon we had a fairly interesting "incident". Power went off to the computer centre (which houses our main data centre). No real panic at first as we have a generator, and it looked as though it had come on (a cloud of smoke was spotted). So, not ideal, but we thought we were running on generator power. Soon it became apparent that we weren't. Generator hadn't come on and we were running the whole data centre on the UPS (big batteries if you like simple explanations like me!), which have about 20 minutes life.

So, we quickly declared an incident and we gathered to decide what to. Get the power back on was an obvious priority - it quickly transpired that a contractor working in the plant room had done "something" to a cable, and it had all gone up in smoke. Didn't know why generator hadn't come in, but what we did know was that we needed our data centre manager, who was there but couldn't get into the plant room without colleagues from estates, and we need electricians. Time was running out. Lots of discussions about whether to turn things off so they failed cleanly, but decided we had no time. Managed to get some communications out to staff and students about the risk, and then we just waited for everything to fail!  We watched the UPS go down to 0% power, where it seemed to keep everything running for about 4 minutes. Then, as a message from the UPS told us it had failed, we got another message timed to the same second to say the power was back on. Phew. Quite literally we were a second away from everything failing, and yet no services had been lost.

An incident review later in the afternoon explained what had happened - lets just say it was complex and the generator hadn't failed but had responded correctly under the circumstances. But a lot of lessons learned. Don't want that to happen again!

Hello again

Hello blog - seem to have neglected you for a few days. Sorry. Been busy. Last week lots of personnel meetings which don't really make good blogging material. Also a visit to another University where I'm helping them with a review of their IT services. I enjoy doing this sort of work - it's good to find out what others are doing, and although I'm really there to advise them on what they're providing for their customers, its also a good way to make contacts and learn about different ways of doing things - we all learn from each other.

We've had a couple more strategic liaison meetings with Faculties as well - Social Sciences and Engineering. Followed the normal agenda, and talked through some of the changes we're planning, including the upgrade of the VLE and the move to Google apps for staff, as well as listening to their plans for developments over the next year. We also talked about plans for closer working relationships between faculty and departmental IT staff and CiCS, where we'll be looking for benefits in a number of areas, including procurement, efficiency, and career development.

We finished the week with a small thank you party for staff, to thank them for helping us all get through what has been one of the most fraught beginnings to an academic year most of us can remember. Wine, beer, nibbles and a free raffle with some excellent prizes started the weekend well.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Google story

I got collared at the end of the Google atmosphere conference to talk to them about why we'd gone Google for students. I thought it was an informal interview, but it's been turned into a video, and will appear on their web site. Not very flattering, but not bad for one take, when I had no idea what questions I was going to be asked!

Liaison and other stuff

Good couple of days walking in Ludlow last weekend, despite the mist and fog.  Back yesterday, and spent most of the day in meetings.

We're in the middle of our liaison meetings with the Faculties, and yesterday we met with the Faculty of Arts. As usual we shared information on our plans and new developments, and discussed with them what help they might need in delivering their objectives. Flexible learning is high on their agenda, so we'll be looking at how we can support them in that. Many of our developments concentrate on reducing complexity, not just in our techncial set up, but also in how users access and use our services.  Rolling out Google apps to staff in the New Year will help us with that as we can concentrate our efforts on some other areas.

We talked about two other big projects just starting including improving some complex business processes, where I hope we can use a technique such as LEAN to crack some of our more problematic areas, including the whole programme structures/approval/regulations process. The second project is IT as a Shared Service where we're looking at the relationship between central IT support and departmental IT support.

Then a Professional Service Directors meeting where we discuss University wide projects and issues, a key one at the moment being the pensions review. We also touched on Shared Services, particularly the government's belief that we could save a lot of money and become more efficient if we shared some back office systems. More on that later.

Finally a meeting to look at the structure and content of our Annual Report which will hopefully be out at the end of the year. based on our service areas, it will pull out how we've approached and delivered key objectives.

Then home to score many exceptional award cases - I'm on 3 panels this year, and have spent this afternoon in one panel, and will spend most of tomorrow in two more.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Miscellaneous meetings

Had a great holiday - but then came back to non stop meetings. Monday I spent all day either traveling to or in Bristol at HEFCE at a Steering Group look at possible developments in shared services. More later when I have something I can say.

Then on Tuesday I met our University Executive Board to talk to them about some developments in service delivery, particularly extending the roll out of Google apps to staff. We've had students on Google mail and calendar since last summer, and now we're progressing with moving staff as soon as possible after Christmas.

Today we had a detailed look at our finances, and a look forward to spending plans for the next few years. I also caught up for an hour with one of the student officers, always a pleasure, and an interesting discussion on the effects of the Browne Report on student expectations.

Lots of HR work coming up as the Exceptional Contribution Awards for staff are in and need scoring - I'm on panels for 3 faculties. And I'm away from the office for a couple of days. Back next week!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Christine's really cross again......

I might be on holiday, but am still in touch with what's going on in the world, thanks to free wifi in many cafes and bars, and as of today, some paid for access in the apartment. So, why I am I breaking blogging silence, on what is really a work blog? Well, it's because I'm really cross, that's why. Today Paul Chambers found out whether his appeal against his conviction for sending a "menacing electronic communication", or a tweet, had been successful. It wasn't. Thrown out on all counts. Too many people have written about it and much more eloquently than I can, but in summary:
Paul was fed up because flight to Belfast to see his girlfriend had been cancelled. Tweets to his 40 or so followers that he might blow the airport sky high. Duty manager at said airport (Robin Hood, how ironic can you get,..), found the tweet a few days later when he searched for the airport. Didn't think it was a credible threat, but passed it to his manager. He didn't think it was a threat either, but passed it to the police. They turned up at Paul's workplace and arrested him. After some hours of interviewing, they decided it wasn't a threat, but passed it to the CPS. The rest is history as they say. You can read the story here.

Today's judgement is outrageous, for so many reasons. Graham Linehan of Father Ted and IT Crowd fame, has suggested it's because people just don't get social media, and Twitter in particular. Heresy Corner disagrees. Martin Robbins has written a great piece in the Guardian about it.

Is it ironic that the judgement came on the day we remember those who died for our freedom, and one of our basic freedoms, that of speech, is being gradually eroded? I hope this case makes it to the High Court and the judgement is overturned. But that will cost a lot of money. You can donate to the cause here.

Don't know what else to say. Going back to enjoying my holiday, but will be supporting Paul when I get back.

Edit: if you want to state that you don't find the tweet menacing, you can sign a petition here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

How to save money, save time, save the planet, improve your sex life, lose 10lbs, get whiter teeth, and get to the

.......in three easy steps.

The final session at CISG by Angela Lamont. A self confessed geek, she used to be a systems analyst and has worked for a number of companies before becoming a technology writer and broadcaster. Motivational speakers can be a bit hit and miss, but she was very good. Funny, and very relevant to a room full of IT people. She stared with a wordle of her spam emails over the last weeks, and based on what the spammers were suggesting she wanted, she came up with the title.

She gave us 3 easy steps to use in our personal lied and at work each illustrated with amusing anecdotes, many from her life. I'm not going to repeat them here because that wouldn't do the talk justice, but they include cancelling the Tuesday meeting, analyzing the Tamara Drewe effect to improve your sex life, and losing weight by doing your shopping on line.

A good end to an enjoyable conference.

No more work blogging for a few days as I'm away at the moment. Some pictures etc on the other blog if your interested.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Things that were, things that are, and things that might yet come to pass

First session this morning was from Heidi, the CISG chair with the above title, which the LOTR fans amongst you will recognise as a Galadriel quote.
In 30 mins she had a look back 10 years, looked to see what had changed since, and then used her crystal ball to look forward 10 years. As usual with most of my conference posts, these are the key points I noted down during the talk.

What was the world like in 2000?
Peak of the dot com bubble
Concorde crashed
Sydney olympics
Fuel protests

What was the HE business model
We wooed or selected students
Admitted them
Taught them
Examined them
Graduated them

We had just survived the y2k bug. Lots of in house systems replaced. Big investments. Move away from in house development
Lots of technology, but lots of business processes still very manual, on paper
Web technology there, but not interactive. Mainly static content. Difficult to get pages on the web, somebody to do it for you.
IT seen as essential, but not transformative.
IT governance, did it exist?
Budgets for IT c4% of turnover.
Staff numbers higher then, or lower? Mixed view from audience, probably about the same.
Good name check for Brian Kelly who was on the pulse. Lots of things he was looking at now come to pass.

Top UCISA concerns in 2005 (earliest data we have):
Network security
Strategic approach to infrastructure
Systems reliance and availability
Anytime anywhere
Learning support

All technology based.

What's changed politically?
Tuition fees for most of UK, students more demanding
Expansion of sector. 400000 more students than 10 years ago
League tables, big impact on how institutions behave and manage
Shared services agenda.

What's changed technically?
Pervasive wireless
Home broadband
Cloud based services
Smart mobile devices
Frameworks for ween developments
Self service via web
More systems to support ( and staff numbers haven't gone up)

What's not changed?
Business model
Core admin systems.
Appreciation of where IT can /cannot add value. Type 42 manager has still not materialized. Still focusing on technology, not business processes .

Current stat politically:
Huge pressure on HE funding. Outcome of Browne still not clear.
Pressure to share services or come up with different cheaper models very high. Should be focussing on different models of delivery.

Current state, technical:
Use of cloud/hosting commodity services growing
Full outsourcing of services under investigation to a limit extent
Apps for student related content delivery growing
Web based delivery now the norm
Business process review now a standard feature
Top concerns 2009 now have business systems and process improvement in top 5.

What will the world of CIS look like in 2020?
There'll have been evolution not revolution
All CIS applications will be delivered from the cloud
More use of discreet services delivered from cloud eg for invoice processing, payroll
Development and support of applications will be from staff in clusters of like minded institutions
Students will all have iPad type devices.

A great talk, made all the more remarkable as it was delivered at 9am after a very late bar session after the conference dinner!

Timetabling as a change management project

One of the good things about attending conferences  is finding out how other colleagues have approached projects which are similar to ones we are involved in, often in different ways. Yesterday I attended a session on how UCL had approached their Common Timetabling project, which is very timely, as we have just completed a pilot in our own such project, and have encountered a number of problem. UCL had similar reasons for doing it - to facilitate interdisciplinary study, to provide better timetabling information to students, to use teaching spaces more efficiently and to make more efficient use of modules and resources.  Their timetabling is decentralised, with each department producing its own timetables, and they decided to leave it that way.  In order to facilitate common timetabling they decided to introduce a block structure, with mornings divided into different blocks and streams for lectures, and lab classes etc in blocks in the afternoons. There were some issues with this, and initial pilots weren't totally successful, and some departments refused to cooperate. However, what is important, is that UCL approached this as a massive change management process, with a long timescale of 3 years, a lot of work on risk management, and a lot of resource put into it. Change managers were recruited and a lot of effort was put into "readiness assessments", as well as using dedicated staff and temps for data hygiene. Sobering really, and has led me to consider our own project, and whether we need to allocate more resources to it. Think the answer might be yes!

Following on from this session was one from LSE about how they've implemented CampusM, the mobile app for students. I've given a similar talk so many times about we did it, it made a pleasant change to listen to someone else. They've done it in a very similar way to us, but with some different data and features. They've also branded it LSE Mobile.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Questions on Clouds

This morning we had a cloud email review panel. Over the last couple of years many institutions have moved to either google or microsoft to provide their email service for students and in some places staff as well. The panel answered questions from the floor on what have the issues been, how successful has it been, and what does it mean for other services that could be moved to the cloud.

So, a series of questions and comments and input from the audience. some notes taken at the time below, universities anonimised to preserve some semblance of confidentiality!

What are main product selection criteria?
University1. Microsoft or google both ok. Could have worked with either. students chose google, very much driven by them
University2. Chose MS 2 yrs ago on conditions around at the time eg where data was held and date profiling etc. But, conditions have changed now. Market is more mature.
University3 had little MS infrastructure so google best fit. Also driven by what students wanted. They wanted google.

What about service levels? How do you cope with changes eg with new products being released. No-one has seen this as a problem. Students don't care, they're used to services changing. Learn to let go a bit. We mustn't be barriers to adoption of new technologies. Get roadmap updates, become trusted testers, engage with suppliers.

What about contracts? Need an exit strategy if company goes bust or pulls the service. All about risk. Need to do a risk assessment, know what they are and how to manage and mitigate them.

Why give students email when they have it already? Pressure from registry for example to be able to send messages. Can't rely on students keeping their personal email address up to date. Also, if don't offer email could restrict access to other services offered by google eg google docs because you need an email address to use them.

What about Cloud email for staff?
UniversityA not moving to cloud email, but giving them access to full range of google services and option of having mail delivered.
UniversityB tendered and are going with third party supplier.
UniversityC Going with MS cloud for staff. Saving 350k on power alone. Only issue has been migration of calendar data.

What about compliance, IP issues etc?
Staff do need to be aware of consequences of their actions, but we need pragmatic solutions. Provide advice, eg through a Web 2.0 policy. Can't control.

Collaboration has been hugely improved by move to cloud email for students through use of google docs. Both unis reported thousands of students using docs on a daily basis where previously they had no collaborative tools.

Other apps on the horizon?
Research data. Petabytes of data now being produced by things like Large Hadron Collider, gene sequencing. Not just a storage issue. Needs metadata, duration etc. Some grants have condition that data has to be made available globally. Is cloud the answer?

Hot topics for FDs

The second session of CISG was also given by a senior mnager from the University of Sussex, this time the Finance Director, and he talked about  Funding IT in Turbulent Times.

First he set the scene with the current funding climate. The credit crunch; public sector cuts, (anything from 20% to 40%); the Browne review, (which had been completed before the election, but not released until after it). Fees were a hot topic yesterday as the £9,000 cap had just been announced.

Reactions to the Browne review had been mixed, with some Universities welcoming it (mainly the Russell Group), others not.  Prospective students and parents don't like increase in fees.

There's a widespread expectation that Browne will lead to a competitive market opening up. HEIs have competed on quality in the past but not cost. Up until today's announcement there'd been some speculation about whether there would be a free market, or a continuation of the current situation with everyone charging the same, but a bigger fee. Today's announcement of £9k cap will mean there will be competition.

Other aspects of current climate:
  • CSR affirms Browne will be implemented
  • Science budget remains same ie cut. Research funding for all HEIs will go down.
  • Innovation budget consolidated
  • Capital budgets halved
Then he told us what the hot topics were among finance directors at the moment. Summarised as follows:
  • Stability of sector as a whole. Lots of HEIs are in deficit.
  • Reliance on T grant which varies. Median is 35%. Even if fees make up difference will be very different situation with only 10% of income from public purse.
  • State of the nation.
  • Market position for home UG. Difficult to work out till numbers are deregulated as well as fees.
  • Continued uncertainty. How bad will it get. How long will it take. What will impact be on PGT and international students?O/S
  • Sector is going to become more polarized.
So, is it time for a Paradigm shift? He thinks so.
Traditional approach has been to rely on natural wastage, to reduce investment, and provide most services internally.
What we need to be looking at are  focused reductions, preservation/expansion of investment, use of third parties for specialist provision.

What might Finance Directors be asking UCISA  members over the coming months and years? As he's a Director of the Brighton fringe festival he used some good slides aof fringe acts to illustrate the following:
  • Balancing priorities
  • Juggling projects and tasks
  • Risk taking in a controlled environment
  • Coorindation
  • Agility
  • Harmony
  • Customer services with a smile
  • Grace under pressure
As budgets are reduced we will have to look at how we reduce the cost of delivery of our services.
A lot is about processes - we need to rationalise them.
IT depts will be asked hard questions about service delivery models - in-house vs shared, outsourced, cloud.
 Future focus will need to be on value. Will need to invest in student services - they will be demanding more services as fees go up.

A couple of interesting  questions then from the floor:
  •  If we don't know the cost of our services, how can we make decision on what to outsource etc? We need help from Finance depts to do this.
  • Are shared services in conflict with competition? HEFCE are assuming shared services will save money but they may not.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Four Ss

Opening session at the CISG conference in Brighton, and we're here for the four Ss apparently:
Sun, sand, sea and stimulating conversation.

The opening keynote was delivered by the VC of the University of Sussex and was entitled, Higher Education: Finding the future.
It was an excellent summary of the issues we are facing at the moment, so here are some of the key points.

Difficult times for all sectors in many countries of the world.
It is possible to grow through difficult economic times to your benefit by taking out cost, becoming more efficient, investing in growth, prioritising and planning.

Higher education is part of the solution, not the problem in the current difficult economic situation.

There have been major changes in HE in the last 50 yrs:
  • Expansion: participation has gone up from 5% to 45%. Should we be moving to system like Europe where anyone who is qualified and wants university education should be able to get it? Not everyone will want it, and we have to workout how to fund it. We are a knowledge based economy.
  • Wider participation, fairer access. Must keep this. Some recent changes such as the ability to deliver higher fees will limit our ability to deliver wider access.
  • Loss of binary divide but there's still diversity in the sector.
  • Fragile funding. Have been other funding crises in the past, in the early 80s and under Thatcher. What is certain is that the proportion of public funding will fall. At Sussex 40% of thie funding is from the public purse. Aim to reduce to 30%. LSE is already at 15%. Some post 1992 HEIs at 60%.
  • Growth in international students.
  • More competition. Will increase with proposed new funding approach. Real challenges for sector with increased polarity caused by students choosing where they can afford. There will be turbulence in system and an influence on student recruitment and therefore the size and shape of institutions
There has to be a recognition that HE contributes to the local, regional and national economy. Recent calculations show the Universities of Sussex and Brighton contribute £1bn per annum to local economy. We are contributors to enterprise and innovation and a feeder of the knowledge based economy.

Some challenges for HE:
  • What is the university of the future? What is it going to look like? We will have to be more flexible. More part students, and students whom want to continue at work whilst studying. Currently we are too rigid.
  • How will we adapt to new funding models including marketisation and privatisation. Will a private sector emerge? Globalization will continue and students will look at quality. Rankings are becoming increasingly important with decisions made on the basis of them.
  • There will be changes in student demand. We will need to teach what students want to learn, not what our lecturers want to teach. We will have to continue to improve the student experience and improve our students employability.
  • Producing high impact international competitive research will be a challenge. Funding is set to become more concentrated.
  • How will we maintain and where appropriate grow our estate when BIS has just had a massive cut in capital? HEIs will still have aspirations to grow.
  • Reducing energy consumption and hitting our carbon targets is expensive to achieve, even more so when there's no capital support to do it.
  • We will have to find efficiency gains. Do what we're doing now on less.

Student concerns are important - without them there is no University. They should be at the centre of everything we do.
They hate most of what is going on at the moment. They dislike the market, the removal of the fees cap, and what they see as waste and inefficiencies in the system.

An NUS study on student perceptions of eLearning has recently been reported to HEFCE. They support choice, with a mixture of eLearning and face to face, multi modal, blended learning.
The competence of academic staff in using ICT was questioned commented on and reported as generally not good enough.
42.9% of students wanted their lecturers to use more ICT
Interestingly one of the recommendations was that institutions should review use and need for a VLE.

Universities are going to have to change, and change can be tough, but it can be also be exciting.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Liaison, incident review and a Boosh encounter.

Another busy day of meetings yesterday. First thing an internal communications group, having a forward look at our corporate comms, then a strategic liaison meeting with the Faculty of Medicine Dentistry and Health. we have two strategic liaison meetings with each faculty every year, and as this one was at the beginning of the planning round, we share information about our respective developments. We covered a number of topics, including the VLE upgrade, particularly significant here because the Medical School uses a different VLE to the rest of the University and we need to make sure it is as integrated as possible. This faculty also has a number of non standard students - distance learners, part time, off campus, CPD - and we had a long discussion about the problems we seem to have dealing with their registration, computer account production etc. It involves a number of different departments and requires a thorough overhaul, including getting away from bits of paper being processed. Hopefully it will be one of our first LEAN projects.

Then a quick dash from the Medical School to an incident review meeting to look at the problems we experienced during Freshers Week with on line registration, computer account production, the main web server, uSpace - you name it, it seemed at one point as though everything that could go wrong, did. Not a good week, but some excellent team work and very hard work by many people to make sure everything got completed. We had a good look at what had happened and why, what things were connected and what coincidental, and what we can do to stop it happening again. We need to move as many processes as possible to being carried out by the students, before they arrive and we'll have to accelerate development of our applicant portal and registration rewrite. As well as a major review of the business processes of course.

Now I'm on the train on the way to Brighton to the CISG conference, and Noel Fielding is in my carriage. Brightened the journey up immensely. Wonder if I should ask him if he likes my cowboy boots....

Monday, 1 November 2010

Costing services and a joint awayday

So, last week was mainly promotions, with a bit of other stuff thrown in. A meeting with colleagues from Finance for example to look at different ways of budgeting - currently they are a mixture of historical allocations, expenditure forecasting and bidding for strategic developments. One option we might be considering in the future is zero based budgeting, or working out what services we want to offer and costing them to come up with a budget. One immediate thing we're going to do is act as a pilot department for costing services in a much more detailed way than we do now. If we don't know how much our services cost, then how can we make decisions on what services we might be able to offer in the future. Of course, cost is only one thing when considering services - value and impact are also important.

Then on Friday our executive team had an awayday with the Library's. A good day, and lots of issues of joint interest discussed.  In teaching and learning our biggest area of collaboration is of course the Information Commons. We have a new manager starting later this month, which we're all looking forward to, and working with him to develop the IC to play a full role in the new teaching and learning strategy. We're also planning a bid for "IC phase 3", to increase the number of study spaces. Exciting times!  Other common areas we talked about included research data storage, identity management, the Library's e-architecture and aligning our objectives to the University's new corporate plan.

A good day, and to round things off we saw a kingfisher!