Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Send in the Clowns...

When I was a kid I used to love the circus. We didn't get to see many live ones as we lived in a small town, but it was often on the TV, especially from the Blackpool Tower ballroom. One of the most famous acts was Charlie Cairoli, a clown who looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin. He always had a very serious, white faced clown with him called Paul, with a pointed white hat, and very bright costumes. Paul was quite scary. I think a lot of clowns are scary, but because he was so serious, he was more scary than most. Now, you might wonder why I'm telling you all this!  Well, it's because tonight the University Library launched another exhibition  - this time about circus showmen. Excellently curated by Professor Vanessa, it has exhibits, posters and memorabilia from many of the great showmen, including Charlie Cairoli. And at the opening tonight was his son, also called Charlie, who played Paul.

One of his costumes was on display, as well as many posters, photos, and the horns they used to play. I was lucky enough to chat to him - he was lovely, very funny, and it was great to be able to talk about what it had been like being in the circus. I even got my photo taken with him (I'm such a luvvie!).  The exhibition was opened by Gerry Cottle, another great showman who had run away 50 years ago at the age of 15 to join the circus, and who had got his first job following the elephants! He learned to fire juggle, and then worked his way though many different acts before establishing his own circus. Despite many changes, especially the banning of animal acts in the UK, there are over 2000 circuses touring in the world at the moment. There was a sense of optimism in the room that circuses would continue to move on, change and flourish - the Circus of Horrors and Cirque du Soleil being brilliant examples.

Anyway - a lovely evening, and very unexpected. One of the many reasons I enjoy working where I do. Go and see the exhibition if you get the chance - its open to the public and free -  details here.

From tomorrow we can Hang Out

It's been a quiet few days - last week I went to help colleagues at another University review their IT strategy, which as always was very interesting. This week so far its mainly been preparing presentations for a couple of conferences coming up that I've been asked to speak at, and a strategic liaison meeting with our Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Tomorrow we are making Google + available to all of our staff and students - It isn't part of the apps for education suite but a consumer product, so it's an opt in service, and we've announced it on our latest monthly newsletter.  We'll be watching to see how much use is made of it.  There's quite a lot of interest in using the "hangouts" for desktop video conferencing. I've tried it a couple of times and am quite impressed with the quality and the fact that you can talk to 10 people at once.

We've also started to redesign our web pages, and the Google+ ones are just the start.

A few weeks ago I posted about our use of social media, including twitter, a blog for our news page, and a newly launched Facebook page. I was therefore interested to see this article today, which a colleague alerted me to via twitter, which apparently showed that the University came bottom in a list of Russell Group Universities in terms of its presence on social media sites. As I know we're not the only department engaging with social media, I found this a bit difficult to understand. So, I tried to look a little more closely at what they'd actually been measuring, and it got a bit harder - there's not a lot of information about what data they collected, how it was collected, or how it was analysed. Still, I suppose if we'd been top, I wouldn't be interested....

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Aurasma demonstration

Yesterday was a bit of a special day  - my birthday! So, now I'm a year older, but not sure about wiser. The other special thing about yesterday was we had a demonstration of Aurasma - described on their web site as the world's first visual browser. Its a relative simple app that allows you to link content (eg a video) to a trigger image which could be a photo, an object or even a building. You can download the app (Aursama Lite) for iOS or Android, point it at the trigger image and see the multimedia content on your mobile phone or iPad.

These "auras" are so easy to create people were making them during the presentation! We're now looking at how we might use it. We've got ideas for marketing, for open days and in academic areas - hopefully the first academic project will be 3-D teeth.  I'd also like to use it to show students how to use things  - for example we have lots of videos, such as how to issue and return books in the Information Commons and libraries. You could easily link these to a trigger image of the actual machine. Of course, lots of issues to consider - questions were asked at the presentation about security, the size and availability of the app, and whether we can integrate it with our own mobile app, CampusM.  Lots to look at, and I'm confident we can develop something quite exciting.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Not an awayday

Last Friday myself and the three Assistant Directors spent a few hours of quality time together in an awayday follow up. Every year we try and have one or two days of facilitated training and planning away from Sheffield,  and then a couple of days during the year to follow up on how we're getting on with our actions. We didn't actually go away, and we didn't have a full day, but called it an awayday all the same!

We spent some time reflecting on the last 6 months, identifying achievements and frustrations. Although there were some frustrations we could point to, there were many achievements, and even the frustrating experiences had led to a lot of learning, especially things that we could do better to stop them happening again.  We also looked forward to our current planning round, and in particular how we can prioritise better - we need to include everything in our prioritisation processes, and be much more transparent. Our staff also need support in being able to say no - we never have the resources to do everything that we're asked to do, but need to make sure that we target our resources to supporting key University objectives effectively.

We also talked about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) - how do we know we're being successful, and delivering what our customers want? Do we really know how well we're doing?

A useful few hours as always, but lots of actions coming out of it which we're going to work on over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Speed dating and the Olympic challenge

Last night I went to an IT forum hosted by The Chemistry Club in London. First time I'd been to one of these, and it had been recommended to me by some colleagues who'd been to one or two. Attendees are CIOs and IT heads from private and public sector companies and senior representatives from various sponsors of the event ( aka suppliers). It's very well organised, and I can only liken it to speed dating, not that I've ever done it you understand.

You're sent an attendee list in advance, and have a phone call with one of the organisers where you discuss what you'd like to get out of it, what your current issues are and who you'd like to talk to. Everyone does the same, and then when you get there, you're met by your personal "introducer" who, armed with all the information on an iPad about people in the room, who you want to meet, and who wants to meet you, introduces you to people. I had a whale of a time! I'm not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to these things, and enjoyed meeting many new people, as well as catching up with some I already knew. I was surprised that people actually wanted to meet me, and I spent quite a lot of time talking to people about how we support a bring your own device culture. I also managed to talk to some quite senior people from one of our suppliers, who shall remain nameless, about their discount policy for bulk orders, and how we can deploy corporate apps to iPads. Ooops. Might have just given it away.

The speaker at the event was Gerry Pennell, CIO of the London Olympics, who I've heard before and is excellent. He gave a fascinating insight of what it's like to provide the technology for this massively public event. Many of the systems are new, and the challenges are huge. There is technology in every venue measuring something and gathering data which has to made available immediately to many different devices, in different formats for different purposes. That could be large screens in the venue, or to the media companies, or journalists, or commentators, or to the general public on their phones or iPads. The stakes are high, and if everything works, no-one will really notice, but if it goes wrong, the world will see and remember!

Testing is paramount, and they've built "the Olympics in a room" in a huge lab in Canary Wharf, and they're running test events. One of the other problems they're facing is the very short timescale to get their kit into the venue. For example, Wimbledon finishes only 3 weeks before the games start, which has then got to be completely recabled and have all the new stuff put in, commissioned and tested. Scary!

Finally he challenged everyone in the room to look at their readiness for the games, which will be remembered as the UK games. What change control policies are in place for the duration of the games, what flexible working arrangements are being made to reduce transport issues, what are the ISPs and telecoms providers doing about infrastructure and the potential strain on the 3G networks?

Very good talk, and an interesting Q and A session afterwards, ranging from had he got any spare tickets ( no), what's the biggest change since the last Olympics (consumer technology), what are they doing about malicious intent (lots but he wouldn't tell us what), and between the opening and closing ceremonies, what would he be doing (depends on whether things are going well, or badly!). That last question was mine and I was quite proud of it.

All in all a good evening and probably worth repeating occasionally.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

SAP Upgrade Success

One of the projects we've had to put a lot of effort into over the past few months is the upgrade of our SAP systems - HR, Payroll and Finance. After taking the systems down last Thursday evening, this morning we went live with a fully upgraded system. This was a large and complicated project that has taken many months of planning and preparation - building and testing the various SAP systems, downloading the software and doing trial installs and building a complete copy of all of the SAP systems to test the connections and interactions.

There were quite a few components involved with the project. Not only did we want to upgrade the SAP software to the latest version, but we also wanted to restructure how the SAP systems connected to each other to make them more resilient and better performing. A key part in doing this work was the virtualisation of the SAP infrastructure onto a new cluster of high capacity servers. In doing this virtualisation work, and going from 13 physical servers to two big ones, we will make considerable reductions to our power consumption and reduce our carbon emissions considerably.

We allowed 4 days downtime to achieve server virtualisation, technical reorganisation, the simultaneous upgrades of the systems, and the technical upgrade from Xi to Pi (the way the systems talk to each other)  and it required not only an awful lot of hard work from our SAP teams (basis and development), some of whom worked all weekend putting in very long days, but also co-ordination and collaboration from other areas of the department including Unix, Networking, Storage, Managed Desktop, MUSE and Communications teams who were all available and all doing their bit. We also relied on the teams in Finance and HR to test that everything was working as it should be.

We had been told that this was an almost impossible task by our SAP consultants, but everything had been handed over to functional teams to test by yesterday, and today we went live. A couple of minor glitches this morning relating to load and portal links, but nothing that couldn't be fixed quickly, and altogether a successful outcome. I'd like to personally thank everyone involved.

Although this was a technical upgrade, and functional improvements can now take place, there have been some benefits to users, including a much wider range of browsers which are supported - this morning I've had all of the systems running on my mac on Safari, Chrome and Firefox, and even on my iPad! Perhaps I can finally ditch Camino.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Value of Difference

Today we had a meeting of the Equality and Diversity Board, of whcih I've been a member for many years. It was a good meeting - very enjoyable and stimulating, and I't not always you can say that about a meeting....

It was facilitated by Simon Fanshawe, (yes, that Simon Fanshawe), and very good he was too. I didn't realise he is Chair of the University of Sussex Council, so he has a good understanding of Universities and their governance, as well as being hugely entertaining, knowledgeable about diversity issues, and a founder of Stonewall over 23 years ago.

We were looking at what it means to recruit (staff and students) for diversity and difference in an educational environment. Of course, it makes sense when you think about it properly - in order to achieve what it wants to, the University needs to recruit different sorts of people, from multiple different backgrounds, with a variety of skills. So, we looked at the barriers to this, what policies we have in place, what might need reviewing and investigating, and also examples of good practice, where changes to recruitment and working policies have made a big difference. Changing the titles of posts can make a huge difference - removing post titles which have a male connatation like 'porter" and "technician" can make a big difference to the number of female applicants for posts for example, as can the use of a variety of role models. 

We also looked at our student mix, and particularly the mix of "home" students, rather than international, and our relationship with the city and the region.

In general, we have a good story to tell and we have lots of good policies and support initiatives, but we are now looking to move these on, and make sure we all recognise the value of difference and diversity. Today was an excellent start.

Friday, 13 January 2012

But where's the hot tub....

Most exciting thing that's happened this week is publishing the floor plans for the new building we're moving into in a couple of months. Always a bit traumatic, trying to work out where everyone should go, getting working relationships right, making sure we've got enough kitchens, social space etc. There's been a lot of hard work over the last week, but, we've done it now.  Will be great for many of us to be in one building, rather than spreadout across many as we are now.  Seems to be some disappointment that the plans don't show a hot tub or brewery, both of which could apparently be heated from the data centre next door.....

Other exciting things happening at the moment include a major SAP upgrade happening right now, which is the culmination of a lot of very hard work - more on that next week. It seems to be going well, but I don't want to tempt fate too much!

We've had a strategic liaison meeting with the Faculty of Social Sciences. where we talked a lot about the need for identity management, especially for handling some of our international ventures, and the eLearning strategy that we're currently developing.

And that's it for this week from me - I've spent most of it without a voice, with a sore throat and an aching head. Home for the weekend to recover!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Back to a New Year

Happy New Year everyone - hope you all had a good break, and are raring to go with this brand new year!  Sorry for slight delay in blogging - have been struck dumb (literally for most of yesterday), with a cold and sore throat. Oh well, first I've had this winter so can't complain.

So, what's been happening since we came back? We've had a good  meeting on how we're going to develop our new portal - so much has changed since we came up with the specification over a year ago (we put the project on hold to concentrate on our Enquirer and Applicant portal), that it needs revisiting. Portal technologies have changed, and we now have Google apps, which change the way we deliver some services. More discussions over the next week or two, and some investigaing to do about how things like iGoogle might integrate with our single sign on, before we come up with anything concrete.

Exciting meeting today with our University Executive Board discussing our response to the Diamond Report on Modernisation and Efficiency. There's a number of projects already taking forward some of the recommendations including a review of procurement and the introduction of a managed staff printing service, but I have been keen that we introduce a structured approach to business process review and service improvement, embedding it into the University culture.  We've been investigating Lean, and today we presented our proposals to set up a small team to take this forward, and I'm pleased to say they were approved. Our focus will not be on just cost savings, but realignment of resources to better support the University's objectives, improving services to staff and students, and simplifying processes, especially those large complex ones which often  interface between professional service and academic departments. Watch this space!

Also this week we've considered the Woolf Report into LSE's relationship with Libya. It's a very comprehensive report, and contains a number of recommendations around the ethics of universities accepting donations. It raises a number of issues about due diligence which I suspect many Universities are now considering.

And finally, I got the report from the IiP assessor who recently reviewed the department - we reached the standard in all areas, and had many areas of good practice highlighted. One or two areas for development identified, but on the whole it was excellent - obviously a lot of good work going on in the department - well done everyone.