Friday, 21 December 2007

Season's Greetings

Well another year is almost over, and we're about to have a well deserved break. I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas, and the New Year brings you peace and happiness.

I'm having a break from blogging until the New Year, but will be back as soon as we get back to work!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

"Weblog" celebrates 10th anniversary

It's 10 years ago since blogging began, according to the BBC. Apparently there are now over 70m blogs worldwide, with 120,000 new ones being created every day!

Programme Board

Once a month, our Executive Team meeting is replaced with a Programme Board where the Head of the Programme and Projects Unit joins us. All project managers produce a monthly report on the projects they are managing, and these are considered at the Board, together with any proposals for new projects and project closure documents. It's the place where we look at resource issues - particularly if there are conflicting priorities, and also where we can try and assist a project manager with a particular issue. We've recently adopted a traffic light system, where different sections of the report (General Progress, Timescales, Resources, and Technical) are flagged as Green (OK), Amber (some concern) or Red (Houston, we have a problem). This makes the report much easier to read, and issues easier to spot. I'm pleased to say that at yesterday's Programme Board, there were no major issues of concern, but a few resource issues which need addressing. No new projects have come forward recently, and a number are closing - ideas for new projects on a postcard please!

Sunday, 16 December 2007


At the beginning of this session CiCS launched myChat - an authenticated instant messaging system. I use it a lot - I log into it at the start of every day, and don't log off until I leave work. I also use it when I'm away from the University - it's particularly useful when I'm away at a conference - I can have a real-time chat with someone which is less disruptive to people around me than using a mobile phone and doesn't clog my mailstore up with emails. I've also been known to use it on trains to have a conversation with someone, but I always want to start by saying "I'M ON A TRAIN". But, the biggest barrier I have to using it, is that there's only about 30 - 40 CiCS staff who use it on a regular basis, and it's fairly certain that if I want to chat to someone they're not logged in. I don't mind people being "away due to idle" - a rather unfortunate phrase, I'm sure no-one in CiCS is idle..... - but just not logged in. So, I'm using this post to ask why? Please post in the comments and tell me why you use it, or why you don't. It would be really helpful to know. And if you've thought about using, it, but just haven't got round to it yet, give it a try, and tell us your experiences.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Stumble Upon

A couple of months ago I discovered Stumble Upon - a toolbar you can add to your browser (as long as you're using Firefox or IE). It finds websites based on your interests. Great for randomly clicking if you're bored, eating your lunch, or on hold to VirginMedia Customer Services. You can rate the sites it finds you, and then it finds you more of the ones you like. Here's the last 6 web sites it found me a few minutes ago. Hope it doesn't give too much away about what my interests are....

Signs you're having a bad day

I'm sure no-one in the department will be interested in this one

Strange trees

Not sure Print Service would like it if I asked for some of these

This is scary - perhaps we should compare the seconds we have left?

and finally:

How cool is that. Is it for real?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Wiki Workshop

One of the areas we are currently looking at is how we support staff who want to use new or innovative communications methods – for example blogs, wikis, social networking sites. Should we be providing a “managed” environment for these technologies, together with support and training, or letting people use the free software that is readily available (for example how this blog is set up)? What technical help do people need, what do they find easy to use, and what do they struggle with? Is there any interest? In order to answer some of these questions, we held a workshop this lunchtime with 50 attendees (we have enough people on the waiting list to fill another session as well), and had some very interesting discussions, from the very technical to broader issues surrounding acceptable use policies, training and pedagogy.

We also took the opportunity to demonstrate group response software and hardware that we have – everyone was issued with a small handset and asked to answer a number of different questions by pressing the appropriate number on it. The software quickly analyses the responses and provides the results in the form of a chart. I used it recently in a workshop on risk – we voted on what we thought the probability and impact of the University’s top corporate risks were. We then spent an hour discussing the results and voted again. It’s amazing what a difference an hour can make! We have 300 handsets, and are happy to help any department that wants to use them and LeTS have produced a guide to using them. We will be using them at our next departmental meeting.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Meeting monday, wind turbines and robots

A Monday full of meetings today. First a meeting of Heads of Departments with the Vice-Chancellor and Senior Management Team. Much of the discussion centred around progress with achieving some of the goals he outlined in his first HoDS meeting soon after he was appointed a couple of months ago. Progress is being made on transparency, changes to the organisational structure, ownership of financial planning, reducing bureaucracy and realigning the professional services to work within the new structure. We also discussed longer-term strategy, FEC (Full economic costing), and sustainability.

This was followed by Admin Team, and we began with a presentation about the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). The AMRC is based in the Advanced Manufacturing Park (down the Parkway towards the M1). It was formed by Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Keith Ridgway, and is a hugely successful enterprise, with partners including Boeing, Rolls Royce and BAE Systems. Their Factory of The Future is due to open in a few weeks time, and will provide a sate of the art facility for technologies to be developed and implemented with a zero carbon footprint. The facility will have two wind turbines, and a ground source heat pump amongst other energy saving and conserving features. Colleagues in CiCS have been working with the AMRC to provide them with data and voice connections to the main University campus. I’m not an engineer, nor have I ever found engineering particularly interesting, but I was fascinated by the research and development being undertaken there. Because the equipment is state of the art, and the same size as used in industry, partners don’t have to scale up any processes. Research into machining can drastically reduce the time taken to produce components- one example reduced production time from 54 minutes to 90 seconds. They are also looking at robots – used extensively in manufacturing – but apparently they aren’t very accurate so AMRC are looking to make them more accurate. It was suggested they could practise on MFI flatpacked furniture for a real test of how good they are!

Estates Strategy Advisory Group then reviewed all existing and proposed capital projects – I’ll do another post about this and the potential implications when these are finalised.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Christmas ruined.....

Lots of news around about Facebook changing privacy settings after thousands of people protested that information about transactions they've made were being broadcast to their networks without their express consent. It came to a head when a guy in the US bought an eternity ring for his wife for Christmas - you can read the rest of the story here. I suppose it's a good job it was for his wife!

Another warning to everyone to keep an eye on the electronic footprint we all leave whenever we use the internet.

UCISA Executive Committee

At a UCISA Executive Meeting today in London. It was one of those meetings where the agenda looked a bit light, and we all thought we might get off early for a bit of seasonal retail therapy (we were meeting only 5 minutes walk from Covent Garden), but it was not to be. and I only managed to dash through the market on my way to the Tube to catch the 5pm train. It is beautifully decorated though – with lots of lights and icicles.

A few items discussed:

IPTV – There’s a growing number of companies getting involved in IPTV, some encouraging students to broadcast. Do we need policies and guidelines? Should we revisit our regulations and acceptable use policies, especially with broadcasts unlikely to be limited to on-campus? Transmission policies might also need to be looked at, especially in terms of bandwidth use - should institutions be using packet-shaping? JANETUK will be putting on an event in the New Year where these matters will be discussed. As our students are about to launch such broadcasts, it’s something we will need to monitor.

Shared Services crops up on almost all of our agendas, and today the discussion centred around the number of agencies involved – HEFCE, JISC, UCISA, the Cabinet Office, Software vendors – and how much, (or how little..) joined up thinking was going on. Many HEIs are also involved in projects – I’ve posted about the research data one – but there are others looking at shared data centres, back-end transaction processing and email spam scanning. It was agreed that UCISA would try and pull together some coherent look at existing projects and to facilitate the sharing of information and good practice.

UCISA will be going live with a new web site in the New Year, and the Communications Group which I belong to met after the in meeting to discuss how this might be developed, for example what Web 2.0 technologies we might want to see added to it.

Today was the first time I'd arrived at St Pancras International after its opening a couple of weeks ago - it looks fantastic, and thank goodness you can now walk through the wonderful old station without having to risk your life walking around the outside of it on busy roads. Too many shops though - it's going to be difficult getting to meetings on time. I haven't got a picture of St Pancras - so this is a picture of Sheaf Square in front of our own station which has made such a difference to the appearance of Sheffield as you arrive.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007


Today was a meeting of the Senate. Senate is the body which oversees and approves all academic recommendations, for example about teaching and learning, research and academic structures.

The main item of today’s meeting was the report of the Senate Steering Group, which was proposing changes to the structure of the university – I’ve already reported what these are:
  • Keep the existing 5 faculties
  • Departments to be in one Faculty only, and to decide in conjunction with the Faculties where they sit - this may evolve over time
  • 5 Faculty PVCS – Academic leaders who provide external representation, and are budget holders for the Faculty
  • 3 University-wide PVCs – Teaching and Learning, Research, External Matters (regional, national international)
  • A University Executive Board consisting of the 8 PVCs, the VC and representatives of the Professional services

The UEB will propose budgets for the whole University, which will be approved by a University Development Committee which will be a committee of the Senate.

Some details are still being worked on - where departments sit, membership of the UDC etc.

There was a lively discussion at Senate, covering areas including:
  • How professional services will align to the faculties, and it was confirmed that there was no intention to break up the services, but some alignment would be necessary
  • Cross faculty collaboration
  • How consistency will be applied across faculties, and how examples of good practice we currently have must not be discarded.
  • Governance in faculties – will there be common principles?

Senate approved the report and further work on the detail will now be continued. In terms of consultation, there will be open meetings, VC surgeries, and a webcast from the VC.

Another matter which came up was our recent implementation of new Finance, Payroll and HR systems. Although technically the implementation has gone very well, there are still problems with some business processes, particularly with purchasing. Meetings have been held with all Faculties where a number of problems have been noted and are being worked on. Matters discussed included payment of invoices, payments through the external payroll, future developments and training.

One other thing discussed which might be of interest included MASH – Maths and Statistics Help. A new service for students.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


One of the products currently being evaluated in the department is the Zimbra Collaboration Suite - a new open source based collaborative solution delivered over the web. It offers integrated email, calendar, documents and voice over IP.

It has many features, including:
  • Multiple address books which can be shared
  • Multiple calendars - a user may access various calendars and overlay each as required onto a single calendar display (e.g. private, departmental, teaching), or any other calendar available
  • Advanced searching capabilities
  • ‘Date relations’ (i.e. hover over the phrase "tomorrow at 6:00 PM" in an email message and the system will display any appointments you have at that time)
  • Powerful administration e.g. an administrator can turn on/off individual features, while ‘skins’ can be used to offer those features appropriate to particular user communities
  • “Over air” push synchronisation of mail, contacts, and calendar items to mobile devices
  • Online document viewing without needing to use the document application e.g. Word, Excel
  • Microsoft Outlook, Apple, and Linux desktop compatibility
Being open source, it's not expensive, but significant effort will be needed to roll it out across the University, if that's what we decide to do. The product has been evaluated by a small number of people in CiCS, and a larger pilot within the department will be starting after Christmas, to iron out any technical issues. If that's successful, then we will be looking for some volunteer departments across the campus to carry out a larger pilot. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Belay Bob

I was pleased to see that the beers the University brewed with Thornbridge made it into the Guardian (bottom of page)!

BTW - anyone know what a Belay Bob is?

Executive Team

Today's Executive Team discussed a number of things, including arrangements for a couple of meetings to discuss our vision for the department, and how we might get there, once we have a common agreement of what it is.

We also discussed something which started off as initially appearing simple, but became more complex the more we looked at it. We have a shared area on the departmental server, which has a tendency to become slightly anarchic in terms of organisation and what's there. It can become a bit of a dumping ground, with files rarely deleted, difficulties in finding things, and the possibility of duplication. Files on it include working documents, collaborative documents, published documents, databases, statistics, incriminating departmental photographs.... So, we talked about a proper structure, a retention and disposal policy, access rights etc. But then, more complications arose - how does this shared area fit with the document management system? What's its relationship with the departmental wiki? Or the departmental group in the portal? Or the departmental web site? A meeting will be convened to discuss...

We've also arranged a briefing session on ITIL for the new year, with a view to deciding which bits of to implement and when.