Thursday, 31 January 2008

Internal Audit

Lots of activity around internal audit at the moment. The University has a statutory responsibility to audit aspects of its business regularly, and we get audited more than most departments. There are about 4 IT Audits a year, plus we get audited like any other department on handling of financial transactions, and we get involved in audits of other areas, such as an upcoming audit of our HESA return.

We’re just coming to the end of an audit on our SAP implementation, particularly looking at security and how we control changes to the system. Initial findings were given to us on Tuesday, and we’re now looking at our response. In some areas, the auditors will highlight areas where we do need to look at making changes to our processes, in others we will disagree with them, especially if we consider the risk or resource of doing what they suggest outweighs any benefit. Recommendations will be given to us in a final report, expected in a couple of weeks. We will be asked for a management response, which will then go to Audit Committee. This is an interesting committee as it consists mainly of lay members, ie not University staff. Their job is to scrutinise reports, and our response. If there are any “category1” recommendations – ie ones that the auditors feel must be complied with because the University will be at serious risk, then the Head of Department (ie me!) is summoned to the Audit Committee to explain themselves. It has happened to me on a number of occasions, and is not a particularly enjoyable experience, although the current Chair of Audit Committee is a very fair and reasonable person. Unlike previous occasions – I remember a colleague going to Audit Committee on my behalf when I couldn’t be there because I was in London. When I got back I asked him how he’d got on. “They gave me a very warm welcome”, he said. “They roasted me”. The next time I had to appear before them , I knew exactly what he meant!

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Executive meeting

Three main items on the Exec team meeting yesterday - internal communications, money and working with the new Faculties.

Following the voting we did at the departmental meeting about how we communicate with each other, we discussed a number of ways of improving things. One will be to formalise the reporting back from the Exec meetings - at the moment I give a short update on this blog (which I will continue to do), but we're also going to produce a regular digest of matters discussed and make sure it's posted on MUSE. Further development of Just for CiCS (our internal newsletter) and the departmental meeting will also continue. We were disappointed that the survey showed that some member of of staff don't have regular team meetings, and they will become compulsory now for all staff at least once a month. All staff will also be encouraged to use myChat and to have it open all of the time - I'm using it to have chats with two people as I type this!

Budgets are being looked at for next year, and in particular what projects are coming up which we may need to set aside large sums of money for. Three in particular are on the horizon - upgrading the telephone switch, implementation of Zimbra, and replacing the current managed desktop with a web based version. All will require substantial investment.

I'm going to an awayday on Friday with the rest of the Heads of Professional Services to look at how we will work with the new Faculty structure, and I've produced a paper for discussion. As soon as it's finalised, I'll circulate it so that everyone can comment in their teams.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Geek and Poke

Just found this great blog - Geek and Poke - some ace cartoons!

Edit: when I posted this, I'd only looked at the cartoons I could see on the first page. Since then I've had a look at some of the older ones, particularly those related to project management in IT - I'm sure there's some our Programme and Project Management Unit could use in training materials!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Interesting Acronym

One of our number who retires this year gave a fascinating talk about his 40 years in IT. From his time as a high energy physicist in the Rutherford labs in the 60s, to the challenges of being an IT Director today. Chatham House rules for most of the talk, obviously, so I can't repeat much, but it is amazing how much we currently take for granted, that is still fairly recent. The network we all use for example - JANET - he played a key part in establishing. I bet most people think it stands for Joint Academic Network - well, it does now, but when it started, it was the name of his PA!

The final session was an interesting and lively discussion led by Jeff Haywood from Edinburgh on students' experiences of CIT. Lots of good stuff from his research on students in Edinburgh. Students tend to overrate their IT skills, especially males, and when they get to university, although their skills are good, they're mainly for social use rather than academic. In schools their use of IT has been very standardised - they're not used to finding out how to do things themselves for example. They're very good at file-uploading and sharing, social networking, word processing and the internet, but their technical skills are not so good - things like antivirus, patching etc. What they want are fast, seamless web services accessed though a single point - this is very important to them.

In terms of help and support, it's not clear from the research whether help reaches the most needy. Laptops and connectivity are the main areas for support, and it's needed 24*7. Most students will turn to peers, friends and relatives for help before using helpdesks etc. Most can connect to wireless networks, but find vpn difficult. There's a need for proactive help - don't wait for the students to come to us, but get out there and help them. Induction before arrival is also important - send them information as soon as they've accepted a place.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Green computing, and a look into the future

At a RUGIT (Russell Group IT Directors) meeting in Liverpool for the next couple of days. Two interesting sessions today. The first one was on how we can use less power, especially for research computing. One of the scenarios examined was the use of PCs to perform tasks for High Throughput Computing, when they’re not being used, eg student open access PCs. This often uses a piece of software called Condor, and Condor clusters are in use at many UK Universities. One of the debates is around energy use – such PCs are usually in labs or classrooms, not the air-conditioned environment of a data centre. So, less power is consumed. But, we encourage everyone to turn their PCs off at night, so by leaving them turned on so jobs can be run on them, power use is increased. There is some research to show that using PCs still uses less power than dedicated computers in data centres, but this is still in its early stages.

We also looked at how power usage from our data centres (machine rooms) can be reduced. Basically, computers produce a lot of heat which has to be removed, usually by air-conditioning. Use of DC power (rather than AC), water-cooling, using waste heat to heat buildings, fresh air-cooling instead of air conditioning, are all things under consideration.

The second session was a look into the future – what will IT be like in 5, 10, 15 years time, and what effect will it have on our services. After an introductory talk looking at things like Moore’s Law, we split into groups to look at specific areas. My group had the task of looking at what consumer devices might be like in 5 years time – what will replace the iPod, iPhone etc, and what features will they have. We all agreed that they will be always on, always connected to “a network”, but we weren’t sure what that would be. They’ll have tactile interfaces, presence awareness and will communicate with each other. High definition video will be present and they’ll have a bigger virtual presence than their physical form, with either roll-out screens, virtual reality, or video projection. They’ll know who we are, where we are and what we’re doing. IT Services will have to accept that students will bring these devices to University and expect them to work and be supported. There'll probably be no need to provide University email systems, or wireless networks, as they’ll be available from so many other sources. Identity management and authentication will be key issues.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Executive meeting

At yesterday's Executive Meeting we spent some time discussing how we might ensure that we deliver the benefits from projects - for example, we're very good at putting in systems, but not necessarily at following then up and making sure people use them so that all of the advantages are achieved. This usually takes place after the project has finished and needs a resource to make sure it's done. Of course, that doesn't just apply to things we call projects, but also our general day to day work as well. We've got some ideas, and will be following them up at a later meeting.

Other things discussed include a forthcoming CiCS User Group and what we should put on the agenda. These happen about 3 times a year, and are attended by about 40 staff from all departments, and students, and it's our opportunity to explain current and future projects, and get feedback from our services in general. These have been in the past very IT based, but we will be expanding them to cover all of CiCS services.

Last week we had a special Executive Meeting to look at how we might align our services to cope with the new Faculty structure. I am going to an awayday in a couple of weeks with all Heads of Professional Service departments where we will be sharing ideas, so it's important that we have a plan by then. I am currently pulling the ideas together and will be sharing it with the Executive at the end of this week so that it can be further discussed in teams.

Monday, 21 January 2008

No print strategy

The end of last week seemed to be taken up with loads of meetings - I have days like that where I go from one to the other, trying to switch my brain into the right gear, and make sure I've read the right papers. Sometimes I've been known to read them as I walk across the concourse. Not in the current weather though! I'm trying very hard to do my bit for saving paper and not printing wherever I can. Most of the papers for meetings are either sent round by email or are in a MUSE group, so as long as I have my laptop with me there's really no need to print anything. I can annotate the papers if I need to, and make notes directly into a word document, which I can then forward to people as necessary. A lot quicker than trying to read my scribbled handwriting in a notebook which I usually lose. It's also a good way of testing the wireless network, which is present in most meeting and teaching rooms, but if I discover somewhere where the signal isn't strong enough I can report it to the voice and data team who soon fix it.

On a slightly controversial note, I am always fascinated by colleagues who arrive at meetings with all of the papers carefully printed out, usually single sided, including the email which says "please find attached the papers for...” often carefully labelled and put into a folder, presumably by a secretary. Most of the time the papers are barely looked at, having been sent for information only, and what happens to them afterwards? Are they carefully filed in a filing cabinet, when all of them are available electronically? I don't have a single filing cabinet in my office, and my PA has got better things to do with her time than print and label papers for me. I'm also surprised that I'm usually the only person round the table with a laptop, this being the 21st century. They're a lot lighter to carry round than huge folders of paper, and you can deal with your emails if the meeting is particularly long and boring. Not that I ever do of course :-)

As a University we printed 68million sheets of paper last year - that's excluding anything done in the Print Service. That's a hell of a lot of trees. So, think before you print.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Have you got any news of the Iceberg...

Some of you may have seen this article in The Times, or in the local paper, The Star, about research done by our Department of Geography on the shrinking of the icesheet in Greenland. What you may not have realised is that the analysis was done on one of our computers, the Sheffield node of the White Rose Grid which is called - Iceberg. Iceberg meets the Greenland ice sheet - an uncanny combination!

And if anyone is wondering about the title of this post, it's from a poem by Les Barker, written about the Titanic, from a Polar Bear's point of view!

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Research Excellence Framework

Admin Team meeting yesterday afternoon - and a presentation on the Research Excellence Framework.

Every five years or so the Funding Councils assess the quality of research in British universities, and use this rating to determine how much funding each institution will get for research. This Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was first carried out in 1986, and is being carried out now. Our return went off last October, and included 4 research outputs for each member of staff to be assessed (usually research papers in journals) as well as details of research income, and other indicators of quality. A tremendous amount of work goes into putting this together, and a series of panels then considers this mountain of data, and awards each department or discipline a rating.

However, this is the last time this will happen - the RAE is no more. It's being replaced by the Research Excellence Framework, which is currently out for consultation. It is being proposed that for STEM departments (Science, Engineering, Technology and Medicine) a series of metrics will be introduced. Some such as research income and number of postgrad research students will be obtained from our HESA returns. Others will rely on citations of research papers obtained from a citation index such as Web of Science.

For Arts, Humanities and Social Science subjects, which will interestingly include Maths and Stats, some sort of peer review process will remain.

This new system will be phased in gradually, but could have an impact on us fairly soon, both in terms of HESA data returns, and the development of systems to collect data and manage the process.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Living in fear of 1996

I read lots of blogs. Some related to work, most aren't. One I read fairly regularly is Diamond Geezer. I liked this post, particularly in the light of recent discussions we've been having about communication. Those of us who were working in IT back in 1996 may have to substitute an earlier date, but the sentiment is the same.

Now I'm going to watch Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple) give his keynote address at Macworld to see what exciting things Apple are launching. Not sure anything will top last year's iPhone, but who knows!

Edit - as widely expected, he launched the MacBook Air - the world's thinnest laptop.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Departmental vision, and why women think departmental meetings are more interesting than men....

A departmental meeting today, and an opportunity to launch our new vision statement for the department. Following the two meetings we had to discuss it, we've made a couple of changes, and it's now in a final and agreed form of:

"We will be an innovative and influential department, respected by the University and recognised as a leader in the sector, delivering excellent customer-focused services."

So, now all we have to do is get there! Strategies covering all of our services are being worked on in the different sections, and individual objectives were set during the SRDS progress, with team objectives currently being put together. We had a Programme Board meeting this afternoon where we discussed how all of this will knit together, and how the Programme Plan will fit in. It is our intention that we will have a joined up set of documents which will be published on the web for everyone to see - more news on that later.

Other items covered at the meeting were the University restructuring and how that might affect us, a review of the past year, and a demonstration of Zimbra, the open source collaboration software that we're piloting at the moment. All presentations will be put in the cics-staff group in MUSE later this week.

One of the points to come out of the departmental vision meetings was a need to improve internal communication. In order to gather some information about current practices, we used the voting handsets and software and asked a series of questions - after first having asked what section people were in, how old they were and their sex. There were some interesting results. I'm very worried that 14% of people never speak to a member of the Executive, (presumably not even their Assistant Director), not even once a year at the Christmas Party! We will have to get out more. If any of you would like to come and say hello to me, please do.

63% of people at the meeting read this blog either regularly or occasionally, but only 31% find it useful. Let me know what would make it more useful!

Some interesting differences between sections, age and gender. For example, 63% of women thought that the departmental meetings were very useful as a method of communication, but only 31% of men did.

All the results are being looked at, and we'll be making some recommendations for improvements. However, communication is a two way process and some of it will be down to you - we can make information available to you, but we can't make you look at it. For example 12% of staff surveyed never read Just for CiCS, 36% never read this blog, 33% never access the cics-staff MUSE group and 59% never use myChat. But you can then throw back at me the fact that 35% of staff don't have regular team meetings! This will have to change.

I think it will be interesting to repeat the same questions this time next year, and see if we've improved at all.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Service Quality

Like the rest of the Professional Services here, we have a Service Level Agreement with the University which is agreed with, and monitored by a Service Quality Team (SQT). Ours is chaired by Professor Sheila Corrall from Information Studies, and met last Friday afternoon. We discussed a number of things that have affected the level of service we've provided in the last six months including the various power outages (planned and unplanned) and the budget cuts we've had to cope with this year. We also looked at the results of the student survey and our action plan.

As well as approving any changes to the SLA, the SQT also looks at the service measures, and whether we've met them or not. For example, do we deliver all of our print jobs to agreed timescales? Do we check all helpdesk emails within 30 minutes? Do we achieve an up time of 99.98% for the network? If we don't achieve our service level by more than a 5% margin, or for two consecutive semesters, then this is reported to the SQT, and I have to explain why. Sometimes there are exceptional reasons, sometimes the numbers are so small as to be meaningless, and sometimes we have dependencies on other areas or departments. Our figures are pretty good, and we hit most of them. Some we don't do so good at and we are looking at how we can make changes to our working practices to achieve them. We also discussed putting the results on our web pages so that our customers can see how we're doing, and this is something I'll be raising with our Customer Services team - I think it's a good idea, but would be interested to hear your views.

Thursday, 10 January 2008


Yesterday I mentioned that I was a Gartner client, and that I'd been to a very good session by a Gartner VP. In fact, all University staff and students can access Gartner Research. If you log in to MUSE (the University portal), you can access a huge number of research papers on IT by going to the "Using MUSE" tab and under "Channel Guide" selecting "Gartner Research". If you want to access this regularly, you can add this channel by customising your layout to add it to your home tab or any other tab you've set up.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Leadership part 2

For several years now I’ve been a client of Gartner, an IT research and advisory company providing expert advice to all sectors. Today’s first session was given by a Gartner VP on what Gartner think should be on a successful CIO’s agenda. The talk wasn’t just aimed at Higher Education, as many of Gartner’s clients are from industry, but many of the issues are the same. A number of key themes were explored including:

Successful organisations will be looking for distinctive solutions to come from IT to make “the difference”, ie increase competitiveness or organisational efficiency

The CIO therefore needs to create an environment where innovative people can work in the business identifying opportunities

Growth of IT budgets is accelerating but modest. It’s still about more for less. Operational budgets will have to be squeezed to put more into innovation. Organisations will only invest in IT that delivers distinctive solutions. ie more business value.

The IT strategy must be linked to the organisation’s strategy and plans if it is to deliver real value.

Have people embedded in units – they’ll find out what’s going on and feed it back to you.

The CIO must have a partnership with the CEO.

Remind people when you’ve done something that has had an effect, otherwise how will they know

Get rid of the old IT attitude of not doing something until someone asks for it - be proactive

IT is becoming more of a people business, and softer skills must be invested in

CIOs must get out there, have influence in areas outside of IT. Get known

Performance is the key to credibility, responsibility, resources and value

Network, network, network (the people kind, not the cable kind :-) ). Use your lunch hour productively to talk to people, not sit at your desk eating a sandwich……

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


I'm at a UCISA Directors Forum in Cardiff at the moment where the subject we're discussing is Leadership.

Interesting first session, given by a VC and a Director of Information Services from a prominent Russell Group University, about the relationship between a CEO and a CIO.
In industry the concept of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) is well established - not so in many Universities. Today’s session focused on whether there was a direct correlation in this area between industry and universities, and if so, what did an “IT Director" need to do to become a CIO. Both speakers had worked outside the sector, and were in general agreement that successful Universities would be those that understand the critical nature of IT to business success and where the CIO worked in partnership with the CEO.

The first speaker - the VC - addressed the issue of whether the VC was in fact a CEO. There are many similarities between Industry and HE in this role, the key differences being the role of governance in HE (rule by committee and consensus) which is much higher than in industry, and the number of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) which is much higher in HE, industry concentrating on far fewer.

The VC emphasised the global effect of IT as a major agent of change. There are currently 2.5 billion mobile phones in use, and 1.6 billion PCs. 991 million mobile phones were sold in 2006 – that’s 1/6th of the world’s population buying one. These two items have way overtaken the ownership of TVs, credit cards and cars. The changing expectations of the future student population need to be taken into account in University decision making. In summary, his view of the role of a CIO in HE was:
  • Information within the University is fundamental to the University purpose and information about the University as an aid to management is an increasingly important requirement
  • IT in Universities is less well-developed than in many businesses – but it’s a much more complex environment, with too much regulation and a legacy of IT under-investment. Universities must increase IT investment
  • The CIO is business-critical and business-enabling and should be a member of the senior management team able to participate in and influence all University functions
  • Complexity will grow. Pervasiveness will grow. The power of computing will grow. Unless the CIO is part of the top management team the University will lose out totally.
The CIO's view was very similar – he began with an illustration of how IT had changed. In the 1970s it was “Fortress IT - a specialist function, disconnected from the rest of the University. In the 1980s and 90s, IT was an internal supplier, a technical realiser, but was mainly passive and reactive. In the 21st century IT is a solutions broker, a change partner, and is proactive and innovative. A transition from Doing IT, through Managing IT to Leading IT. Softer skills involving communication, change and management skills are becoming more important than technical skills.

In conclusion, he believed that a 21st century CIO should be an agent of change and should be striving to be the organisational leader responsible for IT, a corporate officer of the institution – not the IT guy! They should be a partner of the CEO and a Board member. Their impact should be positive, and wider than IT. They should be proactive, an expert advisor, strategist, and change deliverer. A bold decision maker who accepts responsibility and manages risk.
Lot of soft skills are needed including effective communication, developing people and skills, getting the best from people, even suppliers.

Phew – lots to think about, and put into action!

Monday, 7 January 2008

Executive Team Meeting

At today’s Executive Team we spent a lot of time discussing our departmental vision meetings - we’re still digesting all the comments which have been transcribed from the tablecloths, and will report back at next week’s departmental meeting. Watch out for some fun at the meeting, where you get to use voting handsets – but not to vote off a member of the Exec!

We also approved a series of customer service reviews to be carried out on an ongoing basis, eventually forming a continuous review of the whole of our service. They’ll evaluate areas where we interact directly with our users and also the service we provide to them.

The process will involve seeking user feedback, investigating interfaces, usage, processes and practices. The information will be collated and analysed and a report written by the Customer Service & Communication Team identifying issues and recommending actions.
The findings of each review and the actions taken will be published for users to see. The first review – of the wireless service – has already taken place and the results will be available shortly. If anyone has any suggestions for areas to be reviewed, then please let us know.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Photo Gallery

I thought it was time I uploaded the Christmas party pictures, and I've also tried to put all of the CiCS photos I have in one place. Unfortunately a lot of the early ones have gone - they were on the old web server and presumably have been lost for ever. If anyone is interested in really early photos of really old computers, have a look at Peter Mason's pictures. Some of the mug-shots are fun to look at too!

Christmas party pics here, and links to all photos here.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Departmental Vision

Welcome back, and a Happy New Year to you all. I hope your break was a good one, and you’re ready to face 2008!

There are number of exciting developments happening this year, and I’ll be posting about some of them over the next few weeks. To start the New Year off, we will be launching a new departmental vision statement. As many of you know, we’ve had a couple of meetings recently to allow all of the department to comment on and contribute to it. The final one was this afternoon. The meetings were in “world cafĂ©” format – round tables with a mix of staff from different areas of the department.

The Vision Statement which was put forward by the Executive Team was:

“We will be an innovative and influential department, trusted by the University and recognised as leading in the sector, delivering excellent customer-focused services”

The 6 words or phrases highlighted were discussed on 6 tables, with people moving round so that everyone got the chance to discuss all or most of the words. I was interested in whether people thought the words were appropriate, what they meant to everyone, and whether there were alternative words which might be better. We also wanted to know how people thought we could achieve the vision, what did it mean to them and what changes or support might be needed to achieve it.

Paper tablecloths were used for writing on, and it was very pleasing to see lively discussions taking place on all tables.

All of the writing and conclusions are being typed up, and we’ll be using them over the next couple of weeks to refine the statement – which will be launched at the next departmental meeting – and provide feedback to everyone who attended, as well as those who didn’t.

First results seem to indicate that on the whole people are happy with the vision statement, although both groups disliked the word “trusted”. One group commented that by putting it in the vision, it implied we weren’t trusted at the moment. Another group suggested that “respected’ might be better.

Thanks to everyone who attended and took part, and I hope it was an enjoyable and useful event.