Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Who was JANET?

All day RUGIT meeting yesterday. As usual, well attended - I think we all appreciate a chance to network and talk to our colleagues from similar universities. The first item was a presentation from one of the Research Fellows from the Russell Group of Vice Chancellors, who has a specific remit to liase with our group. He outlined what was happening with the RG since the appointment of a Director General last year, and the priority ares they were concentrating on. Some interesting discussion on the role of metrics in the assessment of research, and some crystal ball gazing about what effect a change of government would have on funding for Universities.

Then we had a progress report on the UKRDS, which I have mentioned before. This is a study looking at the feasibilty of establishing a UK wide research data service, which very importantly would not just look at storing data, but all of the issues around data curation, archiving and retrieval as well. The study is going well, with an interim report already prepared, and a final report expected by Christmas this year. Some interesting findings - it is predicted that the volume of research data needing to be stored will increase by 400% over the next 3 years; c50% of research data is estimated to have a life of <10 years, 25% an indefinite retention value, and 25% of researchers don't know how long their data should be kept for. When the new service is established, one of the most important decisions will be how long to keep data for, which ideally should be agreed at the beginning of the research project - but who knows how useful data might be after the end of a project, or what else it could be used for? Apparently astronomers are storing up to 2 petabytes of data every night, and are still analysing and finding interesting stuff in data many years old. One of the principles of the study and the data service when it is established is to unleash the potential of raw data being more accessible and discoverable.

Other things discussed included progress on a feasibility study for a Shared Data Centre for Higher Education (the SHED project) - this is particularly important for those Unversities who are running out of machine room space, especially in London; problems surrounding provision of facilities for on-line assessments, and a qualitative benchmarking study we are about to do.

Then it was off to the nearest pub for a well earned pint, before a reception at UCL for the retirement of one of RUGIT's founder members - Professor Roland Rosner - who was also one of the people who established JANET , our academic network, which was actually named after his secretary, and the acronym Joint Academic Network retrofitted afterwards!

Monday, 29 September 2008

Early morning start

On train on way to London at the moment – going to RUGIT meeting – lots of work to do on way down, but getting increasingly annoyed that East Midlands Trains seem incapable of supporting the business traveller – no power sockets for laptops, no wireless network. Thank goodness for my USB modem and iPhone – could do with some sort of power generator for MacBook though – solar panels maybe or a hamster in a wheel……

Thinking a lot about strategy at the moment – how we bring together all the work we’re doing on collaboration and new technologies, particularly with our recent decision to implement Clearspace. We’ve done a lot of work on a Teaching and Learning Support Strategy which I hope is about to be circulated wider and presented to the Teaching and Learning Committee, and a Technology strategy which will got to our Executive Board later this year. Work needs to start now on a research strategy, and one of the areas we will be working closely with the Library on over the next few months is how we manage research data - not just storage but the whole life cycle management, including curation, metadata, storage and archiving. I worry that there are some areas of the University who don't see the management of research data as a concern, despite the amount being generated, and who are content to store it on local servers, PCs or even CDs. Will CDs be readable in 10 years time I wonder?

Friday, 26 September 2008

Friday Loltiger

Good meeting yesterday with the IT Director of another similar University - always nice to share issues and find out that we all worry about the same things. One thing that makes Universities different from many other sectors is our willingness to share information - we happily exchange policies, guidelines, etc so that we can all learn from each other, not invent the wheel and share best practice.

Information security is one area where we exchanged a lot of information. You only have to pick up a newspaper these days to read about another memory stick going missing, or a laptop being left in a taxi. In an organisation as large and complex as a University how can we ensure that we don't end up with our data in the hands of a tabloid newspaper - what policies and procedures do we need to have in place, and how can we educate our users on information security matters.

Finally, as it's Friday, something to make you smile. I love tigers, and this picture just made me laugh.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Answers on a postcard...

Document management project update meeting today - several presentations about where we are, and some of the pilots we're running. This is a project that many people have sweated blood over - we've had tremendous problems getting the system to work as we want it to, and in getting live pilots off the ground. It has emphasised how important it is to get your business processes right before trying to model them in systems and workflow. I fear we still haven't got it right in some places. Still too much reliance on paper and signatures. But, progress is being made, and we are cautiously optimistic....

One of the problems we are still struggling with is the overlapping functionality of software - we have recently decided to implement Clearspace from Jive software as part of our Innovative Communications project. This is primarily a Web 2.0 social networking suite of software including blogs, wikis (confusingly called documents), forums and groups. It also has some (limited) document management functionality. Livelink (our document management software), also has groups, discussion forums and some collaborative functions. So - which bits of which software do we implement, and how do we ensure that whatever we do, everything is integrated, and our users are clear about what bits of which software to use for what??

Monday, 22 September 2008

The new students are here

Well it's certainly busy on campus - I love it when the students come back - there's a real buzz about the place. Just bigger queues to get my lunchtime sandwich. More students needing help with connecting, more asking about connecting Xboxes - this morning when I suggested to our network guys that we needed to look at how to handle consoles, it took less than 10 seconds for one of them to suggest that they needed a couple to play with, I mean test!

On line registration system seems to be working well, so that's good, and at the moment everyone seems pleased with the way things are going.

Had a good Executive Meeting this afternoon - looking at how we're going to interact with the new planning round put in place following our University restructure. First task is to pull together all of our existing strategy documents and put them in a format which will be easy to understand and digest. A major task is to identify which KPIs (key performance indicators) we are going to use and report on. Lot of debate about what metrics to use, and how and who to benchmark with. For example, is a systems up time of 99.99%, or responding to phone queries in two hours a KPI? Or is that just us doing our job?

More later!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

"Is this where I get the Internet?"

This weekend several thousand new students arrive at the University, ready to start their courses and a new life in a new city. After they've got their keys to their room, unpacked their cases, the next thing they all want to do is connect their laptops to the internet. In order to do that they have to be registered with us to use the computing service, have a user name and password, and register their laptop on the network, once we're happy that its security and antivirus software is up to date. Teams of our staff have been working this weekend, some at the IC but mainly at the student village. The student village had a real party atmosphere - for once the sun has shone all weekend, and there was a BBQ, balloons, music, helpdesk, stalls and lots of current students in bright t-shirts helping the new arrivals.

We were registering students in the dining room, using our self authentication system on the banks of sun rays we've recently installed. It was hectic! Particularly this morning, as many students didn't arrive until late yesterday (traffic in parts of Sheffield was extremely slow moving!), so the queue had built up very early on, and didn't diminish for a lot of the day. The 10 or so staff we had there worked really hard, running a workshop for students who were having trouble getting their laptops to connect as well as dealing with all the other queries. A few interesting trends - nearly everyone came in asking "is this where I get the internet?" No concept that you use a computer for anything else. I didn't speak to anyone who had a stand alone PC - all had laptops. Big increase in the number of macs students were bringing. And, lots of questions about plugging other devices into the network point - especially Xboxes. Something we need to look at.

Well done everyone who was involved this weekend, and thanks.

Tomorrow we start University registration in earnest - fingers crossed for our new on line registration system!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Trust me, I’m a CIO

Gartner HE day at Salford University today - a good day. Always nice to mix with other CIOs and IT Directors and share experiences, issues and best practice. Today's discussions all centred around governance, including demonstrating the value of IT and using benchmarking techniques. The day was in three parts, with a presentation on a topic which then led into a round table discussion.

One of the things we concentrated on was how to interact with the governance structure of your institution, whatever it might be - and there were as many different models as there were Universities represented.

We talked about the importance of happy users, and managing user expectations. Someone suggested that the perfect form of governance is the enlightened dictatorship (I certainly agree with that ). Although even the most enlightened dictator eventually becomes corrupted by profit and power over time....

Complexity is an issue we need to get across - HE is a number of businesses - research, teaching, management, all with different needs, and the different cultures of the different academic disciplines also has to be factored in.

One of the main messages to come out about communicating with the governance structure was the famous KISS model - Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Suggestions included

Establish that IT matters - show how pervasive and critical it is, and how much funding it consumes
Do user satisfaction surveys
Benchmark yourself against other institutions
Use risk assessments – show what happens if services are not there
Need to balance project and service portfolios
Project portfolio needs to be managed strategically. New services have ongoing costs. Need therefore to manage that carefully – may not be costs in IT dept.
Talk about services not systems
Talk about performance.
Talk about business outcomes

Finally, be transparent, because transparency builds trust

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

more projects...

The other two projects we approved at our last Programme Board were an investigation into possible scanning solutions, which will underpin a number of our other projects including Document management, Student eFiles, and SAP. The other is a continuation of our work on resiliance and trying to improve the reliability of our core systems. It will involve the network aggregation centres being collapsed back to two switches in the main computer centres. Existing aggregation centres will become passive centres for fibre patching. As a second stage, each building may be connected to multiple passive aggregation centres via separate routes, in order to extend resilience to the individual building level.

Had a good meeting of our Innovative Communications project today, at which we agreed a way forward - under wraps at the moment beause of commercial sensitivity, so will post more about this later.

Have just travelled over to Manchester for a Gartner meeting tomorrow - it's one of the few train journeys where I don't do much work, but look out of the window at the wonderful scenery that the train takes you through. Of course, when I arrived it was raining....

Never mind, my hotel room has an iMac in it!


Sad day yesterday - John Hawley's funeral. Not much to say really - very sad affair, but good to see so many University staff, both past and present, there.

Lots of memories of him were swapped - including his habit of juggling coins in his pocket, his colourful language probably picked up from the building sites he worked on when he was an engineer, his ever open door and overflowing bowl of sweets, his awful Big Mouth Billy Bass fish which annoyed us so much, but amused him no end. It was a fitting send off to a wonderful man.

Monday, 15 September 2008

How many PCs do we have?

Approved 4 new projects at the Programme Board last week - good job we've closed a few recently.

The first caused the most discussion - the setting up of a University wide computer asset register. Now, some of you will say, what you haven't got one? You don't know how many computers you've got across the University and what sort they are? Whereas those of you who work in IT in Universities will know that mostly we have no clue! So, we are going to attempt to find out, and not just find out, but keep up to date with all of our purchases, disposals etc. Hmmm. It will be interesting.

Another project which will have huge University wide implications is the replacement of our current email and calendaring systems with a next generation product - I've mentioned before that the product we're looking at is Zimbra, and our recent proof of concept has not produced any technical reasons why we shouldn't push ahead with investigating rolling this out across the whole University - we may of course decide to target certain groups first, such as students. We can see many benefits to this, including the improvement to the existing web interface for mail, the replacement of Oracle Calendar, integration with MS Outlook, integration with mobile devices and the ability to push out calendaring information in a standard format. However, as Zimbra is owned by Yahoo, a major risk has to be the possible takeover of Yahoo by Microsoft and the consequent discontinuing of the product. We'll have to keep our eyes on this.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Customer Service

At our recent departmental meeting, we had another play with our voting handsets, this time looking at customer service, and trying to answer a few simple (!) questions.

If people experience bad customer service, how many people will they tell - 5, 8, or 10? Answer, 10
If people experience good customer service, how many people will they tell - 5, 8, or 10? Answer, 5
If 20 people experience bad customer service from you, how many of them will tell you - 1, 4, 15, 18? Answer, 1

Most people got the first couple right, but not the last one, where the majority went for 18 or 4.
We also asked people whether they though Customer Service was part of their job, and 86% did. We were a bit worried that 50% of our Executive team thought that Customer Service wasn't part of their job, until we looked closer at the results and realised that 8 people were voting as members of the exec - and there are only 4 of us! Thanks jokers, whoever you are (I have my suspicions...)

We're introducing a number of measures to improve customer service - not that we are in any way suggesting that it's particularly bad, but it's always good to get better. We also have to remember that we are customers as well, I want a happy, well motivated staff with good morale who enjoy their jobs. Some recent ideas include a virtual suggestions box, long service awards and departmental above and beyond awards - which were immediately christened ABBAs by the table to my right!

When your printer doesn't work, call cat technical support,

Printers can be very frustrating sometimes, but I'm not sure I'm impressed with the technical support being provided by this cat......

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Departmental Drama

The departmental meeting today was in the Drama Studio. Luckily the seats were out of the auditorium, so we were able to have tables and our customary pastries and fruit for breakfast. It was great.

The Drama Studio Manager gave us a very interesting talk about the history and current operation of the theatre. As you can tell from the picture, it used to be a church - Glossop Road Baptist Church to be exact. It was opened in 1871, and became the University Drama Studio in 1970.

Interestingly for a Baptist Church it was very ornate inside, as this picture shows.

Now it is a fully functioning theatre serving the needs of students doing our drama courses, the Student Union Theatre Society, and local amateur dramatic groups (including one I'm involved with - shameless plug here). It has modern sound and lighting systems, a recording studio, media server, rehearsal rooms, and a versatile auditorium that can be set out in a number of ways, including thrust, arena and cabaret style. It's a great asset to the University, and a number of our former students who've performed in it have gone on to do great things, including Stephen Daldry and Eddie Izzard.

Has the Hadron Collider destroyed the world yet?

I do like a useful and informative web site.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Mystery of the out of order PCs

We're in the middle of another internal audit at the minute, this time it's looking at Green IT, and is hopefully going to help us focus on those areas where we can make a difference. We've gone a long way with desktop PCs, but there's much more we can do at the server end, especially in power consumption and cooling of the data centres. Printing is another area where we can probably make some changes, especially by looking at where people print to - it's not always the most cost effective printer.

Executive team had a look at progress on a number of projects just about to come to fruition - on-line registration, webmail upgrade and the Office 2007 upgrade. Some going better than others, but all should be completed if not by the start of term, not long after.

We also had another look at our recent student satisfaction survey, as we've now got the full results, including the verbatim comments. They are always the most interesting bit, as often they explain where some of the scores came from. Sometimes they throw up things we can't explain, and we have to go and talk to them some more. This year for example there are a lot of comments about PCs being out of order, when we know they're not - are students carrying round out of order notices to reserve PCs? Unplugging them? I hope they haven't reverted to what they did a few years ago, unplugging the mouse and carrying it round with them until they get back to the PC. Full analysis still being done - further report to follow!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

John Hawley

Last night I was very sad to get the news that John Hawley, Deputy Director of our department, had died. He had been diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer last February and had been off work since then. Throughout the last few months John had remained cheerful and positive, and was an inspiration to all of us who had been in touch with him. Even when his son died in tragic circumstances a few weeks after his diagnosis, he kept his positive outlook.

John had worked at the University for 26 years, originally as a Systems Analyst in the Data Processing Unit and then as Director of Management and Administrative Computing Services. For the last 12 years he had worked closely with me as Deputy Director of CiCS. As well as his work within the department, John was always keen to play a full role in University life, and got involved in a number of areas, especially those relating to HR issues. John loved dealing with people - his door was literally always open, and anyone who called in could be guaranteed a good listener and a sympathetic ear.

I last saw him a week before his death, and was shocked and saddened to see how ill he was - he was obviously uncomfortable and in pain, but chatted for a good half hour, and his sense of humour was still there. He has been a tremendous support to me over the last few years, through difficult personal times as well as through changes at work, and I've missed him terribly over the last few months. Since the news went out to the University, I've had loads of messages from people about how much they liked and respected him and how much he will be missed, and I hope that this will be of some comfort to his friends and family.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Meetings, meetings

Phew - 2 full days of meetings, virtually back to back. Lots of stuff to think about. Yesterday was the formal presentation of our student satisfaction survey, which I've already mentioned. Nothing particularly new came up, and I will write a proper post about it when I've got all of the data, including the students' verbatim comments, which is usually where we learn the most.

An executive meeting discussed our recent IiP assessment, a staff information manual we're putting together about all aspects of departmental life, and an agenda for next week's departmental meeting.

Today a Business Continuity steering group talked again about how we manage incidents which happen out of hours, and in particular how we keep and access contact details of all relevant staff. Never easy.

This morning I co-presented a session to senior colleagues on our University Collaboration Programme where we were emphasising the importance of benefits realisation management.

At lunchtime I managed to spend about 20 minutes at the University Suppliers exhibition where we had 4 stands - IT, Transport Services, Printing Services and AV Services. it's a great way of meeting and interacting with our customers, and we always make sure we have plenty of freebies to give away to attract them to our stands. I must remember to clear my diary next year to spend longer there.

This afternoon was much more pleasant - showing a couple of colleagues from other institutions round the IC, and then discussing some aspects of our operation of different areas with them.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Shipping Forecast

As part of our preparation for implementing ITIL, we had an awareness session today for some of our senior managers. For most of the day we took part in a game - running a port! We all had different roles - port schedulers, service desk, infrastructure managers, finance mangers, service managers - and had to schedule ships of different sizes, cargos etc, into a port with different bays, cranes etc, whilst coping with a number of different incidents, ranging from crane failures to complete power failures and port closure. It was great fun! We were allocated roles by the facilitator, and I ended up as one of the service desk staff. Other interesting allocations included 3 of the current customer service team as back room infrastructure engineers. We played 4 rounds of the game, each lasting 24 minutes and after each round had to make a number of process improvements to improve our service, which was mainly measured on service uptime and profit.

The first round was rubbish - no proper processes, the service desk not communicating properly with the infrastructure team (and vice versa!), the schedulers not communicating with the service desk. We lost a fortune, and only had 44% up time! Gradually we made process changes, nominated proper communication channels, put in resilence, built in problem management and service continuity, and developed a knowledge base. By the end of round 4, we'd made a profit and got to 90% up time.

I said it was great fun, but we learnt an awful lot, and I think saw how ITIL could work in practice. I also found out how stressful it can be on a helpdesk!