Friday, 27 February 2009

Beware the blog post that bites you...

A few days ago the Chief Executive of CILIP (the Chartered institute of Library and Information Professionals) posted a blog entry about Twitter. I suspect he rather wished he hadn't now. In it he rather arrogantly (in my view) suggested that social networking sites like Twitter had no place in "official" activity or communication, and that only interaction which took place in CILIP-sanctioned spaces (whatever they are) had any merit. Another blogger, Phil Bradley, posted a response, putting some very strong arguments against this view. Suddenly, the debate is all over Twitter - and people are already commenting that perhaps information professionals should be able to spot the potential reputational damage that can be caused by such posts. It didn't help that the CILIP blog only allowed members to comment, and only then after they had gone through a complex log-in process, such that some technically literate potential commenters couldn't figure out how to do it.

My personal view? He is so wrong. We have to embrace new technologies or we will never move forward - we have a departmental presence on Twitter, and an Information Commons one. A University one will follow soon. I don't mind who comments on this blog - comments are currently unmoderated (although I reserve the right to turn moderation on if I get hit by spammers). The days when we could control the way information was communicated have long gone - as this has proved. If you're not involved, then you're not stopping it happening - you're just not part of it, and will get left behind.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Learning Hub

Some time ago I wrote about the Learning Hub - a project to convert the Edwardian Block of the Jessop Hospital into teaching and student support space. The project was mothballed for a few months whilst the University considered its capital programme, but was recently was given the go-ahead to continue.

Today I went to the first meeting of the Project Executive Group, and it was just like old times, in the design phase of the Information Commons. The architects are the same (RMJM), which is great as they did such a good job on the IC, and understand how the University works and what we need. The building will bring together academic student support including the Modern Languages teaching labs, English Language labs, and will provide much needed teaching space, especially seminar rooms and flexible classrooms. Being just across the road from the IC we need to make sure the buildings operate in a complimentary way, and we will be looking at how we can manage them to give the best possible student experience. CiCS is becoming more involved with managing teaching space - we already look after timetabling, the booking of rooms and the IT and AV infrastructure , and we will be heavily involved in the design of this new space - it will be an exciting addition to our facilities.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Facebook Causes Cancer, and other fairy stories

I'm following an interesting debate at the moment - does an increased use of social networking sites increase loneliness, which in turn can cause an increased risk of illness. Neatly summed up by the Daily Mail headline - Facebook Causes Cancer. As a user of such sites I obviously have an interest in this topic.

As well as the Facebook Causes Cancer story, the Daily Mail also ran with something as sensational - Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist. This was based on statements by the Head of the Royal Institution, Professor Susan Greenfield that excessive sitting in front of a computer screen using social networking sites could "rewire the brain".

Ben Goldacre from appeared on Newsnight last night to argue against this theory, and that put forward by Dr Aric Sigman that loneliness affects your immune system, social networking makes you lonely, therefore - you can fill in the rest. Ben's blog contains a link to the Newsnight programme - watch out for Ben's facial expressions during Dr Aric's statements - very funny. Immediately after the programme Ben posted a load of references which do not support Dr Sigman's theory, which he had conveniently ignored.

I'm not an expert on Neuroscience, or Psychology, but I've done a PhD and 3 years post-doc work in a biological science, and I do understand the basic principles of scientific research. Cherry picking evidence to support your theory does not appear in them!

The Guardian technology blog has picked up the story this morning and quotes Age Concern extolling the social and health benefits of social networking for older people.

But my favourite post on the topic is this one, and I look forward to the More Fur, Less Facebook campaign.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Helping the local economy

This morning I attended a Heads of Department meeting with the University Executive Board. One of the items we discussed was the effect of the current financial situation not only on the University, but also on the local economy, and we had a breakout session where we discussed ways in which the University could help local businesses during this difficult time. Some things are obvious - pay our bills on time, use local businesses/suppliers wherever possible. Offer work placements, putting our students into local business to solve local issues - helps students with their CVs and employability as well. We also looked at ways of making it easier for local businesses to navigate their way round the list of University contacts - hard enough at times for those of us on the inside. Encouraging students to drink more (they certainly do their bit to support the local economy at weekends) we thought was something we shouldn't be doing!

Diversity, part 2

Today we had our scrutiny by the Equality and Diversity Board, as I posted about last week. Went very well - lots of positive comments, but some areas to think about as well. We were asked a lot about our departmental culture, and this is something we're working on at the moment - last year we did a lot of work on our vision, our strategies and our objectives. Now we are going to look at our values - I hope to have some more world cafe events over the next few weeks so that we can explore these and some of the other diversity issues that were raised, further.

I thought it might be useful to share the conclusion from our paper to the Board with you:

"CiCS departmental culture has always been based on understanding needs and applying skills and technology to the solution of other people’s problems and we have a positive approach to Equality and Diversity. We aim to present ourselves as a willing and helpful resource to the whole University and beyond. Our customer surveys are beginning to tell us whether that is indeed how we are perceived and we will continue to use the results to inform improvements.

Our culture is changing towards a more pro-active approach, ie to recognise and, where appropriate, to provide for the needs of diverse groups rather than waiting for them to appear. This applies particularly to our customers but also to staff and of course a positive approach in each area reinforces the other.

Culture change is achieved when a clear direction from the top is expressed through specific, consistent and visible actions, measuring changes where possible. We will continue to develop awareness across the department by giving a clear lead, encouraging all staff to use the thought-provoking on-line training materials and other training opportunities and by encouraging discussion of, and action on, specific issues. We welcome discussion of our performance. "

I'd be more than happy to receive any comments people have on this.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Future's mobile

Had a great session yesterday looking at future mobile and wireless developments with Gartner Analyst Nick Jones. Very interesting - and lots of things to think about as we continue to develop our strategy in this area. The sheer number of mobile phones being shipped at the moment - and their variety - makes application development for them and support a challenge. There are several models. Corporate - everyone given the same device, which are fully supported. So you get access to corporate applications and good support, but no flexibility. Or you can go for appliance support - everyone can use what device they want, and they accept a lower level of support and access to fewer applications. The third is of course is you can have what you want - but at a price!

Wireless changes will give us a number of challenges, particularly the move to 802.11n standard, which is not an upgrade but will require new access points. Lots of exciting developments on the cards as speeds get faster, and Bluetooth develops. Low-energy Bluetooth which will be available in the next two years will enable Bluetooth technology to be used on devices that require less energy than mobile phones or PCs, such as watches and heart-rate monitors. So, when someone rings your phone, you'll be able to look at your watch to see who's calling.

There'll also be a high-speed Bluetooth which will enable us to zap data around our devices - for example mp3 files from a PC to a phone, or bulk downloads of pictures quickly from a digital camera to a computer.

There's also some great little projectors under development - pico projectors - which will eventually be embedded in mobile devices - great for projecting your small display onto a table or a presentation onto a wall.

Lots of other interesting things on the horizon - flexible screens, location and presence awareness and mobile web.

There's a recent Gartner report on technologies to watch which is summarised here. If you want to read the full report (and you're at Sheffield Uni), you can look at it through the Gartner Research Channel in MUSE.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Systems v services

How do we get the maximum business benefit from our systems? That was the question I posed to a Gartner analyst this morning. Well, of course the first mistake I made was to talk about systems, and not services. I knew I'd made that mistake as soon as I'd said it! We had a very good discussion after that, with some good suggestions. One was that we establish a Good Practice Council - not specifically looking at IT, but a place where staff can exchange ideas about how they do things, and the most efficient way of doing business. Use of IT systems (services!) should come out of that. And the other important consideration is that this shouldn't be run by us - the IT department. We should be members, but our role is to facilitate, not to drive.

One of the other areas we discussed was what makes a good service - is it efficiency, or cost effectiveness, or that it's customer focused? Definitely the latter!

Look at this for a Plasma Screen

A certain person in the Executive Team has been nagging me to get a giant plasma screen in my office for a while now. Well, I've finally found one I want - can someone order it for me please

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Outsourcing email to Google

This morning's session looked at one University's experience of outsourcing their student email service to Google. Very good session - lots of questions, reflecting the interest in the sector. Overall the implementation had gone very well - the technological side had been a success, and overall student satisfaction was high, particularly as all students got 2Gb storage, and access to Google calendar. However there were issues, and it wasn't all plain sailing. I was quite disappointed that some of the issues identified when I attended a presentation at EDUCAUSE last year still hadn't been satisfactorily addressed. Change control is a particular problem with Google releasing updates and changes with no notice at all - students finding out about them before the University did. In some cases instructions for using the service were rendered useless, and in one case the service was lost as the integration with the University Directory service was broken. But, overall the service was much improved on what was being offered before.

It is something we need to consider carefully - isn't student email now just a commodity? Why are we running a service which can be provided free of charge by a service provider? All students come to us with an email address now anyway, and we can't give them the storage they want and which Google can give them. Issues we will be looking at carefully as we decide whether to roll out Zimbra mail and calendar to all members of the University, or roll it out to staff only and go with Google for students.

Will any University be running an email service at all in 5 years time?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Influencing and the financial climate

Arrived in Edinburgh in time for lunch - free wifi on train too slow so used USB modem instead.
Good first day. Had a very thought provoking discussion on the financial climate and how it's affecting the University sector. Basically the challenges are:
  • Income from the funding councils – there won't be as much of it
  • Income from Research Councils - there won't be as much of it
  • Student expectations, especially the relatively poor performance of Russell Group Universities in the NSS affecting our reputation through the league tables which are particularly important in overseas recruitment. General consensus that the Russell Group has been too concerned with research to the detriment of teaching.
  • Cost pressures on pay, pensions, and utilities.
  • The need for a quality infrastructure - IT, buildings, equipment, library.
  • Internationalisation and increased competition.
So, faced with these financial challenges, we will have to do more for less. What will the role of IT be in this and how can IT help? Some suggestions:
  • Improve the efficiency of academic processes through IT
  • Sharing best practice in the use of IT
  • Business change through application of IT
  • Building an e-Infrastructure
The next session followed on nicely and we discussed how we can influence our Executive Boards - particularly when we might be looking for an investment in IT in order to bring about business improvements which could lead to cost savings. We looked at how best to demonstrate benefits of projects, and how to measure them afterwards. Who are the key people to influence, and what is the role of the CIO. Interesting discussion about KPIs and what the best ones are. Rather than just metrics, some are looking at a more narrative type approach, along the lines of what does IT help the University do, and what couldn't it do without us.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Are we diverse enough?

In a week's time I'll be in front of the University Equality and Diversity Board, explaining how we as a department ensure that the University's Equality and Diversity policies are being proactively implemented. As a service department there are two aspects to this - one is in terms of looking after the staff in the department and ensuring that we have a culture where equality and diversity is celebrated. The other is looking at the services we provide and making sure that they are accessible and suitable for all. Spent most of the end of last week finalising the report that will go to the Board - we have a good story to tell in most areas, especially in the provision of services. We have put a lot of effort into accessibility issues for the web site, the Information Commons is totally accessible and open 24*7, and we provide Diversity and Cultural Awareness training for staff. But is difficult to know whether we could do more internally - I believe that we do have a department where everyone is treated equally and diversty flourishes, but responses to a recent staff survey implies that not all staff feel as positive. This is one of the areas we are working with the different staff groups in the department to find out how this can be improved. I will know more after the Board has scrutinised me and our report!

Off to the RUGIT two day meeting in Edinburgh tomorrow where we'll be looking at the Financial outlook for Univeristies, and sharing experiences about some of our recent issues, including outsourcing student eMail to Google.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

10 Gb Ley Lines?

The day started early with a presentation from the CIO from the Ministry of Justice on "Aligning IT Strategy to the business needs of the organisation". What does the Ministry of Justice do, you might ask yourself (I did). Well it runs the prisons for one thing, and the courts and the probation service.... So, a bigish, fairly complex organisation with over 80,000 employees and 2,700 buildings. Interesting to hear his take on what makes an IT Strategy successful. His view was that the reason so many IT projects fail is that they are not well managed - the objectives and benefits are not identified at the beginning, they suffer from scope creep, and they are too big. Although the big picture is needed for the strategy, delivery needs to be in small chunks. A project that's going to take time to deliver will not work - both the technology and the needs will have changed before it is completed.

The rest of the day was spent in round table discussions on a variety of topics. Two of mine were on remote and flexible working, and on equipping the mobile worker. As it was a public sector forum and I found myself on tables with a large number of CIOs from Local Authorities, much of the discussion was about security. Most only permitted totally locked down laptops, usually encrypted, no access to work emails or files on home PCs, encryption software on mobile devices including Blackberries. Very little concept of web based services access through a portal - they nearly all rely on client based access to systems but some are starting to investigate thin clients. Almost without exception totally Microsoft based - I was even asked what IMAP was when I explained that's how I access email on my iPhone. Everything standard - you can't use what device you want, just what the IT department tells you you can. No concept of using social networking tools at all. Obviously some of these organisations are handling data much more sensitive than anything we have, the concept of IT being a facilitator not an inhibitor didn't exactly come across. Most totally encrypted laptops were unusable, and many people reported the use of encrypted memory sticks where the user had forgotten the password making the data inaccessible to anyone. There is obviously a balance between usability, security and risk which we all have to consider taking into account what data we are handling. I was quite impressed with the fingerprint recognition on the new Sony Laptops - shame it's not available more widely.

As I said yesterday, it's great to get out of the sector, and look at the way others work. Had a really funny discussion with the CIO of English Heritage about networking Stonehenge, and what the bandwidth of Ley Lines might be....

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Shepherd and the Porsche

At a CIO event in London at the moment for the public sector - lots of people from the NHS, Local Government, the Met Office, Schools and Colleges etc. Always like these events - nice to get out of the Education sector for a while.

Evening started very well with a presentation from the CIO from Transport for London. And yes, somebody did mention the buses stopping last week! He has a varied job - from running the tube system, the buses and every traffic light in London, to the technology behind the Oyster card and the congestion charge. Over 1 billion people use the Tube each year - talk about a customer base! Fascinating talk, and so much of what he said could be applied to our own organisation. He had some good quotes - from a German book on project management - "if at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried". And one of my favourite stories about management consultants which some of you will have heard before but it merits repeating:

"Once upon a time there was a shepherd looking after his sheep on the side of a deserted road. Suddenly a brand new Porsche screeches to a halt. The driver, dressed in an Armani suit, gets out and asks the shepherd:“If I can tell you how many sheep you have, will you give me one of them?” The shepherd looks at the young man, and then looks at the large flock of grazing sheep and replies "OK".

The young man parks the car, connects his laptop to the mobile-fax, enters a NASA Webster, scans the ground using his GPS, opens a database and 60 Excel tables filled withl ogarithms and pivot tables, then prints out a 10 page report on his high-tech mini-printer. He turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep here.”

The shepherd agrees and says that the man can have his sheep. The young man makes his pick and puts it in the back of his Porsche.

The shepherd looks at him and asks "If I guess your profession can I have my animal back. and the young man says, “Yes, why not”.

The shepherd says, "You're a Management consultant".How did you know?” asks the surprised young man.

“Very simple,” answers the shepherd. "First you came here without being asked, and then you charged me a fee to tell me something I already know. You also know nothing about the business. Now, can I have my dog back".

He has made tremendous changes in the organisation, and his main message was that change comes from good leadership, and by focusing on the people, not the technology.

Now, I have to go to bed as my first session starts at 8.30 tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

All the way to Galway

I've been invited to speak at IUISC - the Irish Universities Information Systems Colloquium Conference - in a few weeks time. The theme of the conference is the changing service environment, and I'm going to be talking about the changing way we offer services to students, including the Information Commons. The Conference is being held in Galway, and it 's slightly ironic really. I've never been to that part of Ireland, despite the fact that my Dad's family is from Ennis in County Clare which is not too far away. The last time I planned to go there was a few years ago when the IC was in it's final plannning stages. The architects had suggested cladding it in pre-patinated copper, and there was a lot of nervousness about - what would a bright green building look like? How would it weather and last? We were used to much more conservative buildings. So, the architects wanted to show us something similar -the Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology Learning Resource Centre had magnificent green "sails", and it was agreed that a small group would go and see it. I was in a car just pulling into Luton airport when my phone rang - it was the Registrar telling me that the funding for the project had been stopped, and I should get back to Sheffield asap. So, I never got there. But, a review was carried out, funding was agreed again, and the rest is history. At last I shall have the opportunity to see the award winning building - and tell them about ours.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Fact or Fiction

And still it snows. Oh well, it's testing our remote working systems at least. Living only 2 minutes walk from my office, my journey to work in the snow is simple - I barely have time to get cold, or even wake up. But many people have walked considerable distances to get in, or sat on buses for ages, or driven their cars despite the weather and the lunatic driving of some people on the roads. Very reassuring and much appreciated.

Spent some of yesterday writing "the day in the life of" story about a member of staff how they might be working in 5 years time, following on from Tuesday's workshop. Bit difficult to judge. Not sure if I've gone over the top or not far enough. For instance - will any of these short excerpts from it be mainstream in the next 5 years?

Chris arrives at work, the door opening to let her through because of the RFID chip in her smart card. As she walks through the building her iPhone connects to the wireless network and is automatically updated with the latest news and events from the University and the plasma screen on the wall updates to show she’s in the building. She sits down in her flexible working space, and her computer switches itself on, having powered down automatically the previous evening to conserve energy. It greets her, having recognized her using biometric data. “What am I doing today?” she asks as she takes off her coat, and the computer tells her what meetings she has, and where they are. .....

She sits down at the large flat screen and touches it, bringing up her desk top - there’s no need to log in because of the biometric technology. Another touch and she has her in-box open which contains one or two messages, details of her voice mails and the items she needs to approve. She touches the voicemails and listens to them – she has no desktop phone .....

There’s a deadline coming up for a report, and to complete it Chris needs some management information. She touches the uGoogle icon on her desktop and activates the voice recognition system. “I want to know the country of origin of all International students admitted in the last 3 years” she says, and the results are displayed. She touches the download button, and the figures are downloaded into the analysis software on her computer.....

There’s a quiet ping, and a request for a video chat with Rosie appears on her screen. Chris touches accept, and Rosie’s face appears. They have a brief chat about their paper, agree it can be published, comment on the snow which is falling outside, and sign off.....

Back at her desk, her computer reminds her she has a meeting in 10 minutes, and tells her what room it’s in and what papers are available. On her way to the meeting, Chris's iPhone vibrates to notify her that a colleague is nearby. As she takes the iPhone out of her pocket, the screen displays a small map showing the relative locations of herself and the colleague who is labelled as 'John M'......

During the meeting the key points from each paper are displayed on the plasma screen, and the participants can read them on their portable devices (phones, laptops or electronic paper ). Nothing is printed.......

And finally on my wish list:

It’s now time to go home .......and her networked fridge and ice dispenser begin mixing the perfect gin and tonic which will be waiting for her as she walks though her front door

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Five years hence

How do we want to collaborate in 5 years time? What do we do now that we could be doing better then? What aren't we doing now that we should or could be doing then? These are some the questions I posed to a small focus group this morning to help me write a blue print for our Collaboration Improvement Project. This will be in the form of a story - a "day in the life of" - which will describe how someone in the Professional Support Services spends a working day. There are other such vignettes being prepared for academic staff and students. Should be interesting to see how much overlap, or not, there is.

Some great ideas came out. To start with many of them were not about technology, but about changes in culture or changes to business processes. Or just changes.

So, what technology changes do people want? Fewer but more focused and targeted information sources. Few thought that email would still be with us in 5 years time, or if was, it would not be the primary way of communicating. Systems that know who we are (no more logging in), and knew what information we needed, what we were doing, and where we needed to be. Good voice recognition so that we could get rid of keyboards. Ubiquitous desktop video-conferencing. Everything available through one interface - on mobile devices as well as desktops. Electronic paper so we could stop printing. Location and presence awareness on all devices.

None of it rocket science, and most of it already available - but we have a real challenge to get it all rolled out.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Let it snow....

So, snow. Lots of it. And still coming down. I am old enough to remember when this happened at least a couple of times every winter - and still the same questions being asked. Do we come to work, can we leave early, how long will it take to get home, will the University be open tomorrow, do I have to turn up for my exam?

I love it - but then I haven't got to get anywhere, and can walk to work in 2 minutes. I miss sledging with the kids though.

Last Friday had a meeting to look at how to take forward our CRM project. It's become much bigger than just CRM and is looking at the whole student experience.

We went live with our CRM system for prospective students in July 06, and we handle all enquiries, application processing, open day management and campus tour management through it. It is well used and liked, and we need to build on its success and expand to cover all students and alumni, not just applicants. We're looking to build systems which put the student at the heart of them, and change the culture so that interactions are simple, seamless, and streamlined. Eventually we'll have a single view of student information through our portal for staff and students. We've already done a lot of work on this but need to pull information from different systems together and make some changes to business processes.

Had a very good joint meeting with library colleagues this lunchtime to look at research data management, and how we can work together to provide a service to researchers. Both services have a role to play - CiCS in providing storage capacity, back up, disaster recovery, technical advice, etc, and the library on the management of the data, especially in terms of data curation. The UKRDS feasibility study will be published soon and we look forward to implementing its recommendations.

And interestingly given my opening paragraph, writing this blog post was interrupted to get a message on the University Home page and send mails to staff and students about arrangements for opening the University and exams tomorrow!