Thursday, 17 December 2009

All change

What constitutes a change? That's a question we're wrestling with at the moment as we implement ITIL, and yesterday we had a meeting with our Process Managers to look at progress so far. As part of looking at change management , our Change Manager had carried out a data collection exercise in November where all staff had to log any change they made to an outward facing (ie live) system using a web form. They also had to assess the risk and the possible impact of the change.

Interesting results. A total of 2564 logged changes over 24 days ( so some were made at weekends). That's about 1 every 5 minutes on a working day. Lots of data collected, and some initial analysis has been done. Lots of discussion on what constitutes a system change, and what is a change to data - on the telephone system for example is moving an extension a change? maybe it's just a change to data, but it could have an effect on either a user or a group of users if it goes wrong.

The next step is to use the information we've collected to inform our thinking on what sort of change management and change approval process to put in place. I'm keen that we don't just implement the process as recommended by ITIL but that we do what works for us, and we'll have different processes for different sorts of changes - the 60 reported changes that had been assessed as high risk and with a high impact will be subject to a different process to the straightforward data changes. What's important is that everything follows an agreed process.

We also had a presentation from our Test Manager - test management being the process for reducing the risk of service failures when moving from development to production. There are many different ways of testing systems (even by releasing something and letting users test it which some software manufacturers have been know to use....). We know we have many different ways of doing things here - things like payroll we test almost to destruction before anything goes live, with other services we're much less stringent. Again, it's about getting an appropriate process in place.

Other presentations included progress on the service catalogue, and incident and problem management. Our incident management procedures are now well established for in-hours incidents, but we're currently reviewing out of hours ones.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Digital worlds

This morning's meeting between the University Executive Board and Heads of Department was mainly about research. As well as our PVC for Research and Innovation, we have Faculty Directors of Research and Innovation, and have newly appointed three cross cutting Directors of Research whose aim is to promote high quality research around particular themes. Each of the Directors gave a short presentation this morning on their particular theme which are:

The Digital World
Energy and the Environment
Health Care across the Disciplines

I was particularly looking forward to the Digital World theme as this is obviously an area where we can contribute. The Digital Britain report published earlier this year set the scene for the introduction of policies to maximise the social and economic benefits from digital technologies. and the Digital Region project is the first major regional deployment of 'Superfast Broadband' in the UK - in South Yorkshire. This theme is not just about the development and use of digital technologies, but about their impact on society. I'm looking forward to exploring how we can be involved.

The other two themes also have a high ICT component, particularly in terms of data handling, and we're meeting all 3 of the Directors soon to discuss how we can collaborate. Collaboration was a key message in all presentations - these are multisdisciplinary areas and the global challenges will only be met by teams working across tradiotnal boundaries. From our perspective, I hope that our new collaboration environment, uSpace will be useful in facilitating some of that.

Programmes and Projects

Lots of meetings yesterday - is there such a thing as a pre-Christmas meeting rush? First was with the Faculty of Arts and was one of our strategic liaison meetings. Discussion was around our main service areas - support for learning and teaching, research and communication and collaboration. We identified some priorities for further work and discussion, including the area of space utilisation and timetabling. They offer many degree programmes, with a high number of dual degrees, and finding enough space and with the right equipment is an issue for them. Currently we have a timetabler in each department, and the rather sophisticated software we have is used mainly as a room allocation system. At our Programme Board meeting yesterday we agreed to establish a new project to look at moving to a more central timetabling system, using more of the software's functionality to improve the utilisation of our estate. This links in with a number of University initiatives, including the carbon reduction one.

Also at the Programme Board we approved another new project, to review our portal. We've had a staff and student portal for some years as part of our strategy to make everything available over the web, and the time has come to review it. Lots of preparatory work already done, so now we need to make a decision on the way forward.

Following our Departmental Programme Board we had a meeting of the University Collaboration Improvement Programme Board where we had a very interesting discussion on whether Universities encouraged and rewarded collaboration, and how important it is to break down silo mentality. The latter is particularly important in times of financial difficulty - it's very easy to become very protectionist, but that won't get us anywhere - except into more difficulty.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Google Goggles

Those guys at Google are putting some interesting things out at the moment. Real time searching was released on Monday and finds real time updates from news feeds, blogs and twitter, displayed as part of your regular results page. If you leave the search page open, it continuously updates. Used it a couple of times and it's rather good.

Then they announced Google Goggles - a new way of searching using pictures. Currently only available on phones running Google's Android OS but soon to be released on other platforms (hopefully iPhone next....), you can take a picture on your phone and Google will return search information back to you about whatever it is you've snapped. Released at the moment in beta, it currently supports photo-based searching for books, DVDs, landmarks, logos, contact info, artwork, businesses, products, barcodes, and plain text. You can use it to take a picture of a label on a bottle of wine and get info back about the vineyard, or take a picture of a piece of art and find out what it is. I can't wait to try it - first reports are that it's impressive. There's Google's own video below, or you can go to YouTube where there's lots of examples of it being tested with some very good results and some not so good, mainly on those things that Google have admitted they're still working on.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Today I went to a meeting of the University Equality and Diversity Board. I enjoy these meetings - the University has a very active diversity agenda, and reviews all departments and services on a regular basis - it was our turn earlier this year. Today, one of the main items of discussion was the introduction of Equality Impact Assessments which we will be doing on all new policies and services from the New Year. I think it will throw up some interesting issues. For example, one of the questions that will have to be asked is "does this policy/service exclude any group". Well, many of the services we in CiCS offer exclude a large proportion of University staff - those who are not routinely given a computer account. These are mainly staff who work in jobs such as cleaning, catering, and to some extent portering and other similar jobs. They often work part time, and don't routinely have access to a computer in their work environment. Consequently, different measures have to be put in place to make sure they are included, for example in corporate communications. Most of us are used to instant communication via email, but it can take days in these areas to make sure the message has got through to everyone.

But, even if there isn't access to a PC in their immediate vicinity during their working hours, some staff have access to a computer at home, or can access the internet via any of our student machines. We can also look at putting more web-kiosks out closer to where they work. So, one thing we have agreed to do is issue all of these staff with a computer account and email address, and provide focused induction and training. It won't solve the problem completely, but will provide a partial solution.

It will be interesting to see what else these EIAs turn up.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Plus ça change....

We had a Service Quality Team meeting today - the group that oversees our Service Level Agreements - always a useful meeting and today we spent some time looking a the results of our staff and student surveys which we've carried out this year. Always easy to focus on where we've not done well and need to make improvements, but we also need to celebrate those areas where we perform well and get positive comments.

A hot topic at the moment is how we are going to deal with increasing financial constraints - how can we not just maintain service levels but innovate as well. The only way is by a controlled reduction in service in some areas to protect others, and today we discussed the effects of recent budget reductions and possible consequences at length.

I have been around long enough to remember many periods of financial pressure, and was reminded the other day that nothing is new. Does this sound familiar?

Meanwhile the financial question is a very serious one for all Universities at the present time, and all possible means of retrenchment are being considered. The Vice Chancellor of Leeds went so far as to say in July that he would not lay heavy odds on the survival of Sheffield or Leeds University.

That was taken from Floreamus, the Sheffield University magazine, in 1921, and sent from the VC's Office to the Director of Finance in 1988 with a note saying "things have always been desperate".

I'm pleased to say however that there was a note of optimism even then as the article finished with:

Our own Vice Chancellor refuses to be so despondent. He told an interviewer: "I am more hopeful; I believe as long as these Universities are fulfilling their purpose, they will get plenty of support". We have little doubt that this optimism will be justified.

Thanks to Matt, our records manager for unearthing this.

Friday, 4 December 2009

HESA, JANET, UCISA and other acronyms

Yesterday I spent the day chairing the UCISA Executive meeting in London. Two interesting discussions, the first on the proposed changes to the way JANET delivers our network services at the regional level. I've blogged about this before, and it is still rumbling on. There is still a lot of concern in the community about the proposals, especially around how some of the additional services provided by the current MANs will continue. I took part in a meeting some weeks ago with the Chief Executive of JANET where we outlined some of the communities concerns - I felt it was a positive and productive meeting, and we did get a response - both the concerns and the reply are here. Since then JANET has produced a white paper which provides a lot more information on the rationale behind the proposed changes and the intial outcomes of the consultation. We agreed at the UCISA meeting yesterday that we need to look forward, and make sure that we get the best possible service for our members, whilst protecting our costs.

The other major discussion was with the recently appointed Chief Executive of HESA. Alison Allden. As a former IT Director and a Director of Information Services, Alison is one of us, and it's great to have her in this post. She outlined her vision and some of the issues facing the sector in the area of information collection and management, and we had some questions for her. Many of the issues which Alison had identified were the same as we had, so there's a lot of common thinking. We covered HESA's relationship with our institutions as well as its relationship with its statutory customers - the funding councils. Interestingly when I asked people here what issues they wanted raising, most were around amount of data being collected, the detail of the data and some of the data definitions - all of which are actually set by the funding councils, not HESA. There was a concern on both sides of the amount of returns we have to do, and why HESA can't collect it all, to a common set of standards and then reuse it. A very useful discussion and I'm optimistic that UCISA and HESA will be able to work together to iron out some of the issues to benefit us both.

The other major topic was our Annual Conference - the place to be next March. Bookings have just opened, the programme is looking good, and it's in Harrogate. What more could you want?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sheffield Made Us

The Sheffield Made Us competition asked students to shoot a short film asking students to demonstrate how their time at Sheffield - the University and the City - had helped to define the person they are today.

The winner has just been announced - Pól Gallagher from the School of Architecture and you can watch his winning entry below - I like it, and the IC has a cameo role!