Monday, 13 September 2010

No longer the gatekeepers....

A couple of months ago I found myself presenting at a number of confereces - the theme seemed to be the same at all of them - what challenges are we facing as a sector, and how they might they shape the future of IT departments. Last Friday I repeated the talk, this time to the department.  All staff were invited, although it was particularly relevant for the IT staff. Always interesting to see who turns up (or rather, who doesn't - I wonder if it's the same people who claim not to know what's going on and we don't communicate enough...).

I'm not going to repeat everything I said - anyone interested can watch it here. But my conclusions were that we have to become more flexible and agile -  the days of the two year project are gone, we need to be thinking of development time in months or weeks. We need to simplify things and help the University become more efficient, and look at different service delivery models. Outsourcing, out-hosting, shared services - all need to be carefully considered so that we can focus our resources on supporting the University's key business objectives of teaching and research. This might need us to make some hard decisions, and in some cases reduce service levels or stop doing things completely. No longer the gatekeepers of information, we need to facilitate, help and educate our users to get the best out of systems and services we provide as well as those provided by others.

And we must continue to innovate - some might ask if we can afford to in these times of financial constraint, but I would argue that we can't afford not to. We will die as IT departments if we don't - we can't afford just to keep the lights on, we have to find new ways of doing things. It's all about getting the balance right, and deciding where resources should go.


diharrison said...

Spot on Chris!

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine,

How to you complete the problem of generating shared services efficiencies,with central IT departments no longer being the gate keepers ?

Lets say departments don't like CIS, our student system, so they have started developing their own, these cost time, resources and effort to support by departments.

This means departments having to allow staff time to do this.

But a centrally managed services supported by staff close to the business, being available to ALL departments is more efficient to the university than 1 person in each department looking after the departments systems even though nominally that model of resourcing looks cheaper.

And a centrally managed service looks awfully expensive, until you distribute the cost.

The problem with using full economic based costing for departmental systems run by cics, is that there is no 'benefits' or potential other business cases, all it does it look at just base line costs.

For the university as a whole, whats more efficient ? 2/3 people maintaining a university wide heavily used system such as CIS etc or numerous
departments employing there own system admins etc.

Its quite nobel and easy to say 'we aren't the gate keepers' anymore, but the university has to be very careful as an organization.

If we don't manage and own central information critical to the running of the university, that could end up costing departments money.

The more efficient and slick our businesses processes, the more time staff have to devote to teaching and resources.

Its a difficult situation.

Were not gatekeepers to the "Internet" anymore and we have to allow our core functional information to be accessed from any device anywhere, but making corporate information available anywhere to any device, is very challenging, and requires management, understanding, and control of that data, centrally, though the departments can own their own information on a local level, but but within a central repository.

We currently processes 10,000 invoices a month for example,

Whats more efficient ?

A central Payments department or multiple people in multiple departments all doing similar jobs on differing custom written systems ?

But that following model model looks cheaper when your just base lining the costs of a central service.

What im trying to ask is how you marr up the dichotomies of the drive for efficiencies, common businesses processes to enable time for Teaching & research,with not being the gate keepers of the information necessary to facilitate such a process, and improve the university as a whole.

James Ibbotson

Anonymous said...

Third attempt at posting this. Google and named posts both failed...

Our purchasing system (17:38) has additional complexity which requires the half day training:

-At Tesco you buy from one vendor. Out purchasing system has to handle hundreds (a possibility for rationalisation?).

-At Tesco you buy from a single account. Our purchasing system has to handle a mix of internal and external funding (e.g. research accounts)

-At Tesco you spend your own money. At work you spend the University's money so the system requires segregation of duties to prevent abuse. e.g. approval

-Our purchasing system reserves funds against purchases (commitment accounting) to prevent two people spending the same amount of money twice etc.

The other key benefit was to rationalize purchasing across the University into a single system instead of disparate departmental systems and processes. This has resulted in a lot of time spent by Finance but should result in better/more consistent processes in the long run.

How much do Tesco spend on their systems? Is it more than we can afford and if so is it a reasonable expectation?

We bought just prior to the vendor releasing their next version of the product and they've release two more since. We currently in the process of updating to the latest version which has a customizable user interface which will improve usability.

Finally "SAP bashing" (18:24) just undermines confidence in the system. People don't hear "the user interface is bad" they hear "the system is rubbish".

George Credland

Anonymous said...

With regard to investment in technology.

This is spend on IT.

Without piecing together several articles, this may give you an idea of how much Amazon spends on technology to operate their Website.

Amazon, one of the oldest Web survivors, spent $451 million on technology...
Wall Street Journal - Mar 7, 2006

If you let the developers in CICS have 200 million quid to write software and customize our existing ones, we will easily be able to deliver systems comparable to commercial sites.

Amazon have invested more in their website than the University of Sheffield receives in money EACH Year, Tesco spends similar amounts as do apple and other major web organizations.

The comparisons are inherently unfair

Anonymous said...

Well done Chris - as I've said before, I'd love to work in an IT department where you were the Director. Wish more thought like you!

Will be interested to see your answers to the posts above - defensive techies in your dept maybe??


Anonymous said...

"defensive techies in your dept maybe??"

If a stereotype were to be used, that would be the one.

The criticism relates to a single aspect of the presentation, rather than to Chris.

It really boils down to looking at the full picture of costs and benefits rather than focusing on one particular aspect.


Chris Sexton said...

Hi Folks. Thanks for comments - I welcome all of them, whether they agree with me or not. Happy to engage in debate. Will try and answer/give my opinion on points raised during the day.

Anonymous said...

I thought I may as well put my comments/thoughts out there.

Rather than mention what has already been discussed about corporate information, in terms of my day to day role where I only use SAP and CIS a small/tiny amount, I thought Id mention CiCS as a gatekeeper to other systems as this personally impacts me more.

I use a whole host of systems/services not produced by CiCS, these include things like;

I have different reasons for using each of the services, and a chunk of it revolves around interacting with people outside of the University.

The fact I can use these and not be restricted to what can be provided by CiCS makes me more efficient.

I agree with Christines blog that we need to start thinking about how we can inform others what benefit can be gained by using some of the services out there which aren't and can't be provided by CiCS

Rob Needham

James Hargrave said...

I didn't read into the "not gatekeepers" comment the suggestion that central IT departments shouldn't provide central services such as finance, HR, student records. Clearly they should for just the reasons you mention and a host of others.

I take the gatekeeper comment to apply in other areas. A central IT department might control the HR system but it won't control all the PCs, phones and other devices users might buy (even with tight control of purchasing as many of these will be personally owned). It also won't control the services people use.

If academic staff don't think you offer enough email storage and use Gmail you can't prevent this. If large numbers of students decide they want to buy Mac laptops what are you going to do? If everyone starts using Dropbox what then?

Partly it is about offering services that meet business needs. Email that has enough storage etc but I don't think for all the other reasons identified (ie that a University IT department doesn't have Amazon's budget) that it can all be done in house.

Shared services might help but again I don't think will provide the complete answer so more of what is done might need to be signposting and supporting services provided by others wither bought in or "free services". This will mean the end of "that's nothing to do with us...we don't run that...don't ask us if you want to use that...we don't support that" etc etc

But if central IT is to to survive it must add more business value than it costs especially in the age of so much IT services being commodity products now. I strongly feel there is a place for a central IT department that runs some services, buys and manages others and supports end users but this isn't the same as a "gatekeeper" and any attempt to hang onto that kind of idea could be the beginning of the end.

Central IT adds value by its knowledge of the business and in HE this is no trivial thing. Universities are complicated and difficult for outside organisations to deal with. A cross between a small town a collection of small and large colleges often competing rather than co-operating with diverse stakeholders ranging from business professionals to relatively young students. I feel we have a long and assured future so long as we don't loose sight of what we are there for. Universities aren't IT shops, we're there to support the people who provide and engage in teaching, learning and research.

Chris Sexton said...

Been out of the office a lot so not had time to answer comments properly - will try now.

First the one about interfaces. I was very clear that I wasn't talking about ones we had developed - I was using it to demonstrate that some of our software suppliers haven't kept up with the market and demand. Investment in technology really isn't an issue, because I wasn't comparing us with commercial suppliers. Amazon certainly spend a lot on technology - but then so do the producers of our purchasing system. So why does one think it's important for them to have good user interfaces, and the other doesn't?

Also I don't accept that if a system is complex then it can't have a good interface. It just requires some resource to be allocated to it.

Most of the interfaces we produce in house are fine. Compare the ease of using CIES with myTeam for example.

Chris Sexton said...

On the question of our role as "gatekeepers" I am grateful for Rob and James for answering it for me! Of course I wasn't talking about multiple systems for handling corporate information. In fact, part of my talk concentrated on streamlining business processes, making things less complex, and more importantly looked at shared services within the institution in order to gain efficiencies. I was talking about all of the other services available out there which we DON"T provide. Dropbox, Skype, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreader etc etc (there's hundreds).

Our role is not to prevent people using them, but to facilitate and educate them about the issues surrounding their use, and helping them find the right ones for their needs.

George Credland said...

Chris. Thanks for the response.

I take the point about the suppliers budget rather than our own for R & D.

As I tried to say earlier the problem is in part due to the timing of when we bought the purchasing software which fell just prior to the next release of the software.

The supplier has released 3 versions since that time including a re-written user interface using their latest design tools for the latest version which we're in the process of starting to move to.

Unlike the 6 year old design of our current purchasing system the new version has the capability to customize the user interface. e.g. Hide unused fields so you don't have to remember which two out of the twenty or so fields are actually used. Instead it would just show the two that are used.

Some would question why its necessary to spend money buying software, then spent time having to set it up, but the software is generic to suit requirements of a wider range of industries. Even within the HE sector organizations vary considerably in size and structure making it difficult to offer predefined templates to suit everyone. In contrast Tesco and Amazon only have to cater for the domestic retail sector so avoid a lot of these complications.