Wednesday, 26 June 2013


Had an interesting discussion today with colleagues about Benchmarking. What do we mean by it, what can it help us with? We've recently taken part in two very different exercises which have looked at our services in different ways. One was an external benchmarking exercise from ImprovIT which took a limited number of our services including email, servers and storage, desktop, data centres and student record system. This looked at many metrics which including expenditure in each area, but was not restricted to cost. It looked at the complexity and quality of the service we provide as well as metrics around service levels, incidents etc.

The second was the Janet Financial X-ray of IT costs. This looked at all of our services, mapped them to a predefined service list, looked purely at cost, taking into account all costs including depreciation and overheads. Importantly it didn't just look at our (CiCS) costs, but looked across the whole University.

Very different methodologies. Very different outputs. Both useful, but in different ways. Benchmarking is clearly not just about costs, but is about outputs, quality and service levels. However, costing information can be very useful, especially when used as a decision making tool  We've now got a very good handle on how much our email service costs for example, (which is a tiny amount which I'm glad about given that we've outsourced it). But, because we didn't do this exercise before we outsourced, I don't know exactly how much we've saved. It also highlighted how little we spend in some areas, which might look like a good thing, but it isn't - it means we're running some services on a shoestring.

Both types of study are useful, and complementary to each other. We had some interesting discussions today about the complexity of the services we offer and support, and how that can be either for historical reasons or can actually be by design. Supporting multiple sorts of hardware and operating systems for example is a conscious decision that we've taken, deciding that where possible we'll standardise on platform, ie the web, for delivery. How important are these sort of decisions  when benchmarking our services both within and outside of the sector?

All interesting stuff to consider. 

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Mobile Mole

At our departmental meeting on Monday we had a presentation on Blackboard Mobile Learn - an app
we have released for our students to get access to MOLE, our Virtual Learning Environment. It provides access to students courses and content on a variety of mobile devices and platforms and lets students interact with it. students can read the blogs within MOLE and leave comments on them, as well as taking part in discussions and uploading media. They can reflect on their learning through their course journal and comment on their peer's journals, and staff can also take part in these discussions. The push notifications are a key feature, and students can elect to receive notification of when new content is posted, when assessments are due, when a new test is posted for example.

We had a soft launch in February this year - which basically means we made it live but didn't tell anyone - and already have had over 2000 unique log-ins. Now that we are confident with it, we will be having a major launch this September, as well as running training sessions for academic staff in how to use it. Looks like it will be a great addition to the apps we have available to our students,and very complimentary to our iSheffield app which we continue to develop. Well done to all involved.

Friday, 21 June 2013

End of the week round up

The end of another week, with some spectacular rain last night - you can tell I'm going camping later today - the weather always changes!

This week I've had a couple of meetings of the Senate Budget Committee on which I represent the Professional Services. We've been talking to the PVCs of each Faculty about how they handle budget allocation to their departments. One of the aims of the SBC is to make budgets and financial matters more transparent and easier to understand to the rest of the University, and their web pages are being added to with more information to help with that.

Also this week I've been marking the student innovation submissions which I posted about earlier, and yesterday I had a Conference Organising Committee for the main UCISA Management Conference next March. So many things to do a long time in advance - the venues and the catering are already booked and at the moment we're working on the speakers. Trying to attract the highest calibre ones is important to attract a high number of delegates, and we've got some stunning speakers lined up already!

This morning was our regular weekly CAB (Change Advisory Board) where we look at all significant changes lined up for the next few weeks and ask the all important questions including my favourite - what if it all goes horribly wrong?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Summer of Student Innovation, part 2

I wrote recently about the JISC Co-design process where as one of the innovation projects, we asked students to submit ideas to win funding to develop them, and I'm in the middle of marking them. It's a really difficult task as many of them are excellent ideas. This project obviously caught the imagination of students - the hashtag #studentideas was consistently the hottest topic on the JISC twitter stream for the duration of the project, and the ideas got 6,200 votes, 98% of which were unique.
Despite the short timescales, and it overlapping with exams, we had a great response, and 33 projects passed the voting threshold to go forward to the next stage. You can see them here.

The concept of crowdsourcing ideas was discussed this morning at a webinar I took part in for the whole process, and maybe if this happens again next year we'll involve some different groups as well as students.

The next stage in the project is to look at the concept of The Digital Student - what are student requirements as they enter University? Students are entering university with very different expectations and requirements for a digital experience than past students or university staff. This is driven by developments in mobile technology and by web trends. Universities may need help in establishing a detailed understanding of these requirements to enable them to tweak or reimagine the services they offer.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Shared RDM Service

Towards the end of last week I went to a meeting of colleagues from the N8 Universities to look at how we might collaborate on managing research data. This came out of the good collaborative work on our joint HPC facility which was established with EPSRC funding last year. We had IT Directors, Librarians and Research Data Management (RDM) Project workers from all institutions, and had a very productive half day. We were really looking for ideas that we could take forward to produce a shared N8 RDM service. So, we looked at areas where we could collaborative, areas where that might not be possible and barriers we might need to overcome. There was very positive support for some sort of shared RDM solution, possibly with a service catalogue of available options so that institutions could choose which ones they signed up to. The storage layer was an obvious area, and particularly archiving data, bearing mind that archiving is as much about deleting data as keeping it. CERN for example only keep about 10% of the data they generate. Training was another area which we thought was worth collaborating on, in much the same way we collaboratively produced Information Security Training materials. Which incidentally I completed yesterday and only got one thing wrong.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

New MUSE.....

Our new portal is nearly ready to roll!  MUSE -  My University of Sheffield Environment in case you were wondering - will get a make over in a couple of weeks. All developed in-house - well done to the web and portal teams.The voice-over artist is quite good too :-)

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Dazed and confused

Spent this afternoon in Equality and Diversity Board where we spent the first hour having a very interesting discussion about one of the University KPIs which is concerned with raising the number of female Professors. One of the most interesting discussion was why there is such a marked difference between the percentage of female academic professors, and the percentage of female professorial equivalent staff in the professional services which is much higher.  Is it the pressure of research and the metrics used in promotions, or different practices we have, or  the large pool we have for applicants? One of the biggest problems we have, and it will take a long time to solve, is the pool of female applicants in some disciplines - there just aren't enough women taking science subjects at school. Personally I can't understand it - science is brilliant and was my favourite subject, so what's changed? The way it's taught these days which just doesn't inspire people? I was so inspired by my sciecne teachers at school - especially Biology. I used to take roadkill into school - anything dead I found by the side of the road  - and  skin it and cure the skin, then boil the rest to extract the bones, and wire them together to make a skeleton. My favourite was a stoat skin that I used to wear in my beanie hat. Hmmm, maybe it was just me that was weird....

This might be my last peregrine picture for this year as one of them flew the nest this morning. Landed on a ledge of the church, where it looked a little dazed and confused at what it had done....

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Processes, PSE and Peregrines

Service Strategy Board yesterday and first up was an update from our Process Improvement Unit (PIU) which was set up almost a year ago. A number of big projects have been undertaken, and some impressive improvements made to processes. Changing the way we deal with paying casual workers for example has led to work taking a day a month to an hour a month in some departments. There's a number of new projects on the way, and these are prioritised on the basis of the ease of the project, its likelihood of success, and its importance to the institution (bearing in mind the institution’s KPI’s).  The unit is also embarking on more training, both in using LEAN techniques, and awareness raising of what it means to be involved in a process improvement event. The latter is especially important for managers who need to be aware of what they and their staff are committing to.

Other key issues coming up from the service managers included MOOCs, technology-enhanced feedback, changes to research infrastructure, the new portal, exiting from our collaboration environment uSpace, and improvements to our network infrastructure. We are about to launch an open day mobile app, we're looking at mobile SAP apps, and piloting printing from mobiles, so lots of mobile developments. We're also looking at improving our service management reporting to include actions arising from incident reviews. A full agenda, and a productive meeting.

This afternoon we had a meeting of the Professional Service Executive - the Directors of all of the professional services. This also started with an update from PIU, and an interesting discussion which touched on the importance of system development in some areas of process improvement and how we prioritise this alongside our other work. We also discussed the planning process, our risk register and the University's new HR strategy currently being developed. We also got an update on the work of our Development, Alumni Relations and Events office. It's about friend raising as much as fund raising, showcasing what we do and building our reputation. Of course, fund raising is vitally important, both in supporting our students and in supporting our research.

Also today  -  important news - two of the peregrine chicks managed to exercise their wings enough to get to the top of the nest platform. They'll be flying in a couple of days I think!

There's a little story about them and a few more pictures over at the other blog.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Catch up from Friday

I sit on the University Human Resource Management Committee - this is an important University Committee - it reports to the Council and is where all important policies are approved and decisions taken about HR matters. I enjoy getting involved with another area of the university, and because this is a committee of the Council, it consists of a mixture of University staff and lay members - people from outside of the University, usually with important roles in the city. Its always interesting to get a perspective on things from outside. Last week the committee met and as well as the normal business looking at various items including career pathways for staff who predominantly teach, we had an interactive session on "Performing for Excellence". This was where it was really beneficial to be on a table with two people from the private sector when discussing reward strategies. Lots of different models to think about.

Also last week we had another strategic liaison meeting, this time with a faculty who plans to grow its student numbers so we looked at some of the issues this would raise for example with timetabling, and some of the developments we might need to put in place to help them including increasing the wifi capacity in labs, and facilitating the live streaming of practical classes.  We also talked with them about their data storage requirements in the light of some fairly large bioinformatics research grants they have been awarded.

And finally, to end the week, a catch up on where we are with our review of our student system.  An in-house system live since 1996 it has served us well, but now we have to decide whether we install a package solution, or whether we redesign our existing one. Whatever the decision, it will be part of a large transformational change programme. Exciting times ahead!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Mobile apps, liaison and a chat

Yesterday I spent most of the day at Oxford University where I sit on their IT Committee as an external adviser. As well as getting loads of work done on the train - for once I had decent wifi - it's always interesting to see what other people are doing and pick up tips.

Today we had a preliminary meeting to look at delivering some of our enterprise applications to mobile devices, whether that's through native apps or web apps. Prime candidates to start with are some of our HR services, possibly following with some from the Finance area. The apps we've been looking at are so much more user friencdly than the desktop versions, so hopefully will be popular with users (which includes us of course).

Also today we've had one of our strategic liaison meetings with a faculty where we share plans and updates. Lots of discussion about accelerating our wireless roll-out across the campus, more mobile service delivery and information security. Also updates on our new portal project, a flexible managed desktop for staff and our research computing infrastructure.

I also had a pleasant lunch with a colleague from another University where we talked at length about our experience of change management and incident management - both good and bad experiences. Sometimes its good to talk!

Monday, 3 June 2013

Incidents and teenage birds

This morning I chaired a review of the major incident we had last Friday.  Something we always do - it's important to uncover what happened, and learn from any mistakes that have been made, look at what we can do better, and what worked well. In this particular case there are quire a few lessons to learn, around a number of aspects including our communication channels, incident procedures and change management processes.  We were piloting a new internal chat system, HipChat, when the incident happened, so it got a good test and it looks as though it will prove very useful.

We also had an Exec meeting where we looked at how we cover for the University Business Continuity Manager, (who is based in CiCS) if she is unavailable during an incident. As an Incident Manager I'm already trained in the major incident plan, and our three Assistant Directors are about to be so they they can also provide help and advice.

Finally tonight I went to a talk about the Peregrine falcons who are nesting on a platform on St George's Church and have hatched three chicks. The chair of the Sheffield Bird Study group gave a fascinating insight into these beautiful birds and their history. I hadn't realised how nearly wiped out they'd been by gamekeepers and pesticides, with only 385 pairs in the UK in 1961. Then we heard from our EFM department who had built and installed the platform - when originally constructed it had been on the opposite side of the church, due to concerns from the council about damage to the listed building, but after 20 months no bird had been near it. After permission had been gained to move it to its current position in 2011, the falcons landed on it straight away, and have been there on and off since. We also heard about the webcam, which was installed by EFM and we now look after the streaming. It's had over 280,000 hits from over 100 different countries. When the birds have flown, the platform will come down ( wouldn't like to go anywhere near it - it's disgusting at the moment), and be remade by AMRC from a composite material, and we'll also be looking at developing the webcam (s) for next year.

The chicks started off cute - now they look like teenagers - fairly dirty, messy, slightly gawky. I'm sure they'll be cute again when they've grown up - which apparently will only take a few more days. They're definitely getting interested in the outside world now, and see what I mean about the nest?