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November 05, 2009

Educause '09: Portals

Writing about web page http://www.ithaca.edu/myhome

At a session about building a portal, I was struck by the similarities between the presenters’ institution – Ithaca College – and our own setup. They have three groups governing their web presence:

  • Their web strategy group has oversight. This is a high level group with VPs, Marketing, Admissions, Provost’s office, etc.
  • IT Services has technical leadership and hosts the institutional web site(s)
  • Marketing & Comms shares responsibility with ITS for brand, high level content, UX, etc.

They have a richly functional and well populated CMS which they built themselves, and a year or so ago, decided that they would build a portal to accomplish the following:-

  • Provide a home for a person’s (not the institution’s) activities. User has complete control over portlets, tabs, etc. – except for the “message center” portlet which is mandatory. The Comms Office control what appears in the Message Center.
  • Provide a single entry point leading to other resources
  • Improve communications between institution and students
  • Make transactions easier and information easier to find
  • Make a lightweight system that reuses as much as possible of existing web services & content.

A fairly similar set of circumstances to our own. What they built was a PHP / mySQL based application which uses the iGoogle portlet standard to deliver the following:-

  • Drag & drop UI for selecting & arranging content. (Choosing a background colour for each portlet turns out to be surprisingly popular and well used.)
  • The portal is a single sign-on participant, so starting in the portal means you won’t need to sign in to move on to other apps, and data can be pulled from other apps without needing to reauthenticate.
  • Webmail & calendar views in the portal (in fact, the only access to webmail is via the portal, to drive traffic)
  • Access to third party email accounts (Yahoo, Gmail, IMAP)
  • Lots of portlets for non-institutional data – Facebook, Digg, Reddit, Twitter, RSS Feeds, etc.
  • Search portlet shows results inline for people, web pages, blogs, etc.
  • “Service tabs” are whole-page applications (eg. change your password, see your calendar).
  • Users can publish and share their tabs with others if they’ve made a useful combination of things.
  • There’s a very Facebook-like gadget which shows you who else is online, their status updates, comments on other peoples’ statuses, their photos, etc. You can define who your friends are just like Facebook.
  • Mobile-optimised rendition (webkit optimised) – mobile home page is a list of portlets, then each portlet gets its own mobile-optimised screen. Similarly, an accessibilty-optimised rendition of the portal.

What’s striking about this to me is that they reached a different conclusion to the thinking we’ve so far been doing. Their portal at present doesn’t have access to much institutional information about the individual. So there’s no gadgets for “My modules” or “My timetable” or “My coursework”. The gadgets are fundamentally just news, email and external. They hope to add gadgets which can display institutional data, but there’s back-end plumbing which needs to happen first (again, sounds kind of familiar). Until I saw this presentation, my take was that you absolutely had to have those institutional data gadgets to succeed. But the Ithaca portal has achieved the astonishingly high take up rate of 80% of the members of the university visiting it at least once per day. Without institutional data. It’s given me pause for thought.

Ithaca have an excellent micro-site intended for people who are interested in their portal but who aren’t members of the university. See for instance the home page, some video tutorials, the presentation from today, and some usage stats


Educause '09: The future of the CIO

I went to a presentation about the future of the role of CIO. Most of what was said was fairly predictable (and that’s not meant as a criticism; anyone who reflects even briefly about how IT is used in universities, how the technology itself has changed and evolved, and the changing economic and political climate in universities, could hazard a perfectly reasonable stab at what’s occupying CIOs’ time nowadays). It would have been surprising and in some ways delightful if there had been a left-field, unexpected prediction such as:-

Within five years all CIOs will need to become accomplished mandolin players

but alas, such whimsy was not to be had (though as it was the presenter’s birthday, the audience sang Happy Birthday to him, which was almost as good).

Instead, the observations revolved around the fact that IT is now deeply engrained in, and vital to, every aspect of the institution’s work, and therefore the CIO of today can expect to be spending more time and effort on quality of service issues such as availability, planned downtime, risk assessment & management, financial management, disaster recovery, and so on. There was an interesting assertion that service delivery is now as important a part of the CIO’s agenda as strategy and planning, whereas historically it wasn’t, because there was less reliance on IT and therefore a more relaxed attitude to service availability.

But the very best observation in the session came right at the end, in response to an audience question which was along the lines of “You’ve said that the CIO’s remit is broader and deeper than ever, and that there are more things than ever before which need your time and attention. How do you decide what not to do; what you can stop doing?” (referring back to this morning’s keynote by Jim Collins). The speaker observed that finding ways to stop doing things or not to do things was indeed important, and threw in a couple of great observations. Firstly:-

I try not to say no to things directly. I see it as part of my role to guide the conversation around until I’m asked something which I’m confident I can say yes to.

And then, expanding on why this is a better tactic than just saying no:-

Saying ‘no’ is exercising power, and in a university, when you use power, you use it up.


November 04, 2009

Educause '09: live@edu

I went along to a Microsoft presentation on live@edu, which is the off-premise, hosted email service which we’re going to be delivering to our students early in 2010. Since we’re already some way into the project to manage this transition, there wasn’t a lot in the presentation which I didn’t already have some dim awareness of, but there were a few interesting points:-

  • Online, hosted Sharepoint is going to be added to the live@edu offering in 2010. It’ll be free for students, chargeable for staff, with the possibility of additional paid-for support if you want it. It won’t be as feature-rich as on-premise Sharepoint, but (depending on what’s in and what’s out) that might not matter for some student purposes. More information here (and I love the almost-too-frank FAQs; “Q: Aren’t you just copying Google? A: No! No way! We were here first!”)
  • Moving student email accounts over via IMAP looks pretty do-able .
  • The tech guys I spoke to seemed very confident that it is possible to do single sign-on integration with our Shibboleth-based in-house system. We might need our email or directories team to add some extra stuff to an AD and/or stick a special certificate on one of their AD servers, but given that, the rest of it, they say, is possible. Could just be sales talk, but the people I spoke to seemed too much in love with the geeky details of how you’d do it to be sales guys. ;-)
  • There’s a Windows Explorer add-on which lets you see your Skydrive file store as if it were locally attached storage (well, almost; you can drag files into and out of it and do file operations on the remote system in Windows Explorer, but it’s a network place, not a drive letter mapping, so it doesn’t show up directly in Open and Save dialogs, which is a shame). Still, makes it much more workable to have larger file sets in Skydrive, and much easier to move stuff in and out. It’s slightly surprising that it’s a third party offering rather than a Microsoft one.

Educase '09: Cloud computing

There have been a couple of presentations on cloud computing so far; one on the in-principle pros and cons, and one on the nuts and bolts of an actual on-premise private cloud implementation. My thoughts:-

  • It seems fairly clear that 99% of people talking about cloud computing are actually talking about software as a service – Google hosting your email, or an out-sourced helpdesk or whatever. I’ve spoken to only a couple of people who are doing anything with genuine cloud services such as Amazon’s EC2 or S3.
  • People pointing up the risks of apps and data held off-premise seem to have a rose-tinted going on fictional view of life with on-premise services. Of course it’s true that your SaaS arrangement could have privacy issues, availability and SLA challenges, vendor lock-in, contract risks, and lack of control over the evolution of the service. But the unspoken argument against off-premise SaaS seems to be that these issues don’t exist, or exist only trivially, if you stay on-premise. But most universities who run Microsoft Exchange on site, for example, freely admit that they have outages, data losses and meaningless SLAs. And they are just as locked in to a vendor as if they asked Microsoft to hold the data in Dublin. And if you’re in a UK university, then if I say “Contract challenges”, I’d bet reasonable money that the word that comes into your mind first is “Oracle” – for an on-premise, supposedly bought and paid for piece of software.
  • Almost everyone has anecdotal evidence of people within their institution going off-site independently of what the central IT service may or may not be doing, be it forwarding email on to a third party provider, using Google Docs to collaborate or whatever. So unless you’re an institution with unusually strong central control (either technically or at a policy level), many of your members have voted with their feet and accepted the risks (possibly unknowingly, for sure).
  • An unspoken, but I think real concern, seems to be about the loss of accountability. If you run Exchange on site and it explodes, the thinking seems to be, you could fire someone. Whether you actually would or not is a different question, of course, but the principle that you can point to someone and say “this is your fault” seems to give some people a kind of warm fuzzy feeling. So if the university’s senior management agrees to go off-premise, the argument seems to run, who could they then blame if things went wrong later? Kind of a sad world-view to be planning your blame strategy in advance, I think, but there seems to be some of that floating around.

Educause '09: IT Governance

My next session was on IT governance, though it would be more accurate to describe it as being about project governance. That said, there were some striking differences between the way the speaker’s institution operates, and what happens at Warwick:-

Firstly, there is a committee for selecting and prioritising projects. Kind of like our own IPSC, I guess, but with the striking difference that this committee allocates resources directly; it has about a million and a half discretionary dollars to spend, and somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 person hours annually. What this means, clearly, is that putting a proposal to, and getting the approval of, this committee is actually a real mechanism – indeed, the only mechanism – for getting a project resourced and underway.

This contrasts with our own somewhat fragmented situation, where committee approval, funding allocation and project management all happen in different places, and it’s quite striking how logical it seems, when presented by someone who’s doing it, that these things all need to happen in the same place.

The other point that’s interesting is that the speaker’s institution approved and delivered of the order of a hundred or so projects per year. In order to accomplish this, they had to ensure that their approval, management and review processes were as efficient as possible. If each project requires extensive documentation, frequent meetings, the participation of lots of people, then the number of projects you can do is limited. So there’s a relentless focus on reviewing, streamlining and improving the process, and ensuring that nobody who wants to commission a project, or who is working on delivering a service, feels that the resources they have to devote to project management are disproportionate relative to the resources devoted to the deliverables of the project.


Educause '09: Jim Collins keynote

The first keynote session of the conference was, as is often the case, not about a specific technology or even really specifically about the sector. Jim Collins is an author and consultant who has worked on the question of what distinguishes great companies from merely good ones, and he spoke entertainingly (with a hint of Al Pacino; he likes to speak very quietly and then suddenly SHOUT and then go quiet again) on some of his thoughts and observations.

There isn’t really a narrative thread to be pulled out of what he said, so I’ll just jot down a few interesting points:-

I liked his five stages in the life of a company:-

  1. Hubris borne of success
  2. Undisciplined pursuit of more
  3. Denial of risk and peril
  4. Grasping for salvation
  5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death

A bit like the Gartner hype cycle, I guess, if slightly more doom-focussed. Other nuggets:-

  • Leadership is like a plug variable for companies; when we don’t really understand why a company is succeeding or failing, we ascribe it to leadership. But we don’t know what that is. Leadership exists in both succeeding and failing companies, so what’s the difference?
  • A leader who has concentrated power is different from one who doesn’t; we might call the latter “legislative” leaders; their role is to manage things so that the right decisions can be taken, rather than simply taking the decisions.
  • The exercise of power is not really leading; real leadership is getting people to do what you want even though they don’t have to.
  • Packard’s law states that if you allow growth to exceed your ability to execute on your plans for growth, you will fail. And key to execution is having the right people. A classic failure mode is to grow faster than you can put the right people in place to manage the growth.
  • Motivation is an internal characteristic. You can’t supply motivation to other people as if it were a commodity, and it’s insulting and pointless to try. You can destroy it and take it away, but you can’t manufacture it.
  • The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.
  • What is brand / reputation? A non-quantifiable sense of the trustworthiness of an institution; that it does the things that it says it does, well.
  • It’s a good strategy for both individuals and the organisations they work within to build “pockets of greatness”. Competence is powerful and attracts people, because it’s so rare. So someone who builds a pocket of greatness is likely to progress.
  • In the context of how power is distributed within different types of organisations, I was tickled by Jim’s description of academics within universities: a thousand points of no.

His advice for concrete things to go away and do? Cherry picking my favourites, we have:-

  1. Decide what not to do. Have a stop-doing list as well as a to-do list, though then, of course, you face the tricky dilemma of whether the stop-doing list belongs on your to-do list.
  2. Review your questions to statements ratio and see if you can double it in the next year. Knowing the right questions to ask is more important than knowing the answers.
  3. Turn off your gadgets; put whitespace in your calendar. You cannot enage in disciplined thought while checking your email/Twitter/Facebook or if your phone is ringing.

Educause 2009

Writing about web page http://www.educause.edu/E2009

I’m in Denver for the Educause conference. It’s probably the biggest IT-in-HE conference in the world, and whatever you’re interested in – e-learning, cloud computing, weathering the downturn – it’s a safe bet that there’ll be a session on it here.

I was last at the conference five years ago (also in Denver, coincidentally), and that time, one of my main interests was in helpdesk software, and I hoped to use the conference as a lever to try and persuade my colleagues that we should switch away from HEAT, which I thought then (and still think) was a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It’s taken five years for that particular plan to come to fruition, so I guess I should be cautious about what I might accomplish this time around. But if nothing else, there’s a bunch of people talking about things that Warwick is very much interested in right now, and, for as long as my laptop battery lasts, I’ll be taking notes which hopefully might prove useful to us in the future.

Some of the sessions I have my eye on include:-

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/CloudComputingHypeorHope/175837
Cloud Computing: Hype or Hope? Does this paradigm offer great promise or extreme peril to the core mission of the academy? Two academic IT leaders will debate the pros and cons of moving mission-critical services to the cloud.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/RevisitingYourITGovernanceMode/176027
Revisiting Your IT Governance Model. Four years after adopting an inclusive IT governance and prioritization process, we’ve completed 188 projects, spending $8.4 million and expending 250,000 hours. We will describe the history of our governance, our recent governance process review, and how the process has evolved to create a collegial and transparent method for prioritization.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/BlackboardMoodleandSakai/175839
Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai. A discussion of the pros and cons of adopting proprietary versus open-source solutions. Issues addressed will include total cost of ownership, licensing, options for application hosting and technical support, and how new features find their way into a product.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/VirtualDesktops60PercentCheape/176062
Virtual Desktops: 60 Percent Cheaper, but Are They Worth It? Pepperdine University is conducting a 12-month study to assess the costs and feasibility of replacing desktop computers with virtual machines that allow multiple people to share a single PC. Results from a pilot implementation will be shared, revealing costs, power usage, user satisfaction, ease of administration, and recommendations for installation.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/WhatVersionofGoogleAreYouUsing/176070
Project Management and IT Governance Through Agile Methods. Decision making within IT governance and project management is commonly driven by hierarchical, centralized, and formal planning. Agile Methods, adopted at SUNY Delhi, focusing on openness, transparency, self-organizing groups, collaboration and incremental development, deliver continuous innovation, reduced costs, and delivery times, as well as more reliable results.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/ITMetrics/175721
IT Metrics. This session focuses on developing, collecting, and reporting IT metrics, leveraging peer efforts, and identifying benchmarks to improve the overall performance of IT departments. Frequently used metrics are customers’ feedback on IT services, balanced with internally recorded metrics of actual customer IT services usage. A constant goal of this group is to assist others in implementing metrics in a more rigorous, meaningful, and timely manner.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/WhatHappenedtotheComputerLab/176090
What Happened to the Computer Lab? Over 80 percent of respondents to the annual ECAR study of undergraduate students reported owning laptops; nevertheless, usage of expensive public computer labs remains high. Panelists from three institutions will lead a provocative discussion on updating existing computer labs.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/TheHeatIsOnTamingtheDataCenter/176111
The Heat Is On: Taming the Data Center. Power and cooling continue to be “hot” topics in the data center. Many vendors offer green solutions and products. Should an organization retrofit or build a new data center to meet increasing demands? This session will focus on some strategies to manage data centers more effectively.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/BuildingaResearchITDivisionfro/176128
Building a Research IT Division from the Ground Up
The nature of the research enterprise is changing rapidly. Large-scale computing, storage, and collaboration needs are now common. We describe how we scoped and funded a central IT division focused on research IT support to address these needs, and the successes and challenges we encountered along the way.

http://www.educause.edu/E2009/EDUCAUSE2009/IgnoranceIsntBlissHowtoFindOut/176140
Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How to Find Out What Your Clients Really Need
Providing IT tools and resources that meet client expectations requires persistent and creative efforts to understand their needs. Six presenters in this session will describe surveys, face-to-face discussions, and other means of learning about client needs and how to effectively follow up on those expressed needs.

According to my scribbled notes, I’m aiming to attend 16 sessions in two days, so I expect to get progressively less coherent as time progresses. Let the Powerpoint begin!


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