IT and Strategy

Against a backdrop of reduced funding (for the University and for their IT organisations consequentially), the widespread availability of cloud computing services (SaaS) and the need to examine what is actually core to the service offering, perhaps the moment is opportunely right to consider IT and strategy.

There have been a number of recent blog posts and events that have helped frame my thoughts and I mention these below. The work Joe Nicholls and I did on “Core and Chore” is also relevant and a couple of links to the IWMW09 and EUNIS09 events where we presented our thoughts are provided as well.

Brian Kelly has presented widely on the implications of Web 2.0 to institutions and his talk and post on What If Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything? provides us with some food for thought on the areas and issues that need to be considered and possibly addressed. His post was the catalyst for a lot of what follows, as were posts from Martin Weller, Andy Powell and Chris Sexton.

The recent Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University was influential to my thinking in more ways than the obvious one (as a previous post alluded to) and led to Open Source as a Shared Service – a subject I’ll return to later – and my belief that Mobile Working, as foreshadowed in the latest Horizon 2010 Report, is the most important issue of the year ahead. Have a look at the videos and slides from the event, particularly Chris Sexton‘s presentation on The role of a University Computing Service in an increasingly mobile world, or: “We don’t support that…”.

Get behind the “business language” and see if some of what is described in Six Mandates for IT Innovation does not have some meaning and relevance to us in IT Service departments as we move forward. And for our leaders (our CIOs) then they should heed What Chief Executives Really Want.

  1. Top of my strategic agenda for change is the federalising of web content and services. This is enabling infrastructure that prepares your content and services for wider availability and improved access; for wider use by students and to enable greater collaborative learning. The Horizon Report (already mentioned above) highlights the likelihood of Open Content being a major future trend, we’ve had the CLEX and The Edgeless University reports and quite recently I came across The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. The messages from all of these should be considered and reflected upon in the context of your institution. No web-service, no content, should go out the door into production without it being shibbolised.
  2. The workstation desktop is overdue for review. What is the desktop image? Does everyone need one? (I don’t.) Is there not scope for a hybrid approach that locks down desktops to key administrative areas and desks and open access areas and then delivers applications via thin-client elsewhere. That way we could deliver a corporate “experience” to a wider community of users than our existing Windows based desktop image does. It would enable Mac and Linux users to share in the experience as well as allow researchers (with admin access to their workstations) to have more freedom over their desktop. It would also have a wider reach (indeed web connection would be the pre-requisite) and mean that roaming profiles might not be necessary. Link that to making the desktop image itself skinnier and you might result in a process improvement that would be universally appreciated.
  3. Collaboration software in the enterprise is essential. It doesn’t really matter what it is – ning, jive, connections, sharepoint. Make sure it’s not just behind the firewall though – we do as much collaboration outside the university as we do inside and indeed a hosted solution might be the most effective solution from a licensing and service offering point of view … and try and get it shibbolised, please!
  4. I’ve already referred to SaaS offerings and that’s where we must do some long and hard thinking. Running Google Apps or Live@edu is no longer innovative. It’s becoming common place. Can you make an argument for retaining email in-house? Is it a differentiating application from which your institution gains business benefit – or do we just want it to work. Go one stage further –  is it essential to keep supporting the Microsoft suite on all desktop platforms – maybe the imaged workstations – but is it really necessary for students? Office Apps in the cloud would appear a real candidate for out-sourcing as would Google Apps, and one surprisingly (see how the arguments have changed) that hits the transferable skills case for students who will be able to go on using Google Apps or Microsoft Apps in the cloud – with their own filestore (note there as an even more compelling and cost-saving argument here) – after they’ve left us and taken up work somewhere else. Indeed it could be argued that this is the relevant experience we should be giving our under-graduate students now, rather than the bloated desktop application (particularly in its latest incarnation which is so different from its predecessors).
  5. Linked to this is the idea (raised in my blog post) that Open Source could be a Shared Service and could be the thing that re-engages developers in our departments with coding and with this the possibility of providing a new purpose and reason for collaboration. Imagine it. One site specialise in writing the middleware, another site specialises in device drivers and APIs, another produces apps for different platforms or for cross-platform delivery. This is the moment when we (University IT departments) could take back some of the ground we’ve ceded to the large software corporations. What makes this so appealing? Consumer electronics and personally owned computing devices …
  6. The world has changed so rapidly in the last 12 months. Even the CEO now wants an iPhone rather than a BlackBerry. With V4.0 software around the corner, the iPhone moves to a position where corporates may be willing to embrace it. And when the iPad becomes commonplace … What this means is that we, as IT Services organisations, must adapt and adopt a scenario where we don’t own the devices. We need to be able to co-habit with social applications on personal devices. Do I really need to carry my iPhone and a BlackBerry around with me – one for life (which I’ve paid for) and one for work. I think not. The challenge is to have a tiered approach to service delivery. Be right up front and say that AppX can’t be made available on anything less than a DeviceY, which has USB dongle Z provided. If you’re up front and explain the reasons why X can’t be made available – the user should be able to understand if they can see Apps A, B and C being delivered the way they would want them to be. What I’m saying here is that the service offering cannot be offered as “this is what you’ve got, this is what we support”, we must be more flexible and must be able to move rapidly with the user’s requirements and the devices they own.
  7. The question  “what kind of IT Service?” also has to be considered. I think the really differentiating feature of the future service offering is the advice and guidance – the education – that we provide. So it’s “engagement, enablement and EDUCATION” – I think the Service Department of the future (not just IT) needs to get much more into this piece – preparing the user for the “brave new world” that they’re possibly stumbling into, iPhone in hand. In this way they (the Service Departments) may be able to envision processes operating across silos and thus return real operational value to the user who is really only interested in completing tasks, not who their service provider is.
  8. Finally the question of lag must be considered. The speed which budgetary cuts will be imposed will be faster than our ability to respond to them, UNLESS we’ve done some prioritisation and have some strategies in place. What are the drivers – cost-cutting or technology co-habitation? Can they be combined in some way. What utility computing do we provide? Can this be implemented quickly by outsourcing it quickly (as many others in the UK and US have done), thus gaining some breathing space to do some “value-generating work”. These are all important questions and a lot more “what if … ?” scenarios have to be worked-up and plans prepared for the inevitable budget-cuts there are to come. Otherwise there will be pain.

I wrote the original of this post on 21st May 2010 for an internal blog, but hope in its slightly different form that it might be of interest more widely. So, a few things to consider as you face an uncertain future; as you prepare to provide an IT Strategy that underpins the strategic vision of your institution. Are you prepared for change? Is now the time to be brave and innovate? I hope so.

Open Source as a Shared Service

What makes you distinct in your service offering? It can’t be the delivery of the best payroll package? It can’t be the best deployed word processing package? It could be how we take some building blocks and deploy them in a totally innovative way!

It used to be exciting in IT Services. It may still be exciting in Aberystwyth & Bangor where local software development was the model of service delivery for many years (one feels their geographic location had something to do with that however). Perhaps we’re approaching the dawn of a new age where open source code plus cloud computing apis plus most importantly widely available consumer mobile computing devices can be developed into innovative and differentiating service offerings.

Might it be possible that our IT Services departments return to their roots and develop and share code for mobile computing platforms that are then developed further by others into differentiating applications?

Think of it. The time is right. The economics point in this direction. The political agenda (shared services) points in this direction. The technological environment (viz. iPhones and SmartPhones) with application delivery platforms enables this. The move is towards the universal availabilty of consumer computing device and away from the corporate workstation BUT shared code development for these devices points towards a possible future.