Exploring IT Strategy at Loughborough

"Institutional maturity" for Loughborough's IT Strategy

I've blogged in the past about a little project on IT Strategy that we are doing with JISC, exploring the potential of the Strategic ICT Toolkit at Loughborough. This is just to give people an update and pull out a few points that have come up during the course of this work.

In this blog post I'll spend a few moments looking at the institutional maturity self-analysis process (as illustrated above), and discuss some of the issues that this and the wider toolkit material have raised at Loughborough.

I'll also note here that my impression has been that the toolkit is most effective when viewed as a website. Some people may find the consolidated PDF more to their taste, but note if printing a copy off that this comes to a grand total of 129 pages. If you feel you need a paper copy, please do think of the planet, and print it 2-up in duplex mode :-)

The toolkit provides a wealth of background material covering the following areas:
  • Processes for IT strategy formation in Higher Education Institutions
  • Challenges in the current environment that IT strategy needs to address
  • Key enablers, including
  • Case Studies from pilot institutions
The website also provides handy downloadable self-analysis forms (presented as Excel spreadsheets) that institutions can use internally to gauge their "institutional maturity" and for individuals to assess their level of "IT savvy". The institutional self-analysis tool is discussed further below - I'll cover the individual self-analysis in a future blog post.

Institutional Maturity

The primary output of the institutional self-analysis is the radar diagram shown above, together with an overall assessment of the "institutional maturity". Maturity is classified as: (from the Strategic ICT toolkit)
    • Agile University
    • Strong focus on institutional needs
    • Strong horizon scanning, anticipating and developing institutional needs using aligned ICT
    • Using ICT to drive business innovation
    • ICT strategy is highly integrated and aligned with institutional strategy
    • Strong integrated institutional & ICT governance
    • Not an Agile university but able to deliver against some strategic needs
    • Mature operational capabilities with high dependence on ICT
    • Good business alignment between institutional needs and ICT
    • ICT supports institution at a business process level
    • Delivers good ICT value when measured against service delivery rather than institutional ICT value
    • ICT is supporting institution operationally
    • Reliable and satisfactory performance from IT and IS functions, delivering good service levels
    • ICT is managed to contain costs
    • Few, if any, institutional ICT initiatives
It's important to note that this is not an exact science, and the aim of the exercise should be viewed as stimulating reflection and discussion on the strategy. There is no prescribed "JISC way" to undertake IT strategy formulation. In particular it may not be appropriate in all cases for an institution to aspire to Strategic or Transformational status.

In the current climate of financial constraints and uncertainty over funding levels and student numbers, it's not unreasonable for institutions to focus on the most business critical aspects of IT - the "Operational" paradigm. However, there is an implicit assumption in the JISC Toolkit that institutions which are able to achieve Strategic or Transformational status will be best placed to operate efficiently and effectively.

Self-Analysis Process

The JISC project which devised the Strategic ICT Toolkit produced a set of coded questions presented as a spreadsheet. An example of the questions around Shared Services and an institutional response is reproduced below.

Strategic ICT Toolkit Self-Analysis re Shared Services

The reader will note that answers are on a five point Likert scale, with a box for the respondent to add brief supporting comments and documentary evidence.  

To fully complete the self-analysis process, a total of 91 questions across six spreadsheet tabs need to be answered. In practice the respondent may not feel able to answer all of the questions, and there is no obligation to provide further information in the free text boxes.

The Picture at Loughborough

At Loughborough my intuition is that we would have come out as "operational" until quite recently - but some of our initiatives in the last couple of years have certainly helped to tip the balance towards "strategic".

Examples of these initiatives include:
  • Strategic leadership - our work around Google Apps, JISC innovation projects, hybrid cloud computing and our innovative Web 2.0 student portal
  • Governance - we are moving to a much more formal model of IT governance, with the University's IT Committee being part of the University's committee structure, and a high level IT Projects Steering Group chaired by the Deputy Vice Chancellor  
  • Shared services - we initiated the hugely successful EMMAN Shared Information Security Service (ESISS), the first of the HEFCE funded pilot shared service projects. We have also significant experience of sharing services internally, including the Raiser's Edge CRM and our Service Desk system. Google Apps could also be viewed as a shared service, however ownership of it lives outwith the community
  • ICT services - Loughborough has long been strong on the key "operational" service elements as described above. However, we have struggled to made headway in some key areas such as server and storage virtualization and IP telephony. Through a new £7.5m capital programme these areas are being addressed, with a complete infrastructure refresh over a four year period
  • Communications and engagement - we have been working to break out of our "bunker" and engage more effectively with service users and stakeholders. This has included presentations to Faculty Boards and Directorates and other key groups (notably Departmental Administrators) on upcoming developments, student focus groups and Web 2.0 technologies such as RSS feeds. With our new portal site, IT related news and updates are seamlessly blended in and do not have to be explicitly sought out

Readers may interested in a recent talk at the Eduserv Cloud Computing Symposium by our Director of IT, Phil Richards. Phil describes the work that we are doing with our strategic partner Logicalis to build a hybrid cloud solution:

So far, so good. However, field testing the Strategic ICT Toolkit for JISC has also exposed a major gap in our current approach - around Enterprise Architecture. To use the language of the JISC toolkit, this is probably the key reason why we are "strategic" rather than "transformational", in spite of all the good work described above.

At present we are only taking baby steps where Enterprise Architecture is concerned, but it is already clear that we need to take a product agnostic approach to integrating our systems wherever possible - as I've described previously when writing about the University API. This is difficult when some of the market leading products that we rely upon (I won't name names to spare embarrassment) do not even provide an API - of any sort, let alone the sort of RESTful API that we are used to from the likes of Google. This is common enough that it would be prejudicial to our business interests to rule out systems that fail to provide an API or even a database schema. In fact, one of our key systems even uses its own proprietary database - undocumented, of course.

This, then, is the reality of Enterprise Architecture for us today :-)  However, I think we will make some headway simply by setting the strategic direction and reiterating it periodically when dealing with potential vendors. It would of course be helpful if other members of the community were to echo these sentiments as suitable opportunities arise.

Feedback on the JISC Strategic ICT Toolkit

The JISC Toolkit is an excellent and comprehensive compendium of key reference points for anyone who finds themselves working in IT strategy formulation or governance. Perversely, this sometimes counts against it (certainly in the "full PDF document" variant), as it may be difficult to see the wood for the trees. When collating material in this way my experience has been that an index can be very helpful, although this might be difficult to produce and maintain when both PDF and web formats are being targeted. My intuition is that it is time to embrace the web and abandon the PDF.

In testing the self-analysis component of the JISC Toolkit with a small subset of our key stakeholders, it became clear that the number of questions being asked (91) was overwhelming for some people. Inevitably the more senior the respondent the greater the likelihood that they were "time poor" and would find it difficult to devote enough attention to the self-analysis tool to derive maximum benefit from it. There may also be echoes here of personality types, although I would be hesitant about dragging the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator into the toolkit field test given the problems noted by Malcolm Gladwell. I offer an alternative approach to self-analysis below, for consideration.

Institutions aiming to use the self-analysis portion of the toolkit may wish to spend some time looking at the questions and customizing the tool for their own purposes. Depending on the context that you are using the spreadsheet in, some of the questions might appear to be irrelevant or duplicates of earlier questions. For example, do you have a Senior Management Team and a separate and distinct institutional senior management group?

The radar diagram has a lot of potential in a workshop context - the facilitator can invite participants to complete their own radar diagrams, and then collate the results on a flip chart. I would note that whilst the spreadsheet presentation of the self-analysis has much to commend it, the process of synthesizing the results from anything other than a handful of such responses would be quite painful. In following up this work it might be interesting for JISC to explore using Web 2.0 tools such as the Google Chart API and an online approach to data gathering such as the Google Docs Form. Here is a nice little video showing how forms work in Google Docs:

With hindsight, "maturity" is an unfortunate label to use. It grated ever so slightly with me when we did the earlier JISC PIPaL project looking into CRM at Loughborough, and there is more than a little hint of hubris about it. A future revision of the Strategic ICT Toolkit might benefit from using more neutral language such as "orientation" or "focus", e.g. "Strategic Focus". This may seem like a small thing, but the maturity model terminology is one of the first things that a new user of the JISC Toolkit will be exposed to, and we all know that first impressions are very important.

Finally, I would note that respondents who don't feel able to answer all the questions in a section will inevitably skew the results towards the Operational maturity level. This is because the results shown in the radar diagram are generated based on an absolute scale of the maximum possible number of questions that could be answered in each section - rather than the actual number of questions that have been answered. It's also slightly confusing that some yes/no questions are presented using the five point Likert scale layout, where it is less than obvious which box should be ticked.

Further Work: IT Strategy Consultation

Given the initial stakeholder feedback on the self-analysis tool from the JISC Toolkit, I thought it would be worth spending a little time looking at alternative approaches to gathering feedback on our IT Strategy. The aim of this would be to both inform future IT Strategy developments, and provide a useful input into a future revision of the JISC Toolkit.

The result of this work was a Google Docs Form featuring a much shorter set of questions, and leading up to a free text box where respondents would be encouraged to provide qualitative feedback. A dummy copy of this form is shown below. This approach has been very successful with other surveys that I have conducted recently, including those on Google Apps in UK HE and UK HE Mail Filtering and Archiving. You will note that the Google Docs tools produce attractive graphical summaries of the survey responses automatically - although no radar diagrams, at least for the moment :-)

Initial responses to this approach have been very encouraging, and I am confident that most of stakeholders involved will be able to make a significant contribution. In a follow-up post I will present some edited highlights of this consultation exercise, discuss common themes that have emerged, and reflect on the implications in terms of our IT Strategy moving forward. I will also link these back, where appropriate, to the JISC Toolkit. I am particularly interested in seeing whether we will get any responses that touch upon areas not covered by the Toolkit. [More anon...]

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