Bouquets and Brickbats: Stakeholder Happiness and IT Strategy

In this blog post I'll return to our project to "field test" the JISC Strategic ICT Toolkit, with a round up of results and recommendations. If you haven't come across the Strategic ICT Toolkit before, please see the S-ICT area on the JISC website, and the JISC toolkit itself.

To kick off, here's a Prezi which I produced for the programme meeting in August 2011:




In engaging with our stakeholders, we had asked a key framing question: How happy are you with IT at Loughborough University? We were pleased that the overwhelming sentiment here was positive (as shown in Figure 1 below), albeit with a implicit message that we could and should aim higher.

Very unhappy ...........................  Very happy
Figure 1: Stakeholder Happiness at Loughborough

As a means of stimulating discussion and soliciting feedback, the project piloted the Strategic ICT Toolkit institutional self-analysis tool - initially with IT managers and the group leading Loughborough’s recent Change Academy project.

After this initial round, we went on to circulate a simplified questionnaire (see my previous post) to a larger group of stakeholders. It should be noted that in numeric terms the number of individuals involved was still quite small – around 20 in total. Please see our conclusions and recommendations regarding approaches to scaling up.

The individuals the project engaged with were typically directly involved in formulating and promulgating IT Strategy at Loughborough (e.g. members of our IT Committee), and business owners for recent major projects.

IT Committee, our primary governance vehicle for IT at Loughborough, includes representatives from a range of areas including the University’s Academic Leadership Team (the senior management group), Associate Deans, Administrators and the Students Union Executive.


What did we learn?

Our intuition is that we would have come out as "operational" until quite recently - but some of our recent initiatives have helped to tip the balance towards "strategic", as summarized graphically in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Strategic ICT Toolkit Institutional Self-Analysis Result

Examples of these initiatives include:

  • Strategic leadership - our work around Google Apps, JISC innovation projects, hybrid cloud computing and my.Lboro, 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 effort has included presentations to Faculty Boards and Directorates and other key groups (notably Departmental Administrators) on upcoming developments. We have had very good results from student focus groups on developments such as my.Lboro and Google Apps for students, and will be continuing this approach.

For our project, we surveyed stakeholders on a range of factors, asking which of these had influenced their happiness with IT at Loughborough and whether this was in a negative or positive way. Figure 3 below provides an indicative example. Here we see that IT Services’ assistance with procurement and tendering process is highly valued by most respondents.


Figure 3: Stakeholder view on tender and procurement assistance

We were also pleased to see that areas where we had devoted a significant amount of attention were reflected in our results – for example, working with stakeholders and business owners to ensure appropriate governance of projects, as shown in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Stakeholder views on project governance arrangements

The full range of factors we requested feedback on was as follows:

  • Stakeholder involvement
  • Business owners leading on projects
  • Tender and procurement skills
  • Resourcing, including staffing
  • Infrastructure services
  • Project management process
  • Clarity on requirements and timescales
  • Communications and information flow
  • Governance of projects
  • Transition from project to service
  • Customer service
  • Effective issue resolution
  • Strategic leadership

Given these efforts to improve our performance it was therefore, gratifying that our stakeholders recognised that improvements had taken place. We had also solicited qualitative feedback from our stakeholder group, and a selection of this material is included below for illustrative purposes.

Feedback ranged from bouquets and brickbats to specific suggestions for changes and improvements. For example:
"Greater emphasis on involvement from a wider range of stakeholders particularly academics and administrators.”
"There is improved communication by IT staff with people on campus.”
“There are some very effectively run projects around at the moment - examples being timetabling and iTrent”
(we are currently implementing the Serco Facility CMIS central timetabling system, and migrating to iTrent from MidlandHR)

Stakeholders also observed that in a research intensive University like Loughborough, a “one size fits all” approach could not possibly work:
"There are too many customers for this to be an effective method of operation. There has to be some accommodation for more unusual requirements.”
This is an area where we have developed some innovative solutions, such as our 180 seat triple booting iMac facility (see Figure 5), providing access to OS X, Windows and Linux environments – each with their own centrally managed repository of specialist software.


Figure 5: Triple boot iMac workstations at Loughborough


Immediate Impact

Institutions have historically found it difficult to take time out to reflect on what should go into their IT Strategy, and to assess its success. The Strategic ICT Toolkit project has worked perfectly in highlighting the benefits for all concerned from taking a deliberate pause for reflection from time to time. One of our stakeholders summarised this neatly:
“we are sometimes challenged by the immediacy of projects - which is presumably a reflection on the fast moving nature of IT (which makes strategic direction challenging!) to the detriment of longer term goals”
We will see an example below of an area where the IT industry is moving very rapidly to render obsolete much of what institutional IT has traditionally delivered.

In spite of the initiatives detailed above, several stakeholders indicated in their responses that they felt our processes were perhaps still a little too bureaucratic and that our organization needed to be more agile, if not “lean”. Particular areas that were highlighted in feedback to the project included:

  • Project Initiation Documents and associated paperwork
  • Clarity over decision making
  • Ability to respond quickly when an opportunity presents itself (see below)

In stakeholder feedback there was a clear tension between the department’s mission to provide core services to the members of the institution and the more speculative and “entrepreneurial” activities described above. It could be argued that this is a reflection of the larger discussion currently taking place around the role of Universities and the extent to which they are part of (and should remain within) the public sector.

The field test project also highlighted that at Loughborough we have historically taken quite an ad hoc approach to Enterprise Architecture. In the language of the Strategic ICT Toolkit, this would always prevent us from moving from “Strategic” maturity to have a truly “Transformational” approach to IT. In the words of one stakeholder:
“There is still a lack of clarity on how the various IT systems that we have been purchasing could and should work together”
In practice this lack of an overall Enterprise Architecture is a regularly encountered stumbling block that prevents us making best use of our key corporate systems and services. Whilst our stakeholders might not have been familiar with the principles of Enterprise Architecture per se, we were encouraged by several of them to prioritize this work. We expect to do this in the context of JISC’s Flexible Service Delivery programme.


Future Impact

We identified some key challenges through the Strategic ICT Toolkit field test:

  • Using IT as a strategic enabler, allowing the institution to be both responsive to events and proactive should an opportunity such as Loughborough’s Olympic hosting role arise (rather than IT simply being a cost centre)
  • Alignment of IT initiatives to the wider institutional agenda – does it help or hinder a project such as my.Lboro when it is developed “in public” through a process of stakeholder engagement? (versus a “skunkworks” type approach)
  • The Strategic ICT Toolkit provides a wealth of material to support institutions in developing and evaluating their IT Strategies. Is this type of resource accessible to senior managers who are “time poor” (and perhaps no longer “cash rich”)?

We are also constantly being reminded that we live in straitened times. In IT terms this manifests itself through practices such as “sweating the assets” and downsizing or outsourcing of staffing. At Loughborough we have tried to avoid this, and deliberately invested in both infrastructure and staff progression. However, one of our stakeholders sounds a contrary note:
“Even things like Office Software upgrades cost time and effort for users. Sometimes the old is working fine to the users, even if riddled with bugs and security holes, which means it's not working for IT Services."
Conversely over the last couple of years we have started to see a wholly new model of IT provision coalesce around web delivered services, now accelerated by HTML5, and the ethos of Bring Your Own Computer. This neatly side-steps the old issues around centralized device management and software packaging/maintenance. It replaces periodic major updates with a rolling programme of continuous (mostly small) changes, and has the potential to largely remove the requirement for local file storage on user devices and institutional filestore services - with implications for storage and backup, but also privacy and data protection.

Google’s ChromeOS and “chromoting” technology provide perhaps the most drastic example of cloud computing at work, with virtually no requirement for local IT support, and legacy Windows applications potentially delivered from remote providers on a pay-as-you-go basis via in-built VMware View and Citrix Receiver clients. Needless to say, this new approach has significant implications for IT Strategy. Both institutional IT Strategy and the composition and direction of departments like IT Services will have to change drastically if this “cloud” approach proves to be the dominant model.


Conclusions

We would encourage institutions to both develop an IT Strategy and periodically review their strategy – in particular its fitness for purpose, and alignment with institutional strategy.

The Strategic ICT Toolkit provides a wealth of information on key areas in IT Strategy at the present time, and would make an excellent primer for anyone who finds themselves involved in developing IT Strategy.

At Loughborough the Strategic ICT Toolkit has helped us to identify areas where our strategy has worked well and “more of the same” is an appropriate response. It has also highlighted some areas where we need to work harder, or that have to date been somewhat neglected.

We also have some specific feedback for JISC on the institutional self-analysis tool provided as part of the Strategic ICT Toolkit:

  • It was clear that the Strategic ICT Toolkit forms an excellent reference source for those involved in implementing and evaluating IT Strategy.
  • However, in testing the self-analysis component of the JISC Toolkit with a small subset of our key stakeholders, it was noted that the sheer number of questions being asked (91) was overwhelming for some people.
  • The self-analysis tool would require some customization for particular contexts and stakeholder groups – e.g. choice of language, and de-duplication. “Maturity models”, whilst widely used in industry, had some negative connotations, and many stakeholders were unfamiliar with terms such as Enterprise Architecture.
  • It is difficult to synthesize the results from anything other than a handful of responses to the self-analysis tool. An online approach to data gathering could potentially simplify the synthesis, and yielded dividends for our own project.
  • Where a respondent felt unable to answer a question, there was no easy way to discount this from the overall assessment produced by the self-analysis tool. This was not obvious to users of the tool, and had the effect of skewing the result.

In summary, completing the self-analysis template can be a significant piece of work in itself, and there may be other more effective ways of arriving at a similar outcome. One such approach would be to encourage stakeholders (in a workshop setting) to assess for themselves where their institution sits on the various axes used by the toolkit, and for the facilitator to use a flip chart to synthesize the results of the exercise.


Recommendations

As with the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), the Strategic ICT Toolkit is not an instruction manual and should not be treated as one.

The Toolkit may require substantial customization for use in your own institution, e.g. due to assumptions about institutional senior management arrangements, and use of jargon. Even the term “ICT” is somewhat divisive, as this is rarely used in Higher Education circles.

Users of the Toolkit should take care not to develop unrealistic expectations. For example, notwithstanding the Toolkit’s imprecations around Enterprise Architecture, many major software products used by institutions provide no Application Programming Interface and no documentation for their underlying database schema. One market leading product the author is aware of even uses its own proprietary database engine.

We commend JISC and the Strategic ICT Toolkit development team for their hard work developing this resource for the community, and have some specific recommendations that they may wish to consider:

  • Investigate an online based approach to data gathering and visualization, such as the Google Docs form and spreadsheet used in the Loughborough project.
  • Consider a drastic simplification of the self-analysis process focusing on the key data being gathered and encouraging reflective thinking.
  • Consider developing a “digested read” of the Strategic ICT Toolkit, for stakeholders who do not need to know the ins and outs of each of the areas being discussed.
  • Find a home for the Toolkit and other similar documents in a location that people will not have to explicitly seek out. An obvious option to explore here would be Wikipedia.
  • It is important for institutions to learn from failures - IT projects can represent significant capital investment, and failure of a major project can have huge ramifications for the institution. The Toolkit would benefit enormously from including an analysis (perhaps suitably anonymized) of some notable IT failures and considering the link to IT Strategy.


Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.