Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Embedding BCE Project

I'm currently down in Birmingham at the 3-day Association of Colleges Conference.

Having sat through a number of ministerial sessions (stood through for one of them...) you could be forgiven for thinking that the conference theme was all about colleges engaging with business. It's an obvious priority at the moment and this is a good thing for me, because I'm currently project managing a JISC-funded project "Embedding BCE (Business & Community Engagement) through Business Process Improvement and Internal Engagement". A bit of a mouthful - so I'm calling it simply "Embedding BCE".

We're working with 5 institutional partners (UK colleges and universities) to find and highlight areas and examples of good practice and identify barriers and issues surrounding such work. It aims to help the 5 partners to identify ways improve their current business processes. It will give a picture of how well embedded BCE work is currently and produce online resources to help other institutions do the same for themselves.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Going Green, Gaining Benefits

Back in the days when I was Head of IT in a College of Further Education (all of 6 years ago) if you wanted to buy a new server it took forever. Well... a period measured probably in months anyway.

It was a major item of expense, you had to get Finance approval, you had to go through a selection process, place an order, wait for delivery which usually meant waiting for it to be built and then you had to find a place in the racking, purchase an uninterruptable power supply (UPS), get the thing up and running with all the software you wanted it to run and finally introduce it to the world of unsure users by way of connecting it to the corporate network.

We went from the days of each application having its own server, because that was all the server could cope with, to running multiple applications on servers because they became more robust and capable.

In these days of advanced technology (how I'm going to laugh at that in 5 years time...) the buzzword is virtualisation.

The trend is now reversed with servers being dedicated to a single application once more, meaning if there is a need to take the server down then only one function is affected. Even this is becoming rare. What is different now though, is that the multiples of servers required by this approach can now be running on a single machine.

Huh? Yes it sounds a bit weird if, like me, you went through your spotty phase in the 1960s, but virtualisation is about a single hefty server running multiple instances of operating systems and driving either dedicated disk drives or shared drives. To all extents and purposes what the end user, perhaps in HR, sees is their own Windows server with their HR systems and nothing else on it. They may be unaware that the same box is driving an Oracle database for Finance, a SQL Server database for someone else and that someone different again is using the same box but with a Linux operating system...

Risky? Not really, the number of swap-out components these days means if one of the resident virtual servers goes down the others should be unaffected.

But why is this any greener? Well because whilst you may well have twin power packs and UPS protection that's still a lot less than the dozen or so servers that you may have had in the past, each drawing power and requiring UPS protection. So we're cutting down considerably on our use of electricity from the National Grid.

Plus, the reduction in the number of power supplies and UPSs (don't you hate plurals like that?) means that considerably less heat is being generated, manifesting itself as a reduced requirement for air conditioning, leading to yet less requirement for electricity to drive the air conditioners.

Ok so it's green. Does it have any other benefits? Well yes it does. Remember the list of things I had to do in the past to get a new server? Trying to get approval to buy a new server merely to test something out would have been unthinkable then.

But to quote Network Manager Neil Hunt at Myerscough College in Lancashire: "I've set up three new servers this week just to try things out and then torn them down when I'd finished."

What? So how long does it take to set up a brand new (virtual) server on an existing box? "I can have a Windows server up and running from scratch in about three minutes, using a template such as Win2008 Service Pack 2".

The cost of a box big enough to host 11-16 virtual servers (depending on what you want each to do!) is somewhere in the region of 5-6 thousand pounds. Which means that once you have 2-3 virtual servers running on it, you have reached or surpassed the break-even point in terms of costs of individual servers.

Helping the environment? I'm all for it...!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Keith Duckitt

Keith Duckitt of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) looks on as the Chairman of the National College Management Information Services Board (National CMIS Board), John Rockett, shakes hands with the Chairman of the National Association for Information Technology in Further Education (NAITFE), Malcolm Himsworth, to merge the two organisations and form the National Information and Learning Technology Association (NILTA) in July 1995.

I attended Keith's funeral on Tuesday, a sad occasion as all funerals are, but a celebration of a man who was much loved by those of us in the Further Education Sector of those days and a veritable mover and shaker in the implementation of new technology in learning.

He is pictured doing what he did best - bringing people together to get things done. One of the tributes given yesterday mentioned that many people have said of Keith; "If it hadn't been for Keith, I wouldn't have been where I am now." I am one of those.

Keith Duckitt 1940-2008 RIP

Large Version of the Photo: Keith

Monday, 14 April 2008

Know Your Strategic Objectives

As part of an activity on one of our workshops at JISC infoNet I ask delegates to list their organisation's strategic objectives. For some of them this is an impossible task as they just don't know them.

This isn't because of any lack of attention or poor memory - in one conversation I had recently a college manager said "We don't tell staff below Senior Management Team level what our strategic objectives are because they don't need to know."

Now I have to agree that for a data entry clerk in an office, feeding student data into a database, that may be true in as far as their day-to-day work is concerned, although even there it may explain why some of that data is important to the organisation.

However when we look at the sort of work carried out by many staff which is outside the normal day-to-day routine - i.e. project work - then it would surely be of some help in identifying projects that contribute to strategic objectives and allow some prioritisation or even a basis for saying "no" to running a proposed project.

Projects are funny things in many organisations and they are run along the lines of Mastermind - they've started so they'll finish. By which I mean that, despite it becoming obvious sometimes that a project has no hope of achieving the goals and outputs it was created to achieve, no one will actually take the responsibility of pulling the plug and saving the money allocated but as yet unspent.

Where strategic objectives are disseminated throughout an organisation it can give a sense of purpose to the work of staff who are able to to make the links between what they do and the strategic objectives of the organisation. It helps to engender a corporate culture - rather than what is all too often the case, where lots of clashing sub-cultures exist and staff are happy to form their own game plans without any thought or check to see whether there is goal conflict with another team elsewhere in the organisation.

I'm minded of the time when a colleague was at a senior management away-day. At the end of the day when everyone was happily getting sloshed in the bar, one of the managers had withdrawn to a corner with some papers. One of the other managers felt this unacceptable and went over to enquire what she was doing.

"I'm working on my Departmental Plan" came the answer and in evidence the documents were thrust under the second manager's nose. About to dismiss this as a poor excuse for sobriety, the second manager noticed one section of wording on the plan.

"Hang on," he said, "if you do that you'll be using resources that I need and I won't be able to achieve my goals..."

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Identify the Critical Pressure Points

Every business has its critical pressure points. Those parts of the business process that, should they go wrong, will have a knock-on effect to the rest of the business like a snowball effect.

The other night I went with some friends to a busy restaurant and the person on the door gave some wildly optimistic waiting times. People kept coming in and accepting the short waiting times he gave, had a drink at the bar and then started to complain.

By the time they were seated (around 3x the waiting period suggested) they had been in the bar long enough to be confident to complain even more. This of course slowed down the waiting staff even more and gave them a thoroughly stressful evening.

The restaurant was consequently so full that the kitchen couldn't cope either and food was coming out showing signs of a chef and his team struggling to cook so much food at once. Things were getting burned and being served blackened around the edges. More complaints.

The point is that the whole situatuion could have been alleviated by the doorman giving more realistic waiting times. They would have lost some customers, but the ones who stayed would have had a good night out instead of a bad one.

Having more business than you can satisfy should be on everyone's risk register. How would you turn business away, or delay it, without causing offence? Would you recognise when the situation was becoming out of hand and how would you step in to manage it?

Have you identified the critical pressure points that could be the cause of a build up of pressure on the other processes of the organisation? It's sometimes easier to solve symptoms than causes. But it's better to deal with the cause.