Thursday, 9 December 2010

Gaining the Trust of the SMT as an IT Manager

Yesterday I went to Manchester, having been called in at the last moment to substitute for a speaker who couldn't make it. The event was about Shared Services in Post-16 Education.

One of the comments made at the event was that senior management in colleges don't always make decisions based on sound knowledge of what technology is available and what it can do. But I had to wonder whether that was because senior managers simply didn't care (I don't think so!!!) or did they not trust the level or span of knowledge of their IT manager?

So it led me to follow that train of thought for a while and to start to identify how an IT manager should build that necesary trust if he or she wanted to be consulted as part of senior management decision making.

My own background contains several years as a Head of IT in a college and many more as manager of Management Information Systems. I was probably not the easiest of managers to handle as I constantly strove to improve systems for both SMT and users and that costs money and involves bending ears a lot. But I had the trust of the College Principals that I worked for.

Why? Because I demonstrated that I was keeping on top of new developments and had the good of the college close to my heart. Because I included within my remit (my decison - no one gave this to me) a responsibility to assess the background business processes of the college and I raised issues where I thought they could be improved.

Had I just sat and got on with running the IT team, making sure that systems were working and not trying to understand what others who used the systems were trying to do and how and why, I wouldn't have had the knowledge necessary to gain the trust of anyone outside my own team. And therefore, why should they ask my opinion on anything other than "We want this done, how long will it take?"

The job of an IT Manager should include the assessment of new technologies and I'm sure that 99% of IT Managers do this. But I wonder what percentage go to their senior management team and say "This technology is becoming available. These are the benefits it could bring us, here's what it would cost, here are the risks we would face and here's how we would have to change in order to exploit it."

Now if I was a senior manager in any organisation, that's the IT bod I'd want managing my IT department.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Evidence of Continued Impact of JISC infoNet Resources and Workshops

Shrewsbury College of Art & Technology have already provided a case study of evidence of impact following the training of their Senior Management Team and Middle Managers, on a series of workshops from JISC infoNet.

The workshops included Project Management, Process Review, Risk Management, Change Management, Information and email Management and Managing Multiple Projects in a Complex Environment. Donna Lucas, Head of Human Resources at Shrewsbury, has recently provided an update to this.

She says, “The management of projects here at the college has improved no end. For example we now employ a project management facilitator who works with teams to ensure that they are managing their projects within the disciplines and that individual projects are coordinated from a cross college point of view. We have recently committed to a re build of our engineering block, a 3 million pound project and that will be the first big test of our new approach. Add to this new disciplines for risk management and a range of identified change programmes and the sense of progress is really tangible.”

Details of the events available can be accessed from with the related online resources available from

Please note that workshops are only available to the Post-16 Education Sector in the UK.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

To Plan B or Not To Plan B...

'I can't put a plan together, I wouldn't know where to start - I'm far happier just getting on with it...'

'It would be out of date as soon as we started working on it.'

'No one takes any notice of the plan anyway, they are all doing their own thing.'

Just some of the phrases I've heard as reasons for not producing a project plan. Of course plans change and of course this means producing another but let's put a few arguments forward for why you should.

I suppose the (almost) obvious one is that if you don't know how to plan, how can you 'get on with it'? Where do you start to get on with it? What do you do first? Isn't that the first thing that would go in a plan, then?

Plans fill a number of functions and are not necessarily just for the benefit of the project manager. They help others assess how well the project is doing against its targets, goals and objectives. Assuming it has any. I'm aware of a project recently that hadn't specified what the outputs would be other than that something would be 'better'. Of course the project manager claimed a success at the end of the project, but was it? There had been no plan so it was impossible to check whether tasks had been done. There were no stated tangible outcomes so it was impossible to check whether they had been achieved. The only outcome was that the process involved had to be 'better' but was that so because one or ten people thought it so? Had anyone checked to see whether anyone thought it wasn't better? Or worse?

If plans start out by listing all the things that must be done they can then be scheduled. Put in order. This can be essential if several or many people are involved and some tasks require other tasks to be completed before they can start.

Yes things will change and when they do everyone involved in delivering the project needs to know how it will affect them. So the plan has to be rehashed and the next version produced, circulated and the previous plan discarded.

The discarding of the previous plan needs to be formally dealt with. There has to be a way of knowing which version of the plan is current. Writing the words current or final version is stupid and meaningless because there is bound to come a time when they aren't. But the words will still be written on them!

So plans need version control. There will be draft plans being produced whilst previous versions are still current, so there needs to be a way of identifying a draft plan and an issed plan. There may be several iterations of a draft before it becomes an issue.

At JISC infoNet we use the following system. Each document has a suffix as the last part of the filename. d1a is a draft copy working towards issue 1 and is the first iteration. If I produce d1a and send it to someone else who changes it, they save it as d1b. Once agreed and issued it becomes version i1. If whilst everyone is working to version i1 another version becomes necessary, someone will produce draft copy d2a. That may go through iterations and amendments d2b, d2c etc. Until it becomes version i2 everyone still works to version i1.

If it is necessary to replan, then having the current working plan in front of us helps us to do that, because there is a list of all the things that need to be done and we can add new ones in the knowledge of where they are best placed and can predict how they will affect other tasks that still remain to be done. We can reschedule everyone's work (this being a draft copy until they have all agreed they are available at those times).

I had a long train journey yesterday and my second train was a little late into Birmingham meaning I missed my third train. Now if you were the train controller and your train was ten minutes late, how could you replan your journey without knowing when other trains were going to be crossing your track? In other words...from the current plan!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Self-Evaluating at Organisation Level

There are many reasons for undertaking a self-evaluation and many different ways to do it. Let's start with an evaluation undertaken by the organisation with a view to improving it, making it more effective or more efficient.

Evaluating or reviewing a process would usually call for some investigation at different levels within an organisation. How well does the process involved meet strategic objectives? Is it catered for in written strategy and thus adequately resourced, or does it meet a more localised need, being resourced internally by a team or department? Even so, does it then feature in that department's strategy and do senior management accept it as a necessary process so that the department receives adequate funding to include it?

Who are the end-users and participants in the process? How is the process governed, resourced, managed, delivered and monitored? Do people within the process understand why it exists, how it meets strategic drivers, have access to written guidelines, have a process for giving feedback, raising concerns, suggesting improvements and are these things adequately monitored and actioned?

A while ago I managed a project called Embedding Business & Community Engagement Through Business Process Improvement and Internal Engagement. The Embedding BCE project was only concerned with one (albeit wide-ranging) type of activity within FE and HE institutions. Yet the process of managing and delivering services under the umbrella of BCE meant that we had to engage with senior management, central co-ordinating units, core business process delivery teams such as HR, Finance, IT, Libraries, Estates/Facilities, Information Systems and Marketing and with practitioners from academic departments, research institutes and business units from all over the institution.

No one person could hope to know everything necessary to conduct a self-evaluation on their own.

The interview process in the Embedding BCE project gathered perceptions. The views put forward did not necessarily reflect the truth of the situation - as we got conflicting views and assertions from different people within the same process. But the point is that each interviewee thought it was the truth, or more properly the true situation, that they were giving us.

So a self-evaluation should aim to bring these different viewpoints together. After our interview process we staged a half-day workshop using a workbook that is downloadable from the link at the end of this entry.

The workbook contained around 25 questions. The workshop took around 5 hours. The intention was to stimulate some discussion by allowing these different perceptions to surface and be challenged by a small group of around 10-12 people representing all levels from SMT to Practitioner and from a range of teams and departments.

It identified quick wins where one department was doing something really well, where this could 'easily' now be communicated and replicated across the organisation. Although the workbook asked for scores against questions, this was again aimed at showing that some departments would score differently to others. Improved internal communications would benefit just about every organisation of 5+ staff!

In several cases the workshop discussions involved raised voices at some stage. But the managed conflict sparked ideas and suggestions that were quickly turned into a list of potential improvements or developments. It identified both strengths and weaknesses. It stimulated and inspired many participants. It bored a few.

It made me wary of results of surveys where a single person had completed the questions, or where perhaps several people have completed different sections from their own perception without any interaction. And it made me think that any system that attempts to score an organisation as a whole is going to both short-change good practice and perhaps paper over cracks at the same time. Even with a scoring system of only 1-4 we had arguments over whether a question should be scored 2.3 or 2.6 as the department who would have scored a 3 were reluctant to accept a score of 2! In most cases where these surveys are made public, there is no option to split scores.

Self-evaluating and then acting on the findings are essential to ensure widespread uptake of good practice and that external evaluations find consistency

The methodology and findings of the Embedding BCE project are published in the Embedding BCE infoKit on the JISC infoNet website. I can be contacted through JISC infoNet to help facilitate reviews or self-evaluation workshops of BCE in UK Further and Higher Education institutions if required.

Friday, 9 July 2010

JISC infoNet Resources - Shrewsbury Case Study

The online resources and training provision from my workplace, JISC infoNet is highlighted in this case study video from Shrewsbury College. We worked with the college and delivered a series of interactive workshops to both their senior and middle managers on:
  • Project Management
  • Process Review
  • Risk Management
  • Change Management
  • Managing Multiple Projects in a Complex Environment
  • Organising your Information and Emails

This service is available to all funded colleges and universities within the UK Further and Higher Education Sectors. Contact details here.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The End of Written History?

I've just come across an article on the BBC News Channel - Post-It Notes and the End of Written History by Brian Wheeler.

Despite a decision by the last governement to reduce the 30-years secrecy rule to 20 years, it seems that we may have less access to information rather than more, as legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act has led to official records such as minutes of meetings changing from a full and detailed record to a series of bland statements of the obvious.

The Act covers all written material so notes in margins and post-it notes are covered just as much as the content of formal documents. Harder, however, to obtain evidence that they existed if the organisation claims they do not...

This isn't all that new though - I remember similar fears being aired by historians when the Data Protection Act came in. Claims that organisations would not formally hold any detail that could be subsequently demanded for disclosure by the subject and that might give cause for a claim.

Certainly there has been a great change in the detail you find these days when applying for references for staff. Many organisations have a policy now that any references given should only contain factual bare bones details such as date started and ended and job title. They are not generally worth the cost of asking.

So will future historians think of us as a bland and shallow people, incapable of emotion? Or will informal non-official documents and writings survive to give a totally different, more involved, more emotional point of view? What will have happened to all these blogs we write now? (I have 5 at current count!) Will we be seen as a community of individuals plaintively pouring out words in the hope that someone will read them, whilst retreating from closer forms of contact?

Do our online uses of social networking sites make us more incapable of interacting on a personal level face to face or do they open up new collaborations and widen participation so that geographical boundaries become meaningless?

Does the advent of self publishing, rapidly moving into multimedia with sites such as YouTube and the like, mean that writing may, after something like 9000 years since early mnemonic or pictogram symbols, start to be replaced by more personal, spoken or enacted forms? Certainly the language is evolving as it always has done. Will future historians wonder why there are so many letters to each word?

Yr m8, Jon...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Dashboards, Dials and Dilemmas

There was a bit of a debate going on about Dashboards - providing top end information for senior managers from database sources - on the JISCmail mailing list for Information Managers in the Further Education Sector over the last couple of days.

It's perhaps a bit unfortunate that the term Dashboard seems to goad vendors into designing their products with dials and speedometers and the like to emulate the dashboard of a car. Circular dials are great for seeing how fast you are travelling but not much good for comparing values, say, between departments of a college.

To illustrate: a pie chart...

Here we have 9 departments, which I have imaginatively named 1,2,3...9.

Is Department 3 bigger than Department 1? Is Department 4 bigger than Department 9? Few of us could make that call with a graphic such as this.

Here though, it is much easier to make a judgement and there is yet another way to make it clearer still.

Now I can immediately compare departments at a glance.

Dashboard may be an unfortunate term. Dials take up lots of space and a speedometer usually gives only one figure.

Stephen Few at Perceptual Edge makes the point very eloquently in this article with some brilliantly mystifying examples from commercially available dashboards!

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Change Timeline

Last Wednesday I spent 13 hours putting an audio commentary together and producing a short video to cover the fact I'd double-booked myself on Thursday. It took a long time but was actually really good fun to do and I'm told that the video in particularly went down really well!

The two clashing events were last Thursday, the longer standing one a session on managing Change brought about by introducing IT into Libraries. It was for this event I did the video, which is along the lines of a short activity I did at a similar event in the South West some time ago and I mentioned the topic in an entry here in December 2009.

The other event took me to London to speak to the Employer Engagement Exchange Group, headed by the Higher Education Academy. From there I headed up to Glasgow, on the way speaking to the co-ordinator of the other event who told me the audio and particularly the video had gone down "a storm" and that people were wanting to be able to download it... Must have been better than me being in person by the sounds of it...!

On Friday I ran a Project Management workshop in Glasgow and worked the video into it to see what would happen. People laughed in all the right places and there was a round of applause at the end that was very gratifying!

It's hand-held and horribly wobbly and the title reflects more the original conference subject than the video content. So for Change Management read Benefits Management.

So of course, it's been uploading whilst I wrote this, so have a look...

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Project Highlight Report

The other week we had an email at JISC infoNet asking about our Project Highlight template. It was one of those documents that we included in the Project Management infoKit back in 2003 and it was now timely to go back and review whether or not it filled the needs of a project.

As it happened, I agreed with the person who had emailed us. It didn't. So I set about redesigning the form so that a Project Manager could either use it to report up to a project steering board, or send it out for completion by one of the project team who were managing a large work package as a sub-set of the project activity.

I didn't want a huge thing that would be onerous to fill out, but neither did I want to replicate the old template that didn't include enough information about the activities and associated budgets and timescale.

I ended up with a 2-page MS Word document that you can download from the infoKit page on Reporting and Meetings.

The template requires an assessment of the status of:-
  • the schedule - whether or not we have taken more or less time than was planned

  • the budget - whether the project has cost more or less than we thought it would to date

  • work completed - have we done more or less than we thought we would to date

  • work to be completed during the next period

  • Issues that have arisen during this period, cross referenced if they had been previously identified as risks

  • Any new risks or changes to existing risks in terms of probability/impact

  • Project change - any requested change to scope and its status (agreed/refused/pending decision/deferred)

  • Project Team - any changes to team, roles or responsibilities

  • Any lessons learned - would you have done anything differently, given what you learned during this period?

You can click the graphic for a larger view and, as always, comments are welcome.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Rolling Wave Planning or the Sliding Planning Window

One of the techniques advocated by JISC infoNet is the Sliding Planning Window, often called Rolling or Moving Wave Planning.

This involves planning in detail only so far ahead as you can be reasonably certain how things will unfold. The horizon depends very much on your own circumstances – in some cases measured in months, in others weeks, in others perhaps even less. The approach is designed to save you wasting time doing things like planning a site visit on day 427 of the project before the project has even started. You cannot possibly know at that stage that day 427 would be appropriate or feasible.

However the technique is not an excuse not to plan. Some of the activities involved in the project will have fixed deadlines, so it is important to set out the project plan in terms of deadlines, milestones and a breakdown of tasks and their dependencies on each other. It’s necessary to know the extent of the resource and effort needed. The scheduling can wait until you can be certain that things have a chance of happening how you plan them.

As the name Sliding Planning Window suggests, as time moves onwards, so your horizon moves and things become clearer – each day, each week, each month, as appropriate you can schedule the next period and plan in detail.

You need to ensure that stakeholders, team members and contractors know when they are likely to be needed well in advance. How freely available the time of workers is will give you an indication as to how you need to deal with the activities leading up to their involvement. Some activities that the next activity depends on will require a firm fixed deadline. Some workers will be able to mobilise with more flexibility. Where dependencies or areas of risk come together you need to keep a tighter grip on the plan, seeking progress reports in greater detail or at shorter intervals. These reports can be as formal or informal as circumstances dictate.

Some managers can be challenged by such an approach, wanting to see a fully detailed and scheduled plan up front. This may be because they think you should be able to eliminate risk - an impossibility. It can lead to wasted resource spent planning, only for subsequent events to throw up the need to replan the small detail. In such cases it might help to think of this approach in terms of time-related tolerance.

The JISC infoNet Project Management infoKit was written for the UK Higher and Further Education sectors, but is generic in much of its nature and is available free of charge or site registration.