UCISA Support Services Conference 2013 – Part 1

Having blagged my way into attending the UCISA Management Conference in Liverpool earlier in the year and thoroughly enjoyed it, I was very keen to get out to more events and was very excited (after surprisingly minimal arm twisting) to be able to attend the UCISA Services Support Group Conference up in Edinburgh.

For those of you reading who don’t know, UCISA (the University and Colleges Information Systems Association) represents HE/FE and other organisations interested in information systems and technology in Higher Education. Surrey is a member, along with many others, and I’ve made it my mission of late to make sure we get the most out of our membership…

For the record, details of the programme and presentations, streamed presentations (signup required) and a collection of conference related resources are all available online!

I took the opportunity to head up to Edinburgh the day before (the alternative being a journey starting at 4.30am on the Tuesday) and had a great evening meeting some of the other attendees who’d had a similar idea.

After a 12 hour unscheduled break for food poisoning, the conference programme started just after lunch…

Peter Tinson, UCISA’s Executive Secretary formally opened the conference (John Cartwright being needed back at the office) with, among other bits of business, an invitation to take part in the debate happening on Twitter – something I enjoyed immensely in Liverpool and had a lot of value again this time around.

The first session came from Ian MacDonald of The Co-operative Group (presentation), who talked about assessment, benchmarking and Continual Service Improvement. Having worked through the grind that is the ITIL v3 Expert qualification it all felt quite generic – if there was anyone in the room for the presentation hadn’t seen the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle at least a dozen times I’d be very disappointed!

Plan, do, check, act - Ian Macdonald

Plan, do, check, act – Ian Macdonald

Amongst the reproduced ITIL charts (and 50 Shades of Grey references) there was value to be had, however.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that we are not always the best placed to judge how well we’re doing and that external references are needed. All but the most self-aware will likely have been feeling they were doing well, only for reality to deliver a sudden and harsh lesson. Something worth keeping in mind as I approach appraisal season too…

Ian walked us through CSI’s role as the “organisational sat-nav”, with a focus being on

  • where you are – having noted earlier in the presentation that assessment and benchmarking is pivotal here
  • where you want to be – it being vital to link this to the business’ aims so as to demonstrate value to the organisation
  • and the journey you need to undertake to get there.

The discussion of tangible costs and demonstrating value made me wonder the following on Twitter:

I was curious about whether organisations who place their IT departments under the same umbrella as Finance (as we are) see us as being more of a cost than a contribution in comparison to IT departments placed with more teaching/learning focussed units like Libraries (a common arrangement). I can see hierarchy resulting in making a case for value easier/harder, depending on circumstances.

Ian lost me a bit when he talked in detail about establishing a compelling sense of purpose through mission statements, vision statements and straplines. The idea is a valid one, but (and it may be my cynicism when it comes to things like mission statements) I disagree with the method he described. I’d rather be presented with a story. Compare this “management” approach to providing a sense purpose to Dan Batchelor’s tale of intervention to save a student from dropping out after an admin error… I wanted to go back to University just to be a student rep. No one-sentence vision could ever have the same effect.

Statements and Capabilities - Ian MacDonald

Statements and Capabilities – Ian MacDonald

That said, I did like the idea of establishing Core Capabilities – what are the things the organisation has to do well, do consistently and look to improve. Although I would probably be a little less fuzzy in defining these, some of the examples given were quite woolly. I’ve always preferred the idea of having principles of operation (and they are at the heart of our IT Strategy as a result) to help guide decision making in place of rambling textual descriptions or strict, prescriptive procedures.

Discussion of the methods for assessment and benchmarking (self-assessment, certification, benchmarking, awards) featured, as well as the first of many references to the Service Desk Institute over the event, the first reference to the value of certification and awards not only as part of carrying out assessment & benchmarking, but also to demonstration of value internally, helping recruitment and establishing a sense of pride in the service a department offers.

Leading us towards the end of the CSI journey, Ian covered “using the results” and the importance of translating the “where we are” and the “where we want to be” into actual action – which on reflection tied in nicely with the quote about knowledge from Napoleon Hill from the conference’s final presentation!

The brief review of the benefits was a welcome reminder that while much of CSI is generic (and, as ever with such fundamental ideas, mostly common sense) – there is a point. The most interesting point to be listed as a benefit was “Reaffirms that in many cases we are doing the right thing”, providing a nice counterpoint to the opening statement “you are not as good as you think you are”. You might not be as good as you think you are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not doing things well.

Ian shared a final point on the importance of image, making the observation that “If you don’t fly the flag yourself, nobody will do it for you”.

My first Discussions with a Difference session was on different support models in IT – which turned out to actually be about the different IT organisational structures found in HE. Either way, it was interesting to hear what other people were working with. I’ve worked for highly centralised departments with minimal IT resource in the academic departments (Oxford Brookes), highly devolved IT setups where everyone is basically free to do what they want (Oxford (proper!)).

At Surrey we’re somewhere in the middle, where the idea is that the “generic services” are provided centrally (to provide economies of scale etc.) while specialised resources are available in the academic areas. I say it’s the “idea” – we’ve not reached that stage yet, but it is the direction of travel.

What was quite clear in the discussion was that, regardless what the overarching model was at an organisation, there was always some kind of academic IT resource requirement. In some cases this was official, through dedicated local teams. In some cases there were just IT reps (almost like business relationship managers). In some cases it was unofficial (clued up academics). And in the few cases mentioned where there had been a move to total centralisation it was clear that specialist academic IT requirements were proving troublesome…

I found both the DwaD sessions interesting – the idea of practitioners getting together to share ideas and war stories (or hard-earned experience, if you prefer) is what attracts me to these events – but I did feel they needed a little more structure to them to focus the debate.

Part 2 to follow shortly. Yes, here I go again…


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