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SICT - Loughborough University

Drivers

 

Our project was mainly about taking a longitudinal view of the effectiveness of our current IT Strategy, introduced in 2008. Our IT Strategy is currently being updated to reflect recent developments both within the sector and externally and we were keen to recognise and build on our strengths - and take steps to mitigate against any weaknesses.

 

Approach

 

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

 

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 our recent Change Academy project.

 

After this initial round, we went on to circulate a simplified questionnaire 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.

 

The individuals the project engaged with were typically directly involved in formulating and promulgating IT Strategy at the University (eg members of our IT Committee), and business owners for recent major projects. The IT Committee, our primary governance vehicle for IT at the University, 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.

 

For our project, we surveyed stakeholders on a range of factors, asking which of these had influenced their happiness with IT at the University and whether this was in a negative or positive way.

 

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.

 

Findings

 

Prior to undertaking the project the assumption had been that we would 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".

 

However, in spite of the initiatives undertaken in recent years, 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 in section 4. 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 our university 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.

 

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. This is difficult when some of the market leading products that we rely upon do not even provide an API of any sort.

 

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.

 

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 our institution the Strategic ICT Toolkit 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.

 

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.

 

Lessons learned

 

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.

 

In response we developed 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. However, 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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, eg 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.