- IT transformation programme implements user-driven projects
- £10m infrastructure project upgraded network and virtualised datacentres
- Shift in IT staff focus from technology support to developing user services
- Getting feedback from the university's user community
- How universities realised the importance of IT
Warwick University has embarked on the latest phase of its three-year IT transformation with a strategy to introduce small-scale, user-driven IT changes. This follows the completion of large infrastructure and education projects.
Since 2008 the university has been on a journey to transform its IT operation into one that offers services users need, rather than merely supporting IT. Mike Roberts, IT director at Warwick University, said it had to invest heavily in IT infrastructure and retraining to reach this goal.
The transformation was planned to be in three stages of IT upgrades, IT department education and user-driven changes.
Phase one of the project saw the university embark on major infrastructure projects, including network and datacentre upgrades.
About £10m was invested in a new core network based on Cisco technology, which was built by specialist education networking supplier BT iNet during a 14-week period in summer 2010. The network - which is expected to save about £15m over 11 years - allowed the university to offer services including VoIP and video conferencing from the desktop.
The university had also reached capacity in its datacentre and needed to address this. It has virtualised the datacentre with a ratio that saw the applications on every 10 physical servers transferred to one virtual server.
Phase two, which was completed this year, involved re-educating workers who have always focused on technology, to be services-driven. "Our internal team was full of dedicated people with a focus on technology and we needed to shift this to a focus on services," said Roberts. "Their interest was managing the technology but we wanted them to think about developing a service from a user's perspective."
The university invested a lot of time and effort in HR management to get people to think about services. Methodologies such as ITIL and Six Sigma were taught to staff.
The first two phases have fixed IT and set the foundation for the university's IT to become services-driven. Phase three sees the university attempt to exploit its improved infrastructure and new skills to create lots of small, user-driven projects. "Our major challenge now is finding the interesting and innovative ideas and the problems the people in our community have, and then making technology to do what they want it to do," said Roberts.
He said communication with users is vital when bringing in a service-focused IT operation, but it is not easy to get the right feedback. Warwick University's user community is about 30,000 strong with academics, students and administration staff that can all make suggestions that would improve IT. "The biggest challenge is tapping into this community," said Roberts. "For example a member might be sitting there with a problem that we have a solution to. But if the two do not communicate it will never be sorted out."
An example of the benefits gained from better communication with users was when the large volumes of research stored by academics became an issue. The academics would store all the data locally rather than in the university datacentre. This was a legacy of the previous network and datacentre being inefficient. Now that the new network and datacentre upgrade are in place, it is cheaper and easier to store the data in the datacentre. Roberts said this resolution came about after the IT and academics communicated about the issue.
Universities today are under pressure to improve IT. This is the result of increased competition, reduced financial support from government and higher fees making tech-savvy students look at the IT on offer from potential places to study.
Roberts said universities have realised the importance of their IT in the same way that private sector companies did ten years ago. "There is a growing realisation in institutions that without IT the organisation simple does not work."
He said universities face major challenges satisfying demanding students. "Students expect high standards and will compare us against other universities and expect the same level of service they get from companies like Google. As they consider higher fees, they need to know they will get more for their money."
Roberts adds that universities have a unique challenge of taking on thousands of new users every year. "What's different about a university compared to other organisations is we get 5,000 people turning up every year with new ideas and expectations."
Read more on IT project management
University of Warwick graduates to BT 5G to accelerate innovation
University of Hertfordshire and Goonhilly hail deep learning-led UK mapping data breakthrough
Case study: The Alan Turing Institute takes cloud-first stance on data science research
Universities give free cloud services to UK medical researchers