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To serve a population of 20,000 students and 3,000 staff across 25 locations at City University London, CIO Paul Haley is promoting a major IT consolidation and standardisation exercise to meet the organisation’s demands to do more for less.
According to Haley, who joined in 2011 from the University of Aberdeen, City’s information services were not fit for purpose and management wanted “a step change in IT performance” to accompany a four-year business plan that includes an investment of £200m in information systems, services infrastructure and staff, as well as property and facilities.
“Given the competitive nature of the higher education market, what we do to differentiate ourselves in terms of information systems makes a big difference. We’ve tried to refocus our efforts from operational commodity IT to strategic, value-adding IT,” Haley tells Computer Weekly.
“We have the funding pressure of having to do more for less – education is a competitive business and reducing costs as well as service is very important to us.”
Sector average versus sector leading
One of the main considerations for Haley for the 2014 to 2018 IT strategy at the university was to establish what IT areas deserve to be on the leading edge – while being “sector average” was acceptable for some systems that do not provide business advantage.
“What happens in a lot of universities is that over a period of time cottage industries spin up and minor business activities are developed along with minor business systems. That takes an awful lot of unpicking,” says Haley.
“We spent a lot of time standardising on systems as far as we could and reducing the complexity of the core to fall in line with the university’s strategic plan, which was about information systems services being sector leading in certain areas and sector average in others,” he says.
“The question this posed was where should we be leading and where should be the sector average. For areas such as administrative systems, we would aim for the sector average because they weren’t differentiators. But in pedagogical systems, we would hope to be sector leading – and in terms of our strategy, that’s where we’re going.”
“We are buying a great deal more than building. We slid down enormously in terms of what we’re developing in-house”
Paul Haley, City University
The sector-leading technologies selected by Haley and his team to support the IT services underpinning education and research at City include Moodle, a widely used open source tool for course delivery and learning online. This provides students and lecturers access to content and resources relating to their programmes of study, as well as enables them to participate in web-based activities.
The introduction of Microsoft’s Office 365 is another highlight of Haley’s four-year plan, intended to build digital communities to support and enhance collaboration between students, lecturers, researchers, professional staff, student services and parties external to the university.
In addition, Microsoft SharePoint will provide an integrated environment with Moodle. This is intended to offer a personalised experience for both student and lecturer, with content, resources and features of this environment changing to cater for the various stages of the academic cycle, from marketing and recruitment, as well as the stages of student induction and orientation, education and assessment, all the way through to graduation and lifelong engagement with the university.
According to the CIO, sector-average technologies selected to support IT services relevant to administrative processes include Tribal Sits, a system for student recruitment, progression and awards; Raiser’s Edge, a platform for alumni and donor management provided by Blackbaud; a content management system for the university’s website supplied by Squiz; and SAP for finance, payroll and human resources.
Reducing the complexity of City’s IT infrastructure reduced costs and allowed the organisation to become more agile, says Haley.
“We are buying a great deal more than building. We slid down enormously in terms of what we’re developing in-house. We just buy or use third parties where possible and appropriate,” he says.
As the journey towards value-added IT progresses at City University, Haley has a few noteworthy projects to be delivered over the next six months, such as reviewing and selecting a replacement for the university’s enterprise service bus and migrating its remaining servers to VMware.
City’s datacentre resources reside in a shared services centre run by University of London Computer Centre (ULCC). While the vast majority of City’s servers are located in ULCC’s Senate House, its high-performance computing capabilities are based at ULCC’s centre in Kent.
The move to ULCC’s facilities is another example where operational and financial effectiveness have been achieved, but there’s still room for improvement, says Haley.
“We’re going to consolidate our datacentre space [at ULCC], and hopefully we’ll need fewer services as there will be more virtualisation,” he says.
“With the principle of getting best value in mind, we’re trying to use mainstream products and keep it simple and practical while ensuring our infrastructure remains current. One of the easy savings that we can make is to extend the lifetime of our systems well beyond what it should be, but we’re making sure that we have quite a rigorous renewal process,” says Haley.
“We also try not to be dependent on a particular supplier. We used to be heavily reliant on one particular software supplier – that became extremely expensive and we were really locked into that situation,” he adds.
“Similarly, because of the particular nature of some of the systems we had, we were overly dependent on individual members of staff. If you have a member of staff who holds the keys to a particular area of your technological infrastructure, you’re in for trouble.”
Strategy and innovation
Haley describes a pyramid-like vision for technology at City where IT strategy and innovation is at the top, supported by business relationship management – a role that was non-existent prior to his tenure.
“This is something I introduced at the University of Aberdeen and it’s a two-role function. One is to be the intelligent customer, so the team can articulate the needs of their stakeholders to the technologists, and they also do account management, to manage the expectations of the customers,” says Haley.
“Underneath that – but metaphorically rather than hierarchically – we’ve got service improvement, business analytics, then portfolio project planning and delivery, which also falls under service management,” he adds.
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Some roles under service management – where activities such as user support, application management, testing, quality assurance and datacentre operations are included – are less likely to remain in the university’s portfolio of activities, as it’s felt there are outsourcing options.
“We’ve gone down that route to a certain extent with the shared services with ULCC and that has been extremely successful,” says Haley.
The IT at City is also more customer-focused and commercial than it used to be: “I come from a manufacturing background and I worked for ThyssenKrupp where we were customer-focused, so that concept informed my behaviours in education environments,” he says.
Focus on strategic skills
One of the most testing aspects of Haley’s job remains saving money while delivering all the IT work the university needs.
He says £2m has already been shaved off a budget of £17m before the current four-year plan started. This was done through actions such as team restructuring, with several of the 130-strong IT team leaving the university.
“An awful lot of people left the organisation and new members of staff came in – and maintaining standards at the same time as having that amount of churn was extremely challenging. But in fact, during that period, customer satisfaction scores increased,” says Haley.
When it comes to investing in the skills development of his team, the CIO predicts there will be an increased focus on project management capabilities over the next year.
“I have some enormously able staff and we are trying to get them to take on more strategic roles. An example I often use is that of my network engineers, who are particularly technically able and I often see them doing relatively menial tasks,” says Haley.
“I’d like to see them designing our networks, rather than maintaining them; doing more supplier management, more project management and generally performing a much more strategic role in the organisation rather than a technical one,” he adds.
“I desperately need their technical skills, but I don’t want to necessarily just be harnessing them as technologists – I want to harness them as more than that. Members of staff who can fall into that category are getting far more involved in management and engaging in lots more business analysis type activities rather than purely technical.”
According to Haley, an understanding of technology application, together with supplier and customer management skills, is the way forward for IT professionals who still have a long career ahead of them.
“The natural habitat of the technologist is in an office dealing with technology, not people. But the future we see for them is people-focused, be it suppliers, colleagues or customers in the university,” he says.
“To remain pure technologists for the rest of their lives is not advisable, not if they want to advance anyway – unless they’re working for a specialist company, which obviously City University isn’t. However, once we made it clear what was expected of people, they have risen remarkably well to the challenge.”
As well as changes in the skills required to handle City’s IT requirements, Haley says his other big challenge is to keep up with the speed of change.
“I can’t speak highly enough of my staff. They have risen to the challenge and delivered a service that City is very pleased with year after year, even though it’s been challenging for them. But it’s very hard to keep up the pace of change that we have undergone over the past four years, improve service and to keep going,” says Haley.
“So we’re trying to engage staff in communicating and getting more involved in IT strategy, as well as training, not necessarily just technical training, but personal development training. That is so they feel City is a really good place to work – and their achievements show the hard work is well worth it.”