Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Connecting Silos in the Canadian Digital Infrastructure

Note: this article is cross-posted on the Simon Fraser University site

I was recently travelling across Canada by car driving past grain elevators and wide open spaces, giving me time and space to reflect on a number of ideas. The prairies typically give a driver lots of time to ponder a wide variety of themes, but one in idea in particular was how we as a nation work together remarkably well on national digital infrastructure, despite the vast seemingly empty plains.

For example, after almost two years as President of CUCCIO (Canadian University Council of CIOs) I have had the opportunity to observe the how the organization interacts with rest of the Canadian digital ecosystem. Late last year Universities Canada published “Canadian Universities and the Digital Future.” In that document they posed the question, “What do Canadian universities need to become digital leaders?” Their answer to the question consisted of a five actions based on their digital technologies survey from the fall 2015:
  1. The sharing of best practices and evidence-based technology investments.
  2. The development of national strategies and greater coordination among all levels of government, service providers, and universities. 
  3. Improved collaboration both within and between institutions.
  4. Improved capacity for institutional change management. 
  5. More sustainable and flexible funding models and resources. 
What is particularly interesting is how the CUCCIO organization is already delivering solutions in each of these five action areas and directly assisting Canadian Universities to become digital leaders. I would like to address each action separately.

1. The sharing of best practices and evidence-based technology investments.

This first recommended action is CUCCIO’s founding raison d’etre. This type of sharing is why we felt compelled to created CUCCIO in the first place. As Chief Information Officers responsible for our institutions’ digital infrastructures, we derive enormous value from both participating and contributing to CUCCIO. Every CUCCIO meeting is an occasion for the IT leaders of universities across Canada to share digital best practices and technological learning experiences, while also taking the rare opportunity to pause and reflect on the future. CUCCIO meetings create the unique atmosphere and environment necessary for the all leaders of university digital infrastructures to freely share experiences, ideas, successes, and failures in a mutually supportive, non-judgemental, and unconstrained environment.

2. The development of national strategies and greater coordination among all levels of government, service providers, and universities. 

As President I have seen CUCCIO interact with an astounding array of government and national IT organizations. We work closely with Compute Canada on national computing initiatives, including the wildly successful 2016 CANHEIT & HPCS co-hosted conference. The Executive Directors of CAUBO and CANHEIT work together regularly on a wide variety of higher education administration activities. The Leadership Council for Digital Infrastructure was created in 2012 at a forum initiated and facilitated by CUCCIO. Leaders from CUCCIO meet regularly with leaders of parallel international organizations through CHEITA (Community of Higher Education International Technology Associations). CUCCIO contributes on a constant basis with CANARIE through their CIO Advisory Council. Research Data Canada works closely with CUCCIO for support and several CUCCIO members are directly involved. Finally, CUCCIO is our national voice with the largest technology vendors including Microsoft, Amazon, D2L, Gartner, and the Educational Advisory Board. With almost 60 universities participating in CUCCIO, there is no other organization in the higher education sphere in Canada that is so broadly and deeply connected.

3. Improved collaboration both within and between institutions.

Fundamental to the success of CUCCIO is its ability to mobilize IT resources from across Canada to solve particularly critical national digital infrastructure issues. The CUCCIO Security Special Interest Group (SIG) is instrumental in sharing best practices around national IT security issues, and coming together to communicate immediately about emerging security threats to the community. Project management tools and techniques are shared nationally through the CUCCIO Project Management SIG and the recently created Client Services SIG will help improve customer experiences throughout our digital infrastructure. Via ad hoc conference calls to deal with emerging issues, the CUCCIO Executive Director brings together the right mix of people with digital infrastructure skills to help resolve impending issues such as reacting to protection of privacy challenges or rampant ransomware attacks. Finally, CANHEIT, the annual sharing of higher education digital technology ideas, experiences, and changes is facilitated and seed funded by CUCCIO.

4. Improved capacity for institutional change management. 

I would argue that you cannot “manage” change, but you can socialize change in a mindful and conscientious manner. This realistic approach to change requires help and support. It requires sources of experience and lessons learned. It requires an open community of like minded change leaders who are open to sharing their learning moments and scars. Access to nearly 60 university digital leaders via CUCCIO is like a security blanket for change. Technological change is an inevitability, and no matter what changes, there are very few times I am doing it alone. I always have someone else in the CUCCIO community that is travelling a similar path. I can always learn from their experiences, and glean vital help and advice from them.

5. More sustainable and flexible funding models and resources. 

Funding is always a contentious issue, particularly if the arguments are devoid of data. But CUCCIO has been leading a national benchmarking initiative for several years. The data from this work is invaluable in understanding the digital infrastructure investment in each university. This body of knowledge has been constructed using appropriate factors that account for digital infrastructure environments that vary by several dimensions across Canada. Quite successfully, the CUCCIO benchmarking helps us all understand what are comparable and appropriate costs throughout the national infrastructure. This understanding forms the basis for justifying any proposed funding models and allocating appropriate resources. Fact based benchmarking also helps the entire community improve our negotiating stance with vendors, leading to contracts where our national digital infrastructure can have greater control over key issues such as data management and privacy.

Clearly CUCCIO is central to helping Canadian universities become digital leaders. I strongly urge everyone involved with CUCCIO and everyone who works with CUCCIO to spread the message about the strategic significance of the organization in the Canadian digital ecosystem. Much like isolated grain elevators on the prairies in a deep winter storm, without CUCCIO, the higher education digital infrastructure in Canada would simply be a sparse set of silos devoid of connectivity and community.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Higher Education IT Trends: 2016

Note: this is cross-posted at the Simon Fraser University site.

As part of my duties as President of CUCCIO I am expected to give the President’s report to the Annual General Meeting. At the June meeting my talk included some observations about trends and changes in higher education IT I have seen in the past year. Several folks have asked me to share these ideas so I wrote this blog post as a summary of the speech.

1.      Cloud computing isn’t a big deal

Cloud computing is simply a fact of life and we are dealing with it. Every organization has its own approaches and strategies that suit the uniqueness of their institutions and legislative domains. From Dalhousie University’s fascinating cloud first strategy to SFU’s cloud consumer and provider strategy, every university is dealing with it.

2.      Security is compelling and demanding and ubiquitous

The recent ransomware attack at the UofC has raised the profile of IT security in a jarring and shocking manner. Not only was the university forced to pay an embarrassing ransom, but more importantly, all their IT systems were shut down for 10 full days which has an immeasurable fiscal impact. Universities can no longer hide behind the veil of academic freedom to continue to justify a network security blanket that resembles cheesecloth.

3.      IT isn’t a cost, it’s an investment

Conversations with President’s, Provosts, VPs of Finance, and Research VPs are reflecting a new perspective of IT. In the past the conversation about IT was typically all about the cost. Now the conversation is changing; we are talking about how to extract value from the investment in IT. These are investments helping the university achieve educational, academic, research, and community objectives.

4.      Social media is no longer special, it’s just media

We are now talking about a digital experience, not just a learning experience for our students. We are creating digital strategies that engage our stakeholders and integrate new media changes into everything happening on campus. From a media perspective, traditional IT is like a millstone around the neck of media innovation. “Social” media is no longer unique – it is the media.

5.      Benchmarking is community building

A number of universities across Canada participate in a benchmarking initiative. This sharing of IT data exposes our strengths and weaknesses in a measurable manner. The act of sharing such sensitive data requires an unusual level of community trust. Emerging from this trust is a stronger community of shared interests. If I see a similar school with interesting metrics I can simply pick up the phone and to ask what they are doing and how they are doing it. The ability to compare and contact is priceless, and it builds a stronger and healthier higher education IT community.

6.      IT used to provide technology with a service component; now IT provides service with a technology component.

Our clients don’t want technology; they want the service delivered by the technology. The entire emphasis of our information systems organizations has clearly shifted from technology to services. We are becoming client-centric and the shift to out-sourcing (cloud computing) is accelerating that change. In a more cloud oriented world, we do increasingly less with baseline technology and we become integrators of a basket of services from a wide variety of providers.

7.      There is no such thing as IT strategy

IT departments expend a lot of energy developing technology strategies. Nobody cares. Much to IT’s chagrin, they are discovering that IT staff are the only folks in the institution reading the strategy. Today, real IT strategy is part and parcel of the fabric of the university strategy. The best IT strategies are the ones embedded into the university strategic plan.

As we wrap up the current academic year and entering into the summer months, we have the opportunity to reflect on these trends and think about how we should respond to them effectively. I look forward to a new academic year with more changes and a new series of ever-changing IT trends.