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Infrastructure and information systems for a world-class 21st-century university

August 2, 2013

I recently applied for the position of DVC Infrastructure and Information Systems at Wits. Didn’t get the job, but rather liked my pitch for it. This is what I said:

Looking into the crystal ball

Colleagues, members of the selection panel: what can infrastructure and information systems contribute to a world-class, 21st-century university? Well, what might such an institution be like?

If I look back at the 20th century, a century which started with a global population of 1.6 billion and ended with a global population of 6 billion; a century that saw two world wars and the development of nuclear weapons, the creation of the computer and ubiquitous mobile communication devices, I am very reluctant to make predictions about the 21st century.

But here are two cautious guesses. Firstly, things will continue to change at least as rapidly as they have in the 20th century. By 2100, the world will be unrecognisable and we are going to have to adapt rapidly. Secondly, there are going to be a lot more people in the world and learning to live cooperatively, as well as to husband our resources, will be priorities.

Universities are persistent. Those of you who have read the Cambridge Medieval History, which was published in 8 volumes between 1911 and 1936, will find in volumes 6 (1929) and 8 (1936) descriptions of the challenges facing universities. They sound uncannily like those we face today – underprepared students, misbehaving academics and lack of funding. As organisations, universities are designed to resist change; the better ones seem to be better at it. The best we can do is to respond to the needs we know universities have and to ensure that our approaches offer the flexibility we might need to change in future.

Dreaming up futures can be fun. I imagine, for example, that during this century we will switch to wearable computers, with computing devices built into our clothes. Imagine students being issued with a branded Wits jacket and glasses on arrival. It is easy to get excited.

I posed the question to a friend who is also a colleague here at Wits. “What do you think we need for a 21st-century university?” He laughed and said “a 20th-century university would be nice”. I suspect that many here are less interested in futuristic visions and probably just want to get an accurate report of what is in their budget, or get the heater in their office working, or feel confident that when they go to a lecture theatre the projector will be working. There are basic elements of infrastructure and information systems that we have to get right first.

The portfolio

This portfolio includes a wide range of services which are provided by at least six departments. I am intrigued by the vice-chancellor’s plan to bring together infrastructure and information systems within one portfolio; in the past few weeks, the more I thought about it, the more I saw commonalities and synergies.

I’m going to talk first about infrastructure, and then about information systems.

A focus on service

The experience of the university infrastructure ought to be one of effortless flow. Like housekeeping at a five-star hotel, when you step out of the shower, there is a freshly-laundered towel, within easy reach. Providing infrastructure is primarily a service function and it works well when there is a strong service ethic. I have visions of CNS technicians walking around campus with ear-pieces, like those waiters in smart restaurants, receiving whispered commands and turning smartly to answer the next call, so that service is unobtrusive and excellent.

It can be done. At one company where I was the General Manager for Information Technology I took over a department that was widely denigrated for their poor service. When I left, the department had just won an award for the best internal service.

If I look at the infrastructure services across the university, they include bulk services, like power and sanitation, buildings and grounds, the interior use of space, retail and catering services and what I call the virtual infrastructure, which I’ll talk more about just now. These are very different areas, but what I see in common is the need to provide services at six levels.

Housekeeping is the routine work that is done daily so that infrastructure works and services are provided without interruption. It is the stuff that you do, that no-one notices you do, until you don’t do it. It is about being proactive, rather than reactive and it requires planning, scheduling, working to routines, and being able to stay motivated even when the work done is invisible, and there is little immediate acknowledgement.

At the next level is the need for rapid responses to incidents. These require a way to bring the situation to the attention of the right people and for those people to be able to respond efficiently. It’s about urgency and responsiveness, as well as about prioritising and dealing with unhappy people. It requires skill and diplomacy.

Monitoring, planning and project work have a longer-term focus. Monitoring is about keeping meticulous records and collecting information. This requires detail-oriented people who understand the need for accurate and comprehensive data. Planning requires vision and creativity and an understanding of the subtle art of providing principles and guidelines without being unnecessarily restrictive. Project work requires project managers that can plan, develop contingencies, motivate teams and deliver on time, to specification and within budget.

I’ve added communications because keeping stakeholders informed and managing expectations is a key element of any service function. Making it explicit ensures that it does not get forgotten.

Given these commonalities, are there synergies that could be exploited to offer better services? For example, could we create a single, professional call centre to manage responses? Would it make sense to have a professional project office, a comprehensive monitoring function and a planning function that looked across all these areas?

Let’s look in more depth at just a few specific aspects of infrastructure.

Getting around

One of the great pleasures and frustrations of physical infrastructure is the need to have people move from one place to another. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the congestion in Empire road every morning. While we love our cars, I think the 21st century is going to see them become luxury items and public transport the norm. So here is my proposal for a “sky transport” system to run between campuses and link Wits to Park station.

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OK, we probably won’t install that during the next five years, but there is no harm in dreaming. More immediately we need to work closely with the City to plan for traffic flows to and from campus and efficient links to public transport.

Within campuses, I am concerned about the extent to which motor vehicles and people use the same space to move around. People-friendly campuses need to have paths for pedestrians that are distinct from those for vehicles, particularly on West campus after the engineer’s breakfast. We need well planned walkways that are easy to use, free of obstacles, well sign-posted and well-lit at night. If we invite Google to map the paths on our campuses we will be able to have routes within campus shown on our phones and tablet devices, or on our Google glasses!

Until cars do become unattainable luxuries, we need to provide vehicle access to the edges of campus and parking facilities, well away from the main pedestrian areas. One colleague has suggested a free, prime parking area in the middle of campus for motor-cycles and bicycles, as a way to encourage people to switch from using cars. Certainly cycle routes are something to be considered. Such measures will improve the quality of life of students and staff and support our goals of attracting the best and brightest.

Spaces for research

To become a world-class university we have to deliver world-class research. Infrastructure for research is more than laboratories and workshops; it’s about how we configure spaces to encourage innovation and collaboration. The way many of our spaces are configured, as corridors lined with individual offices, it is possible to come to work, spend hours in your office and leave without encountering another person. Twenty-first century research is more collaborative and requires something quite different.

The picture here is from Stanford University’s design school, where spaces have been established that foster creativity. Here we see whiteboard walls and partitions that can be reconfigured at will. Displays of half-formed ideas convey the message that the creative process is messy, that it takes wrong turns; it is full of mistakes. Having ideas in progress on display, invites people to contribute to projects other than their own.

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Space influences behaviour. The spaces in the Stanford design school were refined over six years after watching how people behaved in the space. If we want people to get absorbed in ideas we need spaces that provide a seamless experience; spaces where we can talk to colleagues, reach out and scratch an idea on the nearest wall, look up information on a tablet and then drag the display over to a large screen where we can all see it.

A world-class university in the 21st century will de-emphasise (but not doing away with) offices and emphasise shared spaces. It will be organised so that it is impossible to get to your office without encountering your colleagues.

Spaces for learning

In the twenty-first century learning is going to be more self-directed and more collaborative. We will still put students in lecture theatres and lecture to them, but increasingly we will design learning activities that require students to work together and alone.

We will need a mix of facilities: lecture theatres, seminar rooms, and traditional laboratories, but also flat, flexible spaces that can be configured in different ways. We need collaboration spaces where students can get together to work in groups, some of them equipped with screens large enough that a group can work together on a document. We also need quiet spaces where a student can work alone with their personal computing device and a wireless network to hand.

Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, England built a new library that included both quiet spaces and collaboration spaces where talking is permitted. Book borrowing is self-service, as is the borrowing of netbooks in charging racks around the library. The netbooks provide flexibility. Students can work alone in a quiet space for a while and then join up with colleagues in a collaboration space to work on a joint project.

The netbooks are powerful enough to run the client side of virtual applications and were cheaper and used less power than more conventional desktops or notebooks. They were also used to track where students worked and for how long, facilitating research into students’ use of learning spaces.

The virtual infrastructure

I want to talk a bit about what I call the virtual infrastructure. What do I include in this? The starting point is a fast, reliable, high-capacity network. We should probably be making a lot of that wireless, both to make it easier to access and to reduce the efforts associated with installing and maintaining network access points. Providing networks includes managing the security of different parts of the networks and managing bandwidth.

Then the virtual infrastructure should provide the virtual equivalent of offices and meeting rooms, filing cabinets and personal assistants. This includes e-mail and calendar tools, virtual conferencing, electronic document sharing, personal spaces for storing and showcasing work, and the same for projects.

I do not believe that the virtual infrastructure will replace the physical infrastructure, at least not in my lifetime, but we are already becoming adept at moving between these two spaces and having excellent facilities in both worlds will be expected of a world-class, 21st-century university.

Information systems

Now I want to turn to the provision of information systems. Here I want to talk, not about the systems that I have already categorised as part of the virtual infrastructure, but the information systems that support operations in the areas of research, learning and administration.

At Wits I think we expect too little of our information systems. I have only a limited view of the Wits systems, but my observation is that they are under-used, that there are many manual processes running alongside the computerised ones, that the data is not trusted, that expected processes do not match actual processes, and that there appears to be a lack of integration between systems. I think we ought to expect more of them. There are well established processes for diagnosing and remedying these common problems with information systems which can be implemented. There is no magic in it, just hard work.

Another concern is that the majority of information systems serve administrative functions, and do not fully support the core academic functions of research and teaching. A world-class, 21st-century university will use information systems strategically in these core areas. We need to develop a portfolio of appropriate applications, aligned to strategic goals. Again there are well-established processes for such alignment.

Libraries, with their long history of collecting, curating and facilitating the use of information, appear to be ahead of the game when it comes to using information systems and offering information services. Closer collaboration with those providing other information systems might be beneficial.

Management information systems

A world-class, 21st-century university needs to make effective use of resources and for this we need to be sure that our decisions and actions are having the intended results. As an institution that champions the idea that knowledge must be based on evidence, I find it ironic that management decisions are so often based on hearsay or opinion. As researchers we ought to be aware that our hunches and deeply-held beliefs do get contradicted when we examine data, and yet we are all (me included) inclined to rush into decisions based on those hunches and beliefs.

We need excellent management information systems that provide us with accessible views of relevant information to enable us to monitor the organisation and make good decisions. Here, for example, is a dashboard that gives information about the research grants sought and awarded for a particular department.

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Effective management information systems need source data structured to accurately reflect the structure of the organisation, and flexible enough to cope with institutional change. Accurate data requires data cleansing. The third element is effective presentation of information.

Knowledge management

I want to say something here about knowledge management. I have taught knowledge management and implemented knowledge management systems and processes in organisations, yet I view it with some scepticism. Like many of the fashions in information systems, knowledge management is partly driven by companies with something to sell. In a world-class, 21st-century university, where we are all engaged with knowledge, I find it slightly ridiculous to have a deputy vice-chancellor charged with managing knowledge. Surely that is the task of everyone?

That said, there are principles of knowledge management, lessons learned about how to share institutional knowledge effectively, that Wits could certainly benefit from: a document sharing facility where all policies, procedures, and minutes of meetings are stored; directories of services and experts; and mechanisms for sharing knowledge. For example, we might want to establish a forum for heads of schools to share problems, experiences and ideas.

Many of these are already in place in one form or another. This example here is from the Wits library web site. Knowledge management is often just about consolidating and improving on what is already in place and then communicating effectively.

Managing flow and flexibility

Once we have provided functionality and reliable information (facts), this portfolio is all about flow and flexibility.

I have discussed some of the physical flows – of traffic to and from campus, of people and vehicles within campuses, and of people within buildings. Having an infrastructure and systems that work, that support the task you are engaged in, is about supporting the psychological state of flow; that mental state of being fully engaged with a task or activity, feeling energized, focussed and absorbed. Flow is the state we want to facilitate for students and academics. And then information systems exist to facilitate information flows: identifying which information is needed where, when and in what format. As the 21st-century progresses there will be more people and more information, resulting in ever more complex flows. Managing these is essential.

Given that the 21st-century is going to be characterised by rapid change, any plans that we do make need to be flexible. Wits has a campus development framework. I learned about this when I chaired the review of Campus Development and Planning. It’s interesting, proposing measures to create a strong boundary for Wits spaces, as well as “foyers” where the city interacts more with the university, and better integration between the Parktown and Braamfontein campuses. This framework distinguishes between controls that are mandatory and guidelines which are indicative, illustrating a good compromise between ensuring a coherent direction, and flexibility to adapt when the need arises. Similar concerns for flexibility can and should be accommodated in how we design processes, the policies we make and the systems we deploy.

In conclusion

I am a technophile. I learned to programme on punch cards and a UNIVAC machine. When Scientific American published the 1985 article that explained how to write a program to display the Mandelbrot set, I ran over to a friend who had a PC, wrote the programme and watched in awe as a blurry image of the famous set emerged, line by line, on that old continuous-print paper. I programmed some of the first ATMs deployed in South Africa. In one company I designed and installed the first network to connect stand-alone PCs in their offices – and then went to work on Saturdays to play Doom over the network. I took two companies through Y2K and as the clock counted down to the start of the 21st century, I was on the phone to technicians to check that nothing untoward happened.

Over the course of my career I became less interested in technology and more interested in people and the organisations they create. Computers are predictable; they do as they are told. People and organisations are not. They are complex, unpredictable, messy, creative and much more fun. I have been in management roles for about 14 years now and there is always something new to learn. Understanding why people behave as they do and designing systems and processes that take this into account to achieve common goals, sometimes where there are multiple, conflicting goals, is a never-ending fascination.

If I look again into the crystal ball, I think that our 21st century university will be supported first by functional infrastructure and information systems, and it needs “facts” – reliable, trusted information to inform decisions. Then, to create a good experience and facilitate academic work, it will need effective flows, both physical and virtual, while being flexible enough to cope with rapid change. Finally, I hope that I have convinced you that infrastructure and information systems will contribute to making this world-class, 21st-century university a lot of fun.

Thank-you.

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