Looking Back

Exactly six years ago today, on Friday 24th February 2006 myself and John Heap (from Leeds Metropolitan University and, at the time, a UCISA committee member) organised a joint workshop at Warwick University on “Initiatives & Innovation: Managing Disruptive Technologies“. The abstract for the event is described how:

Computing, IT and Learning Technology Services within HE institutions must maintain reliable, stable, high availability services whilst undertaking development work on new systems, applications and technologies. All this is done within a framework of new opportunities, and occasionally new constraints, provided by national and regional managed initiatives and development projects.

Additionally, as technology is increasingly used in the direct support of teaching and learning, new ideas and technologies arise not from the Computing Service itself, but from academic staff who, understandably, want maximum flexibility in their ability to introduce and exploit new technologies.

This workshop will explore the issues involved in managing these potentially disruptive technologies and will work towards a framework that can be used to balance the demands for innovation and constant development with the need for stability and security.

The following definitions of disruptive technologies were provided:

The Free Online Dictionary defines disruptive technology as: “A new technology that has a serious impact on the status quo and changes the way people have been dealing with something, perhaps for decades. Music CDs all but wiped out the phonograph industry within a few years, and digital cameras are destined to eliminate the film industry. The most disruptive technologies in history have been the telephone, the computer (and all of its offshoots) and the Internet.

Another definition from Christian Brothers University defines disruptive technology as: “Technologies that enable the breaking of long-held business rules that inhibit organizations from making radical business changes”.

It is interesting looking at the objectives for the event, which aimed to ensure that the workshop participants:

  • Gained an understanding of JISC’s E-Framework strategy and the role of SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) in JISC-funded development activities.
  • Had an opportunity to discuss the implications of the E-Framework for institutional IT Service departments.
  • Learnt about the potential to support teaching and learning and research of a variety of Internet technologies such as instant messaging, Blogs, Wikis, Skype, etc.
  • Discussed some of the potential difficulties in providing, maintaining and supporting such technologies.
  • Explored approaches to reconciling the tensions between the user community’s desires to make use of such technologies and the difficulties in satisfying such requests.

“IT Services: Help or Hindrance?”

It was around this time, which coincided with the height of Little Britain’s popularity, that I made use of the catchphrase “Computer Says No” to point out the popular stereotype of IT Service departments, which we also saw in the IT Crowd. Interestingly it seems that Little Britain also had a following in the US, with Michael Stephens noticing a presentation I gave and writing a blog post which featured the accompanying image.

At the UCISA Management Conference 2006 I posed the, somewhat provocative, question “IT Services: Help Or Hindrance?” in which I raised concerns which I had previously described in a paper on IT Services – Help Or Hindrance To National IT Development Programmes?. As described in the abstract for the paper:

There is a danger that development work, including development funded by national and international funding programmes, can be hindered by institutional IT services departments. However IT services may feel that developers fail to understand the security, performance and support issues which deployment of applications is likely to entail.

Around that time there were concerns over the provision of instant messaging clients, such as MSN Messenger, for student use. Such applications were, some IT staff suggested, only used for trivial purposes. The arguments for blocking access to Skype covered both performance issues (“Skype can turn PCs  into a ‘Supernode’ and consume bandwidth“), ideological (?) (“Skype uses a proprietary standard – we should only provide access to SIP-compliant Internet teleph0ny applications“) and policy (“Use of Skype contravenes the JANET AUP so we can’t use it“). The arguments concerns regarding provision of blogs and wikis tended to relate to concerns about inappropriate content being published and the associated difficulties in managing the content and the legal and reputational risks.

How Have Things Changed?

How have things changed over the past six years?

Some of the specific concerns I listed above are now, surely, no longer an issue. The value provided by Skype to the sector has, I feel, been accepted and although SIP-compliant VoIP services may be used as part of an institution’s telephony infrastructure on the desktop (and, indeed, on mobile phones) Skype probably is the safe mainstream option.

Similarly the desire to block access to instant messaging services probably became untenable once web-based client became popular, as well as many instant messaging facilities in a host of other applications: it seems strange when editing a collaborative document in Google Docs and having realtime chat with co-authors that at one time such activities were regarded as trivial.

As to whether IT Services should provide access to blogs, with the associated risks related to the lack of formal editorial control processes, the arguments for the need to control use of such applications became marginalised as academic, researchers and, indeed, IT Service staff themselves, started to make use of cloud-based solutions such as WordPress.com and Blogspot.com. On 17 October 2007, for example, Christine Sexton, IT Services Director at the University of Sheffield launched her blog on Blogspot published 62 posts in the remainder of the year and 208 in 2008, heralding the first generation of senior managers in IT Services who were willing to make use of blogs. And as well as use of third party blog platforms by those who wanted to exploit the potential of blogs to support their professional activities, we also saw institutions starting to install, and in some cases, develop blog platforms hosted within the institution. The lead in this area was taken by the University of Warwick Blogbuilder platform. Interestingly although people have been known to swear on their blog posts, the world hasn’t collapsed and there are now 8,311 blogs, 160,810 entries, 27,497 tags, 217,208 comments and 119925 images!

Have we then seen over the past six years “[Disruptive] Technologies that enable the breaking of long-held business rules that inhibit organizations from making radical business changes” which have transformed of the education business – the role of IT Service departments? I don’t really feel that this is the case. Rather we have seen IT Services (in higher education – this is not necessarily the case in schools or across other public sector organisations) IT Services becoming more flexible and more user-focussed in their approaches. In part this is due to the leadership shown by senior managers such as Chris Sexton (who, in 2010 when she was also UCISA chair managed to published 162 blog posts). But, ironically, to an extent we also have the financial crisis to thank for the culture change we are seeing, with a realisation that at a time of reductions in funding and opportunities provided by cloud services (especially those which are free to use) that the priority should be to support the needs of the user community. So I’m prepared to acknowledge the (unforeseen) benefits which the international banking sector helped to instigate 🙂

But I’d be interested in your views on changes in the provision and support of IT across the sector over the past six years. Do you agree with my view that things have improved or would you prefer to go back to the way we were?