Work-related

the limits of outsourcing

In my last post, about approaching outsourcing in higher education from a strategic view that goes beyond simple cost savings or privacy concerns, I talked about how outsourcing should either lower costs, increase value, or do both in order to help an organization develop and maintain a competitive advantage.

Defining competitive advantage in higher education or specifically IT therein is not easy.  It’s more than simply how a university or college does in rankings or how well it attracts students.  It might be measurable in terms of how it does compared to its direct competitors – how many times a student that applies to both schools chooses a particular one is somewhat indicative of a competitive advantage.

But let’s just presume that there are a great many factors that lead to something akin to an advantage that is useful when in competition for the best and brightest students with other schools.  The quantity of factors makes it all the harder to quantify the benefit of specific strategic planning decisions, but overall there is at least room for reasonable conjecture.

So the question remains – what should be outsourced?  What activities do technology departments in higher education engage in that are not directly beneficial in terms of competitive advantage?  What activities could be best outsourced such that cost goes down, value goes up, or both, leading to more students choosing one school over another?

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next in higher ed: outsourcing as strategy

A hot topic for some time now in Higher Education is outsourcing.  Generally, this has taken the form of using Google for e-mail.  In fact, other than a handful that use Microsoft’s live@edu for e-mail…I can’t think of anyone else doing anything through outsourcing.  No storage, no running of Exchange in the cloud, etc.

Having said that, this is a really heated and controversial topic for a number of reasons.  There is the legal one – FERPA states, essentially, that an educational institution cannot provide student information to an outside organization.  Whether having Google host your e-mail, which is relatively secure behind encryption, etc, is violating FERPA has often been based on interpretation by General Counsel.  Second, I am convinced that there is a strong belief that university data should stay on university servers.  Even more than what most companies feel at an emotional, possessive and perhaps maternalistic level, universities have this suspicion about letting data go.  Academia is free and intellectually unbound and independent – to host data at Google is like selling one’s soul.

Personally, I’m interested in taking this a step further.  Let’s talk about outsourcing as a strategy.  Right now, universities that have gone to Google have done so out of cost savings.  No storage servers, fewer admins, etc, and you save money in providing e-mail to faculty, staff, and students.  This is often the end of the discussion.

But if one were to take the emotional aspect out of things, and presume (fiat power!) that the school’s interpretation of FERPA allows for off-campus storage of student data, then one can start applying more strategy-based approaches to outsourcing. (more…)

managing by exceptions == anarchy

Recently, it seems like all I ever hear is how, because there is such great certainty that students or other customers will just break the rules anyway, we should plan for the exceptions, rather than modify and/or enforce actual policy.

For instance, since we know that students routinely share account information with each other, we should not trust our academic integrity policies that specifically forbid such behavior.

Or, even though “covered” data – a document or set of documents that would jeopardize one’s electronic identity, such as Social Security Numbers, addresses, etc – is not allowed to be kept anywhere for an extended period of time, since we know that some will violate this anyway, we should limit resources rather than pursue new initiatives.  We should essentially box everyone in through limitations on functionality in order to prevent those that break the rules from doing so.

Managing for exceptions rather than believing in and enforcing rules is simply a recipe for anarchy.  If we cannot believe in the sanctity of our regulations and policies, then why do we bother having them at all?  Yes, we need to make sure that penalties are levied when people violate those policies.  But when I bring that up, people often just say “but they don’t mind the penalties anyway.”  Then increase the fine!  Put people on probation!  Revoke access to needed resources!  Make the penalty hurt.  Don’t just stop innovating, stop improving others’ jobs, and lose faith in the policies themselves.

Let’s put this simply:  if we did not believe that people would follow our system’s laws, then why bother having laws?  And how do we make sure that people obey laws?  By penalizing the heck out of violators such that only a very small subset would dare take on such punishment.  Major crime?  Years and years in prison.  Park in a handicap spot?  Really big monetary fine.  Whether it’s time in jail or money out of pocket, make it so that people follow the law.  Only then will we have faith in the law, and only then do we avoid anarchy.

When it comes to provision of services, if we operate under the presumption that people will just ignore policy, then we are just making excuses not to provide new solutions.  And in some cases, to purposely limit options so that people will have fewer opportunities to violate protocol.

And the last thing we should do, in academia and in academic technology, is to focus on how to prevent people from improving their ability to get work done.

the land of the lost

Some organizations are monolithic and distant.  Huge, hulking, single-minded set of drones that present an impenetrable barrier to two-way communication.  Messages within are often top-down.  Big Brother tells you what to do, and all you have is a memory hole at hand.

Should messages be top-down, from the organization but emanating out to the rest of the world, then hostility and autocracy comes into play.  The Borg have arrived. Resistance is Futile (and nanites really, really hurt when they take over your blood cells).

Other organizations are smaller, agile, and quick to respond to opportunities and threats.  Kind of like a a fox, except without the whole “killing rabbits” schtick.

When these nimble groups do get aggressive, however, you’re more like Jurassic Park Velociraptor food if you get in the way.  And I’m not talking Jurassic Park 3, where you can trick them by blowing air into an old skull (as if Sam Neill knew exactly how much air a raptor used to communicate with others).  I’m talking the first movie, where they figure out how to open doors.

But let me describe yet another organization.  Somewhat less together, and harder to describe.

Tribes exist on separate islands.  Some islands are bigger than others, and many are clustered and somehow related, but are separate islands nonetheless.  Many islands have not yet established communications with others.  Some tribes have not even invented means of communication.  Jungles as dense as those on Papau New Guinea, where entire civilizations are still being discovered each year, cover many of these land masses.  The tribes are competitive – this isn’t just Survivor, but Survivor:  The Villains.

The islands and sets of islands are floating on a giant set of tectonic plates on the most seismically active planet ever.  Volcanoes erupt between islands, cutting them off from each other and sending giant plumes of ash that serve to annoy if not disrupt operations on other islands.  What’s worse –  various well-meaning people die horrible deaths trying to save others that have strayed too close to the edge.

The planet is so active that, like Jupiter’s Titan on seismic steroids, it actually changes shape with eruptions and quakes.  At times, the planet becomes almost cubical in shape.  It is also like a giant balloon – if you try to poke it with too sharp of a stick, with too much energy, in an effort to elicit a specific response, you just set off more eruptions and discontent.

Welcome to my land of the lost.

note:  in no way is my group the fox, the raptor, Big Brother or the Borg (though we could certainly use transwarp tunnels now and then).  We are far from perfect and sometimes the messages we send are so mixed that it’s like we just fell from our own tower of Babel.  And sometimes I am the one doing the talking.  At the least, I am absolutely the one responsible for what we say and do.  My comments above do not mean that we are better and perhaps we’re not any different, either.

pissing off one group at a time

With my recent graduation from business school, many colleagues, peers, friends, and family have been asking me what’s next, and how work is going.  They kind of go hand in hand (though a negative answer to the latter doesn’t mean that I’m rushing forward to something in the former).

At work, the biggest development has been that we have started moving away from the status quo and just building up our resources and onto actual new, (hopefully) meaningful initiatives.  I have learned a couple of valuable lessons already in doing so.

The first one is rather obvious – no matter what you do, you’re going to piss someone off with whatever it is you’re trying to get done.  If it’s new, then at the very least the status quo folks will be unhappy.  My goal is to piss off just one group at a time.  Furthermore, I try to keep the effort sufficiently segregated that one will not be pissed off either on behalf of someone else or out of sympathy or some other weird connection.  This is more than the “you can only please 80% of the people 20% of the time” or whatever the saying is.  I’m challenging the status quo, and impacting (and therefore potentially upsetting) 90% of an entire group at a time.

The second part is that it takes perhaps even more political guile than I had realized to piss off only one group at a time.  The issue is that these groups are layered.  Some layers are cooperative and open-minded, some are less so.  And it’s important to keep the more receptive layers happy.  In a way, they end up being allies against the less friendly sub-groups, but at the heart it’s just about keeping good relationships on solid footing.  I like to think I’m pretty good at dealing with politics, but I don’t try to manipulate as a standard method of operation.  It’s just simply illogical to burn bridges with potential allies.

The dangerous thing about these layers and sub-groups is that other people know that they are the receptive ones, too.  Which means they often get inundated with calls, e-mails, etc trying to get them to help because others are less tractable.  Even when I employ alternative means of communicating – offers for lunch, coffee, stopping by randomly – they can be less than receptive due to simple overload.  This is especially problematic at a small organization, such as Santa Clara.  So in one’s efforts to be friendly and reach out, it’s possible you might start to singe some bridges.

The point of this post is not to “educate” readers (do I even have a dozen?  who knows) that one cannot make everyone happy at the same time.  It is a little bit about how one should often forget happy and be willing to accept controlled annoyance.

All of the business school methods and techniques about management, inter-office politics, etc really start to take useful shapes when the MBA is done and the real world starts to envelop one’s actions (before it’s kind of a blend – learn something new tonight, try it out tomorrow.  Now it’s “assimilate everything you’ve learned and apply it all at once”).  Sometimes they are “useful” in demonstrating how tough things can be.

fighting complacency

I had a conversation with a classmate of mine recently, discussing various issues of interest at our school, the university at large, and educational technology in general.  We quickly moved from the specific – technology that we have seen implemented ourselves – to the general.

We spoke, essentially, about how one must approach educational technology.  Academic Computing, academic technology, instructional technology – they all refer to the same thing.  Servers, switches, computers, projectors, even dry-erase boards and the types of walls that surround a room – any kind of technology, hardware, software or otherwise, used to improve teaching and learning.

This topic has come up a bit since I completed by MBA, as well.  People ask me what my plans are next.  I have no intentions of leaving my current job for the time-being, but it has put a renewed emphasis on what it is I want to accomplish in my job.

What drives me is, in one way, the desire to fight complacency.  The flip side of fighting complacency, of course, is the pursuit of innovation, to ask why and why not at the same time, and to always pursue the best, even when better will do.

I hope that I will be able to stick to this path.  I hope that I will not succumb to complacency, losing my desire to always pursue the continued improvement of services and tools that the students, faculty, and staff at the school can use.

Not quite the post I wanted it to be, but it gets to the point…

the endless pursuit of…complacency

This is a post about differing perspectives on technology and support of student learning here at SCU, so I must preface things a bit.  Any administrator at any academic institution, especially in “these tough economic times” (a phrase that I am so sick of…yet I use here in this post) has to make tough decisions about how to invest one’s money.  Especially if expenses have trended and gone generally in one direction for many years, it’s hard to suddenly say “let’s spend more money, in a different way!”  I know this, even as I put together initiatives for new projects and programs that either change my budget or require additional funds.  So I can empathize with the mentality that I’m describing below.

Doesn’t mean I agree with it, though.

Santa Clara has a great program that supports innovation in technology.  The Tech Steering Committee offers up grants to those that are pushing forward with technology in the use of teaching, learning, and/or research.  It’s meant, at the least, as seed money to see if something will be useful.  Ideally, it’s to get a project off the ground that will, with proven success, turn into an ongoing operation.

I have applied for a grant each year I’ve been at SCU with the latter goal in mind – I want to start something that will last for years into the future.  As part of a larger roadmap of where I think the law school should be headed.  And I have received 2 grants in 2 tries, totally over $24,000.  I applaud SCU for this program, which was offered even during the especially lean 2009-2010 budget year.

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Higher Ed Tech Talk: OMG the OS is the Internet

[link removed because 1) it was a while ago and 2) don’t want to piss off the original poster….]

A short time after the iPad came out, someone at another university (a CIO, I think) posted that “OMG, the Internet is the OS!”  The gist is that he had a revelation that with such a device, it wasn’t about the operating system anymore.  It was about applications that ran on the internet, like Google Docs.  One didn’t need an OS anymore to run local apps.

I had two problems with this.  First, the iPad does run an OS, and Apple is in the business of operating systems.  Yes, any tablet or slate will have some kind of OS on it (even the JooJoo Pad, which is about as basic and internet-oriented as it gets, runs a small linux kernel).  But a lot of applications on the iPad that are so heavily touted – the media player, the book reader, the music player – run on the installed operating system.  These are not cloud-based applications that are accessed via the internet.

Second, I found the revelatory nature of the post rather surprising.  It’s not like internet-based applications are new, nor are other cloud-based service such as storage (enterprise level like Amazon’s S3 or Rackspace or personal solutions such as Dropbox), applications (aforementioned Google docs, as well as a few others).  Software as a Service (SaaS) has been around for a while, too, where one can run traditionally local solutions (like MS Exchange, powering an Outlook-based e-mail and calendar system) in a hosted environment – essentially outsourcing but to the internet.  There is even a Microsoft Office solution for sharing documents via cloud storage, kind of like Google Docs but with a monster of a local application (the Office suite) doing the heavy lifting.

So why would it be so stunning that applications are migrating towards online?

the Groupwise to Google experiment (part 2)

So back in part 1 of this experiment, which was quite a while ago, my goal was to see whether I could effectively use Google mail, calendar and contacts as a direct replacement for Novell Groupwise, which we use at Santa Clara.  “Effectively” doesn’t mean that all of a sudden all of my e-mails come from gmail.com.  After all, if I work for SCU, and I intend to represent myself as an employee of SCU, I need to have an scu.edu address.

Fortunately, Google mail has the ability to send e-mails as if it were a different address (not just reply-to, but actually with the header and “from” of name@scu.edu).  Now, you may say “but Allan, that’s basically spoofing or faking someone else’s e-mail address.  Won’t that get caught in spam filters?”

If all Google offered was the ability to change the “from” field then most likely yes, it would get filtered like crazy.  All of my e-mails ending up in spam filters would not be an effectively switch to a different service.  However, I am able to use SCU’s outgoing mail server for the messages.  So Google mail is doing the composition, but once it tries to send, it’s actually talking to and sending from the scu.edu mail server.  Which means it now looks like and comes from the same place.  Not sure if that makes sense, but the bottom line is that spam filters will leave me alone.

Many of my colleagues use Google mail because, in all honesty, they don’t like Groupwise.  However, since I am a Blackberry user and the university has set up a Blackberry Enterprise Server that talks back and forth with the Groupwise servers, I actually didn’t mind at all.  My mobile device and desktop clients all talked to each other very efficiently.

That all changes if I stop using a blackberry unit.  As good as they are, and as good as the current version of the Blackberry OS is (which is a lot better and prettier than the one on my 2.5 year old unit, btw), I have found myself wanting many of the features that are offered by various other smartphones, such as an iPhone or an Android phone.

For instance – I have an HTC Incredible from Verizon as my personal phone.  The other day, while trying to finish off the little details of our inventory, I was walking around, viewing our inventory spreadsheet on the nice big, bright screen on my phone, which has retrieved that spreadsheet via its Dropbox application.  This was so much more efficient than anything I could do on the smaller screen of my Blackberry.

Thus…I have ordered the new EVO 4G from Sprint (SCU has a contract with them).  This means that if I want to use the new, Android phone for my mail, calendar, etc, I need to get everything moved over from Groupwise.  So it’s not about dislike for Groupwise so much as a need for something that will work with the new phone.

Anyway – I have most things set up.

  • Setup a Groupwise rule that will simply forward all incoming mail to a Google mail account
  • Have already worked with the labels in Google to see how well I can manage such e-mail all flying in (since Google mail doesn’t have folders, this is an important step).
  • Using Companionlink, running on my home computer (which stays on most of the time), to synchronize my calendar, tasks, and contacts with Google
  • Verified that meetings proposed by Groupwise to me and ones that I propose from Google work (way to go, iCal standard)

Once the phone arrives, I just log into the created Google account and I should be set.

This should be interesting.  Though I figure this post is pretty boring…

the GroupWise to Google Experiment (Part 1)

So the university at which I work uses Novell’s suite of applications for e-mail, calendaring, systems management, and storage.  For a while now, I have been contemplating how to stop using the GroupWise (e-mail and calendar) client, which is terrible on a Mac, and move to a different set of tools.  At the same time, I have been seeking a bit more freedom with my choice of phones…

GroupWise is not very integration friendly.  Yes, I can IMAP into the mail server, but that’s just mail.  If I want calendars, the ability to propose meetings, etc, then the best solution on campus is to use a blackberry connected via the Blackberry Enterprise Server IT has hooked into GroupWise.  This is a very nice integration – e-mails come very fast, calendar changes are pretty smooth (though sometimes I run into problems with recurring meetings) and the address book synchronization is great.

However, I won’t lie and say that I wouldn’t mind a phone that gave me a big touch screen rather than the traditional thumb-punching keyboard (and no, I am not interested in a Storm).  So I have been looking at Android smart phones (ATT coverage is very bad here, so I have not seriously considered the iPhone).

So, how do I get GroupWise e-mail, calendar, tasks, and contacts all into an Android phone?  Well, that’s why this is called the “GroupWise to Google Experiment.”

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