Friday, November 28, 2014

When to centralize?

As a system campus, we must balance whether a technology service should be supported centrally or locally. Maybe you have a similar situation, where many campuses or colleges work together within a common framework, yet remain independent.

At Morris, I prefer to leverage (where possible) the Common Good services provided at the enterprise level. We already pay into an "enterprise tax" to support these services, so it makes no sense for me to maintain my own cost pool to support redundant services here when we could divest those services to the enterprise. In many cases, I directed the creation of these enterprise services when I was Senior Manager in the Office of Information Technology, so I already know they are solid service offerings. But where to draw the line between "central" and "local" services? This is the guide that we use:

  • Does the service support multiple campuses?
  • Would an interruption of the service negatively impact the University as a whole?
  • Is there existing demand for an enterprise offering?
  • Is the technology mature, stabilized?
  • Is the service a commodity, where we provide little or no additional value?
  • Does the service require a higher level of expertise?
  • Does it serve a broad institutional need?
  • Does it require a single point of institutional accountability?

If you find yourself answering Yes to most or all of these, then you should centralize the service.

  • Does the service support only a few units, or one unit?
  • Would an interruption of the service only impact the local unit?
  • Is there limited demand?
  • Is this an emerging technology?
  • Is the service for a unique need?
  • Does the service require specialized knowledge?
  • Does it serve a niche, or a singular strategic priority?
  • Does it require local or shared accountability?

If you agree more with this list, then you should consider supporting the service locally.

For example, we have divested most of our web servers to the "managed hosts" and "shared web" services at the Twin Cities. We don't need to support these services with any particular expertise; anyone can run a web server. We don't bring additional value to the university by running the web server, we add value through content and applications. So we let others manage the server, and we focus on the content.

But in another example, we have maintained several research systems, and continue to run them at Morris. These are specialized systems that support local research. We may need to provide unique configurations that benefit research at Morris. So we choose to maintain those systems locally.

Friday, November 21, 2014

About Unizin

We've been talking about Unizin for a while now, as the University of Minnesota recently joined the Unizin consortium. But some of you may not be entirely clear on what Unizin provides for us. So I wanted to take a moment to provide my viewpoint.

At its core, Unizin is a consortium of higher education institutions working together, to help educators share information with each other. Unizin focuses on digital content development and data analysis, tools that educators can leverage to improve teaching and learning. In the end, Unizin allows people who are using different learning management systems to share course content with each other.

We use Moodle for our learning management system (sometimes also called a course management system). So as an educator, you probably know how to set up and manage your courses in Moodle. But a colleague at a different institution may use a different LMS, such as Blackboard. There are several LMS's out there. Here's a quick rundown from Delta Initiative of the most popular systems:

(click to enlarge)

Maybe you are teaching an introductory course, and you have developed a set of learning material and quizzes that really helps your students to learn the content. You decide to share your work so that colleagues at other institutions can benefit from the outstanding work you have done. But how can you contribute your course concepts if not everyone is running Moodle? How can other educators using different LMS's import your learning materials and quizzes?

Enter Unizin. Because of Unizin's focus on open standards and interoperability, educators who want to share course concepts with others will finally have the opportunity to do so. Unizin strives to foster a community more concerned with creating and sharing content and improving outcomes, across multiple LMS's. Unizin is about providing common infrastructure to support educators who wish to share and collaborate on course development.

From the Unizin frequently-asked questions, many people in higher ed will benefit from Unizin:

They will be able to share their own teaching content and gain access to a repository of shared digital content, from campus colleagues and others at member institutions. Unizin will allow them to assemble and deliver this content to students in a range of ways. Likewise, analytics will allow for clearer assessments of student learning.
Learners will have access to the materials and thinking of the best minds in their fields. Instructors will be able to approach and assess learning in new ways – ways that reflect digital lifestyles and learning, and that take individual needs and experiences into account.
Instructional technologists and support staff
They will gain access to a large and growing toolkit to help faculty transform and improve their teaching practice. Flexibility and adaptability of the environment will not only ease the job, but also ensure greater faculty support.

Our participation in Unizin gives us an opportunity to participate in the national conversation about sharing course development. I look forward to the University's partnership with Unizin.
image: Unizin

Monday, November 17, 2014

What not to say

I recently came across one of those "lists" articles, "Nine things never to say to your boss." I find this an interesting example of intercultural and intergenerational communication. As per usual, I prefer to break up the list into themes:

Saying no
"That just isn’t possible." "I don't know." "But we've always done it this way."
In any organization, results matter. Don't put up roadblocks; instead, try to find the solution. From the article: Always speak to your boss in terms of what can be done. For instance, rather than saying “We can’t get this done by Friday,” say “We could definitely get this done by Monday, or if we brought in some freelance help, we could meet the Friday deadline.” When you talk to your boss, think in terms of solving problems for her, not in terms of putting problems on her plate.
Just complaining
"I need a raise." "I can’t stand working with ____." "I partied too hard last night, I'm so hung over!"
No one wants to hear complaints. If you must issue a complaint, you'll meet with success if you frame it with a solution. For example, if you are asking for a raise, first talk about how your work has benefited the organization. From the article: Even if you have a friendly relationship, he’s just as likely to react with (unspoken) disdain as sympathy. Maintaining a solid veneer of professionalism will pay off when it's time to discuss promotions.
Not my problem
"But I emailed you about that last week." "It’s not my fault."
Take ownership for what you do. We all make mistakes; how we respond to them defines who we are. From the article: Are you a whiny 8-year-old or a take-charge professional? Assume responsibility and take steps to fix a problem that you did, in fact, create. And if you are being wrongly blamed for a problem, saying “Let’s get to the bottom of this” or “What can we do to make it right?” is much more effective than saying “It’s not my fault.”

Not convinced? These themes are commonly identified by business leaders. Your campus chancellor or president (or CEO, if you're in industry) doesn't want to hear about problems, they want solutions that help them meet their bottom line: whether that's helping the campus, or driving profits. Be empowered to step forward and contribute. Similarly, retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch shares ten behaviors that can damage your career. They fall into similar categories: Saying no ("Resistance to change"), complaining ("Being a Problem Identifier vs a Problem Solver"), and avoidance.
image: hujikari

Friday, November 14, 2014

Total cost of ownership

When it's time to replace your laptop or desktop, we work with our customers to help them order a new system. Typically, we encourage systems get replaced about once every four years, but that's really up to the division or department. Some users just don't push their systems very hard, so they can go a little longer before they need a new laptop or desktop.

But when we do order a new computer for you, we typically do so from a standardized list of pre-configured models. I wanted to share a brief reflection on why we purchase these standardized models of laptops and desktops at Morris.

In short, it's about reducing cost. By purchasing many of the same models, we reduce the variety of laptops and desktops, making it easier for the helpdesk to support you. This means real savings to the University. From a University of Minnesota cost savings report (not linked online, sorry) about strategic sourcing, from June 2010, the institution has saved more than $1.2 million by purchasing standard desktops and laptops from Dell and Apple. That's the largest savings in that report by far, and a little more than the sum of all other savings in that report. So that's very encouraging.

The report also recognizes the work we have made in reducing costs:
"Collegiate IT Directors have established University wide standard models for desktops and laptops. These models are configurable and designed to meet the vast majority of end-user computing needs. Greatly reducing the number of models purchased has two major benefits: negotiated cost savings with Dell and more efficient and cost effective support processes."
This speaks directly to reducing cost—referring to the Total Cost of Ownership. The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a desktop PC is more than the initial purchase price. For example, we currently plan about $800 for a standard Dell desktop computer. (New models usually come out in summer, so we estimate a round number for budget planning purposes.)

The total cost is important to keep in mind. The purchase is a small part of the overall cost. For example, you might find an off-brand desktop computer for around $700. But that $100 purchase savings doesn't necessarily mean a lower overall TCO. According to Gartner (2008), the cost of purchasing a desktop PC may be only $1,200, but over four years, the TCO could be as much as $5,867 per year. Other costs that contribute to TCO are largely staff time, and include imaging the PC, managing & supporting the PC, and general reliability.

Those standard models keep the same configuration, no matter when we purchase them. A Dell model "6789" computer purchased in summer will have the same configuration as a Dell model "6789" computer purchased the following spring. But in off-brand computers, that is rarely the case; specific internal components could differ on models sold in the same year, depending on upstream supplies. This makes it very difficult to support our users, if one computer needs different drivers or different configurations than another computer of the same model, purchased in the same year.

All of this isn't to say that you can't buy a particular computer that isn't on our standard list. We make exceptions for our customers all the time. For example, one user needed a specific laptop for ergonomic reasons (the Dell laptops aggravated her carpal tunnel) so we helped her find something else. But in most cases, people just need "a Windows laptop" and they don't really care what system it is. That's when we turn to the standards list and purchase a default configuration.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nadella's karma

I wanted to share this article from my friend Steve McCaa about Nadella's karma.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella aims to position Microsoft as the "tools provider" for new business. But as McCaa correctly points out, the future of business software is not going to be on the desktop; it's going to be in the Cloud, as Software as a Service (SaaS). There's the rub. From McCaa's article:
Take a look at the technologies that are coming out to develop web services, the life blood of SaaS. The most innovative, cool technologies are all *NIX first. NoSQL, Node.JS, Ruby, Python in all these cases Microsoft had to bribe the open-source community to port their products to the Windows platform. And even then Microsoft’s developer tools don't support these technologies.
(emphasis mine)

Microsoft feared in the 1990s that the Web would eventually displace the desktop. If you haven't accepted the conclusion yet: Cloud is the future—and as Microsoft feared, the browser is the new platform, not the operating system. It no longer matters if you're using Windows, Mac, Linux, or some other thing, as long as you have a standards-compliant web browser. Microsoft needs to shift gears quickly to remain competitive. McCaa concludes, "When I see Microsoft releasing tools that are designed to enable the interface between SaaS providers who they compete with I will believe that they might have a future in enterprise computing."
photo: Microsoft CEO gallery

Monday, November 10, 2014

Budget challenges in higher education

Higher education faces particular budget challenges. As we have seen in various articles, hundreds of thousands of people emerge from college with a modest amount of debt yet no degree. Higher education must reduce the total cost of the university degree. The FDIC describes the issue in plain language, from a 2012 report: "The average annual cost of higher education has increased dramatically in the last decade. And with education debt continuing to rise along with the increase in costs, many people face a tough financial situation."

This pressure applies to the University of Minnesota, as well. A month ago, the U of M Board of Regents approved President Kaler's budget plan. Among other things in the proposed plan, the new budget would continue the U of M's partnership with the State where the University will freeze resident undergraduate tuition in 2013 and 2014.

At the University of Minnesota, we are working together to reduce administrative costs, to make higher education more affordable to all Minnesotans. It is a worthy goal, and I encourage everyone in IT@UMN to find new efficiencies, to reduce costs. "Simplify, Standardize, Automate" will get us only so far; we need to be innovative to explore new options that extend higher education while lowering the cost.

However, that puts us in a unique position. Higher education will not receive an increase in funding in the foreseeable future. In the past, higher education might have experienced wage freezes, or temporary budget freezes. In particularly tight budget bienniums, the University saw an overall decrease in funding, only to have that funding restored within a few years. But the past is in the past. Do not expect funding levels to rise. We will need to do more with less.

Usually, I'm not a fan of the phrase "do more with less" but in this instance, I believe we can do it. We just need to think creatively about how we deliver solutions to our campus. Don't be afraid to question the status quo. Look for new ways to achieve goals. Can we leverage other services, provided elsewhere within the U of M system? Are we really providing value in each of our services, or would it be better to "outsource" any of our systems to the Cloud? I challenge each of you to look to your own work systems, to find opportunities to reduce cost. I know we can do it together.
photo: Tax Credits

Friday, November 7, 2014

Your tie says a lot about you

How you dress says a lot about who you are as a person. Whether we like or not, our professional appearance often precedes us. What we wear to meetings is often just as important as what we say and how we act at that meeting. And you might not know it, but your tie says a lot about you.

The necktie is an important, but often overlooked, men's accessory. An article on the BBC discusses the importance of selecting the right color tie: what the color of your tie says about you. As the article notes, "experts say that no matter the audience—clients, staff or even children—picking the right tie colour can help get your message across."

Here's a summary:

tie color: Red
To signal that you're in charge, use a shiny red. A matte red or patterned red conveys the message more subtly. From the article: "It’s not a coincidence that many politicians wear red-coloured ties with light shirts and darker suits. … Darker reds, such as a burgundy, can help build trust, while lighter red and pink ties can be more of a statement about your personal style and be associated with creativity."
tie color: Purple
If you're looking to convey confidence, consider a purple tie. "Traditionally a sign of royalty and wealth, purple is becoming more acceptable in the workplace."
tie color: Black
Typically a staple for formal affairs and evening events, black can look sophisticated. But beware appearing arrogant or overdressed for business. From the article: "It’s often smarter to stick to grey shades, added Woodman. A grey tie can help give you a more sophisticated look without seeming pretentious."
tie color: Green, or tie color: Yellow
Green is not often popular in American boardrooms, so you may consider yellow instead. From the article: "Yellow is a traditional tie colour in countries, including England, which can signal assuredness, along with radiance and vitality. … Yellow ties can make you more approachable to colleagues because it’s a vibrant colour that’s symbolic of the sun."
tie color: Blue
If you want to reassure others in a meeting, wear a blue tie. From the article: "Blue ties are a good investment because the colour reminds people of the sky and ocean, which has a calming effect, said Lindsay. … Patterned blue ties tend to give off a classic professional feel and can be worn in a global business environment without sending the wrong message. A subtle blue can be “soft and introspective” while a cobalt or royal blue can help you stand out just the right amount, she said. “Dark blues are often reminiscent of well-respected pilot uniforms. Navy blue is a trusted colour and gives us confidence."
tie color: Brown
Brown signals that you are friendly and work well with others, but it's not for everyone. From the article: "A more relaxed wardrobe of friendlier colours such as tan, brown, earthy colours, salmon and yellow works for people dealing with other people such as sales, teachers and the service industry. … Make sure the brown tie does not look too plain, because it can signal a dull personality. A beige tie can sometimes come across as too relaxed."
photo: Giorgenti

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Unlimited storage comes to the University

The University of Minnesota has used Google Apps for Education since about 2008, when I remember taking part in an early pilot test. Since then, we have rolled out Google Apps to everyone in the U of M system, replacing our aging email and calendaring systems with Google Apps. This has led to increased satisfaction of students, faculty and staff - and reduced costs in IT while improving efficiency.

As time goes on, Google expands the Google Apps service. And last week, we heard of another benefit coming to the U of M. From the announcement via the Office of Information Technology:

As of Thursday, Oct. 30, Google began to offer Google Drive for Education to University of Minnesota Google accounts. Drive for Education provides for unlimited storage and enhancements to Google Drive, Gmail, and Google+ photos.

Some of the benefits of unlimited storage include:
  • No more worrying about how much space you have left.
  • No need to monitor your email capacity.
  • Frees up time previously spent trying to clean up, purge and filter things or delete things you might want to keep.
  • Store as many Google Drive files, Gmail messages, and Google+ photos as you need.
  • Drive for Education supports individual files up to 1TB in size.
  • Upload documents that you want to share in Drive instead of attaching to email.
  • Departments and researchers can store and share large amounts of data, and share with with colleagues at other institutions.
It is recommended that users review the Acceptable Use and Data Security policy information for private and sensitive data, export controlled data and intellectual property. The University of Minnesota and Google have negotiated contractual terms and conditions that protect the privacy and confidentiality of University student, faculty, staff, and alumni data in the U of M Google Apps suite of services.

Users also should be aware of copyright regulations and infringement ramifications when sharing files, as outlined in the Google Terms of Service.
  • Google respects the rights of copyright holders, and requires that users have the legal right to upload and share the contents of their files on Google Docs.
  • Google provides information to help copyright holders manage their intellectual property online.
  • Google responds to notices of alleged copyright infringement and terminate accounts of repeat infringers according to the process set out in the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Visit the Google Drive Help Center and Using Google Drive at the University to learn more about Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Slides.

For more information about Google Apps for the University of Minnesota, please visit the Google Apps Overview on the Email Services website. For additional assistance or questions, contact Technology Help at (612) 301-4357 (1-HELP on campus), or

Monday, November 3, 2014

Employers are looking for critical thinkers

From a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, employers today now find themselves looking to hire recent graduates who demonstrate critical thinking skills. You might define critical thinkers as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.” Too often, new hires have a tendency to use the first answer they find, perhaps from Wikipedia or a Google search, rather than delve into several information sources on their own to build a full picture of things.

It is no longer enough to talk about your history and regurgitate stock answers. The article mentions interview questions where candidates must show how they would tackle business problems, such as whether it makes more sense for a company to make or buy a product, and why.

A particular excerpt from the article which I found interesting:
Colleges’ capacity to mold thinkers has been a topic of heated debate. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift” and “Aspiring Adults Adrift” as well as an NYU sociology professor, is a prominent critic of how schools are faring on that front.

“Schools have institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor,” he says, adding that he thinks colleges have allowed students to focus on their social lives at the expense of academic pursuits.

According to research detailed in those books, students rarely study on their own for more than an hour a day, and most don’t write in-depth papers that require sustained analysis.

For their part, students seem to think they are ready for the office. But their future bosses tend to disagree. A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.
Fortunately, I work at a liberal arts university where we do teach critical thinking skills. And we have started to match our undergraduates with real-world student-work experience on campus. Rather than use students as cheap labor, we seek to expand the educational mission of the university by giving "stretch" assignments to our student workers, according to their individual capabilities.

This is a key moment for many colleges and universities. The success of a higher education degree is often judged based on how well it prepares students for life. Students (and by extension, universities) cannot be successful if our students lack critical thinking. I am glad Morris provides a strong liberal arts background to every student.
photo: Sam Howzit