Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Listening to feedback

Every year, we go through two IT input cycles:
In the Fall, we use the Big Block of Cheese Day to gather feedback, including in-person comments and thoughts left for us on a hallway whiteboard. It's a very efficient way to gather feedback; in two hours, we filled the whiteboard and came away with a list of other suggestions.

And in the Spring, we leverage a visit from the Office of Information Technology to listen in on campus technology needs. The OIT includes a Town Hall meeting with campus governance, to talk about how OIT can make systemwide technology investments to benefit students, faculty and staff. But not all suggestions are things that OIT can take action on, so we make note of them for our own local IT projects.
This Fall's Big Block of Cheese Day was very successful! In two hours, we gave away more than 10lbs of cheese. It's hard to be very exact, because we started with a smaller wheel of herb cheese before moving to the 10lb Vermont Cheddar loaf.

We heard lots of great comments about campus technology. And as people stopped by, I encouraged folks to add something to our hallway whiteboard. The whiteboard included two prompts this year: what new technology would you like to see on campus, and how can we make campus technology better for you? Students, faculty, and staff added their thoughts to the whiteboard, or star an item they agreed with. At the end of two hours, we had completely filled the whiteboard. I also had my own list of comments from the in-person discussions as we shared our cheese.

We will take these items back to the TechPeople group, so we can prioritize these into projects and working groups. But I think I can share some general themes and thoughts from the feedback:
Wireless networks continue to be a "hot" item this year. We continue to improve wireless every year.

Students want a better web experience, including MyU, registration activities, APAS and web search.

Students want more classroom technology. Specific feedback mentioned Smartboards and clickers.

Students expect more from classroom technology. For example, Moodle alerts for upcoming assignments.

Faculty would like the Scantron to be in a more accessible location.

Students would like more places to charge mobile devices.

Some comments reflect a need to raise awareness about current technology options: Google Hangouts and Google Apps.
I thank everyone who stopped by the student center for Big Block of Cheese Day this year. It was great to meet everyone! And it was especially nice to hear from a few students that "Big Block of Cheese Day is my favorite day." I think that shows that we are reaching out to campus in a very effective and engaging way!
photo: mine

Friday, October 23, 2015

Plus/Delta and Now/Future

You may be familiar with the SWOT "tool." It's a methodology to compare options and make decisions based on an idea's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. You can also use SWOT to plan for the future, and I often use SWOT in this way. I find SWOT to be an efficient tool in my manager's toolkit to do strategic planning.

But I found that in technology teams, folks can talk about Strengths and Weaknesses, because those are pretty easy concepts and most of them are probably thinking about it already. The words evoke a particular meaning. But I find technology folks struggle with Opportunities. They can get there, but it takes work. What is an Opportunity? In meetings where I've used SWOT, people initially think of "Opportunity" as "business opportunity." I have to help them through that. But they get stuck on Threats. The word "Threat" carries a different meaning in technology, especially if you work in security; a Threat means hacker. I always had trouble communicating the concept of "Threat" in the SWOT context.

In my experience, it's easier to not talk about SWOT directly, but to go at it a different way. We've done "Plus/Delta" exercises often enough. At the end of a meeting or after an event, we'll talk about the things that went well (Plus) and the things we might change for next time (Delta). I'm always doing a Plus/Delta with folks after a big event or a big meeting. They know how that works.

So I break up the "Plus/Delta" into two timeframes: "Now" and "Future." You can put a definition to both if you need to; you might say "Now" is anytime in the next 3 or 4 months, and "Future" is say, a year from now. Use whatever timeframes make sense for what you're after.

That's a very easy grid to understand. People can talk about what's going well now, and what things we should change now. And they can talk about what things will be strong for us in a year's time, and what things we should change in another year.

And when you think about it, that's really what SWOT is about:
  • Strengths (Plus-Now)
  • Weaknesses (Delta-Now)
  • Opportunities (Plus-Future)
  • Threats (Delta-Future)

The key is to frame the discussion at the beginning. Make it clear what you are asking people to focus on. Are you talking about new technology? Are you discussing a possible change to the infrastructure? Are you making a decision? Just make it clear at the beginning so people know how to frame their Plus/Deltas.

Also, I encourage people to take some "i-time" or "individual time" after I introduce the topic. Give them 5 minutes to think about it, and jot down their ideas on a piece of paper. Get them to write it down! It's amazing to see how the discussion changes when people commit to writing something down on a piece of paper, even if they are the only ones who will see what they wrote. In my experience, people are more forthcoming in the discussion when they have that i-time to write down a few thoughts before getting started in the discussion.

I also like to break up the room into groups of 3 (min) to 5 (max) people. Have each group work on the SWOT as a group. Give them 15 or 20 minutes to put together their own SWOT for the group. If people need to go find a separate meeting space, that's cool. After that, you call the room together, and go around the room and ask each group to share one item from the grid. So you focus on Plus-Now, and you ask "Group #1: give me one item that is working well now … Group #2: what's something else that is working well today?" And so on. If each group can only give one item at a time, no one group can dominate the discussion. When you start to get overlap, I usually do a final call for any other items that aren't on the whiteboard, then I move on to Delta-Now. And so on.

If you have a small room (say, up to about ten people) then don't break into groups. Just do it individually.

Plan for the group discussion to take about twice the time you give the individual group time. So if you have people break into groups for 20 minutes, I find it will take you 35-40 minutes to do the whiteboard discussion at the end.

But use SWOT very thoughtfully. Use the right tool for the right kind of input. SWOT works well when you are trying to make a decision or generate some items to focus on. But if you're trying to identify a set of priorities, like you want to find the top 10 strategic things that you should be doing, start with a SWOT to generate ideas, then finish with an affinity exercise to identify the priorities.
image: Wikipedia/Xhienne

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Tomorrow is Big Block of Cheese Day, part of our annual IT input cycle. We actually have two IT input cycles: one in the Fall as part of Big Block of Cheese Day, and another in Spring when the Office of Information Technology visits and we consult in partnership with OIT on listening to campus technology needs.

Big Block of Cheese Day and IT input is about focusing on the future, things we need to do to make campus technology even better for our students, faculty, and staff. But before we look ahead, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the great things we have achieved in technology over the last year. This is a brief list, a summary of a few highlights:

Wireless Networks
We are always working to improve wireless network coverage on campus. This is our top priority in technology. In 2014-2015, we made important strides in networking, including expanded coverage in the Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA)Gay Hall, the Cube, the Regional Fitness Center, Moccasin Flower Room, Prairie Lounge, and Briggs Library. Looking ahead to other projects, we are scheduling work in Pine Hall, Spooner Hall, Blakely Hall, Education, and the MRC. We are also examining ways to provide wireless access to the campus Mall area, and perhaps expanding wireless coverage in other campus buildings such as PE.
Media Collaboration
One major achievement was the installation of a new media collaboration table in Briggs Library. Provided in partnership by Computing Services and Briggs Library, we are proud of this new technology addition to student study spaces. Up to five or six students can use the table to better collaborate in group projects. Connect your laptop to the display so everyone can contribute to the project. Having a large, shared screen makes group learning easier!
PeopleSoft Upgrade
This Spring, we finally completed the upgrade to the PeopleSoft system. This was the university's largest PeopleSoft upgrade to date, encompassing major version upgrades to the HR, Student, and Finance components. At Morris, we updated queries and custom jobs in our automated processes, and worked with users to update their access to the new system. The upgrade was completed in April 2015.
Websites to Drupal
This year saw a major shift in how we maintain websites. In March and April, Matt and Matt worked in partnership with our web steering committee to migrate the Committees website to Drupal. This was soon followed by the Alumni and Technology websites. Drupal marks an easier way to keep websites updated. In years past, our web team has managed website edits mostly by hand, with some automated content via RSS feeds. With Drupal, edits become much easier, effectively a "GUI" editor in a web browser, almost like editing a Word document. Drupal also allows others on campus to manage their own content, if they desire to do so. In the next few months, watch for more websites to move to Drupal, including the News and Academics websites.
Cost Reductions
Higher education faces a major challenge in reducing our administrative costs. This year, IT drove cost reduction by renegotiating our desktop support contract. We outsource our extended maintenance, for desktop and laptop computers that are outside their warranty period. The new maintenance contract consolidates systems and lowers costs campus-wide.
DICTION Software
This year,  alongside one of our faculty in her classroom, teaching students the DICTION software package to help them analyze rhetorical texts. DICTION is a computer-aided text analysis program for determining the tone of a verbal message. Conceived by rhetorical analysis scholar Roderick P. Hart, the DICTION software analyzes the words in the speech and does a categorization of each word used. We use five "master" variables to build a "fingerprint" of the speech: Activity, Optimism, Certainty, Realism and Commonality. This provides a jump-start in analysis.
We have continued to improve our technology systems that support the campus. While these "infrastructure" systems may not be visible to the campus, they support major campus applications and processes. This year, we made important upgrades to the system backup software. The new system supports automatic "off-site" backups to a partner system at the Twin Cities campus, three hours away, providing data protection in the unlikely event that systems at the Morris campus are damaged. We also updated our virtual infrastructure: VMWare. Through virtual systems, we can run many servers on just a few hardware components, bringing efficiency and ease of management to our data center.
New Technology
Every year, we try to make new investments in technology "pilot" projects, to explore emerging technology that might benefit the campus. In past years, our department was the first to invest in Chromebooks and small-scale computing such as the Raspberry Pi. This year, we made other investments in new technology, including the Intel ComputeStick. This follows the small-scale computer paradigm, delivering a mini desktop computer in something not much bigger than a USB fob drive. Connected to your display via a standard HDMI connection, and powered from any phone charger, the ComputeStick provides a reliable computing experience. Sure, it's not as powerful as a more expensive desktop or laptop, and you "feel" it when opening a spreadsheet, but it's a great deal for less than $150. Imagine ComputeSticks in our general computer labs, or classrooms, to provide an inexpensive upgrade to campus technology. We may see this shift in the next few years as we explore supporting technology such as Application Virtualization.
image: Kissing the reflection by LadyDragonflyCC

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Big Block of Cheese Day 2015

You may have heard about the "Big Block of Cheese Day." When I came to Morris in 2010, I wanted to find a way to connect with campus. But my challenge was "How do I introduce myself?" I needed to find a "hook."

I looked to history for my inspiration. In 1837, President Andrew Jackson's supporters gifted him with a wheel of cheese weighing 1,400 lbs. Jackson put this cheese in the Entrance Hall of the White House and invited the people of the United States to come into the White House and eat the cheese, and thereby meet the people who represented them in government. According to White House history, the cheese was consumed in two hours, and the White House smelled of cheese for weeks.

I decided to host my own "Big Block of Cheese Day," to invite the campus community to share in a wheel of cheese, and thereby meet the person who represents technology. But an IT guy with food will only get you so far. So I drew on my English-Scottish ancestry, and wore my kilt. An IT guy wearing a kilt was sure to advertise itself. And it did!

Since then, Big Block of Cheese Day has become something of a tradition. It's a great way to meet people on campus. And I love the opportunity to solicit ideas and hear about technology needs for the campus.

This year's "Big Block of Cheese Day" will be on Friday, October 23. Join me in the Student Center next to Higbies, from 10:00am until noon. We'll have a big block of cheddar cheese with crackers. While you're there, drop a comment on the hallway board. And yes, you'll get to see me in the kilt.

I hope to see you there!
photo: last year's big block of cheese

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Leadership lessons from 'John Wick'

I like to find leadership lessons in unusual places. If you are willing to look for them, you'll see leadership lessons all around you. For example, you can find leadership lessons from Breaking Bad about partnerships, taking the initiative, and committing to decisions. You can see similar leadership lessons from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on building relationships. And you can even find leadership lessons from zombies (The Walking Dead) on leading teams and building momentum behind your vision.

Recently, I found leadership lessons from another unusual place. The 2014 action movie John Wick provides a very simple premise: thugs kill John Wick's dog, and John (Keanu Reeves) gets revenge. I'm not kidding; the movie really is that straightforward.

I watched John Wick recently on our campus movie system. As the story unfolded, I recognized several obvious themes in leadership. Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Keep the mission simple

The whole movie is about John Wick seeking revenge on the bad guys who killed his dog. That's it. The movie makes this very clear; thugs kill John's dog, so John kills the thugs. It's a timeless story that everyone can get behind. You understand the vision, and the movie strives to keep the mission simple. Where are you going with your idea? What is the vision behind it? Does everyone on your team understand the "end vision" and how to get there?
2. Reputation is important

John carries a big reputation in this movie. Almost everyone knows John by his reputation alone. Remember that your reputation always precedes you. What do you want your reputation to say about you? John's reputation is that he is a superlative, violent assassin; his reputation says a lot about him. Your reputation should be one of trust, professionalism, and collaboration. Your partners and future partners will remember you by your reputation; make it a positive one.
3. Adjust your approach

In seeking his targets, John uses a variety of tactics. Whether he chooses a stand-up frontal assault, or sniping his target from a distance, John adapts his method to the problem in front of him. Not all problems can be resolved with the same toolset. As you work with others, exercise all the tools and techniques available to you. What method works in one situation may not be the best approach for the next.
4. Maintain relationships; they will pay off

An important part of leadership is building your relationship network. Relationships are currency—you sometimes need to use your relationships to make deals, smooth over conflicts, and generally just get things done. John leverages relationships wisely: engaging with former colleague Francis to help him in a tough moment, or using his relationship with Jimmy to smooth over a difficult situation. Take a few moments to map out your social network. Consider who you look to if you had a problem, or needed a favor, or simply had a question. Do you have relationships that are so strong you could rely on confidential advice? Do not overlook this part of your leadership development.
5. Remain professional

Conflict is a part of everyday life. Conflict isn't necessarily bad, but the key to healthy disagreement is to recognize your "hot" buttons. This is part of your emotional intelligence. Do you lose your temper in the heat of the moment, usually during a disagreement? Or do you acknowledge your feelings, and maintain a calm presence? While John's initial motivation is emotion, John finds a way to stay focused and "in the moment" when it matters. John remains "present" throughout each confrontation. Use emotional intelligence to keep your interactions calm, or you'll find meetings and discussions getting out of hand and people losing temper.
images: IMDB, YouTube(1), YouTube(2)