Russell Allen: University of Bradford

Interview with Russell Allen, IT Project Manager, University of Bradford

Most satisfying aspect of the project?

An interesting question, I think the most satisfying part of it has been the opportunity it’s provided the University to take a good look at itself and to become aware of something it was aware of before, ie the problems but not really understanding how it was going to deal with them.  So I think it’s been quite satisfying having the time, the money, the resources to go and investigate something properly and find out what the ‘pain points’ are.  And then, hopefully, to do something about it.

What have been the biggest benefits of running the project?

Well I’ve remained in employment for another year (laughs).

The benefit has been the opportunity to ‘draw the curtains’ or show something which wasn’t really known as widely as people understood it to be.  I think there’s always an issue when looking at problems within an institution – there’s a tendency to feel like we’re the only one.  And so the recognition that you’re not the only University that has this set of problems and also they tend to be created by the same reasons as well and in fact that there’s a lot of similarity, I think that’s always something that’s of great benefit.  And I think of benefit really is an appreciation of working in a sector where collaboration is appropriate and beneficial – and that might change over the coming years but I certainly have enjoyed the fact that we can find out that we’re all suffering very similar problems.  I think specifically internally it has given members of staff the opportunity to have a platform to say ‘this is really difficult for us’ and give a voice to all those operational staff who have to deal with the downside of curriculum and course management in dealing with all these things we employ a lot of extremely professional, extremely hard working people whose job it is to try and make sense, try to keep the ‘boat afloat’ and work extremely hard to make that happen.  I think that meeting with these people, who have to deal with the problems and resolve issues every day, has been of real benefit for me working in the University and then for them to uniformly say ‘I’m so pleased.  So pleased that you’ve come and spoke to us about this.  I really hope that this is going to do something’ and a sense of I don’t really want to let these people down!

What’s been the biggest challenge with the project?  Has there been a Pandora’s Box effect?

Yes, you know I think it’s been Pandora’s Box, Can of Worms, these analogies are very true but that’s kind of like what the point of this money was for.  I think unfortunately the biggest challenge really was the recognition that it wasn’t so much to do with xcri and a technical specification, it was actually all to do with course management.  Maybe that’s the way it just had to be.  It would have been a lot easier to say no, it’s always been about course management, that could have been a little bit more explicit rather than finding out later that it was about that so that was a difficult part, just to kind of readjust our heads as it were to say OK we can do the technical bit but actually what we need to do is focus on the really messy part.  The fact that it is messy, complicated, uncertain, there are many versions, these things are all true and there is not one way of doing things and that actually it might be a little bit naïve to assume that we ever will have one way of doing things.  What’s really struck home for me, working at the University of Bradford, is that the issues that face us are a lot to do with data quality because we find that, you know, with KIS and with xcri that when we look at the data that we’re actually able to provide we would want to improve its quality, we want to enable students, prospective students to be able to make informed choices that we get the students that want to come to Bradford, who have a good understanding, grip of understanding of what they’re going to be here to study what they’re going to qualify with and what they’re going to be able to do with those qualifications.  But if we don’t have that information of a suitable quality it will be very difficult for them to make those choices and so we really need to put more effort, I think, into ensuring the quality of the data we hold internally is fit for purpose.  That, I think, has been the Pandora’s box at the moment and I think there are a number of projects, also probably nationally at a number of universities who are saying this is more and more to do with data quality and less and less to do with course advertising profile.  The course advertising profile is the nice bit at the end.  We need to make sure that there’s good quality data in the first instance.

What would you like to see happen in the institution post March 2013?

Well, on our poster, we, and in fact being considered by the Project Board is a very simple decision – do we either stop or go?  Do we, at the end of the Jisc funding, say well, yes, it was great, we’ve found out all of that information, we’ve got business user specifications, we’ve got technical specifications but we just wait until some solution comes to the market and we go ahead and buy it.  Or do we invest some of our own money to create either for ourselves a course management information system, do we work in a consortium with other universities, do we work with a commercial organisation?  You know, what are the choices?  Well those are the choices that face us and we haven’t made the decision yet as to what we’re going to do.  I think though, what is screamingly obvious is that there is a real need for a product in the market to help universities nationally and I don’t think I’ll be the only person who’s thinking well maybe there’s some opportunity here to do something quite useful and it’s interesting that Akari, an Irish software company are here because they want to sell their solution, interestingly Tribal aren’t here but they are working with universities to deliver a system which they say they’ve got but it’s there or thereabouts.  So I think it’s going to be very exciting, can I use that word?  Exciting! Interesting? About course management over the next 12 months to two years because products will start to emerge because Exeter have got a product, Wolverhampton have got their modules, Sunderland are working with Sits on developing their course and module product.  So there’s stuff which is happening and we’re seeing that this is the very beginning of an emergent market.  There’s a lot of storming and forming starting to happen and I think we will see more products available and more sharing.  I think in the next 12 to 24 months we’ll see a lot of movement in this area, I’m sure of it. 

What do you feel has been the most interesting innovation in the project?

I’ve done a lot of projects.  I’ve been doing project management for quite a long time and so when I think about this with my project management hat on I think has there been any innovation in terms of project management as opposed to what the product of the project is.  From that perspective I think the use of Enterprise Architecture has been useful.  Going back in project management the emergence of change management and change managers and business analysis and business analysts.

So what I have seen is the emergence of new professions coming from project management so you can now do business analysis as a profession and you can be a change manager as a profession and enterprise architecture has been around for a while and 7 years ago when we were looking at CMS, putting in a content management system and at portals we were looking at enterprise architecture.  I had seen enterprise architecture and enterprise architects emerge as a distinct set of skills, with a distinct set of tools and a distinct approach and I’m very pleased about that because it does give an institution or an organisation a good understanding of how the business processes support the business outcomes and how the architecture and the IT infrastructure should support those business objectives and how frequently that isn’t the case (laughs). 

So for me the innovation this time has been – let’s look at enterprise architecture – we’ve not really come to grips with it massively because through time and also learning new tools is quite difficult to do but the recognition that it is a very useful way for IT services or IT projects or projects with a technology component to them can show a business itself and say ‘this is what you want to do, isn’t it? And this is how we can get the infrastructure to operate’ and working that way can bring a level of knowledge and understanding to non-technical people that they simply didn’t have before