The University of Sydney is being rebuilt from the inside out. Winding roadways with pokey parking for each faculty are being bulldozed in favour of wide avenues, and dingy student cafes are gradually being replaced by modern kiosks. However, these winds of change are unlikely to have any significant effect on the haphazard collection of buildings that radiate out from the 150-year-old quadrangle. Solid stone structures with high ceilings seem to be competing for space alongside permanent demountables, underground lecture theatres and intricate multipurpose structures with numerous entrances and countless balconies. It's history written in architecture.
As grounds staff try to imprint some kind of consistency, chief information officer Bruce Meikle, too, is undertaking a similar overhaul of the institution's IT infrastructure.
Two roads diverge
Appointed early last year, Meikle left behind a well-oiled shared-service team at AMP that he'd spent six years building. He took on an IT department in serious trouble.
Changing careers was the last thing on his mind when he was contacted by headhunters acting for the University of Sydney. He enjoyed his position at AMP, where he'd worked to create a strong team environment and developed the role of shared services within the organisation through relationships.
"In many regards, my role at AMP was one where you had to make progress through influence, where you didn't have direct control of the things you were trying to control," Meikle says. "Also, the breadth of the role was quite relevant to the work that needed to be done here."
After agreeing to a third round of interviews, he was forced to admit to himself that there must be something attracting him to the idea of working at the grand old dame of Australian tertiary education.
"I became intrigued with the nature of the problem and I was certainly taken by the whole notion of working at the university, and what it stands for," he says.
What Meikle saw in the challenge posed by the disparate IT systems and conflicting demands of university faculties was a problem that could be solved only through a focus on building strong relationships. In fact, his first few months centred on setting up the lines of communication he believed were necessary to comprehend the extent of the challenge before him.
"A lot of the agenda has been on getting buy-in from the different faculties," Meikle says. "I spend a lot of time with my direct reports and there are now clear lines of communication between the faculty heads and the IT team." He was also keenly aware he'd need to win the support of the IT team.
Five CIOs in five years and a myriad of partially completed projects had left IT staff jaded and cynical, while ill-advised spending decisions had devastated the reputation of the IT department across the university.
After four-and-a-half years in the role, Simon Carlile stepped down at the end of 2002, hoping to dedicate more time to academic pursuits and to develop commercial opportunities that had come out of his research in the department of physiology.
The following year, Michael Fry was appointed pro vice-chancellor for employee relations. He had a background in computer networks in the faculty of information technology, and he agreed to take on the CIO role on a temporary basis.
In 2004, Ed Binney took over and tried to build on Fry's attempts to raise the profile of the department, while developing a more strategic direction for the university's multimillion-dollar IT spending. The role was broadened to one of strategic leadership and co-ordination of the university's information and communications technology resources.
But, as with Fry, the appointment of Binney was only ever a temporary arrangement. A year later, Robert Mackinnon took on the role. Having initially been appointed to run specific projects within the IT team, Mackinnon spent 12 months as CIO while the university ramped up its efforts to find a long-term appointee and provide some stability to the 400-odd IT professionals in its team.
Although each of the men tried to provide strategic direction within the constraints of a 12-month appointment, high turnover had left the IT department running on autopilot.
Consolidation of IT provisioning at the university had been on the agenda throughout the period, yet functions such as email were still spread across multiple platforms and duplication was rife as the various schools and faculties jealously guarded systems and applications that had resulted from grants or specific research projects.
As if that wasn't enough, some major projects were seriously overdue. The student administration system was well past its use-by date and the university administration was keen to bulldoze the aged data centre to reclaim the real estate.
Fed up with the continual changes, most of the university's IT employees had simply stopped paying attention, consumed with the reactive fixes and diving catches that were the inevitable result of a lack of strategic development.
Ever the diplomat, Meikle offers a gentler appraisal of the university's IT department and its challenges.
"What I found when I came on board was quite a lot of user dissatisfaction with IT, and an IT department that had been through a lot of change at the top and was a bit cynical as a result," he says. "There was evidence that there'd been attempts to improve a lot of the standards and processes, but governance had fallen down and there wasn't a lot of fact-based decision-making going on."
As Doug Vail, manager of the operations and infrastructure group at the university, describes it, the IT department had inherited such a complex and layered infrastructure it was often difficult to pinpoint where a problem was occurring, let alone fix it.
"IT needed to become a driving force for change within the university, not just a provider of components," Vail says. "But we were dominated by a delivery side, support mentality where we spent all our time managing siloed technologies."
Meikle was also keenly aware he was entering a minefield of interests and an IT department with a serious case of change fatigue. Bringing to bear his experience at AMP, where the implementation of shared services had been based on consultation rather than edict from above, Meikle immediately set about creating a relationship management group to facilitate communication between the IT department and the faculties.
"What we needed to do was create enough consistency and standardisation across the university to be able to deliver a degree of efficiency to the way we operate," Meikle says. "But control is a bad word in a university and people can become very excited when you try to change the way they're doing things. Often they don't realise that much of what they do is exactly the same as the faculty next door, and that's what we need to bring together."
At the same time he restarted reporting and organisational projects designed to implement standards and improve processes. Initially, the challenge was to discover how much work the IT team was actually doing, then to implement standard provisioning to improve the way IT services were actually being delivered.
This two-track approach was designed to improve the level of service offered by the IT department, while handing a certain degree of ownership back to the individual faculties.
"When we talk about shared services in a university - what it's about is how we get, from a central core, appropriate layers of technology that are well protected and well provisioned into the hands of the professor of a discipline," Meikle says. "They oughtn't to have to worry about the storage and the network and the processing power. We ought to be able to provide the network and the desktops and all the background service they need so they can play effectively with the specific technology they need."
Strategically, this two-track approach would raise the profile of the IT department, without trampling on the specific academic pursuits of individual departments.
"It's incumbent on us to show both the need for, and the value of, investment in information technology," Meikle says. "We have the funding we need to get the job done well, so our job is to deliver the services and communicate the capacity and the limitations of what we're able to achieve."
Getting down to business
A year in and Meikle's softly, softly approach seems to be paying off. Increased communication with the different faculties has resulted in a higher level of buy-in to IT projects, and individual faculties are taking on more responsibility for their own IT requirements.
At the same time, improved management practices have made some of the ongoing work less arduous and the IT department has been able to channel more resources into some of the larger structural challenges.
While much of last year was spent on scoping projects, standardised reporting and incident management procedures, as well as relationship building across the university, Meikle believes it's now time to take on some larger projects.
"There are bulldozers waiting to demolish the data centre, so that's the first priority at this stage," he says.
"But over the next 12 months I'd like to see all the operational systems we've been working on forming a really sound base in the IT team.
"The three- to five-year goal is that the operational changes set us on a road of constant improvement and create an efficient, effective environment where people are happy to work."
Progress has been made on the selection of a new student administration system for the university, as preparations are made to shift the data centre off campus and on to more efficient virtual platforms.
"I take things quite personally and I see it as my personal goal to take the operational issues with IT off the agenda and really begin to contribute in a meaningful way to the research in the university," Meikle says.
"I'll be happy when my team is able to operate at a very professional level and is seen as such throughout the university."
So while Meikle will busy himself with the central roadway, under his watch the quiet alcoves will also have a place.
"I don't have any plans to move on from this job," he says. "Maybe in 10 years' time I can start to think about retiring, but in the meantime I really like what this job stands for.
"I like being able to work in the education sector and build the infrastructure the academics need to do their job well. And until I achieve that, I'm not going anywhere."
Fairfax Business Media
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