University challenge

University challenge

Massey University CIO Gerrit Bahlman takes us behind the scenes at the university’s ICT resource, while sharing his thoughts on the future of education in an information-rich, networked society.

Massey University might rank as New Zealand’s 10th largest IT user organisation according the 2007 MIS 00 report, but CIO Gerrit Bahlman says he operates in a very different environment from his counterparts in private enterprise. The objectives that guide the running of ICT in a business are comparatively clear, he says. It’s a matter of assisting the company to run a business at a profit and respond to customer needs, while the achievement of these goals can usually be measured in objective ways.

In a university, the business objectives are not as clearly focused and the measures of success are more diffuse, Bahlman argues. A university can see itself as working for the public good, providing a community service, raising academic standards, contributing to the world’s stock of knowledge or any of a number of other objectives. The lack of well-defined objectives makes it harder to set priorities and it remains just as difficult to measure success.

Bahlman divides the architecture of the university’s business-related information system into four levels: the technology; the applications based on it; the information they generate and use; and the business strategy the information fits into.

While efforts are made to maintain links between these various disciplines, Bahlman says it can be an uphill task. “We have to construct forums for those conversations that used to happen as a matter of course,” he says.

Bahlman says university IT departments are also facing a widening gulf between computer centres and the academic computer science faculty. In the past, the people who worked in the computer centre were able to give the benefit of their practical experience to those setting the academic syllabus and absorb some of the latest thinking on computing from the academic side. This made for a very productive atmosphere, he says.

But now, with an increase in the size of the university and a broader use of computing in a variety of disciplines, he says there is an increasing disconnect between the “navigation” and the “engine-room”.

Another challenge facing Bahlman is the increasing dependence on ICT across all faculties. “Keeping up with that is not just a matter of budget but of getting the right talent in the right place.”

Bahlman acknowledges that skill shortages are constraining organisations across the business spectrum, though he says the problem is particularly severe in universities where salary rates are too low to allow access to “the areas of high skill where the deep talent rests”.

University ICT departments are also particularly susceptible to the brain-drain syndrome. “Bright ideas go overseas too easily and the people go with them,” Bahlman says.

According to Bahlman part of the answer is to target “where the investment needs to go in the talent war” by engaging with the university community and the international market at all levels.

“We must look at what services are being delivered, what projects are in train and how staff resources should be deployed; applying a quality of service framework based on ITIL.”

Bahlman says a large part of his job involves helping the institution understand what its IT needs are.

“The way an institution looks at IT says a lot about its maturity. In the first stage of development, IT is seen as centralised and coming from a single provider. That shows a narrowness of view; in reality there has to be a balance between centralised and distributed activities.”

The institution reaches the next level when it stops talking about IT altogether and talks in terms of information flows and frameworks for organising information. But Bahlman says the institution achieves the greatest maturity when the IT team sees itself in terms of the needs of society and as part of the supply-chain that answers those needs.

“That involves questions like who owns the institution and what does the government require of it? If you understand where you fit, then you know what to give priority to. That’s the biggest issue, which rabbit do you chase?”

Massey’s information landscape is rapidly changing, through legislative moves such as the Public Records Act and through the availability of massive research datasets such as those from radio-astronomical observations. “That kind of dataflow would fill a typical laptop hard disk-drive in seconds; we have to ask ourselves how much of that information we should be storing?” says Bahlman.

“Then there’s the question of technology for learning — what direction do we take on the e-learning path and how extensive does the infrastructure for that need to be?”

Bahlman says e-learning was the first aspect of computing that caught his attention when he graduated from university. He spent nine years teaching in secondary school before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he helped introduce computers into teaching at the University of the South Pacific. He was appointed CIO of Massey University in 1989, after having been initially recruited to run its student administration system.

Bahlman is chair of the Vice-Chancellors’ standing committee on IT, which assists collaboration around IT initiatives among New Zealand universities. He is also on the executive of CaudIT, the Council of Australian University Directors of Information Technology, which he describes as a “necessary support group for professional development, collaboration and support”. In Australia it has the function of guiding government in education ICT policy.

Beyond the teaching of information science or computer-based teaching of the broader curriculum, Bahlman says he is interested in the question of the growing role of digital technology in the gathering and dissemination of news and what kind of media and computer-literacy skills should be introduced into the syllabus to cope with this phenomenon.

“In the past we relied on newspapers to digest information and establish evidence for what was said, so we could have a certain level of trust in its credibility.” With blogs, wikis and community networks presenting less formal evaluation of facts and opinions for broad public consumption, “we have to ask where is quality and how can we establish truth”. These trends represent “a change in the way society works and regulates itself”. Such matters are of fundamental concern to a university.

It also alters the way an individual presents him/herself to the community. Bahlman notes that the French government, for example, is promoting the adoption of an e-portfolio collated by each citizen. Through this, they will record and present to the world what they consider to be their important achievements and demonstrations of their capabilities, as well as their personal stock of facts and opinions. He sees the e-portfolio as straddling the territory occupied by the traditional “CV” and the personal page on a community network like MySpace. It might include a blog and a wiki, where others can respond to and modify online the owner’s ideas. “It will change the way we think about our lives.”

To get one’s head around these questions of the role of electronically mediated information in life and education, and to use the answers to formulate an “information systems strategic plan” for the university, is a matter of “continuous consultation; you get the communities to talk about their needs in workshops and interviews, then discuss, survey, review and reflect”.

Growth in storage requirements is one of the important pressure points in Massey ICT. This is not, of course, unique to Massey or the university sector; the commercial world too is affected by voluminous and increasingly elaborate documents and other media and a steadily growing volume of emails.

This intensity of communication means urgent attention to networks, including the question of replacing legacy telephones with voice over IP, fixed-mobile telephone convergence and new high-volume multimedia vehicles such as “access grids”. This mode of teleconferencing with life-size images of speakers and concurrent display of relevant documents and images, is an increasingly popular and information-rich way for university researchers to communicate.

In this regard, “Karen [the government sponsored research and education network] is a godsend,” Bahlman says, but it requires Massey to give attention to its own internal networks and their reliability. “We can’t afford to have the network break.” This, in turn, raises robustness and disaster recovery to a high-priority status.

Massey is already doing backup of vital data between Auckland and Palmerston North campuses across Karen, “and we intend to establish a hot site in Auckland for the core systems, to ensure complete continuity”.

The university’s growth over the past 15 years has presented different challenges for the ICT function.

The Albany campus on Auckland’s North Shore was established in 1993, as a green-fields site, but the mergers with Palmerston North College of Education in 1996 and Wellington Polytechnic in 1999 were developments of a different order, involving the absorption of existing campuses with their own information structure.

The Wellington move involved installing a wide-area network across the North Island.

The university’s 17,000 extramural students have their own expectations of access to the university system, Bahlman says, but the full-time students also expect to be able to access lecture notes, timetables and related information from their home PCs.

IT on the three campuses is planned locally but integrated nationally he says, so staff and students see a consistent level and range of services.

The university has had centralised authentication for the past 15 years, while many distributed organisations, including “federated” universities, are still struggling to implement it. “There is no reason why, if you move your laptop from Wellington to Auckland, you should have to set it up again.”

Bahlman’s team is also considering whether it is possible to have one standard-desktop configuration for the whole university.

Massey has employed an expert to advise on an appropriate strategy to handle the rapid storage expansion; “we have to look at the size of the problem, at what kind of things we’re saving and how critical each item is”. He foresees a “hierarchy of access need” developing, with data kept at various levels of a hierarchical storage structure according to the frequency and urgency with which it’s likely to be required. “We’re thinking about appropriate technology; we’ve developed a plan, a roadmap and we’re beginning to develop an architecture.

“Again this is about priority of investment — what information can we afford to leave with the individual and how much has to be archived.”

He sees a “paradigm shift away from thick clients” as already under way, with more information entrusted to servers remote from the user’s desktop or laptop. “I’m watching the adoption of [Windows] Vista with great interest and I don’t see it being adopted quickly.” Apple technology, he says, is further ahead in seeing the PC as an “appliance for accessing services.

“Computers will become simpler and thinner,” he predicts, “and the sooner the better.” Even Microsoft, Bahlman says, is showing signs of a change in this direction.

“It’s not easy to maintain a diverse set of skills to deal with many different computing environments or business processes in a number of different places. This suggests a move towards network-based outsourcing of all kinds.”

Does this not run counter to the distributed model he was espousing earlier? “You will always need to have some distributed pools of talent,” he says.

“You need sandboxes where talented people can experiment safely, pushing on into unknown territory.”

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Tags storagebusiness strategynew technologyuniversityWikidigital technologyMIS100e-portfoliostudent administration system

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