Reflections on UCISA CISG-PCMG 2017

From 8-10 November 2017 I digitally attended the UCISA Corporate Information Systems Group / Project and Change Management Group joint conference, theme ‘Everything Changes’. This mean I set aside dedicated time to watch the presentations that were live streamed and follow the conference backchannel on Twitter using #cisgpcmg17 but I didn’t travel to attend the conference in person.

Across three days and many presentations I heard wide range of experts all speaking eloquently and passionately about their subjects and through their words and ideas I came to understand something about our sector’s vision for a global digital university and how to thrive despite the turbulence, complexity and uncertainty of change as the norm.

A global digital university is an organisation that can clearly articulate their purpose, that can diversify their business models and learning pathways to suit a range of students and educational needs, that can combine access and modularity with academic integrity,  that can bring together people and data in smart and secure spaces, that can seamlessly fuse their physical and digital environments, that invest their precious cash and KASH wisely and most are all are always willing to learn.

In this article I explore four themes that underpin this vision and that came up time and again throughout the conference: strategy, agility, analytics and security.  All of these themes are underpinned by fundamental importance of  learning with cultural leadership in creating the fertile working environment that will allow university professionals and students to exploit new modes of course delivery, access to learning and technological advantage.

I also reflect on what it was like to attend a conference as a digital attendee and some thoughts on using digital tools in Office 365 for knowledge management based on trying out different ways of sharing information from the conference with colleagues. As part of this I created a Sway storyline for the conference which you can take a look at if you want a more day-by-day account of how I saw the conference.


The first theme is strategy. Jean-Noel Ezingeard, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University opened the conference with an analysis of the external challenges that for the sector. These include increased competition, a new regulatory regime and funding challenges within a climate of Brexit uncertainty and increasing media criticism of the sector. The need to diversify income and how and where to make capital investments will be key.

Jean-Noel spoke of competition for funding between the physical and digital estates and how universities will balance this. Later Magnus Bergfors from Gartner spoke about digital business “blurring the digital and physical worlds” so it will be interesting to see what strategic capital investments universities make as the physical and digital converge.

The third aspect of digital business is people and Rob McWilliam spoke about how to make innovation customer-centric. Rob now works for Jisc but this talk was based on his previous industry experience in the retail sector. If market dynamics mean universities are going to have to adapt from undergraduate first-degree machines to have more diverse portfolios, Rob supplied a potential blueprint on how to execute strategy through: purpose, listening to customers, world class execution and continuous reinvention.

Universities often base their strategies on our common purpose:

  1. Educate Students
  2. Lead Research
  3. Curate Knowledge

However, they are mostly variations on what we already do and they end up being pretty similar.

If retailers can differentiate, so can universities. Walmart’s purpose focuses on saving people money; Amazon’s focuses on enabling people to find anything they want to buy online.

As traditional areas of supply and growth dry up the challenge for universities is to find a meaningful (unique) mission for each institution and support it with distinctive, innovative, customer-centric mechanisms for development and delivery. With limited resource, where will your institution place their bets in this brave new world?

Universities have to be selective, so they will have to get used to making faster decisions and risking many small failures for bigger rewards. Innovation is the best place to fail. You need to be prepared for failures in order to have successes. If you don’t like that idea then tough: failure will come anyway.  Most decisions are ‘two way doors’ not ‘one way doors’. You can try and if they don’t work you can stop or change. So stop deliberating and start testing.

Leadership is not just about strategy, it’s as much about culture. Matthew Syed said that leaders are cultural architects; leaders create the psychological environment in which their teams operate.

This shared culture is important. Robert Lambert argued it’s easy to dismiss purpose, values and mission are quite fluffy but they are what keep people going when the going gets hard, and the going is getting harder.

Emma Bull exemplifies this sort of cultural leadership in her role leading organisational development at the University of Wolverhampton as the search for strategic, significant and sustained change. It was good to hear a strategic  leader thinking about how to get provide a supportive environment , how to find and empower change agents across the institution and how to embed change in ways of working.

So universities are operating in an uncertain and competitive environment. They will need to diversify, understand the needs of their changing customer base, find new opportunities and fix their weaknesses. They will need decisive, strategic and cultural leadership. They will need to choose how they raise and spend both cash and KASH (knowledge, attitudes, skills and habits).


Agility is all about the knowledge , attitudes, skills and habits needed to navigate continual change. It requires is a cultural shift and mindset centred on learning and incremental improvement. It’s less a method and more of an attitude that recognises that people, working in a system that supports them, are the engines for success.

Mind the Productivity Gap

Robert Lambert started by providing a fairytale view (as in grim) on traditional development: trying to squeeze productive work in between trying to squeeze product development between the specification of distraction, the gantt chart of devastation and the test case management system of doom. In this model releases are larger so have a higher risk of breaking things and longer feedback loops.

Jose Casal added that most change organisations have become queue management functions rather value adding. 90% of most projects has been wasted in a queue. It’s typically because we have too much work on the go.

It’s a myth that you know what you need and how to build it at the start. Agility comes through discovery. You have to learn your way through complex problems, develop good and best practice for the complicated and obvious problems (see the cynefin framework to help make sense of a situation and understand which problem space you are working in). Agility and creativity need time and space so don’t necessarily expect being agile take less money or time overall: expect it to increase quality and reduce rework.

Fflip your working

Both Lambert and Casal were full of advice for releasing agility. Lambert provide tips, five for making the most of people and five for the systems that support. The people steps are all about purpose and expectations: agile starts with clear purpose and objectives.

Rob McWilliam provided an example of this when he spoke of how Amazon initiate change proposals. Any change at Amazon starts with someone writing a press release that says what Amazon are going to do and how it benefits customers. It’s accompanied by a set of FAQs that explain how Amazon is going to deliver it.

It is debated long and hard by senior leadership before it is handed over to development and delivery teams. By working backwards from that press release, rather than forwards from a solution or specification, everyone working on the project understand what they are aiming for.

Lambert’s environmental steps are for the growth, training, support and encouragement people need to thrive. Management is about designing processes and systems and pulling the levers of c-operation because many of the opportunities existing between not within teams.

Casal advised thinking about flow, fitness for purpose, learning, impact and people more than scope, time and cost. Think about how motorways work: give yourselves enough space to operate at a safe and sustainable speed and only release agility at a pace people can keep up. At times of congestion, and most organisations always have more good ideas than they have change capacity, limiting speed allows you to all go forward faster together rather than inefficient stop/starting, or worse pile ups.


Many speakers spoke of innovation needing the psychological safety to try but fail as a key part of learning your way through a problem.

For Matthew Syed this was an essential part of a growth mindset and an adjust, rather than a blame, culture. Within a growth mindset you are more curious and resilient. You test not just at the end of development to confirm what you know but throughout development to find out what you don’t know: each experiment is a learning opportunity. Google found out the most profitable shade of blue for web links using A/B testing and conduct thousands of A/B tests a year.

One of the main reasons for early and ongoing testing is it provides you with data, and many speakers pointed out getting better at getting insight from data is going to be another important engine of success.


Rob McWilliam said customer-centric organisations are truth-seeking organisations.

They dig into details and data, working from evidence not assumptions. Within retail, there is increasing use of data analytics over market research because data evidences actual rather than intended behaviour.

Matthew Syed compared and contrasted the aviation and healthcare industry, In aviation near misses are common but each one is logged and analysed and used to drive improvement. In healthcare, recording of avoidable harm is often avoided making it hard to differentiate negligence from systemic errors that should be identified and fixed.

Within the higher education sector there were multiple examples of data at the heart of change.

Andy Youell from HESA spoke about the changing data collection landscape, the data architecture and the behaviours that will allow multiple agencies to get the insight they need from institutional data.

Keith Jenkins and Hazel Waller from Jisc described some of their shared services for research data, bibliographic data and learning analytics. Jisc have developed a national learning analytics framework and a roadmap that will see better retention and attainment, efficient campuses, improved teaching and curricula and personalised, adaptive learning for students thanks to more sophisticated analytical techniques.

Similar trends are evident in procurement, according to Magnus Bergfors and he shared Gartner’s model for the evolution of these analytical techniques.

As all these platforms generate more data: on student records, on research publications and data, on learning interactions, on longitudinal outcomes, on what universities are spending their money on; there will be more data to mine for insight and intelligence but integration strategies will grow in importance as will questions of data ethics and protection if data analytics is to be an asset rather than a liability.


The final theme woven through presentation picked up on this need for data protection and talked about universities should approach their cyber security strategy and compliance with the GDPR.

GDPR is looming as one of the major items on the 2018 agenda but Andrew Cormack gave a succinct overview of what is involved.  He spoke of the move from DPA to GDPR as as not just defining what personal data is being processed but being more explicit about why that data is being processed.  If you are already doing data protection well, none of the changes but under GDPR you need to think more about your motivation and legal basis across the full information lifecycle.

Screenshot 2017-11-09 09.53.31

Pleasingly for an information scientist, the foundation of GDPR is information lifecycles.  At its most simple the collection, processing and disposal of data but more complex cases my involve sharing and disclosure.  To share data internally data processing is more explicit if you if each usage is treated as its own life cycle.  So any data reuse or transfer triggers a new collect, process, dispose lifecycle.  To share data externally you transfer responsibilities through agreement/contract.

Data protection helps us protect the people behind the data and is usually coupled with IT security in order to safeguard the data itself ensuring it is freely available for authorised use but protected from  leakage, theft and other threats.

Arthur Clune whisked us through a brief history of cyber security, threat modelling and mitigation in order to optimise security and reduce vulnerability.  Optimisation requires a careful balance between protection and the user experience, safety and inconvenience and assurance and cost.  This requires a holistic view of technology, data classification, systems and processes, a good knowledge of your risk profile and adherence to basic fundamentals: patching, passwords and processes.

So far, so textbook but the talk by Jamie Woodruff was a truly eye opening insight into the ethical hacking business and a salutory reminder just how many potential security vulnerabilities there are in complex information environments.  His insight into cyber attack vectors, social engineering and common vulnerabilities and scam techniques was truly unnerving.

Screenshot 2017-11-09 09.53.31

Social engineering is the art of manipulation for information. Know as ‘bugs in the human hardware’ based on cognitive biases. It’s a cyber attack that relies on minimal technological intervention. People are the weakest link in all infrastructures around the world. They will screw up. They are susceptible to these types of attack … they are just so curious and trusting.

As our environments become ‘smarter’, it’s not just people who are vulnerable: children’s toys, smart homes and smartphones, CCTV and even the humble printer all provide easy access to our most private domestic and workplace spaces, activities and thoughts.  As we rush to take advantage of the opportunities and benefits these technologies provide, we need to be mindful of the varied threat agents, from lone hackers to highly industrialised criminal enterprises, walking in the shadows of our digital campuses.

Conferencing as a Digital Attendee

Attending a conference as a digital attended provides an obviously different experience to attending in person.   It was driven by constraints but enabled me to experiment.  I was interested to find out:

  • How much you can get out of a conference without being physically present?
  • What digital channels there are for engaging with a conference?
  • What channels can you use to discuss and share knowledge from the conference with colleagues?

It’s important to be able to do this that the conference offers options for digital participation.  In the case of the UCISA conference this was:

It’s acknowledged that this experiment is only possible because UCISA provides the live video stream.  In this case, there is no direct cost incurred for accessing the live stream and being a ‘digital attendee’; the feed is made freely available upon registration.  The video stream is provided by Mediasite and I used Tweetdeck to help keep up with discussion on Twitter.

I also tried out different tools and channels for knowledge transfer in Officer 365.  During the conference I tried:

  • Yammer
  • Sharepoint Site Newsfeed
  • Shared OneNote Notebook
  • Sway Storyline

Of these, Yammer was probably most useful for live conversations as the conference was taking place, OneNotet was useful for taking notes and clipping screenshots of slides and comments and using Sway provided the most engaging way to write up the conference for wider distribution.

I’ve attended a few UCISA conferences in my time but this was my first entirely online.  I found there are pros/cons to each mode of attendance:

 Pros  Cons
  • Informal networking and conversations
  • Conference exhibition
  • Participate in parallel and interactive sessions
  • Get to visit other places / change of scenery
  • Cost
  • Time
  • Harder to pay attention and take notes at the same time
  • Cheaper (sometimes even free)
  • Takes up less dedicated time
  • Note taking, amplification and slide clipping easier
  • Online networking (conference back channel) easier
  • Relies on availability of digital channels
  • Harder to network – it’s quite an isolated experience
  • Only usually covers plenary not parallel  or interactive sessions so not the full experience
  • No exhibition or handouts (digital exhibits not yet a thing)
  • Food is less good (although I did make sure I went to the pub for my ‘conference dinner’)

My main finding is attending in person is obviously better for networking but there are benefits for knowledge sharing in digital attendance.  A possible option might be to buddy up with a colleague, a kind of pair conferencing, so one attends in person and one attends digitally.  Combining both perspectives after the conference would probably be a great way to combine the best of both worlds and aide knowledge sharing.


Community, Advocacy and Freedom: CILIP 2015 Conference Report

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Spotted in the floor tiles in St George’s Hall

Last week I attend the CILIP 2015 Conference in St George’s Hall, Liverpool (2-3 July). This was a magnificent venue where references to justice and knowledge were literally built into the walls and the floor.

This was my first CILIP conference and I was keen to take advantage of discounted registration for students to hear about the profession from a range of current practitioners to complement by Masters study at #citylis (City University, London).

The conference programme featured a number of keynote presentations from a variety of speakers, many of whom were not library or information professionals but added their perspectives to ours. This was complemented by breakout sessions that covered:

  • Information management: building success
  • Information literacy and digital inclusion
  • Demonstrating value: what’s your impact?
  • Digital futures and technology

along with a track of Fringe events that included Q&A sessions with keynote speakers and an opportunity join in hack sessions with exhibitors like the Ideas Box.

It’s not nice to be a librarian … it’s AWESOME to be a librarian … we do important things … throughout history we have done powerful things for human kind … librarians have that power – R. David Lankes

Screenshot 2015-07-06 18.29.36
Librarians: changing the world since 2000BC

The conference received a rousing start from R. David Lankes on the position and potential of librarians and was concluded by a presidential address from Jan Parry on the importance of critically reviewing ourselves and our services, before other people do, if we are to make a good impression. These talks extolled the power and professionalism of librarianship, neatly bookending proceedings, and instilled a feeling of optimism.

In between I attended every keynote and spent most of my breakout sessions in the Digital Futures and Technology track. These sessions were held in the unusual setting of the Civil Court, a 19th century courtroom with wooden benches and ink wells and talks delivered from the witness stand. Many people will have sat in this courtroom listening and arguing and now it heard today’s advocates on the subject of “wicked problems”, research data management, user experience, access management and linked open bibliographic data.

My only detour from this track was towards the end of the conference I couldn’t resist the Delivering Value session featuring the British Library and Wigan Library Service as I thought this juxtaposition would offer a truly macroscopic view of librarianship in in the UK. I was rewarded with a frankly inspiring hour that soared from the British Library’s Living Knowledge project envisioning how to stay at the forefront of All the World’s Knowledge and embed it across the UK to how a local library service has placed itself at the centre of Wigan’s community and the promises that make up The Deal, the council’s pact with the people who elect it.

I took notes on each session I attended and links to these are available in the session notes section below. Rather than describe each session again in detail I want to draw together my thoughts and reflect on three themes that I kept hearing again and again across the conference: community, advocacy and freedom.


People were the pulsing, beating heart of a conference that celebrated both the community of librarians represented and the communities they serve. Again started by Lankes he urged us to speak more about librarians when defining libraries:

A mandated and mediated space (virtual and/or physical) owned by the community, stewarded by librarians, and dedicated to knowledge creation.

Time and time again speakers provided examples of how these spaces help create and connect vibrant communities (as in the above examples of the much admired Liverpool Central Library). Libraries may be changing but they aren’t dead and never will be as long as there are people in the world who want to learn and to be informed.

This becomes even more urgently evident during times of crisis as in Ferguson and Baltimore when libraries provided citizens with safe spaces. Another example was provided by Barbara Schack of Bibliotheques Sans Frontieres / Libraries Without Borders who talked about the Ideas Box. This is a media centre than can be transported anywhere in the world within an hour. It contains technology, content and materials that trained facilitators can use in crisis struck communities to enable people to come together, opening the boxes and creating a space where they can be human again escaping the crisis that surrounds them and contributing their information, knowledge and creativity to healing their society and their culture.

Erwin James also spoke about how books changed the way he thought about life. Prison enabled his immediate physical needs to be met fully for the first time in his life but again it was reading that enabled him to become human: to find a way to participate in society through culture. He spoke of how a single story brought wonder into his world and gave him the ambition to find “a good way to live”. He began to read, then write, then learn. Prison was for him a community resource that brought him peace, optimism and hope.

Libraries are refuges but they don’t just make communities when times are tough they co-create communities every day in small ways for all citizens. They use knowledge exchange and creation as social acts of conversation. As Lankes says “we bridge ideas into our environments”. We help people learn whether that is for their hobby, for work, for pure joy and wonder, of democracy. Librarians are people who collect resources and provide guidance that help people to learn and these resources increasingly cover digital and material technologies, such as those used in maker spaces, as well as books.

Libraries embody their communities: the people who provide and the people use them. Libraries are inherently political: they are by and of the people. Our job is to make them for everyone and defend them in a tough world.

This is not easy. Librarians, like others, are faced by “wicked problems”. Andrew Cox described these are complex, unfamiliar, stressful situations where the way forward isn’t clear. The problem is linked to other problems, there are numerous intervention points and numerous constrains and it is not clear that the situation is “solvable” by any one group. Cox used the example of Research Data Management (RDM) as an area lacking in information, agreement and relying on too many assumptions. Navigating these complex issues requires flexibility, enterprise, collaboration and courage and we must move forward with positive deviance, constructive dissent, empathy and collective intelligence. Most of all be a community of fate who stand together, but not a fatalist community: crisis narrative does us no favours.


We do not live in a neutral world and so we have advocacy: the practice of influencing decisions and changing society. Doubt is an interesting episode of The Good Wife about advocacy and using evidence not just establish the truth of things but to make that truth sing louder than any alternative.

“The problem is it’s not a good story, it’s just a freak accident, there are no villains.”

“But if it’s true?”

“But it doesn’t sound true. The prosecution’s story sounds like the truth.”

Doubt depicts informed democracy in action as a jury deliberates a seemingly open and shut case. As the episode unfolds small sections of the case are revealed in flashback fragmenting the picture and revealing competing versions of the truth. It also argues presenting the most factual version of events is not enough especially as the truth doesn’t always sound true in the face of competing narratives that offer better stories. At the end of the story the jury don’t have reasonable doubt, they have “reasonable ignorance”.

CILIP 2015 was also a story about advocacy. Many times throughout the conference, sessions urged us not to leave the senior managers and politicians who make decisions about library services in “reasonable ignorance” about the work librarians do and the value this brings to the communities they serve. Cory Doctorow told us obscurity can be dangerous and damaging.

In competitive and constrained times we cannot assume that the value of the services we deliver and love is self-evident to those who make decisions that govern the existence of those services.

Hence, the video Wigan Library Services created that summarised their contribution to their communities and council goals just over 5 minutes. The music and imagery helps transform statistics into a more powerful and eye catching narrative. It was placed in front of their chief executive and has now been seen by the entire senior management team.

We also cannot assume that times will get easier: we will always be in competition with something and there will always be challenges to face. There was some disagreement, however, on what we are competing with. Ken Chad identified choice as a key competitive forces with Google, Amazon and electronic subscription libraries like Epic! (for children) and Safari (for professionals) providing alternative library services target at specific groups.

R. David Lankes held a different view arguing that Amazon, Apple and Google are not in the advertising and consumer goods business, not the information business. His position is that libraries are in competition with the other services competing for the same public resources. Stuart Hamilton offered some suggestions on where this competition may come from. IFLA have been a partner in the development of a new set of UN Sustainable Development Goals and there will shortly be a UK Sustainable Development Plan. Demonstrating how you help the UK meet these goals will increasingly justify the funding and relevance of libraries in the post-2015 information environment. For non-public libraries your organisation’s strategy provides a similar guide to relevance.

All arguments are not created equal and we heard from Full Fact about their work as independent fact checkers sifting out information you can rely on from the misinformation. They check claims made in political arguments so we are not forced to choose between “blind faith and blind cynicism” in public discourse. Their experience showed that expertise matters and it’s possible to make fact checking systematic and impartial. Again their message was that doing their work, even communicating their work was not enough. Their third team is their monitoring team. Communication enables expertise to be vocal but monitoring of trends and issues enables it to have relevance. As information expands, attention decreases.

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Quotations on the wall in Liverpool Central Library

Whilst we must tell our story it must appropriate the language and aspirations of those we are addressing in order to be heard. For libraries to survive amidst this cacophony of competing commercial and public forces our stories don’t just have to be good, they also have to be targeted and relevant. For all the new technologies and trends we need to matter, communication and making a persuasive case are still crucial core skills.

The sum of these arguments is to suggest that librarians need to turn up, be present, go to meetings, and should be more assertive in owning the narrative around what they do and more ready to engage in the selling of that narrative to others.

We have to fill the narrative vacuum around the profession with the vibrancy, vitality and variety of ways communities use libraries. This will enable us to dismiss lazy assumptions, demonstrate value and go beyond measuring access to information towards explaining the impact that access, and its removal, has on our communities in order to ensure the “integrity, preservation and provision” of information as demanded in the Lyon Declaration.


If some narratives can be reconciled, then others must be resisted and the erosion of civil liberties is one of them. The conference underlined our profession’s commitment to:

  • learning
  • openness
  • intellectual freedom and safety

but also noted that sometimes these clash and striking the right balance is difficult. In particular tension is encouraging access and openness whilst ensuring privacy and respecting creativity.

Liberty is campaigning to save the Human Rights Act

Cory Doctorow talked about the unintended consequences of Digital Rights Management (DRM). As a security process this has done nothing to prevent piracy but prevents us exposing and fixing vulnerabilities in software. It has crippled creativity and criminalised scrutiny and eroded the negotiating power of artists without doing anything to protect digital rights.

Shami Chakrabarti moved the discussion to the broader context of universal human rights and how the political and ethical debate is lagging behind advances in technology. Even as we want to be free it is important to that freedom not to totally abandon privacy. At the very least there should be public debate on the ethics of surveilling entire populations because of the dangerous acts of a few.

Open data promises to provide people with greater freedom of information, but it also threatens ever-deepening surveillance. The amount of data held in our smartphones is significant, even scary. These devices empower and enable daily but they also have the potential to be compromised and used as “digital pathogens” against us. Using this data ethically and appropriately and participating in debates about who should be able to scrutinise these data and devices relies on literacy. Expanding our literacy to encompass big data is a challenge for librarians not just citizens and Virginia Power talked about the increasing demand for digital preservation, information governance and statistical and analytical skills along with some handy resources to provide support if “this data world is scaring you witless”.

In many respects the arguments about freedom were not about being able to do or say anything but being able to fairly and openly scrutinise the systems in which we exist and that govern us: whether these be political systems or software. Freedom will never be absolute but will be constrained and qualified but our freedom is certainly curtailed when we are not able to subject the actions of others to scrutiny or we are excluded from debates.

A functioning democracy needs to be an informed democracy: we need open, reliable and relevant evidence, persuasive advocates and literacy if we are to sustain our ability and our right to make sense of our society, invent and innovate, change the world, be human and be free.

This means, more than ever, we need librarians.

Session Notes