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.


JISC Research Data Network Workshop

Today I attended the JISC Research Data Network Workshop hosted this time by Cardiff University. So far we know research data services are desirable (priority): there is a growing demand for managing heterogeneous and growing volumes of data across the entire research lifecycle; we know that research data services are possible (feasibility): there is an increasing array of on-premise and in-cloud platforms to select from; the challenge, certainly for us at least, is making these services sustainable, secure and manageable (viability). The RDN meeting provides an opportunity to find out more about good practice in the sector. Of particular interest today is less the technology and more the work JISC has been supporting around the business case and costing models for research data management.

Continue reading JISC Research Data Network Workshop

MARC’d This Week

ICYMI: Things I’ve found worth mentioning, amplifying, reading and collecting from the last few days.

Last Tuesday I followed JISC Digital Festival 2015 remotely thanks to Twitter and the live streaming of keynotes and selected sessions.  It’s not a complete experience but a good way to at least partially enjoy a conference when you have a cold, a twisted ankle and a student budget.  I particularly enjoyed the keynote by Professor Carole Goble on e-Science and research publication (brief notes | slides | recording).

Having discovered the Encyclopaedia of Life last week, this week I was introduced to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which provides the literature component of the EOL, thanks to a talk in the Big Data and the Dark Arts session.

Interesting article ‘Bits and Pieces of Information: Bibliographic Modeling of Transmedia’ by Ana Vukadin in Cataloging & Classification Quarterly (DOI: looks at how FRBR or FRBRoo (an attempt to harmonise FRBR with CIDOC CRM) can be used to catalogue narratives that span multiple media platforms.

It is an approach to multi-part works that might also help cataloguing the multi-various Research Objects mentioned in Carole Goble’s keynote though, there is alread a ro ontology.

This week’s exciting conference was User Experience in Libraries (#UXLibs), a library-focused event on delivering great services to users. Whilst it was possible to follow remotely this was a conference intended for attending. The format of a keynote then practical team sessions followed by a Q&A wrap-up each day looked like a really interesting active conference format: rethinking the conference experience, not just the library.