It was my pleasure to get to know Ian McNeice from Kingston University over the last few months. Ian is a very passionate visionary in academic IT and was one of our early adopters. He kindly agreed to an IM interview about how they are using SharePoint Server 2007 and other Microsoft technologies to create innovative and enabling solutions for his students and academics.
The full business value case study should be up on the Microsoft web site later this week so I will update this post with the link then. In the meantime here is the transcript of the conversation. <update 16/1/07 > My questions are in italics, Ian's responses indented. Hopefully this is a bit easier to read. - thanks James </update>
Hi Ian, thanks for taking the time out to "speak" to me today
thanks for inviting me
Perhaps you could start by telling us who you are and what you do
my name is Ian McNeice, I am the head of technical Services here at Kingston University in South West London and my team and I are responsible for research and develpment into delivering new innovations and technologies for 22,000 students and around 3000 staff. The students and staff are located across a number of diverse campuses and in places as far flung as Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.
the task is not only to meet forthcoming business needs but also to antcipate change and developments in technologies and harness them for the benefit of the information worker as well as enhancing the student experience for learning and teaching
Its interesting that you describe the university as a business. How do think technology provision to academic communities compares with industry?
Until recent times I feel that academic institutions have been led by developments in the commercial sector asnd have done their best to work with what was affordable or that which was applicable or alterable to meet more diverse academic needs however as students increasingly view themselves as customers now that fees have been chargeable as of September 2006 and as they are now incedible consumers of the latest technologies so Universities ahve a greater responsibilities to meet and match student expectations. To this end what we are seeing is a major shift into the purchasing of off the shelf commercial level technologies that run what are very large business models.
Universities turn over hundreds of millions of pounds and have many of the same elements that we see within the commercial sector organisations - for example e-learning for staff, process controls, workflow management etc. Therefore whilst open source has been seen in academic terms as a major aspect of progression - when we are providing technologies for such a large audience, then only way we can really guarantee levels of service and functionality is to look at the major corporate vendors and emulate what has already been seen to work within business.
also i may add that we are seeing an even greater shift. this is demonstrated best where we are now using Microsoft technologies to demonstrate potential solutions for business through our business enterprise activities. The recent use of Sharepoint 3.0 to illustrate how team sites can extend beyond the traditional boundaries of our enterprise for research activities is now influencing the collaborative models that some business environments have so far not solved. A good example would be the work we have done with research sites in Sharepoint 3.0 and how that is being used as a collaborative think tank for a section of the Uk aerospace industry to look at a Uk wide collaborative platform for a tender process for defence
so I understand you are also looking to SharePoint Server 2007 for blogging?
indeed we are, blogging will be a major breakthrough for us. For a start the ascademic staff need to be able to reach an international audience efficienctly and simply. they would like to be able to represent their own initiatives in research as well as Kingston
so these are academic blogs?
yes they are. The Microsoft blog facility has been shown to be excellent
do you have an example URL we could have a look at?
this is the url for our own Deputy Vice Chancellor Mary Stuart and her work on widening participation http://kublogs.kingston.ac.uk/sites/heapprblog We have take a two fold approach for blogs. One is to allow academics the fredom of having a blog for their own work and secondly for research groups that are faculty driven
so the big question I suppose is why not use one of the better known platforms like wordpress or blogger?
well because we want to have a consistent and institutional feel for all our blogs, but most importantly we have found that the facilities of MS blogs are far greater than what is on offer freely. We can also brand them to promote Kingston as a bi product and also they integrate so well into sharepoint that there would be no reason to sue any other service. Ultimately we also see how MS blogs allow us to create a social and researc h network internally as much as externally.
its an exciting time for us with the new Microsoft technologies for sure
so how does this solution help integrate internal and external collaboration?
okay traditionally with Sharepoint, collaboration was hideen behind our firewall, so a team site would allow an internal group to work together brilliantly. Unfortunately we hadn't cracked the idea of how we allow what are closed internal grups to reach out collaboratively to external individuals or groups they wished to work with say for short periods
with the new sharepoint collaborative spaces we can allow collaborative groups to manage who can access their shared space externally and manage them without needing an IT team to support user access accounts etc
this is a real godsend because it now means that collaborative internal teams can decide for themselves who they wish to collaborate externally with, without our intervention and management. If we add in the massive potential of Groove for one to one internal/external relationships then we feel we have progressed a long way. For example we can now support workplace learnign with workplace students who are away for a year directly through Groove workspaces. So we see Sharepoint and Groove and Communicator all acting as collective services to allow the University to reach out a very long way and really widen collaborative participation
as an IT manager is that not a bit scary - letting people loose with the technology?
not at all. msn messenger is on so many PCs across the world that why not engage in the technology than trying to prevent it
that's true - you can't stop the Internet
we like to think that harnessing the potential of technology is a better way of enhancing the lives of those who work and study than to merely block things out because of a need to control
better to provide instant messaging that is secure than allow users to instant message behind our backs
so all this sounds great. How does it affect the everyday student at Kingston, what are their touch points with technology?
students are touched by technology every hour of every day whether it be through their mobiles or through email, a student will primarily ehnace their experinec at Kingston first via using Sharepoint as an access point to their online email and virtual learning environment
therefore sharepoint is seen as a 24 hour one stop access shop for a very diverse set of needs. However the student can now use their student portal as the primary source of information, and as a place to store files for studying at home
in the future this kind of experience will only increase. Soon we will embedd library service facilities into my sites so students can keep a check of their book loands and borrowings without needing to go to any other system
things have moved on a bit since I was at Uni, Kingston sounds very progressive. How do you compare to other universities?
I think that the issue is that many educational establishments work in isolation and don't compare what they offer in terms of technology. Consequently the student experience whether in the uSA or anywhere else can vary enormously. I don't like to compare I like to think that here at Kingston we strike out using industry best practise as well as advanced innovational thinking and let others compare themselves to us
I'd prefer that we see ousrelves as innovators for the benefit of our audience rather than trying to match what another university or college has already achieved
education is a global market and education is increasingly a global discipline and therefore it is best to think of technology as a platform that is universal in its appeal and i believe that Microsoft technologies enhance that universal appeal
the other challenge i see education customers faced with is huge amounts of integration issues. How are you minimising that problem?
by working frm the base up - you are absolutely right darren. Over the years different areas of a university have bought disparate products that do not link together. The key for the future is business intelligence and to gain that we MUST have an integrated approach
therefore the first thing is to ensure consistency of user experience at the desktop by taking the managed workstation approach with microsoft desktop technologies. Our servers have increasingly been unified as Windows Server 2003 and any student or staff member should now expect the same level of service across any campus desktop. Sharepoint has allow a central hub of commonality to be put in place meaning that we can now look at how we integrate other data silos into a sharepoint framework. The .NET standard and XML are also both excellent facilitators of allowing us to become mroe integrated
so are you saying you need to be end to end Microsoft?
not at all and neither would I wish to do that, I look for the best of breed in business level technological solutions and therefore I will always take a good objective view of the market - however new purchasing decisions are increasingly driven by the need for integration so we will look at technological solutions for other vendords wthat fit in with our Microsoft environment rather than trying to make them fit afterwards
It's great to get your insights on this Ian, I better let you get on with more innovation. Is there anything else you would like to add?
ha ha, many thanks Darren, Its been a pleasure and I will keep you abreast as we push forwards. After 19 years in the industry I can say positively that this is one of the most exciting times to be engaged with technology and I think we all have a lot to learn yet from the tools you guys are offering us
thanks Ian, a very interesting chat.
no problem, cheers