This is how you pronounce my name if you’re an Anglophone.
We all know that geeks love problems. Give a problem to one and they’ll come up with a way to solve it, improve on that solution and then maybe see if the solution can also make you a coffee and do your vacuuming. As the old engineer’s adage goes: “It it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet”. Solving problems make some of us very happy. I was recently reminded of this when I mentioned a problem on yammer and half a dozen colleagues working in IT across the University pounced on the idea and began exploring possible solutions to implement. We had to be reined in before someone mentioned that one section already had a system that would solve that problem effectively. I’m sure that this has probably happened to most of the people in this room. Now that problem is not what I’m here to actually discuss, but I do want to talk about solving problems.
In my experience, emerging technologies tend to be the subject of much hype, plus the associated derision from naysayers. I’ll be the first to admit that when I first started in my role at Murdoch University a little over a year ago, I approached my job in the wrong way. I built a list of technologies and tried to find ways we could use them at the University to improve teaching, learning, research or other activities. In fact, when asked what I did for a living, “Emerging Technologies Specialist” was obviously not very illuminating; I would say “I play with emerging technologies and see how they can improve teaching, learning research or other activities at Murdoch University”. I’ll admit that sometimes the technologies were actual problems, not solutions. For example, ebook readers have the potential to change how everybody reads, but there are many problems in getting University content onto those ebook readers. But I digress…
In Mid-August last year, the Directory of IT forwarded me a short email message with an attachment – a 45-page PDF paper from Gartner that had been published a few months earlier. I read it once, thought a bit, then read it again. After a little more thought, I started to get quite excited. I was excited because this paper told me that I was doing my job wrong. Now, normally people don’t get very excited when they’ve been told they’ve spent eight hours a day doing the wrong thing for the past six months. Thankfully, I’m masochistic enough to handle it. The first thing I learnt is that I shouldn’t be finding problems for my solutions, but finding solutions for other people’s problems. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but this is an approach that some people take when it comes to emerging technologies.
The second thing I learnt was that not all problems can or should be solved using emerging technologies. The Emerging Technologies Coordinator or Group or whatever you want to call it must be prepared to be simply a problem solver and take all potential solutions into account, even if you’re going to use a solution that was developed a decade ago and is already in common usage.
Now I don’t want to describe the entire process in too much detail, otherwise I’ll be standing here all day. This diagram gives a good overview of how it’s meant to work. Scope – Find problems that need to be solved. Track – Find potential solutions Rank – Determine which solution is the best to bring to a pilot stage Evaluate – Implement a pilot and give it a burl Evangelise – Tell everyone how awesome this pilot is. Don’t talk too much about the problems Transfer – Hand the technology and responsibility for it to the people who will be maintaining the new system in the long run You’ll see that there’s lines going all over the place. This is to indicate that STREET is not a linear process. You might be required to step backwards or forwards at any point in order to react to a changing environment. The idea is to be agile. The most important thing to remember is that the final outcome for the STREET process is not a product or a service, but a decision on how to proceed.
So that brings us to the actual problem that I wanted to address using the STREET process. Murdoch first implemented the Wordpress MU blogging platform on a trial basis in 2008. Since then, its use has grown to the point where it is now firmly embedded in several units. Unfortunately, it has never been officially known as anything /but/ a trial. There have been minimal resources allocated to its maintenance. Sure, it’s sitting on a server somewhere on campus, but nobody has taken ownership of it. In mid-2010, shortly after I started my job, Wordpress had a few problems. After the problems were resolved, part of the Office of IT Services raised the issue that no human resources had been allocated to it. More importantly, no human resources were available to be allocated to it. We had this essentially-production-level system, but it would take a while for it to be fixed if it went down. Something had to be done! This happened around the same time as I learned about STREET and thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to test it out!
Scoping was very simple. In this step, you define the problem that needs to be solved. The best bit is that someone else had come up with the problem: Murdoch University needs a (new) blogging platform. What is the best possible solution given the resourcing available?
Tracking took a little more energy than scoping, since I had to do most of the legwork myself. I identified a few alternatives, which help from people that were keeping their ears on the ground. Possible candidates included: Continue using the existing self-hosted service without allocating any more resources to it. If it fails, wait for resources to become available. Allocate resources to the existing service and pre-emptively make sure it’s all up-to-date. Edublogs – a hosted, non-Wordpress solution that specialises in providing blogs to educational institutions. Discontinue the service and direct staff and students to use Wordpress.com, the official partner of Windows Live (we are a Live@EDU campus and Wordpress is our current platform). Find an external provider to host a Wordpress install for us. Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Due to competing priorities, this step took several months.
Okay, “Ethics” isn’t actually a step in the STREET process, but I thought this would be important to mention. Something that came up during my investigation for alternatives was a perceived need to keep “research data” on Murdoch servers. Nobody knew where this came from, but it was of course crucial to find out the exact details. A few emails and phone calls later, I discovered that the requirement came from our Ethics Committee, and it was specifically that research data had to be kept in a place accessible to Murdoch University. It didn’t actually matter where that data was, so long as representatives could get to it. Furthermore, “research data” was only the actual data being used by researchers. If they were using a blog to collect data, that would count. If they were using the blog to only discuss their research, that wouldn’t count. Buoyed by this discovery, I forged ahead.
Ranking turned out to be even trickier than Tracking. I’m sure you all know of the many demands of working in a large organisation, especially trying to make everybody happy during a potential change. I used a number of different factors and assigned them scores between 1 and 10. 1 being “Very bad” and 10 being “Very good”. These factors included: Ease of integration with existing University systems (especially single sign-on) Labour cost Capital cost Ease of use Flexibility (how easy it is to add new functionality or adapt to different purposes) I won’t go into exactly which score I assigned to each candidate, but the final results were: 1. Discontinue existing service and switch to Wordpress.com =2. Maintain the current system with existing resources =2. Find resources and upgrade existing system 4 and 5. Commercially-hosted Now I don’t want to disparage commercial hosts, but it is ridiculously easy to just your own blog using one of the many free blog providers. They also tend to be very reliable in terms of uptime, etc.
Now I’m sure you all want to hear the end of the story and find out exactly which direction we went in. Unfortunately, I can’t give you one, why is that?
Let me bring this diagram back up, so we can through it again. You’ll see that we’ve gone through Scope, Track and Rank. After ranking, I had some “Innovation candidates” (I hate that term) to bring forward to the Evaluation stage. I hope you all remember that I said that you may sometimes need to step backwards or forwards through the process, depending on the situation. So shortly after I thought I had finished the rankings…
Towards the end of the year – and after I submitted the abstract for this paper – I discovered that the massive project to find us a new LMS was also covering some of the ground that I was. We’re currently using BlackBoard, which will soon be end of life. Of course, since emerging technologies like blogs are fantastic buzzwords these days, the Next Generation LMS Project was also looking at blogging functionality. What did that mean for me? Well, the most obvious outcome is that there wasn’t much point in spending too much energy to try and find a new blogging platform if someone else is probably doing the work for me. In the mean time, armed with this new information, I re-ranked all of my own technology candidates. The winner, by a clear margin, was to “maintain the status quo until the Next Generation LMS Project is complete”.
Now this does mean that it will be a little while before we actually move away from our current blogging platform. Thankfully, it’s actually quite reliable. We’ll put a bit of work into making sure that it has security patches and suchlike installed, but in the mean time it will keep chugging along.
Driving emerging technology evaluation with the STREET process Matthias Liffers Emerging Technologies Specialist