Information systems planning using a synthesis of modelling techniques


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Information systems planning using a synthesis of modelling techniques

  1. 1. Information Management Systems Planning Using a Synthesis of ModellingTechniquesA Discussion PaperContents 1. Using Modelling in the Management Planning Process 2 2. Enterprise Architecture Modelling 3 3. Viable Systems Modelling 9 4. Soft Systems Modelling 15 5. A Synthesis of Modelling Techniques 19 6. Analysis and Conclusions 24Tony TooleFebruary 2013 1
  2. 2. 1. Using Modelling in the Management Planning Process1.1 OverviewThe purpose of management modelling is to encourage and contribute to a systematic andstructured approach to management systems planning. It aids the planning process bypresenting existing and proposed management systems in an easily assimilated way. Themodels are designed to assist systems thinking by providing routes through the planningprocess that generate consistency and lead to realistic and achievable solutions.This paper describes the use of three different modelling approaches applied to the studentinformation management system at Swansea Metropolitan. Each has a different focus andcollectively they provide a much richer picture for planning purposes than they wouldindividually.The Enterprise Architecture view is presented at the business process level and identifieswhere process inconsistencies and inefficient practices exist. The Viable Systems viewexamines the communications and control capacities of the business processes anddetermines whether they are adequate. The Soft Systems view ensures that managementprocess improvements recognise and accommodate the real world of human activitysystems.1.2 ContextSwansea Metropolitan University merged with University of Wales Trinity Saint David during2012 and a significant programme of management systems integration and redesign for thenew institution continues at the time of writing.The merger took place midway through the Jisc-funded Smudie (Swansea MetropolitanUniversity Data Integration Exercise) project. The project had the objective of evaluating theexisting student information management system at Swansea Metropolitan (as it is nowcalled), identifying areas for potential improvement, and using modelling techniques todesign those improvements into a more effective information management system.The outcomes of the project are now available as an additional resource for the universitymanagers responsible for the merger process. It is also hoped that the approach will be ofinterest and value to the wider community of practice engaged in information systemsdesign and the use of management modelling tools.1.3 ProcessThe student information management system modelling process began with an evaluationphase that involved interviews with all system stakeholders. This comprehensive body ofinformation was used to build an ‘as is’ Enterprise Architecture model of the existingsystems and processes.The second phase involved analysing the ‘as is’ model and identifying areas for process andperformance improvement with the goal of designing a more effective and efficient ‘to be’EA model. This was then coupled with an assessment of system control and communicationscapacity using Viable Systems modelling. Finally, the real world view of Soft Systemsmodelling was added to create practical and achievable solutions.Each of the modelling systems is now described and the paper concludes with the synthesisof their application in designing student information system improvements. 2
  3. 3. 2. Enterprise Architecture Modelling2.1 OverviewThe key benefit delivered by Enterprise Architecture (EA) modelling1 is its ability to supportdecision making during periods of institutional change and restructure. Specifically; it bringstogether business systems (processes, procedures, structures) and the technical systems(applications, technical infrastructure) that support them. It presents a visual representationof the management system components for the purpose of aiding conversations aboutimprovement and optimisation.It is particularly effective for information systems design and management as it wasoriginally developed for that purpose2. It is a high level, strategic technique to achievebeneficial organisational change by creating a roadmap between the current ‘as is’ systemstate to a target ‘to be’ state that implements identified improvements.Enterprise Architecture modelling of management systems involves: Capturing the stakeholder viewpoints; Identifying and documenting concerns, barriers and problems; Creating models of the existing system that indicate the source of problems; Creating models of improved systems that address the problems; Using the models to assist strategic and change management processes.The ArchiMate EA modelling language is used to create visual representations of systemsbased on the stakeholder viewpoints. It identifies where system inadequacies orinconsistencies exist and informs the design of improved systems that address these issues.The Archi modelling tool3 developed by Jisc-Cetis is an open source application that uses theArchimate modelling language. It was used by the Smudie project to create ‘as is’ EA modelsof the student information system components and, following analysis, ‘to be’ models of thesame components. Examples of the ‘as is’ models are shown below.2.2 Enterprise Architecture Models:The structure of the EA models that follow were constructed following a series of interviewsconducted with the stakeholders involved with the management of student information atthe university. The purpose of each model was to stimulate and inform a discussion aboutthe management processes involved with a view to identifying opportunities forimprovement.Only a selection of models is shown, but they illustrate the EA technique and its benefits. Itwill be seen that the models represent a series of linked information management sub-systems. The boundaries of each sub-system were chosen to illustrate particularmanagement issues that may benefit from improved systems and procedures.A summary of the issues are presented with each model, indicating the considerations to beaddressed to achieve an improved’ to be’ information management system. It will be seenthat existing good practice was also identified by the exercise and this is highlighted,particularly in the first two models shown.1 Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, David Robertson (2006) Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution(Cambridge Ms. Harvard Business Press)2 US Department of Defense (1996). Technical Architecture Framework for Information Management. Vol. 1. April 19963 3
  4. 4. 1. The Student Application ProcessUniversity applications in the UK are predominantly carried out through UCAS. A businessprocess level representation is shown below:The applications process is managed through the UCAS website by both the student and byRegistry who are responsible for making conditional and confirmed offers. Overall, thesystem is reported to work well, despite bottlenecks at the time of ‘A’ level results andapplication deadlines. Improvements here relate to pragmatic decisions about staffing andcost to deal with peaks in demand. A process and system review with that goal would besensible.2. The Student Enrolment ProcessStudents self-enrol online at Swansea Metropolitan. This establishes their identity as astudent and there are multiple outcomes of the process including the setting up of theirlibrary, Moodle and finance accounts, their record on the student information system, andtheir student file in the Faculty office.The representation below shows both the business process and system application layers: 4
  5. 5. The student self-enrolment process is an example of good and effective practice in thecurrent system for two reasons. The first is the fact that it applies the principle that the datamanager is the data owner and is fully responsible for the process. The second is that, beingonline, enrolment can be undertaken from anywhere there is access to the system, thusgreatly speeding up the process, as well as making it more accessible.3. Student Attendance MonitoringStudent attendance monitoring has two main purposes in the university: the first being thekey information it contributes to the assessment of student progress and hence theiracademic and personal support needs; the other relating to both internal and externalreporting requirements, the UKBA requirements for overseas student attendance reportingbeing an obvious example.Attendance is through a register system at the university that is both paper-based andrecorded using spreadsheets. The process of creating of registers varies: 5
  6. 6. The EA model shows the inconsistencies in the current student attendance register creationprocess. There are three different stakeholders who create the registers, two differentrecord systems used for the student information, and two different ways of presenting theattendance information. Furthermore, there is inconsistency in the way the attendanceinformation is gathered and shared:The overall picture is that the student attendance monitoring system is not institutionallymanaged. Programme directors and tutors are aware of the requirement for attendancerecording, but are largely left to devise their own methods for doing so. The systems rangefrom paper registers retained locally by individual module tutors to sophisticatedspreadsheets in shared folders online available for programme team and facultymanagement discussions.Good and effective practice, particularly with shared online register spreadsheets, can bereadily identified. It would not be difficult, in principle; to create a consistent process that allprogramme teams could apply to their courses.Some work needs to be done, however, on the way the data is gathered. The most commonmethod is on paper registers, completed by the tutors or by the students themselves, whichare later transcribed onto spreadsheets. Clearly the need for transcription is inefficient andthe university has experimented with proximity card recording and the use of proprietaryattendance monitoring software.4. Student Suspensions, Transfer and WithdrawalsA consequence of poor attendance or academic progress by students is the triggering ofinstitutional processes to redeem the situation. The first option is always increased andproblem specific support, but if this is not successful then the processes for programmechange are triggered: 6
  7. 7. These procedures have an important impact on the way the institution presents itsperformance and quality statistics. Student completion rates are a key yardstick ofinstitutional quality and hence in the way it is perceives externally in the media, bygovernment and by potential future students.It is clearly necessary, therefore, that the institution both maximises the use it makes ofinformation to support students and, where programme change is inevitable, it is carriedout in a way that is consistent across the institution, optimally supports the student, and isseen that way externally as a component of quality provision.There are process inconsistencies between and within the faculties at present and a goal willbe to use the EA models as resources in management discussions to address thatinconsistency. 7
  8. 8. 2.3 ConclusionsIt became clear, during the development of the ‘as is’ model of the student informationmanagement system at Swansea Metropolitan, that it was a system of interconnected partsthat together represented the totality of the information about each student at theinstitution. Each component of the system was managed by a particular stakeholder groupfor a particular purpose in the management of the institution and for the support ofstudents.In that respect it would not be unreasonable to describe the different informationmanagement sub-systems as representing ‘data silos’ where the information was usedindependently for a particular management purpose. The existence of data silos is generallyregarded as evidence of poor information management practice, but this is only the case ifcore data is not shared.As noted later in this paper when looking at Soft Systems Modelling, It is a reality ofmanagement systems that different stakeholders have different information requirementsto carry out their roles and that this is typically a mix of core data and role specific data.The role specific data is created, recorded and used locally and does not need to be sharedwith other stakeholders, beyond any management reporting requirements. This is the localdata silo and is appropriate and reduces data management complexity.The core data, however, does need to be shared across all stakeholder sub-systems for thesystem as a whole to be efficient and maintain data consistency and accuracy. Student coredata, of course, including; name, student ID, course ID, etc.An analysis of the data requirements for a particular management sub-system then wouldspecifically identify core and local data and would seek to ensure that they were availablefor the management purpose involved. This can be achieved by an examination of theEnterprise Architecture models of the ‘as is’ student information system and ensuring thatthe system in place makes them available. A key feature of a planned ‘to be’ model wouldbe the linking of core data across all sub-systems and a clear management strategy for themaintenance and sharing of that core data.The advantage of the Enterprise Architecture model is that it specifically links the intendedinformation management business processes to the supporting technical infrastructure andhence presents a clear picture of how that infrastructure ensures the effective and efficientsharing of core data across the whole system.The technique of Viable Systems modelling recognises the independent worlds ofstakeholder information sub-systems and brings added value to the re-design of theinformation system and its infrastructure by specifically addressing the issues of control andcommunications capacity in the system and ensuring that requisite variety is in place. TheVSM approach is described in the next section. 8
  9. 9. 3. Viable Systems Modelling3.1 OverviewThe use of Viable Systems Modelling (VSM) recognises that management systems are builtup of self managing sub-systems that interact with the wider organisational systems thatsurround them. The key success factor for any management sub-system is that it should beviable in its own right and able to self-manage, given appropriate support services andresources.The value of the VSM approach is that it specifically addresses the issues of communicationsand control capacity in the management system. It seeks to balance the high and lowcomplexity components of the system through structures that ensure requisite variety. It isfor this reason that it falls within the scope of the trans-disciplinary approach of cybernetics.What this means in practice is that the low capacity and complexity of management has tobe amplified to meet the control and communications requirements of the system beingmanaged. Equally, the high complexity of the information being received by managers aboutthe system operations needs to be attenuated for them to be able to absorb thatinformation and respond in an effective way.The benefit of modelling the management system in this way is that in easily identifiescommunications and control problems that impact on management effectiveness. A typicalexample would be communications and control bottlenecks that prevent organisationalgoals being met in a timely and cost-effective way.The VSM model is recursive, in that each sub-system has the same general managementstructure with the communications and control capacity to successfully perform itsmanagement role. This is represented diagrammatically in the student informationmanagement systems shown in the examples below with the Viable System on the righthand side and the management Environment with which it interacts on the left.3.2 Viable Systems Models:The Student Application, Enrolment and Registration ProcessesThe structure of the VSM models that follow, as with the EA models, are derived from theseries of interviews conducted with the stakeholders involved with the managementactivities concerned.The focus in the models in this case is on communications and control capacity. Thequestions to be asked are: Are the requisite communications and control channels in place? Do the channels have the capacity to deliver their intended outcomes? Does the system balance the differential complexities effectively?The comments following each management process representation shown below addressthese issues. 9
  10. 10. Comments: Process: The application process is managed by the potential student and carried out with assistance (when needed) from institutional advisers and UCAS guidelines; Management: The process represents a self-contained management activity controlled by the prospective student; Requirements: An intuitive interface and process for non-technical users with clear feedback on successful completion and process outcomes/results; Current System: The current system is provided by UCAS with information and application management by the institution. The student applies and receives a decision through the UCAS website; Areas for Improvement: The present system is reported to work effectively and efficiently from the student point of view. Bottlenecks occur when examination results are published, particularly national A level results. 10
  11. 11. Comments: Process: The application process is managed by the potential student and carried out either online or by submitting an application form by post; Management: The process involves the manual transcription of all application data onto the institutional system by registry staff; Requirements: The system accommodates both online and postal applications and caters primarily for part-time and overseas students; Current System: Both online and postal applications are received in registry by either the UK admissions or overseas admissions sections and are manually uploaded to the institutional applications database; Areas for Improvement: An online applications system that does not require manual transcription of information would be a significant improvement. 11
  12. 12. Comments: Process: The enrolment process is managed by the potential student and carried out with assistance (when needed) from institutional advisers; Management: The process represents a self-contained management activity controlled by the prospective student; Requirements: An intuitive interface and process for non-technical users with clear feedback on successful completion and process outcomes/results; Current System: The current online system for self-enrolment by students is reported to work effectively and efficiently; Areas for Improvement: No specific system improvements identified. It is recommended that the system be used for all student enrolment modes including part-time and international students. 12
  13. 13. Comments: Process: Student registration occurs when the enrolment process is completed and approved; Management: Upon verification, a series of follow-on processes are triggered which lead to the student support services being set up; 13
  14. 14. Requirements: A complete and consistent semi-automated system that ensures the sharing of all core student data, the inclusion and verification of additional service data, and confirmation of successful completion to both management and students; Current System: All the student registration systems stem from the completion of the enrolment process by the student/staff and the verification of that enrolment. The enrolment is either completed online by the student (mainly full-time students) or is carried out by staff (mainly part-time and overseas students); Areas for Improvement: A fully online student based enrolment process that, once verified by the institution, leads to the sharing of core student data with all information sub-systems. This would range from the physical issuing of student identity cards to the creation of their Moodle learning accounts.3.3 Conclusions:The various components of the student information management system becomepopulated following student enrolment and registration. It is at this stage that core data isdistributed to each of the support systems and students are registered on the variousinformation management sub-systems and identity cards are issued.The VSM models of these processes are presented here as representations of currentmanagement practice and are designed to assist an analysis of the extent to which they fulfiltheir purpose. It is hoped that they will contribute to discussions about improved systemsand practice as the institution progresses with its merger process.The key point being made by these models is that each management sub-system needs tobe independently viable in its own right to optimally contribute to the management systemas a whole. A clear implication from an optimisation point of view is that each sub-systemneeds to be designed in a consistent way and that all sub-systems are viewed as bothindependently viable and as components of the overall management information system.This is not the way things necessarily happen in practice. Often, local management sub-systems, though effective for local management needs, do not integrate well with thecorporate system. This is typically because the local systems were not designed as acomponent of the larger system and, in the absence of corporate direction, were created bythe local management team (sometimes just a single individual) to meet their informationprocessing responsibilities. This is the sub-optimal, non-communicative, data silo scenariomentioned earlier.The application, enrolment and registration systems considered in this report alreadyintegrate reasonably well. Other systems, such as student attainment reporting andattendance monitoring are less consistent across the institution. VSM representation ofthese systems, together with the EA modelling, can be expected to assist conversationsabout improvement in the way the different stakeholder systems share core data.A third consideration, when seeking to improve information management systems, is totake full account of the fact that it is a human activity system that is being designed and thatthere are People related issues that need to be built into any systems model. 14
  15. 15. 4. Soft Systems Modelling4.1 OverviewThe Soft Systems Modelling approach4 encourages constant reflection on how thingshappen in real world situations. It doesn’t so much describe how the informationmanagement system actually works, but how the stakeholders think it works, how theythink it should work and how they would personally like it to work. This exactly describes thenature of the qualitative messages that came from the stakeholder interviews carried out inthe first phase of the Smudie project.A further consideration when dealing with a student information system is what value eachstakeholder sees in a specific piece of information and how the information is used in theirparticular organisational role. This is important because the same information is often usedfor different purposes by the different stakeholders.Student assessment outcomes, for example, are used by: The student to judge attainment against learning objectives and to adjust their effort if not meeting their personal objectives and aspirations; The teacher to judge both the effectiveness of their teaching approach and the levels of support needed by individual students; The programme director to monitor the performance of the course against agreed attainment and quality targets set by the faculty; The institutional management to maintain the best possible institutional quality profile when reporting to HESA and other external agencies.This demonstrates that the management and use of such basic pieces of studentinformation in the system are not the sole responsibility of particular stakeholders, but havea ripple-through effect where the student performance is responded to by the teacher, theteacher by the programme director, the programme by the faculty and so on.The common goal of maximising performance is evident for each role, but the exampleemphasises how success for the entire system relies on a contribution to optimising studentsupport and attainment at each level of management.4.2 How it works in practiceThe EA ‘as is’ models and the VSM analysis5 have shown how the University institutionalinformation management system is made up of recursive self-managing sub-systems. Eachsub-system has a contribution to make to the whole, but in general, operates as anindependent entity. The key to institutional success with such an arrangement is theeffectiveness with which the sub-systems communicate with each other and are supportedby their operational environment.A common complaint in organisations is that different parts of the organisation managetheir information needs in isolation and create information ‘silos’ that do not inter-communicate effectively or efficiently. There is a general view that a centrally managedenterprise-wide information system is the solution to this problem. However, this view doesnot necessarily recognise the realities of how large organisations operate in practice.4 Checkland, Peter B. & Poulter, J. (2006) Learning for Action: A short definitive account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use forPractitioners, teachers and Students, Wiley, Chichester.5 15
  16. 16. The fact is that individual stakeholders and stakeholder groups do operate in isolation fromother parts of the organisation because they have different job functions and informationmanagement responsibilities. A lot of the locally managed information is used for thatmanagement function only and is not relevant or used elsewhere. Managing locally whereappropriate reduces the complexity of the central system and can add benefit.There are two areas, however, where centralised student information management isneeded. The first relates to core data that is used by multiple sub-systems. Typically thiswould include the student name, student ID, Course code etc., which are shared in therecords of registry, the faculties and by student support services. For core student data tobe managed efficiently it needs well defined management on a central database where thecore data fields are available to all sub-systems that use them. This is both efficient andensures consistency of both content and format across the institution.The second area is where central management requires access to specific data frommultiple sub-systems. This would mainly be for formal periodic central managementprocesses and for external reporting. A typical student information system would havecustomised reporting options that are set up to draw from the core data and from thevarious sub-systems concerned. The Smudie project evaluation exercise has shown thatthere are varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency in achieving this.A further central management requirement of the system, that is more difficult to satisfy, iswhen non-standard reporting is requested to satisfy the needs of a specific currentmanagement issue. A database set up to satisfy the needs of the standard informationmanagement requirements may not be so effective in synthesising data for one-off reports.The student information management system has to support the needs of multipleinstitutional management sub-systems of varying degrees of complexity with both core andfunctionally specific data. It has to interface with other information management systemsboth internally and externally. The degree to which it is designed to meet all possiblerequirements is a management decision that balances functionality with cost.It was recently commented, rather prosaically, that the most cost-effective interfacebetween two information systems might actually be a junior clerk with a calculator.4.3 The Soft Systems approachManagement modelling techniques have developed in an academic environment and tendto have a formulaic approach that can mask the value of the thinking behind it. Checkland’sSSM6 has been adopted by the systems design and operational research communities andhas led to many, sometimes rather opaque, academic publications.However, Checkland himself makes the point7 that SSM is primarily an approach for tacklingproblematical, messy situations of all kinds. It is an action-oriented process of inquiry intoproblematic situations in which users learn their way from finding out about the situation, totaking action to improve it.The key is to define what the problem is from the point of view of the stakeholder whoperceives the problem. Only then can a pragmatic solution be found that addresses thatproblem. The solution finder, however, must learn about the problem from the viewpoint of6 Checkland, Peter B. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 19817 16
  17. 17. all system stakeholders for collective improvements to be actioned. It is not so muchformulaic as adaptive.This is exactly the approach the first phase of the Smudie project adopted. Each of thestakeholder interview records described their viewpoint of the student informationmanagement system. As well as providing a rich picture of the systems in place, which wererepresented visually with EA models, the process identified some of the problems withthose systems that needed addressing to improve performance.The soft systems approach to be used in the Smudie project will not formally apply themodelling techniques that have developed from the methodology. More it will be used as areality check when considering the potential improvements suggested by the EA and VSManalyses.4.4 Defining the problemThe Enterprise Architecture representations of the student information managementsystems show the processes and procedures that make up current practice and identifywhere uncoordinated variations occur that reduce consistency and reliability. They pointtowards potential improvements in systems design, management and technicalinfrastructure.The soft systems approach brings this picture much closer to how the users view the system,how well (or otherwise) it works for them and what improvements would make their jobeasier. In other words, it involves defining the problem from their point of view that needsaddressing.An example would be the academic member of staff who is reporting student assessmentoutcomes. With the current system this involves accessing the reporting software onlineand entering the information in the prescribed way. In principle it couldn’t be simpler. Inpractice there are a number of barriers to be overcome and different coping strategies havebeen adopted by staff.The issues, from the viewpoint of the academic member of staff, include: The fact that they access the system infrequently, typically twice per year when assignments are submitted and exams undertaken at the end of semesters. As a result, they forget how the system works and the workflows involved in accessing student records and correctly entering data; The reality that many staff are non-experienced computer users, are often anxious about their ability to cope with the system, and find the process stressful; Reports that the system is non-intuitive, even for the relatively computer literate, and has several frustrating characteristics such as momentary delays after entering each item of data and the need to navigate through several screens to complete procedures.The coping strategies include: Requesting help from colleagues. Typically these will include their immediate academic colleagues, their Faculty MIO, and IS staff with a part remit for academic support/history of helping staff out; Relying on others to enter the data, either in the Faculty office or others in the Programme team. 17
  18. 18. The problem in this example, then, is that a significant number of academic staff, throughlack of familiarity and confident developed IT skills, find the online assessment reportingsystem difficult to use. The perception is that this is exacerbated by the system softwarebeing non user friendly.The problem definition once discussed and agreed makes it possible to identify potentialchanges that are desirable and feasible.4.5 Defining the solutionThe way the problem above is described is as a conceptual model of how the system worksas perceived by the stakeholder(s). Aspects of that perception may not accurately representthe way the system is intended to work and rectifying that conceptual miss-match may bepart of the solution.SSM functions as a learning system because it facilitates a greater understanding of theproblem situation on the part of all the stakeholders involved. The solutions that result canrange from the complete disappearance of the problem by reconciling a soft conceptual andactual miss-match by discussion, through to the re-structuring of the system to solve theproblem through a defined hard redesign process.In all cases the solutions are people solutions for people problems. The technicalinfrastructure for a student information management system is only successful if it meetsthe needs of the users and in doing so recognises their technical, occupational and culturaldiversity.4.6 ConclusionsReferring back to the introduction; the soft systems methodology doesn’t so much describehow an information management system actually works, but how the stakeholders think itworks, how they think it should work and how they would personally like it to work.Clearly, the closer these four views of the system are together, the closer the system will beto an optimal configuration. The objective with SSM is to gain, through consultation with thestakeholders, a picture of these different viewpoints so that conversations about reconcilingthe differences are fully informed.In the development of an EA ‘to be’ model for the student information system andconstituent sub-systems, SSM will be included as part of the methodology, as will VSM. Eachwill bring added value to the eventual outcomes, including a healthy dose of realism in whatwill always be a difficult consensus to reach between stakeholders with different and oftenconflicting viewpoints and interests.The final section of this paper outlines how the synthesis of these modelling approaches canbring collective added value in the design of an institutional student informationmanagement system. 18
  19. 19. 5. A Synthesis of Modelling Techniques5.1 OverviewBoth the Enterprise Architecture and the Viable Systems models of the existing studentinformation management system at Swansea Metropolitan University showed that itoperated as a number of semi-independent sub-systems managed by different stakeholdergroups with different information management roles and objectives.There is a view that such sub-systems should be fully integrated and centralised, thusmaking all information available to any manager who needs to make use of it. However, thisdoes not necessarily recognise the realities of how organisations operate in practice.It is suggested here that semi-independent information sub-systems are not only inevitablebut are essential for the efficient and effective management of a complex organisation. Thekey to successful central management is in ensuring that the local information needs ofeach functional area are met, whilst information flows into and out of those areas optimallysupport them and the needs of the organisation as a whole.The design of such a system, then, would naturally begin with an analysis of each sub-system to ensure that it was operating optimally as a functional unit. In other words, theprocess would begin with Viable Systems modelling. Having identified how informationshould best be managed both within the functional area and in the way it communicateswith its operating environment, Enterprise Architecture can then be brought in to designthe appropriate processes, procedures and supporting infrastructure.There is a step to be taken before all this starts, however. Soft Systems modelling showshow, in the design of a new system, there needs to be an overall concept of what thatsystem will look like and what its operational boundaries are. It begins with the formulationof what it calls a Root Definition.Soft Systems modelling would also operate in the background of the subsequentdevelopment with periodic reflections on how proposed systems are likely to work withinthe prevailing institutional culture. Soft Systems considerations would guide the changemanagement processes needed for the introduction of any new system to be successful.Improved system designs do not come from models. They come from the conceptual ideasof systems designers who use structured modelling techniques to aid them in arriving attheir design goals. Furthermore, modelling methods do not guarantee efficiency andeffectiveness in new systems design, but they do provide a structured way of examining justhow effective and efficient a new system is likely to be.5.2 Student Attendance Monitoring: a case studyIt has been identified that the student attendance monitoring system is inconsistent acrossthe institution and is in the process of being evaluated with a view to improving datacapture, consistency and accuracy of reporting. It was therefore chosen as a case study toevaluate the effectiveness of synthesising the modelling methods in information systemsdesign.The basic components of the student attendance monitoring system will be determined bythe objective of the exercise: to record who should be present at a given session; to recordwho was actually present at the session; and to record any variations in terms of attendancepattern flexibility, location, timing and individual participation plans. 19
  20. 20. It will also depend on the purpose of the exercise: to record student participation inscheduled learning activities; to identify potential student problems requiring additionalsupport; and to meet the reporting requirements of internal quality systems and externalagencies.In general, there will be a basic register of students in a particular cohort. An attendanceregister will be created for each learning session and a method agreed regarding therecording of attendance. Current methods for achieving this have been shown to beinconsistent across the institution. Responsibilities for the process are often unclear andmethods vary from the individual creation of paper registers held locally, through the use ofbespoke year group spreadsheets available on line, to the use of proprietary timetabling andrecording software and hardware.As far as the design of a student attendance monitoring system is concerned, then, we needto begin with a conceptual idea. This will derive a lot of its information from the analysis ofthe existing system(s), an assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and the identification ofoptions that would minimise weaknesses and maximise strengths.It begins, however, with the consideration of the process as a sub-system. In VSM terms itneeds to be a self-managing sub-system that achieves its functional purpose internally,when supplied with the resources it needs from its operating environment. It also needs toconsistently deliver the planned information and outputs of the required quality back tothat operating environment.5.3 The root definitionThe purpose of a root definition is to articulate the problem being addressed in a structuredway to aid the development of a solution.A root definition of the student attendance monitoring system might be:The creation and implementation of an information management system that accuratelyand consistently records and reports on the participation of students in planned learningactivities.This definition immediately focuses the system designers mind on where in the organisationthis happens and what it might look like. In other words it is the beginning of a conceptualmodel.5.4 The conceptual modelThe conceptual model makes an outline statement about what the system is intended to doand how it will do it.Key to the conceptual model will be a view of the system boundaries and who is responsiblefor managing it (module tutor, year tutor, programme director). Equally important will be anidea of how flexible the model needs to be to support all curriculum areas and howresponsive it needs to be to meet the needs of institutional management.A basic conceptual model of the student attendance monitoring system might be:1. A data capture system that records individual student attendance at scheduled, locationspecific, learning activities; 20
  21. 21. 2. An online information management application that receives attendance data andpresents it for management use at module, course, faculty and institutional levels;3. The management of data capture being the responsibility of the individual session tutorand that automatically populates the online management application;4. The student attendance information being used at tutor and course team level to triggerstudent support actions where problems are indicated;5. The student attendance information being available to appropriate levels of managementfor internal and external performance reporting.The conceptual model indicates what is to be done without stating how it is to beimplemented. Having said that, it does need to be based on achievable goals, and typicallymakes assumptions about system features. In this case, for example, the conceptual modelimplies that the data capture is electronic and can directly populate the online informationmanagement application.This is a major departure from the current paper based systems in use at Swansea Met andwould represent a significant strategic decision. However, it also makes a statement ofintent to exploit the use of technology in improving information management effectivenessand efficiency.The conceptual model can now be used to construct a viable management model thatdelivers its intended outcomes. This is still at a level of abstraction from the practicalimplementation, but it does begin to consider the actors involved and the way theprocesses are managed through adequate communications and control channels.5.5 The Viable Systems modelThe first decision that needs to be made when modelling a sub-system is the level ofrecursion involved. As far as student attendance monitoring is concerned, this can vary fromthe individual tutor as a data capture and management agent, up to the full institutionalinformation management system. As with the conceptual model, the decision made herealready makes some assumptions about how the system should work.The fact that the recursion level here is taken to be at year tutor level implies that this is thekey level of management for the system and around which the whole data capture andmanagement process is organised. The important thing for Swansea Met is that such adecision needs to be made in order to create a consistently managed institutional system.The VSM schematic below shows how the student attendance monitoring system operatesindependently of its programme management environment, but interacts with it; relying onthe provision of data capture and recording systems and feeding back attendance data andissues.The key features are that: The system is managed by the year tutor who sets up and monitors all the individual module registers; The attendance recording system is electronic and online; The data capture system is electronic, feeds directly into the record system and is managed by the individual module tutors; 21
  22. 22. The record system is set up to flag attendance issues for action by the programme team; The local system, managed by the year tutor, is entirely self-managing and viable given appropriate resources from its operating environment. It therefore is designed to have adequate control and communications capacity to carry out this function and it is also replicable across the institution.Several assumptions have been made in this model which now needs to be turned intopractical reality. Enterprise Architecture techniques can be used for this purpose.5.6 The Enterprise Architecture modelSection 2 of this paper presented EA models of how student attendance monitoring wascurrently carried out at Swansea Metropolitan. It showed the variations in systems acrossthe institution and how this resulted in lack of consistency and confidence in data integrity.The VSM model above was based on evidence of good practice that did exist and wasworthy of exploring as the basis for an institutionally managed system. An EnterpriseArchitecture version will now be presented as an example of how the method can helpdesign a practical solution from the conceptual model. 22
  23. 23. The assumptions made for the creation of the model are that: All the students for the year group are enrolled, the modules they are taking are known and the cohorts and delivery patterns have been agreed by the programme team; The online attendance recording system is spreadsheet based and each cohort has a separate worksheet with a matrix of names and scheduled learning activities8; The year tutor is responsible for verifying the completeness of the cohort attendance recording system at the beginning of the session and for managing student attendance issues9; Each module tutor will be responsible for monitoring the capture of attendance data at each scheduled learning activity session10;It can be seen how the EA model effectively presents a design brief. It has adopted theproximity card reader as the most pragmatic way of capturing attendance dataelectronically and makes the assumption that a client application will be in place toautomatically populate the attendance spreadsheet with this data. It also assumes that themodule tutor will have access to Moodle during the session and that this will link to thespreadsheet for monitoring purposes.8 This could be either an institutionally developed shared spreadsheet solution, the present system used byHumanities being a particularly good example, or a commercial application such as CelCat.9 This will be determined by the learning schedule and attendance patterns. Escalation of non-attendanceissues would be in consultation with the module tutor.10 Electronic data capture is assumed. 23
  24. 24. The system will, of course, need to be adapted for non-conventional attendance patternsbut, because it is module and year tutor managed, local data capture arrangements can beagreed.6. Analysis and ConclusionsThis discussion paper has explored how modelling techniques can be used in systems designas a structured way of analysing the system design objectives, forming ideas about potentialsolutions and moving towards practical implementation.As has been emphasised throughout, the purpose of creating visual and descriptive systemsmodels is to guide and assist design discussions. The approach taken here has been torecognise that there is more than one way of doing this and that different modellingmethods address different aspects of the design process.The approach has accommodated the fuzzy realities of human activity systems through softsystems considerations, recognised the existence of semi-independent management sub-systems and planned for the practical infrastructure requirements. It is felt that bycombining these three methods, a richer picture of the proposed management systemimprovements can be achieved.The final case study analysed the student attendance monitoring system and it is notdifficult to see how this is a sub-system with a specific purpose. It uses core student data, ofcourse, but it also generates and uses data that is not used outside the sub-system andhence there is no need arrange for it to be available elsewhere in the informationmanagement system. This is typical of other sub-systems in the institution.It is suggested that a full analysis of the student information management system at anyinstitution should recognise the realities of independent sub-systems that need specificmanagement considerations. It should also apply the techniques demonstrated here toensure that adequate communications channels are provided to their operatingenvironment, as well as providing sufficient resources for their operation.The overall conclusions arising from this work can be summarised as follows: 1. The student information system in a typical institution serves the needs of a number of functional areas and each area uses a combination of core student data and functionally specific data; 2. The system needs to ensure the appropriate sharing of core data, but that functionally specific data should be locally managed; 3. The local variations in student activity, particularly between different curriculum areas, assessment methods and attendance patterns need to be optimally supported. A one-size-fits-all information management model is unlikely to work; 4. The three stage modelling method demonstrated in this paper shows that, by taking into account the need for flexibility, recognising the sub-system structure and using this to design a practical management solution, consistent and pragmatic designs can be achieved;Tony TooleFebruary 2013 24
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