1. OUCS within the new Divisional Structure
In the division-based governance structure of the University, OUCS is a part of the Academic Services and University Collections (ASUC) division, along with other central services such as the Libraries and Museums. The University Committee to which OUCS reports is the Information and Communications Technology Committee (ICTC), which has representation from all the academic divisions and is chaired by Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Slack. As a centrally-funded service, OUCS has a clear responsibility to ensure its services are equally available across the divisions, and that the needs of all divisions are equally reflected in what we provide. It is in this cross-divisional context above all that OUCS has sought to clarify its mission.
Divisionalization has also brought about a welcome transparency in the finances and activities of the centrally funded bodies. OUCS has long been in the vanguard of this move towards clarity and responsibility in monitoring and reporting on the costs of its services. This may be one reason why staff at OUCS have been quick to recognise the good sense in rethinking service provision explicitly along cross-divisional lines. Finding a proper balance between centralized and distributed provision in an increasingly networked world is never an easy task: the University's clear policy directives have helped us identify precisely how our services should be prioritized, so as to ensure a proper level of support for the computer and information technology that now underpins all University activities. We do not need to rehearse here how vital a contribution is made to the University's position and world-class status by a reliable computing infrastructure and its associated range of support services.
2. Rethinking OUCS: the process
As with any large organization, OUCS depends above all on the individual members of staff who make its services possible. Not surprisingly then, in order to think through the process of change, OUCS turned to its greatest asset: the staff. During August 2001, OUCS carried out an extensive internal consultative exercise. Five Organisational Breakout Groups (OBGs) were set up to investigate, explore alternatives, and make recommendations in five areas: Career Development and Staff Communication, Objectives Refresh, Users' Needs, Service Priorities, and Decision Making Mechanisms. Each group brought together staff from different parts of OUCS, selected its own Chair and Secretary, and was given the opportunity to refine and develop its initial broad charge. A spirited discussion ensued, taking up much of the autumn of 2001. The OBGs were run according to Chatham House Rules, so that all members were able to express themselves openly within their group, with nothing reported outside in a way that was attributable to specific individuals, and with the group taking ownership of all its recommendations. Some of the existing senior management staff also attended meetings, but on an ‘invitation only’ basis. As well as meetings, each OBG produced an interim and final reports on their discussions, accessible via internal OUCS web pages.
The recommendations arising from this exercise were collectively presented and discussed at a general staff meeting in February of this year. Naturally, they ranged in scope, priority, and urgency; however OUCS senior management made a committment to assessing all recommendations equally, and responding as fully as possible. It was recognised that the value of the OBG exercise would be assessed by the extent to which its recommendations were translated into actions. The majority of OBG recommendations have now either already been implemented or are in the process of implementation. If therefore, as we believe, our new structures and procedures result in an improved service to the University, this should largely be attributed to the energy and commitment of OUCS staff, who took up the challenge of rethinking OUCS.
3. The New OUCS
The Mission of OUCS is
- To provide high-quality and cost-effective IT services that meet the needs of the University and its members;
- to contribute to the University's wide range of IT training and relevant training resources;
- to foster and support excellence, innovation, best practice, and value for money in the use of IT in teaching, learning, and research across the University;
- to promote effective communication throughout the University IT community.OUCS will fulfil this Mission by:
- operating, developing and supporting the University's primary computing infrastructure and services including facilities such as the network backbone and its external connections; central email, web, news, and backup servers; and other core university-wide support services including security and anti-virus support;
- fostering the effective use of IT in all disciplines through the provision and development of training and courses, learning and teaching resources, and by such activities as negotiating advantageous arrangements for the supply and maintenance of hardware and software etc.;
- by actively supporting the work of, and collaborating closely with, IT Support Staff within the University;
- developing centres of expertise in relevant areas relating to the application of IT;
- by promoting and demonstrating good practice.
Each of these groups combines a number of existing OUCS services with a particular focus, as indicated by the group titles. A high priority for each group will be the refinement and formulation of that focus, for example in a group strategy document, which will in turn contribute to the overall strategic development of OUCS. At the same time, the new structure emphasizes the need for collaboration between the groups, since the services they provide are of necessity complementary.
The Infrastructure Group comprises those existing OUCS sections dedicated to the continued maintenance and development of the central technical infrastructure on which the whole University depends. Its sections maintain one of the largest private University networks in Europe, provide state-of-the-art back-up and archival storage facilities for the University's intellectual assets in digital form, contribute unique expertise in the area of security, privacy, and anti-virus support, and maintain and operate the technology underlying our webservers, mailers, and other University-wide facilities, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Learning Technologies Group builds on the pioneering work carried out within the former Humanities Computing Unit in bringing new computing and information technologies firmly into the centre of traditional teaching and learning practice across all subjects in the University. It also integrates all of OUCS current training activities into one new section, combining these with the cross-divisional Academic Computing Development Team and a range of much-valued specialist resources and research activities, and thus acts as a central focus point for the dissemination of information and best practice on the integration of Computing and Information Technologies in the core teaching and research activities of the University.
The Technical Services Group likewise combines existing and highly-valued services with OUCS into a new framework. It combines the existing Network Server Maintenance Service, the Computing Services Shop, and other self-funding services into a new Business Centre within OUCS. The economies of scale consequent on centralizing expertise allows OUCS to market essential services at significant cost savings to many departments and colleges who would otherwise have to invest heavily to provide equivalent facilities. These services also ensure that expensive expertise in technical support for distributed systems and related matters, can be made widely available across the University.
Finally, the Information and Support Group, perhaps the most varied of the four, comprises the new Help Centre, created by integrating and streamlining all of the existing OUCS front line support services (Advisory, Registration, PC Consultancy, the Learning and Resources Centre, and the Centre for Humanities Computing) into a single point of contact; an expanded Information Service responsible for development of extensive web-based information systems; a new support unit dedicated to IT Support Staff across the University; as well as all the ‘back room’ staff supporting these front line services. In addition, this group contains a new combined Research Technologies Service which will bring together a number of existing and new research-focussed support services leveraging new technologies. Current Services within this section include e-Science, the Oxford Text Archive and the Humbul Humanities Hub.
It should be noted that the new OUCS structure does not alter our previous commitments, but rather expands on them. Historically, OUCS has provided a home within which services of benefit to particular sectors of the University could develop, most notably the Humanities division. As the success of the LTG demonstrates, the approach taken in developing such services can be applied more widely to all divisions. The needs and priorities identified during our close relationship with one part of the University, and the way we have supplemented the provision offered locally, can be generalised and extended to serve the needs of all. For example, the support services formerly available only to Humanities IT Support Staff will, in the new structure, be available to IT Support Staff from across the University. The specialist knowledge built up by close collaboration over twenty or more years research in ‘Humanities Computing’ is now complemented by a structure in which research interests from other divisions can also participate. We believe that this environment will foster the synergy and innovative thinking which is essential if our services are to keep abreast of the rapidly changing world of information technology and be relevant to all parts of the University.
In making this reorganization, we believe that OUCS demonstrates its responsiveness to the clearly expressed priorities of the rest of the University, while at the same time making best use of its investment in staff expertise. At a time of financial constraints, OUCS has to allocate scarce resources in the most effective way. Our new structure ensures that central funds are used to offer close support for those services within the Divisions which demonstrably support teaching and learning across the whole of the University. OUCS also has a responsibility to maintain its investment in the staff, whose expertise comes from working in a complex and stimulating environment. In reallocating staff responsibilities and re-organizing sections, OUCS management has endeavoured to ensure that staff expertise is recognised and nourished for deployment where it can have greatest impact.
4. The future
OUCS has taken the opportunity to rethink and reinvigorate its commitment to the university. This is an ongoing process. As the new structure begins to impact on the way we provide our services across the divisions, there will be opportunities for further reflection. We have come a long way, thanks to the commitment of OUCS staff, and the way ahead looks clear.