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March 11, 2008

Institutions, Web 2.0 and the shared service agenda

For the third and final thread of my UCISA talk on Thursday (see also thread 1 and thread 2) I want to talk about the shared service agenda, Web 2.0 and the potentially disruptive impact on institutional service provision that might result.  I'm basing this thread on the vague premise that there is some relationship between the shared service agenda and Web 2.0, though I have to confess I'm not 100% sure that I'm going down a useful or valid path here and I'm fully expecting people to tell me so if I'm not!

I think it can be argued that UK academia (particularly HE) has been pretty good at taking advantage of shared service approaches, thanks in large part to the JISC's coordinating role, and some high profile examples spring to mind - Athens, Chest, JISCMail, the national data centres and, not least, the JANET network infrastructure itself.  There are many others.  It should probably also be noted that this practice appears to have grown fairly naturally and organically out of the community itself - well in advance of any political agenda that said this is the best way to do things.

So, let's test my hypothesis a little and consider the similarities and differences between the shared service agenda and the use of external Web 2.0 services.  Note that I'm purposely using Web 2.0 in its broadest, and therefore fuzziest, sense here. 

The major similarity is that both the shared service agenda and the growing use of Web 2.0 applications results in services moving outside the institution - i.e. services that are either already delivered within the institution or that one might naturally expect to be delivered from within the institution will move to being delivered by external service providers.

On the other hand, the major differences lie in motivation and control.  The primary driver for shared services has tended to come from the providers (the institutions, sometimes by proxy thru the JISC) looking for the efficiency savings enabled by a shared approach and preventing the need for every institution to replicate every service in-house.  The primary driver for using Web 2.0 services tends to come largely from individuals, who are often attracted by the better user-experience on offer and the network effects that the use of external global services provide.  As a result, the use of Web 2.0 services tends to leave the institution much less in control of what is happening than they would be in a traditional outsourced 'shared service' approach.

To make this somewhat more concrete... as one can see from some of the responses to Brian Kelly's post about his part of the UCISA talk, it is now perfectly possible for individual members of an institution to move all their email and 'office' functionality out to an external provider like Google.  More significantly, it is not inconceivable that whole departments could make such a transition - see Google Apps for example.  I suspect that this is currently a theoretical concern, but it is certainly a possibility that those departments that have traditionally shied away from the centralised IT services offering, in favour of running their own email and Web services, will find outsourcing their own provision lock, stock and barrel to an external provider increasingly attractive.  I doubt this is happening yet, but one issue that IT services need to weigh up is whether the trickle we are currently seeing is the beginnings of a flood or just something that will remain a trickle.

It is also worth noting that this kind of transition isn't limited to the application layer.  It is similarly conceivable that individual members of an institution could go outside for their compute or storage infrastructure in the form of services such as Amazon S3.

I think that Brian is going to argue in his part of the talk that we can "learn to stop worrying about web 2.0".  I'm going to suggest more or less the opposite.  I think that we need to "learn why we should start worrying"!  I think we have to start by acknowledging that we are entering a period of disruption caused by the use of external Web 2.0 services.  I say "we" because the kind of disruption we are talking about affects the current generation of 'shared service' providers (including Eduserv) just as much as it affects institutions.

Rather than hiding our heads in the sand, we need to acknowledge what is happening, embrace the technology and try to understand our new place in the world.

At the same time, we need to remember that education and educational institutions have special requirements around teaching, learning and research - the core of what universities do - and that a generic discussion around outsourcing and shared services is not sufficient.  Those special requirements include supporting and ensuring high-quality research, encouraging scholarly communication, citation and effective peer-review, curating the scholarly record, the relationship between ICT and pedagogy, trust, maximising impact of elearning, adherance to QAA, and so on.  All of these things bring with them special requirements that sit uncomfortably with the anarchy of Web 2.0.

And that brings me to my limited and perhaps somewhat unhelpful conclusions based on the three threads.  Imagine that we are on a roller-coaster in a darkened room.  Our eyes are beginning to adjust to the dark.  I think we need to move as close to the front as we can, partly to help see where we are going and partly because it'll be more fun!  How close we get depends on a judgement about how far we want to close the hype-curve gap between leading edge adoption and mainstream adoption.

More fundamentally, and as I said at the end of my previous thread, I think that IT Services need to see themselves not simply as 'service providers' but as 'service enablers' in the use of external Web 2.0 services


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Hi Andy
Your exploration of "the similarities and differences between the shared service agenda and the use of external Web 2.0 services" reflects the thinking I described in a post on From The DNER To Web 2.0 (see http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2007/07/03/from-the-dner-to-web-20/).

As you point out, from an institutional point of view JISCMail, MIMAS, EDINA, Eduserv, etc. provide externally hosted services. The difference between these and Web 2.0 services such as Slideshare, Googler Docs, etc. is that the former are part of the Higher/Further education community, with shared(ish) goals and aspirations (enhancing the quality of teaching. learning and research). In addition there are contractual agreements with the providers of the JISC Services.

With the 3rd party Web services there may not be the formal contractual agreements and there is not the sense of community.

The Web 2.0's notion of trust is interesting here. Do we (the HE/FE sector) trust our JISC services in ways that we wouldn't trust other externally-provided services? Or should we trust the third party services as we place our trust in our pension funds - they both have a simple motivation to make money by delivering successful services, and such trust is supporting by risk management strategies.

I would argue that an important role that IT Services have as 'service enablers' is in implementing information literacy strategies and providing the risk management tools.


I would not be surprised if most students, and many staff, have already 'outsourced' email. I wonder if there is any data on this?? Whilst I can see institutions (at the Computing Services or departmental level) seeking to outsource other 'services', how many individual academics (or students) would be motivated to do this? I suspect only a few tech-savvy (mmmh, tech-obsessed?) individuals.
I think we need some numbers as evidence rather than generalised assumptions about use of web 2.0 by students and academics. How Web based is 'social networking' within the members of HE institutions?
Underlying this discussion is whether the agenda is to change existing patterns of practice within institutions or to support what happens now. I suppose the answer depends on your time-scale....


I think you've got some interesting ideas in here, and I'd certainly agree to at least some extent that IT services need to be enablers rather than just service providers (although I suspect some may feel that this is what they have been all along). I think some more detail on what this means in practice would be interesting - what things IT Services should be doing.

If I was going to say one thing that is missing it is the 'Institutional' perspective. Despite what some may think, institutional IT services don't get up in the morning wondering about how to block Skype or stop people using IM etc. Often security is the big issue here, but also quality of service issues and I'm sure others.

I think I may have made the point in another comment, but also some (possibly many) students and staff are happy to have a good quality IT service provide everything - they don't want to use GMail, or box.net or whatever, they just want it all to be as simple and reliable as possible.

Finally (as the thought has just occurred to me) you don't talk about commercial partnerships. Google Apps, as well as raising the possibility that departments will go off and do there own thing (although this has always happened - it just getting cheaper/easier), it's possible that you could outsource the entire email provision to this type of service (and for some sizes of institution, this could be very practical) - I've definitely heard serious discussion of institutions doing this, even though I don't think any UK HEs have taken the plunge. At the same time, if you are going to 'enable', perhaps some services will work better than others - "we recommend you use Typepad" etc.

Andy, can Web 2.0 be a shared service? I think not in the strict sense of the word. A shared service requires governance, my feeling is that Web 2.0 in its purest sense abhors governance.

I think any service provider who insists on their users adhering to anything is onto a loser. Recent developments on smartphones/iPhone show a new IT Services department will need to emerge, or it will cease to have strategic relevance in the organisation. Nick Jones from Gartner speaking also at Glasgow will give some guidance on this I feel.

So I think you've pitched for a too narrow view on shared services within academia. It might be that (say) a shared service to deliver CmapTools would be a good one, but otherwise I'm doubtful whether we can define anything the user would want to take-up that they're not actually using ... unless there's added value. So commodity Web 2.0 - leave it to the "experts" & "geeks", we need to focus on what it means to be a learning organisation and see where that takes us.

Hi David You say "A shared service requires governance". Really? Is the DNS a shared service? Are the spam filters which block spam and viruses from crossing the Atlantic shared services? There isn't the governance in these services which can benefit many. And this is not outsourcing, I would suggest. But if these aren't shared services or out-sourcing, whet are they?

On the other hand the wikipedia definition backs you up:

But, OTOH Wikipedia's definition: "Shared Services refers to the provision of a service by one part of an organisation or group where that service had previously been found in more that one part of the organisation or group" does not reflect the position where new services may be developed or used independently of existing services.

@david, whether Web 2.0 abhors governance might depend on your definition of 2.0? I don't see this myself.

For example, from my area of libraries, we can imagine (in our dreams) a shared service catalogue, which contains details of all UK HE library holdings.

It would have governance in that the core 'input' (library holdings) would be official. At the same time, this could be 'Web 2.0' in allowing user generated content, sharing etc. given the right APIs and tools. Think more Citizendium than Wikipedia I guess (although even Wikipedia has governance, but not very centralised)

In a previous post Andy references Lorcan Dempsey's recent post about Web 2.0 (http://orweblog.oclc.org/archives/001556.html), and viewed from this angle I think it is hard to see how governance or otherwise relates to 2.0

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