Information Science and the Business Analyst

Last year I returned to University to study Information Science.  Unlike fellow student who were either starting out in their career or using the course to change career, sometimes dramatically, I was and still am a Business Analyst.

So, why do it?  Why take a year out and invest time and money in a higher university degree in the middle of my BA career? And why go to Library School when there are plenty of other option in Systems Engineering or Business Schools?

Continue reading Information Science and the Business Analyst

Event Report on Lean HE Hub Seminar: Overcoming Barriers to Change

8 March 2016, University of Manchester

Lean is is a philosophy for improving workplace activity. Lean is based on two concepts (respect for people and continuous improvement) and five principles:

  1. Identify Value
  2. Map the Value Stream
  3. Create Flow
  4. Establish Pull
  5. Seek Perfection

Lean is about…

  • Adding value and removing unnecessary burdens.
  • Empowering people to improve the ways they work.
  • Always remembering who the beneficiary is of the work.

The Lean HE Hub is a networking organisation for Lean practitioners in HE to share experiences and good practice. They have a LinkedIn group, website run regular seminars and conferences hosted by different institutions.

I attended this seminar as we’re currently thinking about how we can develop our Lean capability within the Business Engagement and Transformation team at UoR and how we can use Lean principles and techniques when facilitating business change whether radical (Kaikaku) or continual (Kaizen). As I’ve little prior experience with Lean it provided an opportunity to:

  • Learn more about Lean in general
  • Find out how other universities are using Lean and share in their know how
  • Think about how Lean can support the Student Experience
  • Meet other process improvement and change management folk in the sector

This event was kindly and ably hosted by the University of Manchester. some of their business change drivers included: the student experience, IT transformation, faculty and school restructuring and accommodation moves. Practically everyone in the room shared at least one of those.

The event was divided into three main activities:

  1. An interactive exercise brainstorming the barriers to change in HE
  2. An interactive e exercise discussing how to make Lean terms more meaningful in HE
  3. A talk by Dr Tim Westlake, Director for the Student Experience at Manchester on their Student Lifecycle change programme and how Lean might help with that challenge

These activities not only prompted interesting and wide ranging discussion, but also allowed us to “eat our own dog food” and try out some of the techniques in practice as workshop participants.

Barriers to Change in HE

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The first activity used Affinity Diagramming to find themes and patterns on what obstacles we face when implementing change in HE. Starting with silent brainstorming, a good technique to avoid groupthink or dominant voices, we noted our individual thoughts on post-its. We then shared shared our thoughts within the group placing our post-its in a piece of flip chart paper as we did so. Finally we began to look for patterns and relationships between the barriers we’d contributed and grouped them. Finally, we labelled the groups we’d identified to categories. During plenary feedback a spokesman from each group outlined the categories we’d identified whilst a facilitator drew these onto a consolidated affinity diagram depicting the key themes and connections we’d identified.

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Some of the key themes that emerged were:

  • people and culture (fear; attitudes; politics; time; resources; skills; basically a big shout out to the Wall of Excuses)
  • governance and leadership
  • clarity (getting the ‘big picture’; strategy; knowledge and know-how)
  • engagement
  • change methodology (either lack of or over-complicated)

The Language of Lean HE

Good communication is one wayof overcoming barriers to shared understanding. In the next activity we discussed some common Lean concepts and tool definitions and considered how to make them more relevant, comfortable and environmentally-friendly for HE.

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Affinty Diagram – “a graphical representation of relted concepts or statements to find patterns

In our discussion of Affinity Diagram we had difficulty deciding whether we were defining the technique or the diagram themselves, both seem to get wrapped together in our definition. We also noted the relationship with other diagrams such as spider diagrams, relationships diagrams and most of all mind maps.

Muda – “what can be taken away whilst still delivering value”

The second term my group tackled was Muda. This is often translated as waste or something that is not value adding. We discussed the potentially negative connotations of the word waste (it is potentially demotivating to point out waste everywhere). In the feedback another group noted they negated this by defining it as an improvement opportunity. In looking up the dictionary definition we found it covered things like futility, uselessness, idleness and superfluity and we decided it was a bit more existential and holistic that simply ‘not needed’ or the more pragmatic process driven English translations and we admired the simplicity of a single word conveying such richness – a bit like taking a dip in a small but perfectly formed Murakami phrase. Whether this helps us use it or not in HE is a moot point!

An example from another table is Hansei which can be translated as reflection but is really a portal to a much deeper philosophy. Lean provides us with a rich language that helps us access Lean culture, not a simple set of terms. There was an interest across the groups in learning new terms but also sharing how other people interpret them and what that allows us to learn about different perspectives and accumulated ‘know-how’

Some of the key themes that emerged in the plenary feedback were:

  • The need to adapt terminology to specific contexts
  • The purpose of controlling vocabulary
  • Should we use ‘snappy jargon’ or richer descriptions?

We faced the challenge of taking some obscure terms, often in Japanese, and using them meaningfully in our work. Should we change the term itself or stick with the more ambiguous term but provide a clear definition and scope note? If we change the definition too much we lose the richness: sometimes our definitions took us away from the language of lean towards the language of something else e.g. process engineering. We also have to balance the need for practitioners to have a common vocabulary so we can share good practice (Geek Speak!) with the need for our stakeholders to converse in their language not our language.

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As a recent #citylis graduate this was really territory for me, especially recognition of the need to elevate a glossary to a thesaurus in order to understand the relationships between these concepts.

Lean and the Student Experience

Dr Tim Westlake is responsible for University of Manchester students from first contact to 6 months after they graduate. This is c. 38, 000 students every year. He spoke to us about the work they have been doing at Manchester to improve the student experience and related it to Lean by showing examples of People, Purpose and Process. Tim also stressed that he would always put People and Purpose before Processes.

To start, when the new directorate for student experience was established in 2011 the priority was to build trust by demonstrating your own team can deliver first.

This was achieved through:

1. Clear Leadership and Governance
Provides clarity of purpose and accountability. This involves identifying the core things that will make a difference . This should be research-led and evidence-based i.e. not what you think will make a difference, or you hope will make a difference, or you really want to make a difference because it’s what you want to work on but guided by data. Alignment of governance bodies will provide clarity around accountability. Universities are large and complex with intricate committee structures but there should be no governance gaps and no governance overlaps. Be clear about who is accountable for what.

2. Clear Focus and Single Team Working
The other aspect of having a clear purpose is truly focusing on your core things by dedicating resources to them. Tim is an advocate for Single Team Working, arguing that people are capable of coming together and working on problems regardless of what they are ‘trained’ for.

“good people can deliver lots of different things”

As an example of the power of clear purpose and focused people, Tim told us a dedicated team consolidated Manchester’s five student portals into one in just a few weeks without requiring extra resource. Wow.

3. Continuous Improvement
Tim outlined the iterative development of Welcome Week from designating clear ownership, to establishing AskMe amabassadors and adding a greater variety of Welcome Week activities such as lectures (attended by over 600 students) by asking a simple question

“What differences will the next set of students see?”

4. Working with Students
Using co-design to not just consult students but actively engage them in what the Student Portal should look like. This development with students enabled allows the portal to reflect their language not the university’s functional architecture. For example, the term Your Future was chosen over Careers as it more closely reflects how students think.

“A new partnership with students is essential

People, Purpose then Processes

Tim stressed that this early work focused on Purpose and People (because people and purpose wins heart and minds not processes). The first thing he had to do was get the University to care about Students and win the argument that everyone has a role to play in the student experience. The next stage of development was bringing in the whole university by expanding single team working, sharing eight cross-cutting themes and ensuring every area of the university has Student Experience Action Plans.

Another key point is don’t use jargon. Universities are full of bright, dedicated people who are sceptical about management methodologies. Talk about improving the student experience. This advice provied directly relevant to the discussions we’d had during the Lean terminology activity.

Student Lifecycle Programme

Future work is now looking at the university’s business requirements for supporting the student journey. Having created clear Purpose and empowered People the student experience work is directing its attention towards Processes

“It’s never as simple as you think”

The programme is looking to standardise processes and provide a more consistent quality of service, without uniformity: all those students mean there are c. 38,000 individual strategies to support but they should all receive a consistently excellent and rewarding quality of service. Success requires individual student strategies built on standard, shared and co-designed services.

Other drivers include reducing the maintenance overhead of all the customisation in the Student Record System and deficit reduction. The initial project in the problem is mapping and reviewing current processes to scope the work and prepare the business case for the full programme. This also includes defining objectives and design principles up front. The programme will again emphasise single team working over organisational structure with various Manchester staff seconded to the project to work with consultants.

Tim was quick to point out that supporting services can only dissatisfy or prepare to satisfy students. It is Academics that can satisfy them and it is usually their Academic experience that mostly influences their NSS scores.

All enabling service providers can aim for is to Not Dissatisfy.

Lean Learning: My Reflections on the Day

Lean is not a ‘thing’, it’s a Shared Journey.
These journeys happen at many levels: team, unit, institution and it was great to join the sector journey and meet fellow travellers.

Striving for perfection … doesn’t mean we are rubbish now.
We can be confident and assertive about what we do well and our commitment to always ask “what will be different next time?”

Shared Purpose is important
Focus, Clarity, Single Minded and Single Team Working are factors that can help overcome the barriers to change

Shared Language and Culture is important
But, it has to be rich and meaningful in context. Practitioners enable shared best practice by using agreed terms but when working with stakeholders need to talk their language.


Project Initiation (Escape to the Country Style)

By the end of an episode of Escape to the Country the show’s participants have completed a project initiation phase that is proportional in time and effort to the project implementation and have adopted a quality first approach.  They are now ready to go to the time and effort of buying a new house and moving from the old to the new having fully explored their requirements, options and assumptions.

  1. They have defined what success looks like for them.
  2. They understand how the golden triangle of budget, specification and location (time) constrain them
  3. They have prioritised requirements and know where they are willing to compromise
  4. They have developed these requirements and rehearsed future states through prototyping and modelling
  5. They have accepted they “can’t have it all” and have managed their aspirational ideas into a pragmatic strategy.

It’s a template that also goes a long way to reducing the stress of IT project implementations if done well at the outset.

This blog post discusses how I realised that the brainless and escapist television I thought I was watching to relax was actually repeatedly demonstrating the execution of a successful project initiation pattern and indoctrinating me with the merits of its application.

My Daily Schedule

One of the benefits of taking a year to return to full time postgraduate study and therefore working from home on a flexible schedule is the scope to self-determine a productive and pleasant daily routine beyond the standard 9 to 5 of many office jobs.

Over the last 6 months I’ve gradually evolved into a routine where I get up and go out for a gentle run and do some yoga to wake myself up; eat some breakfast whilst reading and watching the birds in the back garden; I then sit down at my desk and work until my brain energy is depleted.  Sometimes I even remember to get up and move about and eat regular small meals.  Early afternoon, with my mind tired but my body stiff I go out for a longer walk or run before settling down for a break with a cup of tea and some television before going back to my desk for a few more hours work before preparing dinner.

Introducing Escape to the Country for the Uninitiated

Invariably, my after television watching break involves watching Escape to the Country. For those who haven’t seen it, (a determined thing to achieve given its ubiquity across BBC schedules), the format involves two protagonists, usually a couple, who wish to relocate from their current abode to somewhere quintessentially rural to pursue their dream life.  There is an introductory section where were meet the pair and they explain their story, their rationale for moving and what they are looking for.  The presenter then takes the couple to see a first house, before the couple get to meet a local expert and try an activity that appeals to their interests/location.  A further two houses are visited, the third being the ‘mystery house’ designed to challenge their thinking before the presenter visits another expert to try a local activity for themselves whilst the couple mull over their home choices.  Finally the presenter meets the pair for a wrap-up where their preferences are revealed and their plan for future action discussed.

It’s a gently appealing programme for many reasons:

  • appreciating how beautiful and diverse our country is with the artful shots of countryside and landscapes, much of which is accessible to most of us.
  • the activities the couple/presenter undertake are usually quite interesting dip into various hobbies and services.  From cheese makers to RNLI training and morris dancers to hovercrafts, it’s usually quite interesting.
  • you get to play house and imagine how you might fit yourself into various housing options without bothering with the actual hassle of conveyancing, mortgages and packing up all your detritus.  Most are unaffordable for many people but that doesn’t stop us imagining!
  • undeniably there is the vicarious pleasure of watching the protagonists interact and make choices at this point in their lives.  We only know the little of their lives the show peaks at but this microcosm of real human drama at the show’s centre is often revealing and entertaining

From House Hunting to IT Projects

So it may be thought of as escapist and undemanding entertainment, but the more I’ve watched it the more I’ve come to appreciate its template for project initiation and wonder why more care isn’t given to this most neglected part of the process on IT projects to try and limit and direct project failure?

Many times in my career I’ve joined a project at implementation stage without any idea of what success looks like for that project and with many initiation phases and gates having been skipped.  Most IT projects fail because they don’t define success well enough in the first place.  This is exactly what project initiation is for.

Projects success needs to be defined not vaguely:

we want a new IT system” or “we want an IT system that will do all this for us”

but more specifically:

we need a system that will do xyz for us by  Acceptable quality is this … we are prepared to compromise on this but not this … we have this much contingency in our timescale and budget … when it launches the system operation will look like this … in two years it should look like this … “

On Project Failure

Complete success in projects is unattainable.  Projects have an element of failure built in for they are imperfect vehicles for achieving change in complex scenarios.  Projects chart a course between the Scylla of doing to little and the Charybdis of expecting perfection.  The levels project managers pull really only determine the nature and degree of project success … and failure.  Projects inevitably need a degree of realism and compromise and most often fail to agree, or even identify, areas for compromise from the start through proper requirements prioritisation.

Often, the biggest source of chronic project failure is the relentless optimism of project planning and the refusal to acknowledge either previous failings and the possibility for more to come.  There are as many ways, if not more, for projects to go wrong than there are for them to go right.

This is where risk and issue management comes in but these should be seen as norms not exceptions and some kind of anticipated disruption quotient added to project estimates.  This can be based on risk assessment but also evidence: issue models based on previous similar scale projects.

Projects should acknowledge from the start that some things will not work and be clear not just what a desirable outcome looks like but also what an acceptable outcome is.

On Project Initiation

So what has IT project failure got to do with Escape to the Country?  Most couples start the programme with a dream; by the end they have at least a strategy and perhaps a solution.  They nearly always have a clearer idea of what they want.

This happens because they work through a proper project initiation process for their project (buying a new house and moving to a new life).

Initially the programme understands the couple’s story.  Where they have come from and where they are going to go?  This is important for understanding requirements broadly and stakeholder analysis and management and provides an initial strategy for investigating possible solutions (suitable houses).

This big picture analysis is not really interested in how many en-suites you want but about understanding you, where you are and where you would like to go. They do ridiculously fake, affected and cheesy things like walk their dog, or potter about their garden looking not very relaxed or comfortable whilst talking about their life and aspirations.  We all know it’s a bit fake and awkward but it’s an essential early part of the show.  It’s definitely a workshop.

Next, the couple meet the presenter (business analyst) who confirm their understanding of the couple’s requirements, press for more detail and clarify any areas of potential misunderstanding.  The presenter finds out budget, ideal location (can be though of as IT project release plan) and presses for any areas of disagreement between the couple and also potential areas of compromise.

It is usually obvious at this stage that as usually when people dream and have ambition that it is unlikely they will get everything they want (requirements) within their budget (resource constraints) in their desired location (time constraints).  It’s usually often obvious that the presenter knows this having done several of these shows and knowing what the show’s researchers have been able to source.  The golden triangle of project management always applies.

There is nothing wrong with aiming high and falling slightly short, it’s probably better than aiming low and achieving it all, but obviously without infinite resources and options the project constraints will always require compromise on the specification.

This is where requirements prioritisation is important:

  • is a view more important than an open-plan kitchen diner?  (Is feature A more important than feature B?)
  • is having “character” more important than it being modern? (Do you want custom development options or is off the shelf OK?)
  • do you want it to be finished perfectly or are you prepared to pay a bit less up front and wait a bit longer by taking on a property that “needs work”? (Do you want waterfall or agile?  Everything launched at once or iterative development? High up-front quality or continuous improvement?)
  • do you really need it to have four bedrooms and 2 en-suites for “when all the family come to stay” i.e. once in every 2 years or would you find a smaller property more cosy for the two of your and less maintenance? (Does your scope really make sense for the things you are actually going to do with this system?)

The way the show works it teases out these priorities from the initial requirements specification by prototyping and modelling. Each house that is actually visited, rather than seen in an estate agents listing say, acts as a prototype to see, feel, try out spaces.  To have an instinctive and human judgement not just an analytical one.  Each activity they try in the new local area is a test to see is this the way they want to live their life in future?  Can they see themselves operating like this in this space, this place?  On an IT project prototyping and process modelling can perform similar functions to rehearse future states before committing too fully to them.

Then there is the ‘mystery house’.  This house deliberately doesn’t address their requirements perfectly and challenges them to think different.  It either focuses more heavily on one set of requirements at the expense of others rather than taking a balanced approach or introduces new options and possibilities.  It sometimes backfires but is often successful at introducing people to homes they didn’t realise they wanted.

By the end of the program as the show participants discuss the houses they have seen they are conducting a retrospective to close this analysis and design phase.  Sometimes they have discovered their dream home and are already planning second visits and making offers.  Other times they haven’t yet found a solution close enough to their requirements but even they they always say the process has given them a better understanding of their requirements and priorities than previously and they have a strategy and a plan for how to focus their next set of activities.