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And now for the next crisis

The final talk of the first half-day was from James Smith of Birkbeck.  James first gave some background about Birkbeck, which is rather different from most universities in that it focuses on continuing education for people in work.  More than half of Birkbeck’s classes start at 6pm and many of their classes use rooms from other London institutions.  When James started there, people often told him that “Birkbeck is different”, which although true was often “used as an excuse for everything that was wrong with the place.”  Although it does face particularly challenges, especially as a result of funding changes since 2007, much of what James described about IT silos was familiar to many people in the audience.

To address the problem of silos, Birkbeck started with some targeted developments such as an identity database and a teaching resource manager (which included personal timetables for students).  Following those successes, they are now looking at process improvements.  They use a free process modelling tool called Bigazi, which allows their analysts to diagram business processes in BPMN and can then turn them into executable processes.  There is similar functionality available for our Oracle middleware, at a cost; it may be worth exploring this cheaper alternative.

The challenge is less one of IT and more one of working with the various departments.  Part of James’s goal is to empower business process owners to improve processes.  Some people don’t even recognise that their work is actually part of a process, let alone that it can be improved.  James wants to move from a model in which HR, Finance, Registry etc own their IT to one in which they own the business processes and the IT department run all the IT.

Regarding tools and systems, James recommended Oracle APEX for simple apps on top of Oracle databases.  They use Twitter bootstrap for responsive design within this framework.  The result is somewhat like our MyEd portal but all developed in this simple tool.

James also mentioned a couple of examples where outsourcing has worked well for Birkbeck.  One was for ID card production, which was a big win over in-house printing of ID cards.  Another was Database Administration, where somewhat to James’s surprise an outsourced team complements Birkbeck’s one in-house DBA very well.


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