Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2016

2016 has been a good year

So much has happened over the last year with our Enterprise Architecture practice that it's hard to write a succinct summary.  For my day-to-day experience as enterprise architect, the biggest change is that I now have a team to work with.  This time last year, I was in the middle of a 12-month secondment to create the EA practice, working mainly on my own.  Now my post has been made permanent and I have recruited two members of staff to help meet the University's architectural needs.

I have spent a lot of the year meeting people, listening to their concerns and explaining how architecture can help them.  This communication remains vital, the absolute core of what we do and we will continue to meet people in this way.  We also talk to people in other Universities in order to learn from what they are doing and to share our own experience back.  A highlight in this regard was my trip to the USA last January.

Our biggest deliverable for the past year was the design of the data wa…

CRM Strategy from Plymouth University

Last week, we were delighted to receive a visit from Rupert Frankum of Plymouth University.  Rupert was the technical manager for Plymouth's project to replace their old student recruitment and admissions processes with a modern system based on a CRM platform  You can see a shorter presentation that Rupert and his colleague Paul Westmore gave at this year's UCISA conference on the conference website.

Rupert gave an excellent talk, covering many aspects of their project.  For me, the highlight was the discussion of their CRM vision, which used an analogy of a Rubik's cube to give an image of how common technical components can support different parts of the recruitment process.  This explained the issues, and how they can be addressed, in an engaging and effective way.

This visit was timely for us. We have been building a business case for a CRM platform for several months, and the University is currently reviewing how we manage (or fail to manage) student recruitment.  We …

New staff for the EA team

I'm delighted to welcome Jason Murphy, who joins us as our CRM Architect, and Wilbert Kraan, our new Data Architect.  Both Jason and Wilbert have worked as consultants for several years and bring new skills and considerable experience to IS.  They both know more than I do about their respective fields, which is how I like to hire people.

So the Enterprise Architecture practice now comprises the three of us, instead of me working on my won, which means we have more capacty to guide the University's IT architecture.  We can offer a greater range of skills and can bring a wider range of experience to bear.  I'm really excited about the opportunities this presents.

As his job title implies, Jason will focus on contact relationship management, working to build a user community and to create a strategy for managing and improving the University's relationships with prospective students, research partners, community organisations, and other parties - to give them all a better …

Putting IT all together - again

Last Friday I gave a guest lecture to third-year Informatics students on the Software Design and Modelling course.

Professor Stevens, who leads the course, asked me to repeat the presentation that I gave last month to an audience of University staff.  She thought that many of the issues I covered would be relevant to the course, and the topic of improving the online student experience was clearly one that the students could relate to.  It's a long time since I did my own degree but unless times have changed markedly, I suspect that students don't often get to see the issues around integrating many pre-existing systems, rather than building small systems in the lab.

I enjoyed the session.  I don't often get to meet students, so this was a refreshing experience, and we had a good discussion following the presentation. As expected, they confirmed that the online experience currently provided by University systems is "all over the place".

One of the questions was abo…

It's not about winning the debate...

Despite its "Trump" headline, this article from the Harvard Business Review is a good guide on how to encourage someone to change their mind about something. The suggestions would be useful for all sorts of arguments - whether Trump or Clinton now, or closer to home the Brexit controversy or more mundanely for issues in any office or workplace.
Calling people names, pretty obviously, doesn't work. It may vent our frustration, or reaffirm our affinity to our group, or even stake a moral claim (e.g. calling someone a bigot is also claiming that we're better than them); what it won't do is get the victim of the name-calling to change their mind . f anything, it will strengthen their resolve.

Arguing through logic sounds more reasonable, but often doesn't work. This is partly because people don't work 100% on logic, and partly because a debate becomes a contest in which we want to win (and, possibly, be seen to win). Losing a contest isn't a good motiva…

Not so simple...

A common approach to explaining the benefits of Enterprise Architecture is to draw two diagrams: one that shows a complicated mess of interconnections, and one that shows a nicely layered set of blocks. Something like this one, which came from some consultants:

I've never felt entirely happy with this approach.  Yes, we do want to remove as much of the needless complexity and ad-hoc design that litters the existing architecture.  Yes, we do want to simplify the architecture and make it more consistent and intelligible.  But the simplicity of the block diagram shown here is unobtainable in the vast majority of real enterprises.  We have a mixture of in-house development and different third-party systems, some hosted in-house, some on cloud infrastructure and some accessed as software-as-a-service.  For all the talk of standards, vendors use different authentication systems, different integration systems, and different user interfaces.

So the simple block diagram is, basically, a l…

Presentation: Putting IT all together

This is a presentation I gave to an audience of University staff: 

In this seminar, I invite you to consider what the University’s online services would be like, if we worked together to design them from the perspective of the student or member of staff who will use them, instead of designing them around the organisational units that provide them. I’ll start with how the services might appear to that student or member of staff, then work back from there to show what this implies for how we work, how we manage our data, and how we integrate our IT systems. It might even lead to changes in our organisational structure.

Our online services make a vital and valued contribution to the work of our students and staff. I argue that with better integration, more consistent user interfaces, and shared data, this contribution could be significantly enhanced.

This practice is called “Enterprise Architecture”. I’ll describe how it consults multiple organisational units and defines a framework …

Learning Archimate

I've started to evaluate the potential of using the Archimate modelling language for our architecture practice.  As architecture is primarily about communicating ideas, I didn't want to just start using this in my team and leaving everyone else mystified by the strange diagrams we started to produce.  Also, I wanted to judge how best to use the language.  So we arranged training for people from different teams and with different roles, partly to share the knowledge and partly to evaluate which aspects of the language (if any) would suit each teams.

Archimate can represent many aspects of a system, starting with the motivations, drivers and stakeholders; moving to map business services and processes; then the applications that provide those services, and finally the infrastructure on which they run. You rarely display all aspects at once; instead there are a host of views that present particular aspects of the system.  The diagram above is taken from a JISC workshop in 2012 and…

Costs of doing BI the hard way

I am preparing a business case to justify the building of a data warehouse for the University.  This has some challenges.  While everyone acknowledges that our current BI reports need improved, it is far from obvious how to measure the benefits of improving our BI.  Suppose we our student satisfaction score increases in two year's time: how much of that would be due to which specific initiatives, and which of those would result from decisions made with better BI data?  It's a tenuous thread of causality.

Nonetheless, if we believe that the decisions made by staff have some impact on outcomes, and that by having better information available to them they will make better decisions, it follows that a successful data warehouse project will have a positive effect.  Even if the impact on University income is one tenth of one percent across the board, that would quickly repay the cost of developing and running the service.

Another approach is to look at the costs of not having an int…

BI advice from Southampton Solent University

We were fortunate to have a visit from Neil Randall of Southampton Solent University last month.  Neil and his colleague Paul Colbran gave an excellent presentation at this year’s UCISA conference about their experience of setting up an effective BI service.  I invited Neil to visit Edinburgh to explain their approach to our team and to review our proposed BI architecture.

We began the day with Neil reprising his part of the UCISA presentation and discussing several points arising.  We presented our draft architecture, and then we discussed topics including how to structure and manage a BI service, which ETL tools to use, how best to model data, and how to integrate a data warehouse with relationship management (CRM) software. 

We had a very information conversation about “Extract, Transform, Load” (ETL) tools, which load data from source systems into a data warehouse.  Neil recommended we look at file-based tools rather than database-oriented tools.  Without this advice, we probably …

EA Community of Practice

Today, I attended a meeting of the UCISA EA Community of Practice, at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).  The focus of today's meeting was on data architecture, and I contributed with a talk about our data warehouse plans at the University of Edinburgh.

The first presentation of the day was from the University of Birmingham, who are using data architecture techniques to support the upgrade of their Finance and HR systems to a new ERP system.  This was a good example of the benefits that enterprise architecture can contribute to service transformation projects.

Next was a talk about the HEDIIP Data Capability Toolkit for the HE sector.  This sets out the case  that we can make data a tangible asset, capable of adding value to our universities.  The programme is effectively taking an EA approach, mapping the as-is state and defining the target to attain, all mapped to a data strategy.  From the talk, it sounds like the toolkit has some elements which will be very helpful and …

You know when you've been Gartnered

I spent an intense two days this week attending Gartner’s Enterprise Architecture Summit in London.  The event covered quite a range of topics; indeed, it is only now that I am looking back over my notes that I realise just how much ground was covered.  What follows is a brief overview of some key messages and highlights.

The keynote speakers were keen to emphasise that digital transformation requires EA to move even further out of the IT department and to partner the business in technology-led business innovation.  If the business leaders don’t see this, we need to get our foot in door and insist on coming into the conversation.

The internet of things was mentioned several times, along with analytics from sensors, wearables and smart devices.  “Smart machines” were one thread that Gartner has identified from emerging technologies, including autonomous personal assistants and virtual advisers.

The need to focus on human behaviour was another theme, especially how we interact with the…

Service Excellence, Digital Transformation and Enterprise Architecture

Our University Secretary has sponsored a major review of the University’s administrative processes, coining the banner “Service Excellence”.  The aim is to look at the services we provide to staff and students with a fresh eye, making them more effective, more efficient, and focussed on the user rather than administrative convenience.

Our CIO is sponsoring a similar programme called “Digital Transformation”. This will replace old paper-based processes, starting with the question of what would processes look like if we designed them afresh for the modern connected world.  The aim is to make processes that are more focussed on the user and hence more effective and efficient.

Both of these ambitious programmes will need an effective enterprise architecture, if they are to succeed.  Digital Transformation is intrinsically about using opportunities provided by new technology to improve services and, as such, it requires effective technology services to make data available when needed, to pro…

Out and about

An important part of my role is to get out and meet people, to explain what enterprise architecture is about and how it will benefit the University.  I have regular meetings with a number of people across the University.  In addition, I am often invited (or put myself forward) to speak to particular groups.  Here follow a few examples.

The College of Science and Engineering IT Committee asked me to explain what my role was about and I was happy to do so.  I kept my presentation short and high level, to get across the main ideas rather than delve into technical details.  The Q&A turned into a really good discussion about the issues that staff face trying to get their jobs done and how a solution needs to address better integration of business processes as well as the supporting IT applications. As a result of this discussion, I will meet some of the admin staff in the School of Chemistry to hear first hand examples of where our current processes cause problems.

I also met the Deput…

Architecture Training

Earlier this month, I spent a week on a BCS training course.  This combined two three-day courses on the topic of Enterprise and Solution Architecture – the first course being Intermediate level and the second Practitioner level. Both courses had an exam on the Friday afternoon.  This is the first time that I’ve taken an exam in almost 30 years!  I was quite tense.  The outcome is not actually that important (hardly comparable to my son's Advanced Highers which determine University entry), but I still wanted to do well.

The intermediate course covered the range of enterprise architecture: business, applications, data and infrastructure, as well as solutions architecture.  With such a breadth, it didn’t have time for much depth, but did present some useful ideas and concepts.  The terminology and structure was given in the BCS “reference model” (really more of a glossary than a full model), which is different in detail to more widely-used frameworks such as TOGAF.

By contrast, the pr…

User Experience and Architecture

Architecture descriptions tend to be dry and technical-looking affairs, with pictures of structure and process flow.  I’m pleased to say that we are seizing an opportunity to present a much more visual explanation of what our target architecture will mean for our users, particularly for our students.

For the last couple of months, we’ve had usability consultants on site working with our students and staff to review the “online experience” that students receive from university systems.  They presented their findings last week, including an outline proposal for a better approach.

To no-one's surprise, the mirror they held up to us showed a rather fragmented set of systems, with unhelpful names, instructions that were often unclear, different versions of the same information, important e-mails buried among less important information, inconsistent look-and-feel, and so forth.  The details of their report are fascinating but far too long for this blog.

What is relevant here is that t…

Combining information in a data warehouse

We are looking at how best to store data so that we can map trends over months and years, in what is known as a data warehouse.   We do have some digital records already, for example we can looks at trends in student numbers for over a decade.  With more and more processes online, the University administration want to look at trends over a wider range of data, and to ask questions of data that go beyond the individual administration units. 

This is not trivial, especially as we don't know which questions people will want to ask in the future.  We need a flexible data model that allows reports to link data that was taken from more than one operational system.  For example, a question about the cost of running any particular course would need to know about the cost of the rooms used, the staff, library materials, any special equipment, and so on.