A conversation with Laura Patterson
What will the future bring as NextGen Michigan makes lasting changes in how U-M invests in information technology? Laura Patterson, associate vice president and chief information officer, says an ongoing strategic process to build the university’s IT structure while reducing duplicative systems will drive down costs of current offerings and lay the groundwork to help faculty, staff and students.
NextGen seeks to make the campus network simpler and accessible from anywhere. The goal is to provide: a stronger central network to meet more needs across campus; a unified email and calendaring system available to the whole campus (except those who handle regulated data, such as those on U-M Health System Exchange); widespread access to Wi-Fi for faculty, staff, students and visitors; cloud computing that eventually can eliminate the need to buy local operating systems for every user; and better solutions for data storage that meet a wide range of needs for researchers.
Other service improvements will include virtual server environments with database support, storage and security services. Planners want to lower the overall cost of what we do today, and provide faster and better computing that allows collaboration on campus and across the globe. Increased availability of shared services will help enable unit IT staff to shift greater focus to mission-specific operations in their schools, colleges or departments. The NextGen Program Office is working with IT governance groups, Human Resources and unit representatives to develop plans to help faculty, staff and students navigate changes, minimize any disruptions, and get the most use out of new services as they roll out.
Patterson talked with The University Record about these changes in this third installment in a series of stories on the future of information technology at U-M.
Record: What are some key challenges for U-M IT providers going forward?
Patterson: “Giving students, faculty, and staff what they really need is without question the biggest challenge. That’s why we are very focused on infrastructure, and a flexible infrastructure. Because to the extent that we can, we want to give students and faculty a platform that enables them to build what they really need.
“A really good example of that is building a platform for mobile applications that allows faculty, staff and students to develop their applications of choice — rather than having a group at the center being the only group developing applications for campus. So a flexible infrastructure that allows innovation by faculty and students is one of the important components.
“When we consolidate services, it’s very important to engage students, faculty and staff in the definition of those services, and the model for how they are going to be delivered. We have put in place a new governance model that aligns to the university’s mission and engages parts of campus in ways they were not engaged before.
“We also have identified and defined higher service level requirements, and requirements of service providers. These are criteria that IT providers must meet if they are going to provide services across the campus. This combination of more flexibility, better engagement through governance, and better defining the service requirements will enable us to better meet the needs of faculty, students, and staff.
Record: What kind of IT support can the university community anticipate?
Patterson: Support that you can expect to receive will actually come from many places, not just from ITS. First of all, the academic units and the administrative offices can expect to continue to receive support from their unit people. What we are trying to do is change what’s happening in the unit so that the redundant commodity comes to the center, but that the support an individual receives will come from many levels. First of all, we are increasing the services that ITS delivers; we are creating a service center that provides a higher level of end-user support. We are creating customer relationship managers who will work closely with units to understand their needs and how services are being provided.
“At the local level, unit representatives are very engaged in all of the changes that are taking place. I will use Google as an example. Most unit IT staff have been the first to make the migration to Google, so that they get into the environment and understand it, and provide a high level of support. They have the experience of the migration process itself, and then they feed that information back to ITS so that ITS can constantly improve the migration process. Unit IT groups are working with ITS so that there is a high level of support at the unit level. We are working very closely with University HR on workforce changes that are occurring, as we consolidate some services, as we help units move into edge technologies. University HR is leading that change effort.
I would say that the creation of my role as the chief information officer was recognition that the university needed to provide a higher level of service in its IT support. My job is to work with all of the units across campus to facilitate the dialog, to bring people together in the plans, to bring people together to develop the strategies, so that we can constantly improve our service, better support the faculty and students, and continue to move forward in next generation technologies.
Record: What is being done to allow faculty, staff, and students to connect with external service providers, to further enhance their work at U-M?
Patterson: Places like Google and Amazon and Microsoft provide offerings that the university either can’t or we shouldn’t even try to offer. What we need to do is to get our infrastructure in place to allow researchers and students to take advantage of those offerings. Since it is a big data world and since it is a mobile world, leveraging those offerings will allow us to meet those demands.
“One of the other exciting things that’s happening as part of NextGen is that a number of research universities are coming together to build services at scale. Some services that we need we will get from external providers. But some services that we need we will build by bringing large research universities together, so that we can build these services at scale, but keep them safely within our community. Work is already starting on some of those shared services across research universities, which we are calling Above-the-Campus Services. These are services offered by universities to universities, but by coming together we can offer them at scale.
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