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Week of March 26, 2012

A conversation with Laura Patterson

NextGen Michigan and IT Rationalization advance U-M’s mission

NextGen Michigan and IT Rationalization are two ideas designed to move U-M information technology into the future. But what do these terms mean to the university and its community members?

NextGen Michigan is an overall strategy for moving to the next generation of technology that will enable faster innovation to help maintain U-M as a leader in higher education.

“We coined this phrase NextGen Michigan so that we could bring the campus together to have the conversations about what we envision for the future of the university,” says Laura Patterson, associate vice president and chief information officer. NextGen also is investing in the next generation of technology, as its focus includes products and services at U-M.

A key initial component of that effort is known as IT Rationalization. Its focus is to improve IT service delivery, reduce cost and repair the university’s fractured infrastructure, setting the foundation for the larger NextGen Michigan effort.

NextGen Michigan has been initiated at a time when state funding for higher education continues to decline. General fund reductions have made it imperative for U-M to identify ways to invest in the delivery of new and improved IT services, to spend less and get more, Patterson says. Further, organizers say U-M needs to be smart, selective and disciplined about reducing costs to remain a top tier university.

As the university moves to an age of mobility, social networking and personal devices, NextGen also is assessing the most effective ways to keep up with the changing communication and computing landscape. Patterson talked with The University Record about NextGen Michigan in this second installment in a series of stories on the future of information technology at U-M.

Record: What is NextGen Michigan?

Patterson: So that’s a common question that I receive. People are hearing a lot about NextGen Michigan. It isn’t always apparent what it is. And part of that is because NextGen really isn’t a single thing. NextGen Michigan is the university’s long-term strategy for moving to the next generation of technology that will keep this university great. So it’s looking at what’s actually possible now, but not easy to accomplish, and turning that into something that is possible and actually happening. So let me give you a couple of examples, to make it real to people:

Think about the possibility of researchers at the University of Michigan being able to amass the (de-identified health information) of every individual that has a chronic illness. Along with that, (imagine) being able to add the individual’s gene map and the environmental conditions in which they have lived. Think about what that combination of data could enable in NextGen research for medical advancements, both in drugs, in treatments and in understanding the causes of many of the chronic illnesses that exist today. In order to do that, we have to have the capability of putting the data together in a secure, safe way. We have to be able to store it. Researchers have to be able to manipulate it. They have to have the tools for analysis. And then we have to have advanced ways of presenting it ... so that the simple human mind can understand what’s there; all of that depends on next generation technologies.

Or think about being able to have students anywhere in the world interacting in a class that perhaps is being taught here in Ann Arbor, or maybe some of the class is here and some of it is in Singapore and some of it in Africa, but truly a global real-time experience in a learning environment where students can interact with each other, with graduate student assistants, and with faculty from any location and at any time. That’s another example of what we would like to be able to do and something that requires next generation technologies. And so we coined this phrase NextGen Michigan so that we could bring the campus together to have the conversations about what is it that we envision for the future of the university, and what does that imply we must build in our technologies to enable that vision to become real.

Record: How is NextGen Michigan different than IT Rationalization?

Patterson: NextGen is about the future and building the technologies for the future. IT Rationalization is a component, a step that is necessary to get us to NextGen Michigan. So we started by doing an assessment of our current technologies, and it’s not surprising to anyone to say that what we discovered was that we have a significant amount of redundancy in our technology offering and that our infrastructure is fractured. We don’t have a solid IT infrastructure that is required for the next generation technologies. And so IT Rationalization is our effort to bring together the multiple services and technologies that exist redundantly; bring those together into a consolidated offering that, one, provides a higher level of service, and two, drives down the cost of offering a service. And then the savings that we achieve can be reinvested into new, next generation technologies.

We have gone about IT Rationalization by bringing together representatives from all across campus, because it’s very important to understand that we are not trying to centralize, that is not the goal of IT Rationalization, and that actually would be antithetical to the goals of NextGen Michigan. What we are trying to do is to build a robust, flexible infrastructure by bringing together what’s currently fractured that should be running at the core, that then can be leveraged by units all across campus in order to develop edge technologies. So IT Rationalization is a step in getting to NextGen Michigan and NextGen Michigan is about enabling faster innovation at the edge.

Record: Cutting costs and moving forward with technology would seem to be concepts at odds with one another, can you elaborate on how this saves money while moving us forward?

Patterson: In some ways cutting cost and investing are at odds, but the strategy is actually quite logical and it’s proving to be successful. Many, many universities right now are trying to rationalize their information technology. Research universities are big complex places and the technology of the past decade has been a technology of the personal computer and networking, and that has enabled a disbursement of technology across the research communities. So the idea here is that while we need technology at the edge, many technologies have become commodity services. Things that were 10, 15 years ago cutting edge or creative are now offered as commodity IT, you can get it from a vendor. We have moved beyond the local area network as the innovation platform, because we are now in the age of consumerism, mobility, social networking, personal devices. We are moving to what you might think of as the global network and how people interact with that. And so by leveraging what have become commodity services and acquiring those from external providers, looking at them truly as commodity, enables us to achieve savings that are invested in next generation edge technologies.

Record: What is the time frame for implementing changes?

Patterson: We started this initiative about two years ago. We consider the IT Rationalization time frame to be about a five-year project. We really look out longer than that for gaining all the return on all the savings we’re going to be able to make, but the IT Rationalization portion of NextGen is another two, three, four years in the works. We are starting now to deliver some of the next generation technologies I’ve mentioned.

Some of the things that are being thought about or discussed: We start by pulling together a group of people to define the need, and then develop a strategy, and then put in place an investment request; that’s followed by a project that actually delivers the service. And so, that should become an ongoing process that never ends, so that we are always looking to the future. We are always thinking about the most important investments that the university should be making to enable the outstanding faculty who work here and the outstanding students that we recruit and the very dedicated staff that we have to be delivering at the leading edge. We want to make the investments in our technology and our technology infrastructure that enable the University of Michigan to continue to be the great leading research university that it is today.



Dave Boprie, senior electronics technician, Space Physics Research Laboratory, on working with students: “I would like to say thank you to them as they have taught me so much engineering over the years.”


17th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, noon-6 p.m., presented through April 4 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery.

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