March 20, 2008 — The University of Virginia's senior information technology leaders met Wednesday with about 20 IT staff and 10 e-mail end users from around Grounds to gather feedback about the recent switchover to the Microsoft Exchange e-mail and calendar system.
James Hilton, vice president and chief information officer, said he was there "mostly to listen," and convened the group to learn lessons in how to better implement technology changes, which he said will be increasingly common in the next few years. He acknowledged that there had been problems with the timing of this winter's e-mail system upgrade, and said that communication needed to be improved.
Forum participants offered a number of suggestions on how the Exchange switchover could have been improved. More than one person suggested that during a major transition there should be a dedicated phone line for technical support pertaining only to the transition, staffed by experts on the issue.
Another attendee suggested improvements to make system testing process more thorough. Rather than just distributing test accounts, there should also be a checklist of tasks for every tester to perform with the new system.
An IT staff member from the library noted that there were a good number of Exchange training sessions offered, but they were not well attended. Better matching the training offerings to demand is a tricky challenge, noted Hilton, suggesting that the University may have to either "throw a lot more resources at help, or find ways for people to train themselves."
One end user noted that upgrading to Microsoft Office 2007 — helpful, but not necessary to migrate to the Exchange system — required significant re-learning. The heavy user of calendar software concluded, "All in all, I personally don't feel like I'm working efficiently yet. I feel like we know the system well, but just don't feel like the system is working well for us."
Hilton and other participants expressed optimism about a new paradigm for institutional change at the University, which they described as "change by community" rather than "change by committee."
"I personally am very committed to communities — bringing together people who are bound by a common purpose and empowered as a group to drive that purpose home," said Hilton. "That's the way I think the world ought to work."
Led by ITC network systems manager Robin Ruggaber, an "Exchange community" of about 20 IT staff from around Grounds met regularly, starting in May 2007, to discuss and plan how best to go about the switchover to Exchange. "I was personally relying a lot on what came back from the Exchange community on all kinds of decisions — about timing, whether we accelerated when we provisioned stuff, etcetera," said Hilton. "I think that was terrific and that's my bias going forward."
Other participants were also enthused by the community approach and how it better utilized U.Va. staff from across Grounds, and at all levels. "Their willingness to take input — and actually act on it — makes me optimistic about the direction of the University," said Victor Villar-Gosalvez, computer systems chief engineer for University Human Resources. "There's a whole community of people who have been doing IT for 30 years and we have some expertise behind us."
"It's certainly a new concept to have a community with a shared purpose, versus a committee," said John C. Hill, acting director of computer systems for UHR. "That is an entirely different way of running a meeting or looking at a project."
After a number of years of U.Va.'s IT infrastructure remaining relatively static (and stable), a lot of core IT systems are slated to change dramatically in the next three to five years, Hilton said. Major technology upgrades already under way include reducing the use of Social Security numbers in IT systems, implementing the Student System Project (replacing ISIS), and migrating student e-mail to Google and Microsoft, Hilton said. On the horizon is deploying a new generation of data storage (replacing today's hard drives), and usage of Internet telephony, or "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP).
"Change is going to be the agenda for quite some time," Hilton said.
The flip side of that was noted by Villar-Gosalvez: "The new leadership are much more open to input from the field, and staying on top of technology. We're shooting to be a top-10 university; we need to have technology up there with the top 10."