Connecting Silos in the Canadian Digital Infrastructure

December 01, 2016

Mark Roman
Chief Information Officer 
Simon Fraser University

I was recently travelling across Canada by car driving past grain elevators and wide open spaces, giving me time and space to reflect on a number of ideas. The prairies typically give a driver lots of time to ponder a wide variety of themes, but one in idea in particular was how we as a nation work together remarkably well on national digital infrastructure, despite the vast seemingly empty plains.

For example, after almost two years as President of CUCCIO (Canadian University Council of CIOs) I have had the opportunity to observe the how the organization interacts with rest of the Canadian digital ecosystem. Late last year Universities Canada published “Canadian Universities and the Digital Future.” In that document they posed the question “what do Canadian universities need to become digital leaders?” Their answer to the question consisted of five actions based on their digital technologies survey from the fall 2015:

  1. The sharing of best practices and evidence-based technology investments.
  2. The development of national strategies and greater coordination among all levels of government, service providers, and universities.
  3. Improved collaboration both within and between institutions.
  4. Improved capacity for institutional change management.
  5. More sustainable and flexible funding models and resources.

What is particularly interesting is how the CUCCIO organization is already delivering solutions in each of these five action areas and directly assisting Canadian Universities to become digital leaders. I would like to address each action separately.

1.     The sharing of best practices and evidence-based technology investments.

This first recommended action is CUCCIO’s founding raison d’être. This type of sharing is why we felt compelled to created CUCCIO in the first place. As Chief Information Officers responsible for our institutions’ digital infrastructures, we derive enormous value from both participating and contributing to CUCCIO. Every CUCCIO meeting is an occasion for the IT leaders of universities across Canada to share digital best practices and technological learning experiences, while also taking the rare opportunity to pause and reflect on the future. CUCCIO meetings create the unique atmosphere and environment necessary for the all leaders of university digital infrastructures to freely share experiences, ideas, successes, and failures in a mutually supportive, non-judgemental, and unconstrained environment.

2.     The development of national strategies and greater coordination among all levels of government, service providers, and universities.

As President I have seen CUCCIO interact with an astounding array of government and national IT organizations. We work closely with Compute Canada on national computing initiatives, including the wildly successful 2016 CANHEIT & HPCS co-hosted conference. The Executive Directors of CAUBO and CANHEIT work together regularly on a wide variety of higher education administration activities. The Leadership Council for Digital Infrastructure was created in 2012 at a forum initiated and facilitated by CUCCIO. Leaders from CUCCIO meet regularly with leaders of parallel international organizations through CHEITA (Community of Higher Education International Technology Associations). CUCCIO contributes on a regular basis with CANARIE through their CIO Advisory Council. Research Data Canada works closely with CUCCIO for support and several CUCCIO members are directly involved. Finally, CUCCIO is our national voice with the largest technology vendors including Microsoft, Amazon, D2L, Gartner, and the Educational Advisory Board. With almost 60 universities participating in CUCCIO, there is no other organization in the higher education sphere in Canada that is so broadly and deeply connected.

3.     Improved collaboration both within and between institutions.

Fundamental to the success of CUCCIO is its ability to mobilize IT resources from across Canada to solve particularly critical national digital infrastructure issues. The CUCCIO Security Special Interest Group (SIG) is instrumental in sharing best practices around national IT security issues, and coming together to communicate immediately about emerging security threats to the community. Project management tools and techniques are shared nationally through the CUCCIO Project Management SIG and the recently created Client Services SIG will help improve customer experiences throughout our digital infrastructure. Via ad hoc conference calls to deal with emerging issues, the CUCCIO Executive Director brings together the right mix of people with digital infrastructure skills to help resolve impending issues such as reacting to protection of privacy challenges or rampant ransomware attacks. Finally, CANHEIT, the annual sharing of higher education digital technology ideas, experiences, and changes is facilitated and seed funded by CUCCIO.

4.     Improved capacity for institutional change management.

I would argue that you cannot “manage” change, but you can socialize innovation and sculpt change in a mindful and conscientious manner. This realistic approach to change requires help and support. It requires sources of experience and lessons learned. It requires an open community of like minded change leaders who are open to sharing their learning moments and scars. Access to nearly 60 university digital leaders via CUCCIO is like a security blanket for change. Technological change is an inevitability, and no matter what changes, there are very few times I am doing it alone. I always have someone else in the CUCCIO community that is travelling a similar path. I can always learn from their experiences, and glean vital help and advice from them.

5.     More sustainable and flexible funding models and resources.

Funding is always a contentious issue, particularly if the arguments are devoid of data. But CUCCIO has been leading a national benchmarking initiative for several years. The data from this work is invaluable in understanding the digital infrastructure investment in each university. This body of knowledge has been constructed using appropriate factors that account for digital infrastructure environments that vary by several dimensions across Canada. Quite successfully, the CUCCIO benchmarking helps us all understand what are comparable and appropriate costs throughout the national infrastructure. This understanding forms the basis for justifying any proposed funding models and allocating appropriate resources. Fact based benchmarking also helps the entire community improve our negotiating stance with vendors, leading to contracts where our national digital infrastructure can have greater control over key issues such as data management and privacy.

Clearly, CUCCIO is central to helping Canadian universities become digital leaders. However, there are so many groups contributing to the Canadian infrastructure landscape that recognition for CUCCIO may get lost in the crowd. I strongly urge everyone involved with CUCCIO and everyone who works with CUCCIO to spread the message about the strategic significance of the organization in the Canadian digital ecosystem. Much like isolated grain elevators on the prairies in a deep winter storm, without CUCCIO, the higher education digital infrastructure in Canada would simply be a sparse set of silos devoid of connectivity and community.



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