Digitizing business operations at the University of Groningen
Thanks to technological advances, education is personalizing along the principles of “any time, any place, any path, any space”. Universities and colleges are also increasingly offering modern online and offline learning concepts. The required flexibility, scalability and user experience require an appropriate IT infrastructure that facilitates this optimally. From our consultancy practice in the education sector, we present the vision on this issue as seen by some of our customers. This week, Ronald Stolk, Director of the Center for Information Technology (CIT) and CIO of the University of Groningen, has the opportunity to present his views.
‘Ingrained habits up for discussion’
Ronald Stolk, as Director Center for Information Technology (CIT) and CIO, has been responsible for all IT-related matters of the University of Groningen – a broad education and research institution with 40,000 students and 8,000 employees – since 2017. This includes the IT organization, the fiber optic infrastructure, the data centers, applications and the hardware in the study halls.
In addition to office automation, focused on HR, finance and facilities issues, among others, there is support for the research and education domains. To do this as well as possible, a transformation was initiated five years ago, which was completed over two years ago. IT staff was organized across domains in Agile teams. Consultants combined IT and specific domain knowledge and, together with teachers and researchers, looked for the best-fit solutions. Regular services were also supported in this way.
The covid-pandemic has made it even more visible how important digitalization is to the university. “In that sense, we’re floating more and more on IT,” says CIO Ronald Stolk. “From a traditional structure you are far too slow to quickly and adequately support that. Therefore, you have to allocate responsibilities further down in the organization: people should be able to make their own decisions to a certain extent in conjunction with the IT consultants.”
Many things are developed in-house based on the available expertise. In terms of education, think of the possibilities for examination in digital rooms, where students must be able to look things up in Wikipedia, for example, but are not allowed to talk online with friends. That requires specific adjustments to the network. In the digital tests that students can take at home, the questions are randomized, which makes discussing difficult.
With respect to research, it is often about facilitating data processing, sometimes with proprietary equipment and proprietary datasets, which of course must meet the FAIR principles of findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. In addition, the university traditionally had capabilities for high-performance computing – once set up for the data processing of the Westerbork radio telescope.
The size and diversity of the University of Groningen presents Ronald Stolk – who is also a professor of clinical epidemiology – and his colleagues with challenges when it comes to secure, high-performance, available and appropriate IT support. “We serve the most idiosyncratic beta researchers, who prefer not to be limited by standards, but also philosophers who primarily use a text program, so to speak.”
Naturally, there is a considerable emphasis on security within all functions and domains. It is important that students and employees restrict themselves to centrally facilitated and controlled facilities and do not share files and data via Dropbox or other services. “Then hackers can enter in a flash. Sharing passwords with colleagues and assistants is prevented through two-factor authentication.”
“In addition, in terms of security, there is also a behavioral side,” Stolk continues. “People have to understand that in terms of IT you can’t just bring in all kinds of things you’ve bought or developed yourself. Something like that would be unthinkable at a bank, for example. There, everyone automatically goes along with the standard.”
Besides that, there is another tension at play. “Universities employ very special and important people who discover beautiful things for society. In doing so, they often push the boundaries: building their own solutions for research, inventing things. Those lecturers and researchers are part of one of the eleven faculties, all of which are organized differently. They have a certain degree of autonomy and with that come their own wishes regarding the same central IT service.”
Anderson MacGyver has very effectively supported the university on their journey. The Agile transformation that was initiated five years ago was ‘exected’ in order to be able to translate questions and requests easily into the most appropriate solutions. Ronald Stolk: “The optimal governance is clearly visualized with areas and colors. Moreover, a distinction is made between IT support that can be standardized and IT with which you really distinguish yourself as the University of Groningen.”
“Optimal governance is visualized clearly with areas and colors“Ronald Stolk – Director of the Center for Information Technology and CIO of the University of Groningen
“For example, we recently incorporated a computing cluster costing tons into the infrastructure, financed from the decentralized research budget. Sometimes there is a grey area, with a server running somewhere under a desk or in a broom closet. Then you have a challenge in terms of governance. Anderson MacGyver taught us how best to interpret and adjust those things.”
“The view from outside by Anderson MacGyver’s experts is that they aren’t limited by taboos. Ingrained habits are easily brought up for discussion. I am satisfied with what we have managed to do, and I’ll keep working on more and more improvement.”
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