Endless possibilities…

I attended a UCISA conference yesterday about Service Orientated Architecture and whilst the title wasn’t particularly inspiring the actual conference was.

Sometimes you just have days where everything seems to flow together and ideas pop into your head quicker than you can write them down or articulate them – yesterday was one of them.

I wasn’t that familiar with the term SOA before the event but thanks to a very clear video shown by Bill Olivier from the JISC (Introducing the Service Oriented Approach) early on in the day it all became clear.

In basic terms a service orientated approach (soa), based on a Service Orientated Architecture (SOA), is all about re-using data and ensuring systems “talk to each other”. Adopting a soa within a University doesn’t suggest we should pull out all our business systems (e.g. HR, Finance and Student Records) and re-create a new “super” system but rather re-use the data within each of our systems to create a range of user-centric services.

We have a student portal at Edge Hill which plugs into many of our institutional systems already and our business systems all have web interfaces which we can plug into. But by plugging into all these different systems are we really meeting user needs?! Well yes and no. Any kind of web access to systems makes things easier from a user perspective (providing they’re intuitive to use!) and moves us on from where we are today but users can only accomplish tasks that that particular system will allow. For example our Finance system handles fee payments for our students so students could make a payment for their fees through this system but if they then wished to settle their library account, or put additional money on their UniCard (which they can use for catering) they’d need to use the different systems to do this. We’ve implemented single sign-on so it would just be an extra click but it does rely on the student making separate transactions.

By adopting a soa we can offer these same services but through a single point so within the portal students could click on “Manage Money” for example which would then allow them to pay fees, settle library accounts and transfer money onto their other accounts too. All in one (apparently seamless) transaction. The back-end of course would be working away to store this data in the disparate systems but the students wouldn’t know or care about this.

This approach could work for everything and would be huge step forward in terms of offering user-centric services but it isn’t something we can move to overnight. Cardiff University shared their experiences of getting buy in for what they termed the “Modern IT Working Environment” and they appear to have had success with their approach. They concentrated on getting the buy in for process change and delivery of services rather than the underlying systems which is exactly as it should be.

If we all work to develop these approaches and work with open standards to deliver them we can not only open up more services to our customers “the students” but perhaps to other Universities and organisations too. Maybe then other organisations would open up/integrate their services with ours. Imagine if banks would allow students to tap into their accounts through our apps so not only are students managing their University life through our services but their personal one too.

I can see the vision, I could write the rationale, the possibilities really are endless…