Session 2: JISC and sustainability

Audio from the session
To downlod the MP3 click here

Richard McKenna’s reflections post-discussion:

“What is clear from the discussion which involved JISC projects, services and other national agencies is that sustainability is not just about the economic business model.

“Successful sustainability of innovation itself needs to address: the problem of accessing the knowledge base of lessons learnt; the need for consistent planning across programmes that compensates for the 2/3 year funding cycle; and guidance for projects on addressing the sustainability and accessing expertise.

“The feedback on the sustainability process, discussion in the session and this blog are really helpful for in developing the Sustainability Handbook which is scheduled for release towards the end of 2008.”

JISC and sustainability

Richard McKenna, Director of Programme Management and Operations at JISC, and Simone Spencer, Assistant Programme Manager at JISC, facilitated a discussion about sustainability on Tuesday afternoon. Their audience was a very lively room of delegates who will hopefully continue the discussion on this very blog!

McKenna and Spencer began by explaining in some detail the importance of sustainability to JISC-funded projects, and they explained the plans and procedures JISC is developing to help projects consider their long-term prospects.

This was followed by an extremely productive discussion from the floor, with many excellent suggestions made by delegates. Suggestions made included ways in which JISC could better work with institutions, and ways in which organisations could create more sustainable work practices both within their own institutions, and in their interaction with other organisations and sectors.

McKenna began by exploring JISC’s mission statement, in particular JISC’s commitment to innovate and have sustainable ICT. “It makes common sense,” he said. “Projects need to be economical and viable.” He went on to explain that JISC needs to ensure that it is making the most of its investment in projects, and that the main concentration on sustainability for JISC is about looking at areas in which they can improve processes and support for projects at local – and especially national – level. It must be about sharing knowledge and outputs, not as a one-off exercise, but over a sustained period of time.

Of the 5 outcome categories which JISC programmes and projects strive for (see slide 3 in the presentation) sustainability is most relevent to project delivering services, infrastructure, standards or applications.

In last 6 months JISC has been working on:

  • Creating a business skills study, which included looking at the skills required in JISC to help projects identify business models and create effective business cases
  • The JISC services portfolio review, which looks at the current set of services and reviewing these on an annual basis
  • A pilot Sustainability process

Pilot Sustainability process

At this point, Simone Spencer took over. She introduced herself and explained her role within JISC, and then explained to delegates her involvement in Sustainability.

The broad aim of the process was to help projects develop stronger and more sustainable business plans, she explained: “We needed a more coherent structure so that projects knew what they were aiming for, and to help our committee decision making process. It creates a more tangible and thorough process.”

Spencer continued, “We collate the information from the business cases and supporting dossiers the projects produce and it gets considered by the programme managers and directors, who make a recommendation to the sub-committees,” explained Spencer. “They can then agree funding to transition the service or product to sustained live operation, award more project funding, or advise on what further work needs to be done. Sometimes it’s not appropriate for work to be sustained, and the recommendation would be for the project to come to an end after the funding ends.”

At this point McKenna reiterated that the scheme would be tailored for the different types of projects (complexity and nature of output) and not all projects should expect to be involved in this process.

During the pilot scheme, a handbook and business case document template was produced. It wasn’t about re-justifying the project, said Spencer, because by that point the committee was already convinced of the value of the project. The process could help committee decide if the project should have continuous funding after the initial project funding came to an end, and as a result it also helped ensure strategic alignment.

A significant factor of the process is encouraging projects to consider various business models and sustainability models, including looking beyond JISC for ongoing funding and revenue, added Spencer.

Feedback on the pilot

Spencer said that the feedback from the pilot was generally positive, but that there were also a number of issues which JISC was glad to have the chance to learn from.

In general, people welcomed the clarity of the process, and they found it useful to be able to project how the JISC portfolio could develop. However, there was a need for JISC to provide further skills and support, and also some people involved in the process found the short timescales tricky, and needed longer to document their case.

JISC are currently in the process of reviewing the feedback and they will bring in projects and service providers where appropriate to revise the process. The plan is to then launch the process more fully across all JISC projects in the last quarter of this year.

McKenna went through a number of examples of business model types that JISC has encountered. (See power point document at the end of this post for list of business models and examples)

One example he highlighted is JANET. JANET the biggest service that JISC runs. It takes over half of JISC funding each year, but it also has cost recovery, because institutions pay to use it. It is a subsidy business model.

As well as the business model, it’s important to consider the sustainability route, which involves issues such as who is going to be responsible for what the project is producing in the long term.

Questions from delegates

Luis Carrasqueiro, British Universities Film and Video Council: “We charge for membership, we have a mixed model. It worries me when you say a project is finished. Funding is vulnerable, and it will do more in years to come. So it’s extremely important to look beyond 100% JISC funding. What is JISC doing to circulate the projects that are doing well to seek other funding?”

RM: “This is part of the pilot that we’re running. There are many more examples than what we’re working with. The challenge with finite resources is to look for alternative models. With some of the larger national-type services there are more challenges there. We need to work earlier in the innovation cycle.”

Luis Carrasqueiro, British Universities Film and Video Council: “I understand that national services take a lot of funding, but if you’re running a very small service, there is a critical mass for a service that can run by itself. These are most vulnerable. If I want to talk about this, who do I talk to?

RM: “Well here’s one forum! But after today, I’d like everyone to continue the debate on the blog. We don’t have all the answers, and the more we can investigate the issue the more answers we can reach.”

SS: “I see this about developing dialogue. The work we’re doing is all about your issues and challenges, and we want to hear your ideas and suggestions.”

Mark Stiles, Staffordshire University: “Where projects create a thing, sustainability is clearer. Where it’s about learning about practice or change in institution, it’s about learning from those projects which is hard to sustain. When you have a coherent mass it’s possibly slightly easier, the pieces of learning can be very diverse. I think that’s where JISC struggle to sustain those routes out in a way that is useful.”

RM: “I agree.”

Scott Wilson, University of Bolton: “When building projects, smaller projects have far better value for money. £70K is better value than a £1million in terms of commitment and quality of outcome, but the smaller projects don’t have anywhere to go. We don’t have the funding model in place to go from small product which has interesting R&D (research and development), but needs to go the next level to then embed it. There’s a gap. It makes sense for larger projects, but where we’re trying to do things like core-shared libraries, it’s not so obvious.”

SS: “It’s also about clarity at the outset of the project, so you know what you’re delivering and where it will be best sustained.”

RM “One of the causes of that is the funding structure. Funding comes in blocks, and you want to plan further ahead, but the funding stops. JISC is a victim of this kind of project funding too. We all struggle with it, but we have examples of times JISC has taken small projects and taken them on to the next level.”

Richard Mckenna then spoke more about JISC’s eagerness to engage with recipients of project funding and hear their thoughts and comments on sustainability. He invited delegates to chat with people they were sitting near for 15 minutes, to discuss issues they’d encountered in their own institutions and the questions posed in slide 13 of the presentation.

After discussions had drawn to a close, one delegate suggested that a member of each group should add their thoughts to this blog, and Richard agreed that was an excellent idea. Amid the ensuing hubbub it appeared that most delegates thought it was a good idea.

Tim Riley, EDINA “If a project is going to move on in the process, who in JISC owns the process? Is it Innovation, or do they say ‘that’s it?’”

RM: The innovation group works very closely with the other groups, but we go all the way to completion with the project on its route to being a fully fledged service.

Mark Stiles, Staffordshire University: “We thought there was a simple solution to the question ‘how do you sustain what projects have learnt so it can help other projects?’ If each project could produce a list of what they learnt something about – not what they actually learnt – that would produce something that would be easy to search. At the moment, if you find something, what you find is huge reports and you lose the will to live.”

RM: “Good idea!”

Delegate: “We’ve done a lot of government reviews, and a lot of the outputs we produce are about sustainability. Are JISC doing anything internally to collate those lessons and feed them into the work that you’re doing?”

RM: “The hard thing is to get that into all work. We do have the problems that the breadth of work is so wide now that its hard to bring all the lessons learnt together, we have to partition.”

Yvonne Howard, Southampton: “A lot of things tend to be buried deep in a document. Accessing that would help people stand on the shoulders of giants, build and evolve. While things are locked away in a dusty pile of paper it’s not accessible.”

SS: “Aside from sustainability, we are working to improve our management of information to make it more easily available to the website. Over the next year you’ll see an number of changes to the website.”

Luis Carrasqueiro, British Universities Film and Video Council: “Thinking about the last stage of sustainability, when you need business skills and raise revenue, JISC has a lot of programme managers who know a lot of people. Do you keep track of who has what skills? Could there be some kind of online mentoring process?”

RM: “That’s a very good idea.”

Anthony Troman, British Library: “Following the mentoring thing, where I work we have a number of contacts who can help us. It seems in academia people are geniuses at coming up with ideas, but not business models. A general resources that can help build business cases would be useful. Talking about services now, early in a project you make a judgement on whether it’s worth supporting or not. Feasibility projects that include business models and legal issues, need to be brought in earlier.”

Delegate: “One thing JISC could do better is look at different stages, eg feasibility studies for blue skies. There’s no point in doing a lot of sustainability planning for experimental stuff. If we’re going to do something at demonstrator level, we need to engage the community in terms of taking those projects on. If there isn’t any, that’s a good indication that it shouldn’t be going on.”

Alex Stevens, Imperial College: “If you don’t build a community around a project, then it dissipates. Community. A long time ago, AOL built these things that assumed people would stay in their own areas – ie walled gardens. I find it immensely frustrating that there is no forum to discuss the sustainability issue. Universities are there to serve the wider communities.”

Tim Riley, EDINA: “One of the key business cases at Geo Cross Walk was outside the academic community. There were people who would love to use it, but since Geo Cross Walk was ordnance survey data, that completely closed down. But there is so much potential for cross-sector sharing.”

RM: “A lot of the shared services are applicable to further and higher education, but there is a lot that can be used in other sectors, that doesn’t get sorted. There are in-roads to broaden the remit, there is a lot of potential that hasn’t been exploited.”

Delegate: “How many people here are involved in tapered funding? (a few people raise their hands) It’s not helpful, just as you’re building towards that, you lose people.”

RM: “I’m only aware of one project at the moment that has some level of tapering funding.”

Delegate: “But tapering funding is a way to get people to generate their own income.”

RM: “It can work with a fully-formed business plan.”

Delegate: “You can keep the account open longer, rather than spend it all – can hold back funding.”

And sadly that’s when we ran out of time.

RM: “Thanks everyone, and I look forward to looking at your entries on the blog, we’re very keen to get your feedback!”


5 thoughts on “Session 2: JISC and sustainability

  1. Owen Stephens

    The group I was in for the discussion came up with the following points:

    * Need to build communities around projects – so not just project team in a ‘bubble’
    * Do we need to build sustainability element into project bids?
    * How do we get funding for sustainability – esp. for digitisation – when we are giving away outputs for free? Here a point about the fact you can make ‘data’ available for free, but still charge for service on top of ‘data’
    * Need for more effective engagement with commercial partners?
    * Is ‘sustainability’ a way to bridge the divide between ‘research’ and ‘services’?
    * Sustainability increasingly important as economic situation gets more difficult
    * Build JISC/community expertise of building business models – and fund feasibility studies alongside projects?

    There may have been others which I missed… I’ve also posted my summary on the session (less comprehensive than the one above!) at

  2. Owen Stephens

    A further point which came up over dinner which really struck home with me was ‘impact’ vs ‘sustainability’.

    This made me realise that some of the things I was thinking of as ‘sustainability’ issues were actually ‘impact’ issues. For example, uptake of standards, or embedding specific approaches or skills into the community.

    Although we can see these as sustainability issues, where the ideas have impact, ‘sustaining’ them takes care of itself. It ceases to be about keeping a website running, or keeping a team together etc.

  3. Chris Rusbridge

    Can anyone point me to the slides for this session? I don’t seem able to find them!

  4. Ross Gardler

    With respect to sustainability of software outputs & the knowledge that software projects generate open source, coupled with open development is one prickle option.

    OSS Watch are here to help projects who want to consider there options.

    Those writing new bids should contact us during bid writing.

  5. Milly Shaw

    Hi Chris

    The slides are available at the end of the post, it’s a link called ‘JISC_sustainability_presentation’. Hope that helps!

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