UniDesk – a shared service founded on shared learning

Delegates at UCISA’s Support Services Conference earlier this month heard about the development of the UniDesk service management shared service. The service has been live since November 2010; three institutions collaborated on the initial development with a fourth subsequently joining.


The University of Edinburgh had been using a system developed in house for incident management since 2000 but by 2008 it was clear that it either required significant investment or replacing. The same system was in use at the University of St Andrews and they too were considering their options. Discussions soon identified that Abertay University were also looking at procuring a service management system; consequently the three institutions opted to work together. The initial intention was to carry out a joint procurement but as the three partners continued talking to each other, it was agreed to procure a service management tool and to then run it as a shared service. The procurement had to be managed in such a way that the resultant service could be extended to include new partners. The partners were also looking for software that was browser independent and was capable of using a federated identity management system. TopDesk were successful in the procurement exercise and became the fourth partner in the service, providing the software platform. The service would be run from the University of Edinburgh, largely as they already had the infrastructure in place to support what is effectively a cloud based service.

Realising the benefits

The partners recognised that in order to effectively share services the processes underpinning the use of the software had to be common across all three institutions. A single set of processes was designed, initially for incident management but now extended to include problem management and change release. Work continues on configuration management.

A fourth institution has joined the service since it went live in November 2010. Sheffield Hallam University needed a new tool for service management and, adopting the processes already defined, were live in eight weeks. This is testament to the value of common processes; there was no need to re-implement the software, just roll out the processes to the new partner’s users.

The collaborative approach to process development and review continues – where a change is proposed it has to be agreed by all parties in order to be adopted. Whilst this may mean that institutions have to adapt where the standard processes don’t necessarily meet all their requirements, it has had the benefit that it has achieved standardisation within institutions. The partners have also learnt from each other, bringing their own strengths to discussions on processes with the result that the common processes are better than an individual implementation would have achieved. The learning continues; different uses of the system are shared with the result that the partners can introduce new features into their own application. For example, Sheffield Hallam logged all walk up enquiries on their support desk; Edinburgh hadn’t considered this application but is now looking to introduce it in conjunction with the ability to swipe or touch university cards in order to log user details.

Looking forward

The business model for the service is a simple cost recovery based on the Jisc banding for each institution. There is no formal contract; the service is based on the relationships and trust between the partners. This has the benefit of not requiring complex legal arrangements (and costs) for new partners to join. There have been cost savings but these have not been great for the three original partners – Edinburgh estimate that the shared service has proved to be around 20-30% cheaper than going it alone. There is a desire to expand the number of partners as this would bring down the running costs for each of the partners but there is no marketing resource to promote the service. There is, however, a clear benefit to the new partners as they will not have to meet the costs of developing the service.

Whilst the financial savings for the original partners has been modest, there have been efficiency improvements through the collaborative development of processes. The partners continue to learn from each other, to identify solutions to new problems and get the most out of the software. New partners will be able to reap the rewards of that collaboration and then be able to contribute to the further development of a service designed by the sector, for the sector.


This posting was based on presentations from Simon Marsden (University of Edinburgh) and Alex Carter (UniDesk Partnership) at the UCISA Support Services Conference (registration required to access the presentations). The posting is replicated on the UCISA blog site.



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