08 October 2018

Reflections on the 2018 Software Licensing and Asset Management conference (SLAM)

Recently I was funded through a Queensland University Libraries Office of Cooperation (QULOC) Professional Development Scholarship to attend the Software Licensing and Asset Management conference (SLAM). I am very grateful to QULOC for this opportunity.

This annual event is organised by the University Software Licensing Community, a community of practice under the banner of the Council of Australasian Directors of IT (CAUDIT).The 2018 event in Brisbane attracted around 50 attendees, including procurement specialists from CAUDIT, delegates from universities (from areas including IT, finance/procurement, risk and audit) and vendor representatives.

The varied program included keynotes relating to strategic trends such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity; case studies from CAUDIT member organisations of innovative approaches to software asset management and licensing; and vendor/sponsor negotiation updates and product showcase.

Why I attended

I’m responsible for managing my library’s portfolio of software applications, and there are significant licensing costs associated with this. Over the past three years, my team has conducted a rolling series of service reviews to ensure we are making the most of our systems, and I have more actively negotiated with vendors to try to achieve containment of costs in this area.

I wanted to further explore the methods and practices used by other professionals in the higher education sector. In applying to QULOC for funding, I said in my application:

University libraries benefit significantly from collaborative approaches to procurement of library resources, but we do not commonly apply similar approaches to software licensing. While the CEIRC (CAUL Electronic Information Resources Consortium) Terms of Reference do not preclude discussion of technical infrastructure, in practice the focus is strongly on information resources. As CAUL Statistics bundle technology costs with other operational costs, there is a lack of even basic information about software spend in libraries across the sector, however this should be estimated at a minimum of $10M and may be much higher. Consortial models for library resource purchasing may not transfer directly to software, but there is little professional discourse about what other collaborative approaches could be taken. Becoming more aware of best practice in this area would enable me to better take advantage of the expertise located elsewhere in my own organisation and also to promote different ways of doing things through my professional networks, including the new CAUDIT Library IT Community of Practice that I recently established. 
I will be reporting back to QULOC with a written report and in a webinar to be held in about a month (stay tuned for details). In the meantime here are a few key takeaways.

Takeaway 1: There are many similarities in the roles, organisational contexts, and issues faced by library staff and our counterparts managing software assets. 

Both groups:
  • provide resources/tools to staff and students that are essential to support the core business of universities in education, research and administration
  • are perceived as being cost centres and must increasingly communicate the value they provide to senior stakeholders and demonstrate alignment with strategic agendas
  • must ensure compliance with law and contractual obligations, in environments where users have ready access to “shadow” channels that provide quicker and easier solutions than official channels
  • manage portfolios of information assets with complex access management requirements for different cohorts (e.g. alumni, adjunct academic staff, industry affiliates), and 
  • deal with similar market conditions and vendor practices, including sole- and limited-supplier procurement, unsustainable pricing, and deliberately opaque licensing terms and conditions.
Given these similarities it would make sense for library staff who procure and manage software and resources to expand their informal networks to include software licensing colleagues, and to be aware of and contribute to best practice across their organisation as a whole.

Takeaway 2: Usage statistics for software, just as for e-resources, can be used to drive decision-making, inform negotiations with vendors, and contain costs. 

SLAM introduced me to the concept of licence optimisation through some interesting case studies.

On returning to work, I checked with my team on concurrent licence usage data for one of our bigger applications. This identified possible cost savings that could be achieved through licence reduction and configuration changes (e.g. by reducing the length of timeouts).

Unfortunately the terms of the three-year contract we have entered into for that product favour the vendor and will probably not allow us to achieve these savings. However, I will now be more aware for future renewals and new contracts of the need to negotiate an annual change in licence numbers as our business needs change (“true-up / true-down” in the language of the software licensing specialists – yes, they have their own jargon too!).

Takeaway 3: In other areas, vendors are being challenged to justify the value of “support and maintenance” costs on top of software licensing. 

A number of SLAM participants were critical of the value for money provided by annual agreements for software maintenance and support.

I am keen to find out from our software licensing support team what alternative models are being explored for non-library software. We already have one supplier who operates under a pay-as-you-go support credits arrangement that provides total transparency about the time and cost for each support ticket. It would be interesting to see how prevalent this model is and whether this could be rolled out with other library vendors.

I am not optimistic this would be possible in the short term. I imagine our vendors will be reluctant to give up one of their biggest cash cows. It is definitely something to feed into future procurement processes and renewal negotiations though. ​

Takeaway 4: There are untapped opportunities for libraries to collaborate on software procurement and licensing, but new structures and skills are needed to progress these. 

While strategic procurement was not as much of a focus at SLAM as I had hoped, I nevertheless gained a new appreciation for the level of cooperation amongst universities in purchasing all kinds of software to support education, teaching and university administration.

As the next two to three years will (hopefully) involve some important shifts in the library systems market, the time is right for university libraries to develop medium-term technology roadmaps and to start collective considering how procurement processes could reduce costs (including the burden of large-scale tender processes), increase transparency, and open up new forms of collaboration (including shared systems, an approach taken in other jurisdictions including Wales, the US and Hong Kong).

As mentioned above there is currently a lack of basic information about how much Australian university libraries are collectively spending on software. One recommendation I will make in my report to QULOC is for the QULOC ICT Working Group annual survey of library systems to incorporate some new questions (carefully worded to ensure commercial-in-confidence agreements are not breached) to provide the community with some baseline data to support further work in this area. 

The event provided an opportunity to reflect on the enduring value of previous training I have been supported to undertake (in particular, the CAUL Negotiation and Influencing Skills workshop, which I have highly recommended before) and to consider building on this with more professional development focused on procurement skills. 

Attending this event also reinforced my commitment to the concept of a Library IT Community of Practice operating outside of the vendor-driven user groups for major products. While there are also connections that need to be made with CAUL programs, CAUDIT structures usefully facilitate cross-pollination with other technology-focused communities of practice, not just in software licensing but also in areas such as IT security, enterprise architecture and project management.