As tuition fees increase significantly in further education, the Open University (OU) is looking to technology to improve performance and cost-effectiveness, and attract more students.
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Former Directgov CTO David Matthewman was headhunted for the chief information officer post in August 2010, with a brief to revamp OU's IT and business processes to cope with the changes in education.
According to the OU's new CIO, a flexible technology set-up is essential to keep up with developments in the sector.
"My key objective is to make sure the business partners here have the flexibility needed to be able to change processes very rapidly to gain new markets and maintain their share in existing areas," Matthewman told Computer Weekly.
"At the same time, I'm looking at maximising spend on value-enhancing work, doing less 'keeping the lights on' type of work and focusing on what is going to make a difference in the experience students get and allow us to get more business."
Keeping an eye on the budget
According to Matthewman, controlling spend on commodity items is one of the key lessons he learnt in his previous job in the public sector. He will be applying that lesson at OU, where IT spending is £18.5m a year, around 4% of the university's total budget.
The CIO wants to reduce spending, but there will still be investments in new projects in the next two years. While the budget will sit at roughly the same level, the intention is to adopt a "relentless focus on value".
"First, we are making sure that we are spending our resource on the right things, so we have instituted new governance processes to look very closely at all of our IT and will ensure the best value for money," said Matthewman.
"The second point is to be certain that we are doing those projects in the right way. We are investing money, time and effort to improve the maturity levels [of IT] and bringing in the right methodologies in order to do that.
"The third key area is to look at all of our IT suppliers and contracts to ensure they are fit for purpose in terms of service level agreements but also that any new contracts deliver value from day one and create a flexible cost base for us."
A review year ahead
A thorough evaluation intended to achieve the goals of optimum performance and spending in IT should take the majority of 2011, and a consultancy is due to be chosen to help the OU in the process. Execution of the plan will commence in early 2012 and should take around two years to complete.
The plan involves the scrutiny of core systems such as student management, curriculum planning, systems underpinning postgraduate research, as well as human resources, which are mostly bespoke and based on open-source software.
"We will commoditise where we possibly can," explained Matthewman. "We are looking at the total cost of ownership, if the systems are still appropriate for the future and whether it is best to buy off the shelf.
"We want to look at how we buy systems too, whether it is best to host them ourselves or in a private cloud, as well as whether we want to make capital investments or move to a model that flexes with the size of the organisation and its student base.
"There are parts of IT that are very important to us, such as the contact centre that deals with the students and the internet journey that allows students to sign up for courses - we would want to hold those closer to us, but there are other things that can be done outside."
Possible candidates include the OU's in-house personal loans system and processes, which could be replaced by a package or maybe even handed over to a third party such as a business process outsourcing (BPO) partner.
"If we are not adding value in terms of hosting or upgrading a system, we should consider if another organisation could do it for us more cheaply or if we should move to a cloud-based model, obviously considering all service and security aspects very carefully," said Matthewman.
The show goes on
While the OU IT review is far from complete, some priority projects are still going ahead. For example, the OU started a trial with Google last year, which will lead to the internal e-mail system offered to more than 180,000 students being almost completely replaced by a cloud-based alternative during 2011.
Further improvements to the student-facing offering are also ongoing, with improvements to the university's multimedia learning tools for both paid and free courses. Currently, the OU contributes material to educational resources site iTunesU, with over 20 million downloads so far.
A software migration for staff users is also under way, with Windows 7 and Office 2010 replacing XP and a mix of Office 2003 and 2007. Also for internal users, the OU is looking at improving integration between PCs and its Mac population of more than 700 devices.
Ongoing work includes further virtualisation in the university's two primary datacentres, which are based in Milton Keynes. The idea is to consolidate the server estate as much as possible.
The OU has 310 physical servers, 24 of which are "container units" that are part of VMware farms. These units host around 350 virtual servers of various sizes, used for various purposes.
A reshuffle in the firms currently supplying kit and software - HP is the OU's main vendor for hardware - could happen after the review is complete as the university seeks more value for money. The business case for IT also encompasses the impact of the datacentre in terms of carbon emissions.
Improvements in the organisation
As part of a more disciplined approach to market methodologies, Matthewman will be introducing a more prolific use of agile and scrum development, as well as service management standards such as ITIL.
"While our systems have been pretty well put together, they are not currently using modern methodologies," said Matthewman. "There is some inherent value in bringing in some of these approaches, which will be much more productive in terms of delivery."
Matthewman is also looking to improve the capability of the university's IT department of 250 staff, with a mix of external training and also courses provided by the OU to staff for free.
"There will definitely be some [staff] reorganisation," he said. "I inherited a team where most of the executive level in IT had recently retired, so we are filling those gaps. What we also want to do is to move people who are focused on day-to-day administration tasks to something that will move the business forward.
"We will tend to have fewer operational staff and more people doing business projects. But for the foreseeable future, we see staff levels remaining reasonably similar to where they are at present."
The CIO added that he was keen to bring in succession planning and carry out skills audits to gain an insight into the impact of the retiring staff. The OU is also looking to bring in fresh talent through a revitalised graduate trainee scheme.
Matthewman said he considered himself lucky to be able to draw on the technology expertise of the OU academic staff, with whom he works closely to share experiences about the market and to inform the course curricula.
"I am very privileged to able to call upon the expertise of my colleagues in academia in areas like agile, security, open source software, semantic web and a whole range of topics they are doing research on to help shape the IT projects we will be leading, which is fantastic," he said.
The proximity with the academic community had helped with getting up to speed with the business objectives, said the CIO, adding that one of his main challenges was keeping one step ahead of trends while keeping the show on the road.
Matthewman will still have some significant work to do in the next few years, but reckons that some of the changes introduced during his first six months on the job can already be noticed.
"We now have a much more engaged IT team and the communication processes are flowing," said the CIO. "My team is more informed about the work we are doing and the value that we are delivering to our business and partners, as well as the challenge ahead.
"There is still a lot to do, but I think people now have a much better sense of where IT is today and the importance of the work we are doing. IT has a voice at the top table and that will enable us to deliver what is needed to support the future and ensure our continued success."