CIO interview: Sarah Winmill, IT director, Victoria & Albert Museum

As the coalition government moves to drastically reduce costs, it is not only civil servants who are waiting to find out the impact on spending.

As the coalition government moves to drastically reduce costs, it is not only civil servants who are waiting to find out the impact on spending.

The Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum receives about 60% of its funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and for IT director Sarah Winmill, the big challenge will be taking more cost out of her budget and motivating staff in an austere climate.

All bodies funded by DCMS will have their grants cut by 3% this financial year. As a non-departmental body, the V&A has other backers, but the overall cuts are expected to hit the museum's already tiny IT budget of about £1m.

According to Winmill, her department's budget has gone down every year for the past decade, making it increasingly difficult to deliver projects, even though innovations such as virtualisation have helped reduce operational IT spend by 20% in the past four years.

"I don't think it takes a genius to recognise [the DCMS] won't be cutting too much out of the Olympics, which means museums and galleries are anxious to see what happens to our funding," she said.

"So we will be looking to continue to deliver an incredibly diverse portfolio of services under increasingly limited funding."


Over the past three-and-a-half years, Winmill's team has concentrated on revamping the IT supporting the organisation, and the project is expected to be completed before Christmas.

The V&A suffered from "over diversity" of applications, and the initiative sought to consolidate and upgrade the museum's desktop and server systems as well as the storage set-up.

"We had a terrifying mix of PCs between four and eight years old and no change control. Server infrastructure was at best diverse - you name it, we had it - so it was a bit like the Wild West," said Winmill.

"Databases were creaking and things were looking grim, so we went through a period of systematically improving the infrastructure into something that was fit for purpose.

"We now have a new desktop environment and have implemented change control, as well as a storage server architecture which is fully virtualised, and we moved all services into that. By the end of the year we will have put the final touches through and the old set-up will be switched off."

The V&A is now moving onto the next theme of the IT transformation plan, which is about business improvement.

"[The IT revamp] has been an enabler for us to move on to the next level of maturity. We could not have entertained running the entire business on an infrastructure where the network was a bit flaky two days a week," said Winmill.

Upcoming projects

The project delivery agenda at the V&A over the next 12 months will see Winmill's team working with the rest of the business to implement the workflow for its collections management system.

Currently, the museum manages a collections information system, which contains detailed curatorial information about five million objects on exhibition in the UK and abroad. This is done in multiple formats, including paper and spreadsheets that have been in place for years.

The aim is to update the current set-up with a system that will enable V&A to manage the catalogue and the workflow around it, with significant administrative savings.

The next few months will also see further improvements to the website, which hosts more than 200,000 print-quality images - something that would have been impossible to deliver on the previous infrastructure, according to Winmill.

"We have had an online presence for quite some time, but the new interface and search capabilities that were introduced by the web team last year meant the website is already so efficient that our staff use that instead of the internal systems," she said.

The V&A uses Novell GroupWise as its e-mail platform and a possible review is on the cards, but Winmill said there are issues to consider before changing, including data protection and central government developments such as the G-Cloud cloud computing project.

"I do not see an absolute answer for [the ideal e-mail solution]. It is not a no-brainer like voice over IP was five or six years ago. I do not think we reached that stage with e-mail," said Winmill.

Reducing budgets further

If funding becomes really tough at the V&A, "some really interesting conversations" will be had around the future of desktop operating systems and hardware.

"I am not due to look at my hardware for another 18 months, but depending on how things go during that period, I might be looking at keeping what I have or even replace it with netbooks or desktop virtualisation," said Winmill.

"However, the market is so disruptive and moving so quickly that it is too early for us to look into options. Trying to have a discussion now for something you are not due to look at for another year is almost too difficult."

Other cost-saving measures will be around the review of support contracts and possibly reducing the amount of days services are provided, as well as extending the use of open source software and the elimination of personal printers.

"If an IT director took personal printers away three years ago, they would get a bit of a squirm, but today people understand it will save money," said Winmill.

"There has been a general belief across organisations that people should have their own phone and printer and I think that is something from the past. People are increasingly recognising these things are overheads for the organisation and that is a paradigm shift that is happening in many places."

Collaboration is something that Winmill is very passionate about - she is a chair of the Charities Consortium IT Directors Group, which seeks to instil co-operation across the charities sector.

"The desire to share ideas is something that I recognise and value. When we work with other charities, there are no competitive issues or the fear of judgement you would see in commercial organisations, we want to help each other for the greater good," she said.

With all the difficulties ahead as funding dwindles, Winmill said there were still opportunities to do more with IT at the V&A, but accepted that motivating staff in hard times would be the most testing aspect of her job.

"We can do the technology, but I think that the hardest bit is making sure that it meets that needs of the organisation and that the people who are doing it maintain their interest and motivation," she said.

"There are so many news stories around and so much uncertainty - we all know that we fall under the Civil Service pay freeze and we will not get pay increases for the next two years while our living expenses will continue to go up, so maintaining the enthusiasm of the team will be my biggest challenge."

• The Charities Consortium IT Directors Group annual conference will take place between on 13-15 October. This year's theme is "Collaborate or Perish". Click here for more information.

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