CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, CIO, Wellcome Trust

Mark Bramwell, CIO of the UK's largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, talks about the trust's ambitious IT investment plans.

Mark Bramwell, CIO of the UK's largest medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, talks to Computer Weekly about the trust's ambitious investment plans and why IT must be an equal business partner for organisations to be successful.

Bramwell is a quarter of the way into the trust’s five-year IT strategy, having just completed the previous strategy he started in 2008, after joining the Wellcome Trust. Bramwell had previously worked in retail for 16 years, including in senior IT positions at retailer WHSmith.

The infrastructural changes underway include a network upgrade which will be completed in May; a refresh of its storage platforms and Windows 7 upgrade, the first stage of which will be complete by Christmas; and the conclusion of the trust’s three-year virtualisation programme, which will see 90% of physical servers go virtual.

As part of its open access and engagement policy, the Wellcome trust is also digitising every book in its library. “This will be the largest medical library in the world, which will be open and totally free,” he says. The trust is unable to name the partners that it is working with at this stage. “It’s still very embryonic – we have the pilot and proof of concept up and running, but don’t have a web presence at the moment. We should have the first portal in place by September,” he says.

“We are replacing every piece of the fundamental IT infrastructure, in addition to the day-to-day job of keeping the lights on,” Bramwell says. “It’s a very large and ambitious agenda. But our track record has always been good.”

Adapting to consumerisation is key to Bramwell’s new strategy. “Working in the technology sector there’s always going to be change. “The big agenda is consumerisation – it’s CIOs who are in the best place to recognise that and not resist it. Staff will use their own devices, whether we like it or not.”

Bramwell is half way through deploying an environment for the secure use of staff devices, with the trust already allowing people to access e-mail securely via their own devices. He hopes the trust will get device-agnostic connectivity by June this year, which will enable staff to connect to the network with their own devices and access almost any application.

The main benefits are staff motivation and productivity, he says. “Giving people their own devices enables them to work in their prefered ways and become more available beyond the regular nine-to-five hours.”

Bramwell contests the view that an increasing emphasis on project delivery is placing undue demands on CIOs, as his team delivered a total of 46 projects last year: “The job is to deliver promises on time and budget. I don’t think there’s any rocket science there.” Project difficulties do not arise from the technology part, but due to management issues and a lack of business understanding, he says.

“We go through a rigorous prioritisation activity every year to ensure the development agenda is business-owned rather than IT-owned, which includes making sure there is no departmental favouritism and that we get the biggest bang for our buck.”

Strategic plans

A move away from bespoke products toward commodity IT is central to Bramwell’s  architecture strategy. “We are now looking at more of a commodity approach, by using things that are packaged, off the shelf, and not involving product lock-ins. IT solutions are becoming more commodity-based and disposable and we have to be more aware of that in our buying solutions.”

For a global organisation, effective communication tools are also crucial. Collaboration tools are essential to communicating due to the diversity of locations. It is already using video conferencing and SharePoint and is looking into using Microsoft Office 365 to provide better connectivity.

 “We are enabling the workplace, with the right tools to do the job in office and on the road, which includes global locations such as major operations in Africa and India where mobility and communications provide challenges. For example, the 5-12 Kb dial-up speeds in Kenya mean that video conferencing, collaboration and Software as a Service (SaaS) are not always a great experience there. So we are looking at solutions, whether that’s through satellite connectivity or condensed encrypted video tools such as Polycom.”

Cloud plans are present in the strategy, but not central to it. “Cloud is one of the big things at the moment, but for us it’s not new as we’ve been using  SaaS for up to three years for service desk systems, and we use SaaS software for our IP and contract management  applications.” The trust will use more cloud services but they will be considered on application-by-application basis, he says.

All of these strand s will be delivered with the head count remaining flat at 42. The trust is supported by a number of outsourced partners, which provide infrastructure support, network support strategy and development.  The onsite team’s job involves service desk customisation, desktop support, and a server infrastructure team who look after day-to-day physical server infrastructure.

But staying innovative in a small team can be a challenge, he says.  “The question is how can we create headroom to keep eyes on the horizon so we can see change? At the moment I rely on a network of contacts and strategy partners on getting regular updates, and the CIO network and peers,” he says.

As part his IT efficiency drive, Bramwell appointed an IT procurement officer to manage contract renegotiations. “We have reduced operational costs by 16%, which totals around £1.9m over two years. That’s through better contract management and discipline. At the moment we are in a position where we have just one vendor with a lock-in that we’re tied in to, whereas previously we had several more, around bespoke legacy solutions.”

The IT budget is £11m per annum, which is split between operational costs of £4.3m, development costs of £4.5m and support and maintenance costs that run to around £1.5m.

 “As we came up for refresh, it was a conscious decision to move to more formal, structured agreements, which are very much performance-related with penalties and exit clauses if they are not up to standard. We’ve brought in solutions that ensure we can change from if we need to. That sounds harsh but it sets a good basis for the supplier relationship as it means we are clear about what good performance looks like and we’re all starting on the same page.”

But despite his emphasis on cost reduction, Bramwell is adamant that strategic IT investments are crucial to growth. “It’s easy to become risk-averse, and not make decisions that will drive the business forward. At a corporate and technical level, the Wellcome Trust really believes in technology investment. And in these tough times it’s business and technology innovations which are driving organisations forward and giving them the advantage,” Bramwell says.

Although the IT strategy is over five years, changes must always be factored in, he adds. “We can’t predict what technology will look like next year. The only thing fixed is what we will deliver this year. And at the the end of 12 months, I’ll be revisiting it and undoubtedly re-writing it."

More than three years into his role, Bramwell says he has no current plans to move back to retail. “I don’t plan to return to retail, I’ll always look at it as an opportunity having done 16 year, with the current challenges on the high street I feel I’ve done my time. The experience  taught me invaluable lessons in terms of customer focus, creating a total cost of ownership and delivering on promises.”


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