CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, head of IT, Wellcome Trust

The world’s largest medical charity is shifting its technology focus to improving ways of working

Seven years since joining the Wellcome Trust as head of IT, Mark Bramwell can say he has put the house in order as the world’s largest medical charity shifts its technology focus to improving ways of working.

Over the past two and a half years, Bramwell has been busy with his third IT strategy, which included large infrastructure changes carried out with key suppliers Dell, HP and Selection Services, including a total replacement of the storage setup, an upgrade of the Trust’s disaster recovery centre, as well as the virtualisation of 99% of the charity’s servers.

This was followed by a year of higher-visibility initiatives such as an upgrade to Windows 7 and the replacement of all smartphones and tablets provided by the Trust – every other staff member has a business-supplied device. The current strategy is due to end in August.

“I think the challenges [of the current strategy] were the very large infrastructure projects over the first 12 to 18 months. It was very much about putting in a lot of infrastructure changes and now we have a really good foundation,” Bramwell says.

“That was not something that a member of the staff could sit at their computer and say ‘that makes a big difference for me’ – but it is vitally important. So over the past 12 months, we have focused on more visible changes.”

The new strategy, still pending approval of the executive board, was based on a thorough investigation, which involved interviews with members of the executive board, as well as all heads of department to establish what their priorities are now the foundations are in place. This process resulted in a draft plan, with three core areas of focus.

Improving ways of working

According to Bramwell, the new IT strategy at Wellcome Trust will focus on improving ways of working to respond to business needs, building on the pillars of collaboration, data accessibility from any device at any time and security.

Bramwell’s approach is that the organisation will provide a “proportionate level of security” and at the same time, adopt a culture where members of staff are accountable for their own data.

“We will provide the tools to support data security – for example, we might provide data classification tools with different levels of access – but if someone has something that is confidential, it just does not leave this building,” he says.

To support that vision, Bramwell’s draft strategy foresees a roll-out of Office 365 with Lync and SharePoint, as well as evolving the charity’s business intelligence setup and a data classification tool for added security. For the latter, he has been looking into alternatives such as Titus.

Another important upcoming project is the implementation of a grants application system, which is the Trust’s core platform, handling £700m in grant applications and funding each year. This will be an off-the-shelf software package provided by a specialist vendor. Bramwell expects the system, which will replace a bespoke platform, will not have a great deal of customisation, and will be up and running in 2015.

Building a department for the future

Part of the new strategy will also include looking at the skills the Trust needs within the IT department to deliver on the plan.

“It is going to be very much about providing a support core – because if the main systems are not available, the whole credibility of IT is damaged. But it is going to be much about more business enablement, with more conversations, system exploitation and thought leadership,” Bramwell says.

“We need to try to answer fairly crucial questions: how can we collaborate better without jumping into solutions before understanding them? What do we mean by collaboration – do we mean connecting communities, sharing information or video conferencing? What is the opportunity, challenge or issue we are trying to resolve?” he adds.

“What we need to do is look at our IT teams and adapt to this changing landscape – you need relationship builders, business development managers, people who understand what is driving the business and what the opportunity is, and then overlay technology to support and exploit that.”

Strengthening IT’s reputation

One of Bramwell’s main challenges when joining the Wellcome Trust from retailer WH Smith was the reputation of IT in the business. Seven years later, he can report that old perceptions have been successfully changed.

“We’ve moved on significantly from that and now have really solid foundations for service delivery,” he says.

The challenge is how we build delivery solutions – better, faster and more efficiently, and in terms of providing thought leadership for the business around technology

Mark Bramwell, Wellcome Trust

“I think the challenge we have now is that we’re seen as a very credible IT department that delivers day-to-day service – with availability 99.99% of every month. Our customers’ satisfaction scores are 98% or more every month and 98% of business users rate our services excellent or consistently good,” he adds.

“But that is not enough now and providing those services is a given, so the challenge is how we build delivery solutions – better, faster and more efficiently, and in terms of providing thought leadership for the business around technology.”

A key aspect of this new style of IT service delivery is anticipating user needs. Bramwell cites the Microsoft release of Office for iPad as an example where his team was ahead of the curve and could immediately provide a response.

“The expectation is that even though we should be ready as soon as an announcement like that was made, sometimes there’s an oversimplification around IT and [a lack of] understanding of how it works – so we can help by providing the leadership in terms of informing and educating people without being simply negative and disabling stuff,” says Bramwell.

“It’s very easy for us to see that in IT – the kind of attitude, ‘that’s going to be difficult, that’s going to be expensive’. We need to adjust our behaviour in terms of being more driven by opportunity and possibility, rather than offering reasons why we can’t do things,” he adds.

“The whole new strategy we’re looking at is very much building on those levels of services that we’ve created and have been running for three years now. We must think about how can we be more agile, flexible and creative in delivering solutions; this brings us challenges as well as opportunities, since the Trust is very diverse and what we need across our divisions is very different to the public engagement.”

Looking ahead

With a future-proof infrastructure that will support the Trust’s needs for the years to come, Bramwell’s next challenges will be a lot less technical and much more related to soft skills as the charity’s executive board undergoes changes and the head of IT need to get support for his future plans.

“The main thing will be to remain aligned with the business and ensure that the strategic development is properly supported by IT. The new strategy will probably bring a huge amount of change, it’s things we didn’t do in our current strategy – but not because we couldn’t deliver technology, but because it’s a huge amount of change for the business resources to absorb at a single time.”

Bramwell says he has worked hard to keep ahead of the game, but admits there is a fine line between being perceived as a “reactive IT department” that is traditionally only associated to things going wrong and a department that is effectively part of the business – as opposed to only being a service function. The way to retain that positive image, he says, is educating and communicating the successes.

“Focusing on negative aspects is part of human nature, but it’s incredibly important for the team and the organisation to recognise that the vast majority of staff are working really well. At the same time, we must think of what we can learn from what didn’t go so well. Can we avoid it? Can we make it better for the next month? It’s all about striking a balance.”

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