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CIO interview: Laura Dawson, CIO, London School of Economics

LSE’s CIO talks about focusing on team development, her vision of creating a connected network of technologists, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic

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Experienced IT leader Laura Dawson looks back on her broad portfolio of roles across a wide range of organisations and gives a concise summary: “I’ve done children, animals, world peace – and now I’m on to education.”

Dawson joined the London School of Economics (LSE) as director of data and technology services in November 2017. Having formerly held senior IT roles at the British Council, Save the Children UK and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Dawson was approached about joining the LSE. The role and the organisation appealed for a number of reasons.

She has a strong belief that education is one of the key mitigations for a lot of the issues around the world and was keen to contribute to a sector that can make a big difference. Second, she describes LSE as a “very forward-looking university” – its status as a top UK research institution was a big attraction.

Finally, Dawson says the key element that drew her to the organisation was the chemistry with her boss, chief operating officer (COO) Andrew Young.

“That’s a rare and very helpful thing,” she says. “If you feel that, together, you and the person you work for, and the people who work for you, are going to make a big difference, then that’s a really attractive draw.” 

A more recent conversation with Young led to Dawson assuming the CIO role in September 2020. The change in title reflected how her position had begun to take a strategic focus, with her team as the focal point of the digital transformation she is helping to drive.

“It was a recognition that we’d got ourselves into a new position,” she says. “We’d moved from being a front-of-house, operationally focused organisation to a more strategic role. That’s why we made that change.”

“You want to make whatever changes you’ve made as sticky as possible”

Laura Dawson, LSE

Dawson says her focus on team development is her key achievement since joining the LSE. “When I arrived – and this is incredibly common – the team had a very defensive posture in terms of how they engaged with the rest of the organisation,” she says.

That defensiveness meant there was no joined-up approach between IT and the business, and tech staff felt beleaguered, says Dawson. The past three years have involved a transformation, with in-house people feeling a greater sense of fulfilment and enjoyment.

“I genuinely believe that when you take a leadership role and you have a team beneath you, you have to make them feel chosen by you,” she says. “You have to go through something that will make the people who directly report to you feel that you have not just been imposed on them, but you have chosen them – and that you are a team. And we’ve done that.” 

Dawson’s second big achievement has involved changing the LSE’s attitude towards the IT team. Cross-business surgeries revealed that people around the organisation were critical of the technology department’s work. Now the interaction is very different – there is mutual respect. 

“That was to do with lockdown,” she says. “Covid-19 has changed how people view technology, but it was on the way anyway – and we were seeing a very big improvement in the relationship between front-line services and the rest of the academia. That comes down to being able to get talent and nurture talent in those teams. It’s made a huge difference.”

Delivering better systems and services

Dawson says her third big achievement since joining the LSE has been creating a strategic view of what needs to change in terms of technology. In 2019, she put together the five pillars of this strategy, which are the platform for how her team has looked to change IT delivery at the school. 

“We got agreement from our external counsel, the school management committee, and from within the team itself and with our stakeholders, that these were the five things that we needed to do and to deliver – and we’ve been doing that,” she says.

The five pillars are catching up on technical debt, identity management, integration, data standards and collaboration. The coronavirus pandemic has had some impact on delivery, yet in other areas, such as collaboration and the provision of cloud-based services, the need to transform quickly because of social-distancing requirements has provided “a shot in the arm”, she says.

“We were going to do a very gentle roll-out of Microsoft Teams,” says Dawson. “Now everybody’s using it. But there is still a lot of work to do on collaboration, particularly around access to information and sharing records.”

Putting theory into practice

Dawson says her aim now is to professionalise the IT service, both in terms of people and systems. When it comes to internal talent, she is keen to ensure that the knowledge created through staff development processes is retained within the organisation.

“You want to make whatever changes you’ve made as sticky as possible,” she says. “So when I move on, or somebody else moves on, the knowledge stays in place. We want to ensure we’ve got the processes and procedures in place to make that happen.”

Dawson says professionalism also extends to what might once have been called shadow IT, where people in different functional lines introduce their own business systems. Dawson thinks “shadow IT” has negative connotations and would be more helpfully known as devolved IT.

“Devolution can be a really big advantage for an organisation,” she says. “It can allow for a degree of operating at pace and for greater ownership at the local level. So part of the professionalising of the service is about being really clear on the responsibilities of those devolved teams and the central technology team, and how those relationships work.” 

Dawson says professionalisation involves introducing something she calls practice management. While IT staff are controlled through line management and third parties have contract management, devolved technology users have no such rules. Practice management is an attempt to introduce these guidelines, she says. 

“That’s a priority for me – it’s a personal mission,” says Dawson. “It will allow us to set the standards for how technology should be delivered, hold people to account to a degree for that, but also give them the skills and capabilities they need to be able to use systems and services.”

Digitising paper-based processes

Another big priority in the next couple of years will be course selection and timetabling systems. “The pandemic has really exposed some of our student-facing systems as requiring too much manual intervention,” says Dawson. “We want to fix what we’ve got – because it was OK during 2020, but it was also a bit painful.” 

When academics think about the programmes of education they want to put together right now, the process is paper-based, with forms sent between staff and departments to check individual courses work as part of a wider environment. The long-term aim is to digitise the process, says Dawson. 

“I would love to have a situation where academics can look at the design of their programme, model it online, see the impact their programme is going to have on the whole kind of education suite we’ve got, and get a lot more information about the design of their programme before they submit it,” she says. 

“If we can create those kinds of environments, we are effectively forecasting the impact of their programmes, and that’s going to make the whole process a lot smoother. I want to take our ambition away from just course selection and timetabling towards the design of the whole academic environment.” 

Dawson’s long-term vision is to create a connected network of technologists across the school. She wants her team to develop and enjoy their work – and when they move on, she wants them to feel like they’re ready to grow and that the LSE has benefited from their input.

“When people leave, you’ve given them that stepping stone to do it – and that’s what I want to do with the technology team I’ve got here,” she says. “As a university, we’re not going to be able to compete with the banks on salaries, but we can compete on creating fantastically professional individuals because they’ve learned the craft here.”

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Dawson recognises that professional development is no longer just about honing your technical craft. Analyst Gartner suggests the most in-demand leadership skills now and for the next 10 years are soft skills. For Dawson, development is about creating rounded business technologists. 

“So you’ve got the business acumen, you understand all those business skills, you’ve got the soft skills, you know how to communicate with people, and you can look someone in the eye and have a good conversation,” she says. “In two years’ time, I’d like it to be the case that we’re happy that people might only have been with us for three or four years because they’ve gone off and they’ve got a fantastic job somewhere else.”

During that timeframe, Dawson says she hopes the team around her will help her to solve some of the challenges surrounding timetabling and course selection systems, which she says is quite a niche area, with limited third-party expertise, involving quite a lot of work around “What are we going to do about that?” and “How are we going to deal with that?”.

Dawson expects the cloud-based technology Salesforce, which is one of the LSE’s strategic platforms, to play a key role. Her department also recently received funding to start work on identity management systems, which she says is a significant piece of work in terms of both policy and design.

Across all these areas, the key will be to ensure there is a use case for the LSE. “It’s all about working on the most cost-effective way of achieving our business objectives,” says Dawson.

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