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CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, CIO, Saïd Business School

After seven years in the job, there are still fresh challenges for the IT leader, including a second digital strategy to deliver

Mark Bramwell recently passed the seven-year mark as CIO at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Having previously held long-term senior positions with Wellcome Trust and WH Smith, Bramwell certainly likes to get his teeth into a technology leadership role. What’s more, he tells Computer Weekly there’s still lots for him and his team to achieve.

“It’s a crazy industry and sector to work in, given my diverse background, but that’s what makes it exciting,” he says. “The University of Oxford is a wonderful place to work. But I also love working in technology and transformational change.”

Bramwell says his roles and responsibilities have changed regularly during his seven years at Saïd. He says the variety comes from the ongoing challenges of pushing digital transformation in the education sector, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. The key message, he says, is that you have to be ready for the unexpected.

“That’s a natural part of the role of any CIO,” says Bramwell. “You’ve got to be flexible, adaptable and you’ve got to change. You’re a change leader, so if you’re not comfortable with change yourself, then you’re probably not in the right role.”

From setting up home working to establishing remote-learning capabilities, Bramwell’s team faced a barrage of requirements when the first lockdown came into force in early 2020. The good news, he says, is that his IT team – and the technology they had already put in place – was ready to help overcome the challenges facing the institution and its students.

“We were very fortunate,” he says. “It tangibly demonstrated the value of investing in IT. Many organisations were the same, but we were prepared and could pivot really quickly because all the core infrastructure was there to support remote working, home working, remote connectivity and remote teaching.”

“You’re a change leader, so if you’re not comfortable with change yourself, then you’re probably not in the right role”

Mark Bramwell, Saïd Business School

Bramwell says the technology strategy leading up to Covid had focused on moving 100% to the cloud and making the most of software as a service. Saïd had already invested in Zoom, Microsoft 365 and Oxford Hive, which is an immersive virtual meeting and presentation experience that can be used by more than 80 participants simultaneously.

The institution also used content platforms Canvas and Moodle and third-party partners, such as GetSmarter, to deliver personalised content to students.

“We had all the building blocks in place,” he says. “Our effort was centred around supporting the training and education and exploitation of the technology, rather reinvesting in new tools.

“So we were fortunate, but I think it actually helped magnify to the executive board what our technology investment has been for and the difference it’s made. As an organisation, they really understood why technology was important during the Covid pandemic and, like many organisations, I think that brought a new-found level of respect and understanding for IT.”

Providing new learning experiences

Bramwell’s positive sentiments show how remote learning has come of age over the past two years. Often considered hopelessly inferior to face-to-teaching, the provision of online education matured rapidly as cloud-enabled lessons filled the gap left by lockdown regulations. Now it has established a role, the heavy use of technology is likely to continue.

While students have returned to the classroom at Saïd in record numbers this year, technology makes it much easier to reach an increasingly global audience. Bramwell says a high-quality experience means providing great content to all students, whether they are returning to the classroom, continuing to learn online or doing a bit of both.

“I think we will continue to provide the balance of all three,” he says. “There will always be a need for open programmes, where students are taught fully online. And that is certainly true for the short term, because of the new ways of flexible working that we are not going to revert back from.”

To meet this demand, Saïd continues to hone its virtual-learning approach. As well as its continuing commitment to cloud-based video-conferencing, the institution is also exploring how it might use facial recognition to automatically analyse elements related to student participation and engagement, such as emotional intelligence and empathy.

“There is a technological angle, an academic angle and an experiential angle,” says Bramwell. “We’re now moving towards what you might call a 24/7 learning model. Technically, online learning for us is about providing a portfolio of applications and solutions that are most appropriate for the individual, the client and the organisation.”

Creating a strategy for change

Bramwell says the post-Covid age presents an opportunity to focus on some new areas. He is now into his second digital strategy since becoming CIO at Saïd.

“That’s pleasing in itself,” he says. “I take personal pride in the fact that the board gave me an opportunity to write a second one, so I took that as a big vote of confidence.”

One of the preparatory steps for this new strategy has been to review the shape and size and the roles, responsibilities and capabilities of teams delivering the institution’s digital systems and services. Bramwell says that is an increasingly critical task for all CIOs. In fact, it’s almost a constant work in progress.

“Being in a change role, it is important that we pivot and flex our teams to reflect what is needed from technology and what the needs of the business are,” he says. “I am proud we managed to retain virtually everyone in the team and actually grow the team during the pandemic.

“That goes against the trend in terms of the ‘Great Resignation’ that we hear and read about across the technology sector. So, I take pride that we’ve managed to build a really credible, high-performing team who have got each other’s backs. We identify and see ourselves as one team – and that has helped with retention.”

Developing a sense of empowerment

Bramwell says a strong teamworking ethic comes from the top, and his key to success is establishing a transparent and respectful leadership style.

“I try to make myself very open and visible for the team,” he says. “I tend not to operate in hierarchies. We are all one team, from the front-line IT service desk engineer to the director of service delivery and operations, and on to me.”

Bramwell also shows humility. He might be in charge of the department, but he doesn’t view himself as untouchable. “If I don’t know something, I tell people – it’s alright for me not to know,” he says. “Yes, I’m the CIO, but I don’t know everything. We have recruited people because they are the subject matter experts. So we say: ‘You help me and tell me how it should be done’.”

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Across the department and out into its interactions with other people in the business, Bramwell says he has worked hard to create an environment of empowerment, trust and honesty. He says the team celebrates the big successes, but he also remembers to say thank-you for every job well done.

“Sometimes, two little words go a long way,” he says. “It’s not all about money and remuneration, although that’s an important part. Sometimes just acknowledging people when they’ve done a good job is a big help as well.”

Delivering big programmes

Bramwell says his team has a range of projects to get their teeth into during the coming years. His new digital strategy is now nine months old, and delivering the targets within that strategy will be critical to long-term success. Two big programmes are the priority right now, says Bramwell – including helping to deliver Saïd’s forthcoming Global Leadership Centre.

“That’s a £65m capital redevelopment renovation of what was our power station,” he says. “That centre will open in 2024. It’s going to be the centre for global executive education. It will be a central hub and think-tank for the world’s leading C-suite executives to tackle world-scale problems, whether that’s sustainability, energy or remote working.”

Technology will play a critical role in helping these bright minds to develop creative solutions to the globe’s biggest challenges. The centre will provide high-quality and connected accommodation, including 121 bedrooms, flexible classrooms and access to a range of collaborative systems and services.

Another big programme for the IT team will be managing the school’s investment in Salesforce technology. Bramwell says this project aims to integrate the institution’s data into a single version of the truth. With a tighter grip on its data, Saïd will be able to boost operational efficiency and create stronger customer relations.

“From a customer or student perspective, it’s about giving us an end-to-end journey from inquiry through to recruitment and on to admission, and then through their academic studies to graduation, matriculation and on to alumni, before hopefully becoming an ambassador for the school, and – if we get all that right – a donor and supporter,” he says.

Ensuring great service

Bramwell says his continued efforts to lead digital transformation will be accompanied by a period of business change. The school is making some senior appointments, including professor Soumitra Dutta becoming the new dean.

“The spine of the executive team is going to be totally new,” he says. “Embracing that change – and finding new ways of working through fresh initiatives and the new ideas that these executive roles will undoubtedly bring – is going to be a big focus.”

Two years from now, Bramwell expects the Global Leadership Centre to be ready to open. He also expects the institution to benefit from a fully integrated set of enterprise-class applications that automatically integrate data across services to provide a single source of truth to staff and students.

“We will have delivered and executed our digital strategy and we will have realised the benefits through that,” he says. “And, more importantly, the technology and the service and the delivery that we give to our customers – which is good now – will be even better.”

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