CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, IT director, Said Business School

Mark Bramwell is drafting a strategy for IT investment at Oxford University’s Said Business School

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It’s a busy time for IT director Mark Bramwell (pictured), who is drafting a strategy to underpin the next three years of technology investment at Oxford University’s Said Business School (SBS).

Bramwell joined the institution in March 2015 after nearly nine years as head of IT at the Wellcome Trust. His new job is very different, but no less challenging.

“Said Business School has only 15 years of existence, but as it has expanded, some things around business processes and technology are in a position where you would expect to be at a company that has grown so quickly,” Bramwell tells Computer Weekly, in his first interview since taking up the role.

“So there are areas around processes, infrastructure, governance and prioritisation that I hope we can work with the school to put in place as part of the strategy, as these things have not been there.”

Bramwell’s strategy will be completed by the end of June and has three key pillars. The first strand of work will focus on what he calls “back to basics”.

“These are items that I would expect to see within a mature, established, professional IT team, in terms of being able to support and underpin a world- class service,” he says. 

First workstream

Within the first workstream, the IT team will deal with themes such as software and hardware asset management, supply performance management, as well as introducing a high-availability infrastructure and architecture, while reviewing SBS's contracts with IT suppliers.

The second pillar is about future investments in technology at the business school, including innovation. 

“[Within this pillar] there would be some overlap with having design principles, as everything we design has to be highly available and resilient,” says Bramwell. “And everything also has to be delivered and implemented with service support and maintenance in mind.”

Read more interviews with education sector IT directors

Bramwell is looking at applications such as Office 365 and Lync to give students, course delegates and staff better tools for communication, collaboration and connectivity, as well as customer relationship management (CRM) software that would allow the school to manage and communicate with students and delegates in a better, more informed way.

The school’s 14 websites also need attention - Bramwell wants to ensure they are co-ordinated and developed in a way that makes it easy for staff and the general public to navigate, and that they are “cohesive from a technical perspective”.

“We need to make sure the websites are hosted, developed, supported and maintained in a sensible, sustainable and cost-effective way,” he says.

“Then there is work around content, having the relevant product owners, content managers and publishers within the business to ensure the content is always dynamically refreshed, kept up to date, relevant and current.

“Those websites are our window to the world and an initial primary representation of what our brand is. So, if the first interaction of students or delegates with the school is through one of those websites and the content is old or the links don't work, that's not a very good reflection on us.”

Bramwell also wants to exploit opportunities to use more electronic media, touchscreen interactive displays and other technologies to showcase what is going on at the school for better interaction with the public.

The third pillar of Bramwell's strategy is around the IT organisation itself, particularly the skills and capability needed to deliver all the projects across the other two pillars.

“We will be asking questions around whether we are structured appropriately as a department,” he says. “Do we have the right number of people? Are there areas where strategic partners may do better than we currently can, both in terms of service and cost?

“If we want to use some strategic partners to deliver services better for us, we should not necessarily see it as a weakness or a threat.”

Budget differences

For its hardware infrastructure, Said Business School has HP blade servers running VMware 5.5, connecting to a Dell storage area network underpinned by a Cisco network. Bramwell says one of the things his team will look at under the new IT strategy will be to determine the best place to host, support and maintain data.

“At the moment, it’s all largely on-premise here at the business school, but in terms of its size and footprint, we'd be better off partnering with a hosting, support and maintenance partner and looking at some of the cloud solutions that are offered by either VMware or Microsoft,” says Bramwell. Ensuring that student applications are available around the clock is vital, he adds.  

Delivering change has to be very much a partnership between IT and the business

Mark Bramwell, Said Business School

Also, SBS has a range of disparate CRM applications and Bramwell will be looking at consolidating and will evaluate products such as Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics, or potentially some “up and coming” options, such as Sugar CRM.

But the school’s budget is tight. IT spending at SBS is £4.2m in addition to a discretionary project initiative fund, so Bramwell wants to focus on IT governance and prioritisation for all the projects and activities.

“Although there was still the same rigour around justification [in spending], at an organisation such as the Wellcome Trust it was very rare to say 'no' to anything because of its financial position,” says Bramwell. “If we wanted to do a new initiative and there was a good, compelling business case for doing it, buying new extra resources or finding the money for the technology wasn't always that much of a challenge.

“Sometimes at the Wellcome Trust, the challenge was about saying no, because the financial resources were always there. Within the business school, it is more like in my previous role at WHSmith.

“IT here has to vie for funds alongside every other department in the school, hence the critical importance of prioritisation and robust business cases. I now have a much bigger role to play in terms of credibility and influence here to put business cases together to secure that investment, than I would have had at Wellcome.”

Bramwell is using his existing relationships to improve the deals SBS has with its technology suppliers, in areas such as software and hardware asset management, Apple support and maintenance services and Microsoft legacy application development support and maintenance. 

“Although we work very closely with Oxford University procurement, we don't have a really clear set and defined list of preferred suppliers,” he says. “We can very clearly leverage the partnerships that the university has, but some of our solutions are niche and we need to have our own suppliers in those spaces, and that's not really established at the moment.”

Bramwell is working on tenders for infrastructure support and maintenance as well as web and digital development, hosting, support and maintenance, for what are predominantly Drupal-based websites. These requests for information will be released within the next couple of months.

Collaborating with Oxford University

Said Business School sits within Oxford University and relies “very heavily” on shared IT services from the university as well as working with some common strategic partners for infrastructure and networking, so an effective relationship with its parent organisation is crucial.

“The technology relationship [between the two institutions] is one where we have to make sure we always work openly in collaboration with the university, because we have to think about how the technology will integrate or whether there are similar solutions that the university is already using,” says Bramwell.

“But, given that we are a commercial business school, we also need to make sure we are always looking at things that best meet our requirements, such as the need for 24/7 support, niche solutions for executive MBA education versus delivering our own, and so on.”

Bramwell says the relationship and organisation between the school and university are rather complex, hence the need to work transparently and collaboratively. Enhancing that relationship is also crucial.

“When you have an 800-year-old and a 15-year-old organisation working together, there are some unique challenges around well-established processes, teams and technology, and the way things have been done, versus a newer organisation that might run at a slightly different pace,” he says.

“The key is how they can continue to work together without totally breaking off or implementing solutions that aren't for the benefit of the wider business school or the wider university.

Read more about IT in the education sector

“At the same time, the university is recognising that its operating model needs to be different in terms of the way it runs and in terms of the way it partners with organisations like the business school, but also how it delivers services to its own students.”

Oxford University comprises 38 colleges, which are discrete academic departments. The Said Business School is a separate entity within that, with about 650 staff and 40 IT employees.

The technology team, which is a little smaller than Bramwell’s old Wellcome Trust function, is loosely split into four areas: an audio-visual function to support students, lecturers and event management; a small development team largely made of project managers; a service delivery and operations cluster; and an infrastructure support team.

Prioritising change

Bramwell says SBS has digital offerings, but as a new and growing organisation, it does not have all the resources in place to support digitisation

“We have the technology, but we don't necessarily have the product ownership and the content management to exploit and make that technology work effectively for us,” he says.

“At the moment, those roles are more of an overlay rather than specific, dedicated functions and this school has a lot of very hard-working, time-pressured people, so we need to make sure that, in terms of the digital offering and strategy, we are investing in it properly and proportionately given its business importance.

“That investment means not only technology, but resources and capacity to run and keep these areas refreshed. There is a lot more we can do in terms of application development and how we deliver those three different channels, whether we can deliver some more student-centric apps to make their experience here at the business school more intuitive, more efficient.” 

The IT director says there is a real appetite from the institution to modernise its technology set-up, but it is a matter of “aspiration versus prioritisation versus capacity”.

“There is a significant number of activities or potential projects at the moment, but only a finite amount of money and resource,” he says. “So the key is about prioritising those in terms of what is going to deliver the school the most benefit, looking at it from a student and delegate-centric perspective.”

But the key challenge will be to lead the “back to basics” agenda while managing all the other initiatives the organisation needs.

“What I will not have the luxury of doing is saying to the school that we're not going to do any business-facing things for a year because I've got to sort all of the IT in the background first,” says Bramwell.

“Somehow, I've got to find a way in terms of the investment and resourcing to do both of them in parallel, so that we can professionalise our IT team more, but at the same time demonstrate that we are delivering business value by doing some of the more business-facing activities.”

Business critical

Work on some of these “basics” around hardware, asset and supplier management has already started. Bramwell says these activities are “no-brainers” and so are clearly understood, business critical and commonly known in the business, so support already existed before the strategy sign-off.

As well as getting his plan approved by the board, Bramwell says his main objective between now and December will be to ensure that the foundations of “a highly resilient, available, world-class IT service” are in place.

Another crucial goal for the next few months will be to structure the IT team in a way that is closely aligned to the school, with the right skills in place internally, or external parties identified to provide those services in a cost-effective manner.

“Like anybody in a new role, I would hope we will have delivered three or four business-facing initiatives or activities or changes that would have made a real positive change to the school,” says Bramwell.

At the same time, he expects there will be work around educating the school about the total cost of ownership of IT projects and initiatives. 

“The cost of a project isn't just about buying the technology, it's around the resources you need to support the delivery of it, the ongoing cost of exploiting, supporting and maintaining it,” says Bramwell.

“Once we've prioritised and agreed on everything, initiatives should have a clear business owner and be supported by the relevant business resources.

“Delivering change has to be very much a partnership between IT and the business. It isn't a case of ‘I want a new project, there we go IT department, go and deliver it for me’. The process has to be carried out in partnership with, and be owned by, the business to make it really successful.”

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