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CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, Said Business School

Oxford University’s Said Business School’s drive towards digital comes with both challenges and benefits, according to CIO Mark Bramwell

Oxford University’s Said Business School is approaching the end of a “back to basics” phase of an IT change programme, and plans to adopt a more strategic approach to technology in 2017. 

CIO Mark Bramwell is now leading the last delivery phase of multiple projects aimed at laying the foundations for the school’s infrastructure and applications estate with new capabilities. 

Some 21 major projects have been delivered so far. Among these were roll-outs of Microsoft Office 365 including email accounts for more than 700 students; and a Salesforce CRM platform across six departments, replacing six separate previous platforms. There are also 11 new initiatives currently being planned, designed, tested or implemented. 

After 10 months of planning, and with implementation ending this month, the team has completed the migration of 45 services, comprising 5.1 million files and approximately 6TB of data to a new hosted datacentre that provides enhanced system resilience, failover, round-the-clock support and disaster recovery

“This has been a major year of change in terms of the delivery, implementation and progression of the overall IT plan for the organisation,” says Bramwell. 

“The delivered projects will significantly enhance the user experience, availability, resilience, failover and disaster recovery of the school’s business-critical applications and services. From the end of this year into 2017, we will start to realise a lot of benefits in terms of more effective ways of working, better integration of systems and data, and enhanced collaboration for all our staff and alumni,” he adds.

When it comes to budget, Bramwell’s team had a total spending pot of £4.9m, including operating costs of £3.6m and a strategic spend of £1.3m. After delivering the whole agenda for year one, the team managed to generate a £700,000 saving against the planned spend.

Digital focus

In 2017, digital will be one of the central focus points to both achieve operational efficiency and enhance the way the organisation’s services are delivered to students.

“We have a large focus on digital in terms of working to remove paper and administration, but, more importantly, in terms of how we can deliver our education and educational experiences across different channels to our audiences,” says Bramwell.

Some of that work around digital has already been carried out over the past year, with its migration of all nine school websites to a cloud environment on the Acquia platform in less than four months, all done with no unplanned downtime or loss of data.

“We have a large focus on how we can deliver our education and educational experiences across different channels to our audiences”

Mark Bramwell, Said Business School


But there is still more work to be done around enhancing the school’s website set-up, such as its ongoing design and user experience review. 

“We have approached some of the UK’s top digital agencies and made a shortlist of partners we are undertaking due diligence with,” says Bramwell. “We hope to appoint a partner very shortly.” 

Another recent digital initiative is the roll-out of Guidebook, a platform-agnostic mobile app that allows the school to deliver course and programme materials, timetable information, faculty biographies and other relevant student data. 

“That has allowed us to remove a huge amount of paper, administration and e-mail from our degree programmes. We’re now looking to use the same app for our executive education clients in terms of how we can deliver their programmes,” says Bramwell.

He adds that Guidebook is one of the most widely used apps in education, and there has been 100% uptake from students at Said since the roll-out in September 2016.

Mobility and collaboration 

The deployment of choose your own device has been growing at Said over the past year, with more than 600 desktops, 250 laptops, and 300 iPads and smartphones running 75 applications used by about 650 on-site staff, faculty and contractors across three sites. 

When it comes to collaboration software, the school has grown from having no such tools at all to beginning to implement student and executive education apps, as well as Office 365. The team is now considering the introduction of other tools such as the enterprise version of Dropbox

But the introduction of such technologies has also brought a few challenges that needed to be managed.

“Looking to the future, it should be acknowledged that providing a wider choice continues to create additional complexity, support demands and increased IT costs,” says Bramwell. 

To illustrate the point of cost, he says the cost of equipment per staff member was about £500 for a single PC five years ago, whereas today it is about £3,000 for a high-specification laptop, dual screens, and a tablet and/or smartphone. 

“The IT department fully recognises the rapid changes in technology and the opportunities brought by the increasing consumerisation of IT, the digital age and agile working,” says Bramwell.

“To support this, we continue to actively embrace the provision of wider choice, whilst balancing the need for supportable, sustainable and cost-effective IT,” he adds. 

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With collaboration and mobility come inevitable concerns about security. According to Bramwell, the school is “taking baby steps” from where it was two years ago, but the basics are being introduced in terms of technology as well as a change in mindset. 

“Some of the things we’ve introduced weren’t previously in place, such as laptop encryption, mobile phone device management and an information security policy,” he says. 

Part of the security-related initiatives included factors Bramwell describes as bare essentials, such as security processes for new starters, movers and leavers, as well as network and wireless access segregation.

“These are regular factors you would expect in any other organisation, but we’ve been playing catch-up on them,” he says.

“But a lot of it, about 80%, involves operational process, good governance and best practice, and staff education and awareness.” 

Leadership challenges 

From a leadership perspective, Bramwell describes the first year of achievements at Said as an interesting time, and very diverse from his previous role in biomedical research.

“Working in education and academia, especially within Oxford University, which is extremely diverse and complicated, has been very different,” he says. “It has been important to be resilient, build relationships, and remain transparent and open in collaborating with people.” 

Selling new ideas and their benefits has been crucial to Bramwell, as he operates at an organisation with an 800-year history in a sector where innovation is so important. 

“It is key to have confidence and belief in what you stand for, as well as the persistence and tenacity to see your ideas through,” he says. 

As part of the changes introduced over the past year, Bramwell now has a team of 35 permanent staff, which has considerably reduced the previous expenditures on contractors and helped keep core competencies in-house. 

“Like any good CIO, results have also centred around establishing a skilful, talented and trusted team around you,” says Bramwell. 

A big part of what we’ve done over the past 12 months has been based on reorganising the team and making sure we have the right skills and talent in the right roles,” he says. 

Going forward, the team’s time will be invested in not only implementing technical changes, but also following best practice, education and awareness of the opportunities technology can bring.

“In academia, I think it’s becoming increasingly prominent given the open access and almost entirely bring-your-own-device environment universities run and support,” says Bramwell. 

“This transformational and ambitious programme of change means we remain well placed to continue to support and enable the school, its strategic mission and our business colleagues,” he says. “In doing so, we can take the lead on sustainable and supportable technological innovation.”

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