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CIO interview: Jon Cheyne, IT director, National Theatre

We speak to the IT head at the National Theatre about what it means to have a 99% cloud strategy

For Jon Cheyne, director of IT at the National Theatre, a cloud strategy is about not having to worry about infrastructure any more. And it is not necessary to know whether the data is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. “All I need is access to the data,” he says.

Cheyne describes his cloud roadmap as a “sourcing strategy”. Among the applications the National Theatre will need to look at over time are its electronic point of sale (Epos) system, its human resources (HR) and its customer relationship management (CRM), all of which could be moved to the cloud.

Speaking about the plans for Epos, he says: “I am really not sure.” The business case for replacing it is the same as was used originally to buy in the existing Epos. This suggests that the system has not been implemented optimally or is simply not being used in the best way. “It’s £200,000 to £400,000 to replace the Epos, which is huge,” says Cheyne. “I could get away with £50,000 of consultants.”

Although many software companies have cloud-based products, in his experience, the default sales pitch of many software providers is not to offer existing customers the cloud option. Traditionally, a company might sell something on VMware and it would offer a long-term support contract, says Cheyne. “If a supplier has a big installed base of perpetual licence customers, there is a temptation to leave them alone and put new business on software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms,” he adds.

When Cheyne asked the supplier of the National Theatre’s existing CRM system whether it was possible to move onto that company’s cloud product, he says: “They told me they were too scared of the National Theatre.”

Given the volume and scale of theatre booking enquiries and transactions, the supplier was not sure that its SaaS infrastructure could cope. “That is not the right approach,” says Cheyne. Instead of building its own cloud, the CRM provider should have taken advantage of elastic public cloud infrastructure, he says. “We will be hosting the CRM ourselves for a while – and it may be some time before we move to the cloud.”

The National Theatre recently signed a managed series contract with Navisite to manage its Microsoft Office 365 setup. A managed service means there is less need to have the technical expertise in-house, although Cheyne does not think the theatre can do away with all the technical skills required to run and manage Office 365. “It is a sourcing strategy,” he says. “I now have a source of expert staff to help with some elements of the deployment of Office 365.”

Going with Office 365

Cheyne says it was easy to persuade the business to adopt Office 365, even though people were using a number of alternative cloud services. “I am not claiming 100% Office 365,” he says. “I suspect we will have 99% Office 365 and 1% Google.”

He expects the IT department to assume responsibility for adding and removing users, while Navisite will handle more complex technical integration, such as linking to the Windows Active Directory.

As with many organisations, National Theatre staff use a lot of their own cloud-based tools in their day-to-day work. Employees have access to WhatsApp, Google Drive, DropBox and Smart Sheet. “The people here have already built up an ecosystem of mostly free-to-use cloud applications,” says Cheyne. “But they find these are hard to manage because the business has to add all the users themselves, remove them and manage passwords.”

It is not too hard to get people to move to the official cloud product, says Cheyne. “What if I say I can offer you something that has 90% of the functionality of DropBox, where I manage all the users and if a user is away, you still have access to all their data?”

He has started running so-called “amnesty workshops” to help staff move over to Office 365 and OneDrive. “We are taking a carrot-only approach,” he says. “We are saying if OneDrive doesn’t work, you don’t have to move over to it.”

But, over time, Cheyne expects other people at the National Theatre to be using SharePoint and OneDrive to share documents, so users who adopt it straight away will find they are drawn back to it. “They will definitely install it,” he says. “It will be on their phone and on their laptops. Eventually, we think people will come on-board, especially if there is some kind of crisis, or a password has been forgotten.”

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Cheyne says the National Theatre is building a SharePoint-based intranet, which will include Yammer for social media. But he is concerned that some of the new add-ons to Office 365 are not particularly well integrated. “Microsoft is becoming a bit Google-like, inventing product pieces that do not seem to work with other parts of the Office 365 product,” he says.

Cheyne says he installed Teams, Yammer and Groups on his phone and found the products were not particularly  joined-up. “I discovered they all had one piece missing. Groups has a calendar, but Teams does not have the same calendar. You have to pick one product, and then, when you get onto SharePoint, it has its own blogging features, its own collections and its own search.”

This means the National Theatre is having to adopt some Office 365 features now, with a view to discard them in a year or two, as and when other parts of the product begin offering the integration that Cheyne requires. SharePoint will continue to be used for business collaboration, but he says: “Once Yammer is more integrated with SharePoint, that is when we will start putting work on Yammer.”

Appropriate alerts

The challenge with collaboration in business is how to ensure staff are alerted appropriately, he says. Currently, everyone receives an email alert, but Cheyne says: “We are currently working on a kind of matrix of message type ranked by the level of importance.” For instance, the tannoy will be used for emergencies. “Below that, there are other alerts we need staff to see,” he says. “We are looking at using Skype for Business’ group functionality.”

Clearly, people become fatigued if they receive too many alerts, and will end up switching off the alert notifications, says Cheyne. “I don’t have any alerts on my phone, apart from WhatsApp alerts, because that provides me with IT’s alerting system, the National Theatre’s alerting system and my family.”

When the management team asked about the emergency response plan recently, Cheyne told them: “We just have to look on WhatsApp. We don’t have a lot of plans, but we are all clever people and we just have to see who’s in charge and who is present in the building.”

In time, he expects the emergency response plan to move to a private Yammer group. “We will have to make sure people enable their alerts,” says Cheyne. “But notifications need to be on to enable WhatsApp to be used to co-ordinate emergency response. We all had to agree to enable alerts in WhatsApp.”

Mirroring the transition to OneDrive in Office 365, he says: “It is really about taking things you know and moving onto a service you don’t already use.”

Back to basics on cloud

For Cheyne, a good cloud strategy should start with a kind of Swot analysis to identify strengths and weaknesses in IT and opportunities. His own situation was the lack of space given to the server room, and trying to achieve world-class disaster recovery using a five-year-old storage area network. With a capital expenditure budget of £3.5m, there was not enough funding for all the projects the National Theatre needed, such as a second datacentre, an Epos and a new HR system.

Cheyne’s goal is to have 99% of the organisation’s IT run in the cloud, and his cloud strategy fits on one side of A4 paper. “All good strategies should have a kernel that describes what will differentiate you,” he says.

By having a broad view of renting applications, which means shifting to an operational expenditure model for funding IT, Cheyne reckons he can still show the business the costs over 10 years and ask for £2.5m. “I can still swap things out, but I won’t see a curb in funding,” he says.

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