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CIO interview: Bernie Burdett, head of IT, Dogs Trust

The animal charity is revamping its IT to provide better customer service, protect itself from cyber attacks and ensure GDPR compliance

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: IT transformation takes the lead at Dogs Trust

Animal charity Dogs Trust is having a makeover of some of its core applications, with the aim of promoting better integration of its IT setup, reducing costs and improving data use. 

Founded in 1891, Dogs Trust is the UK’s largest dog welfare charity. Its technology department supports 21 rehoming centres throughout the UK and Ireland, a contact centre, around 15 external support offices and more than 30 Dogs Trust charity shops nationwide. In addition, the organisation has home workers and drivers with specific IT requirements. 

The charity handles about 1,000 staff, and the IT team has a function for first and second line support, as well as software developers for legacy systems and a project team. The network, internal and external server infrastructure is outsourced to third parties

Due to the remote locations of some of its sites, wide area network (WAN) connections can be limited, but the charity mainly uses a private network using fibre-to-the-premises (FTTC), bonded asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), or even a 3G SIM at some of its sites.   

“I’ve previously had to be a little creative in how we deliver our WAN environment, but with BT enabling more rural exchanges and the cost of leased lines becoming cheaper, that is now less of a challenge for me,” Bernie Burdett, head of IT at Dogs Trust, tells Computer Weekly.

Burdett’s team is now working on migrating the charity’s core legacy system for support and dog data, Universe DB, to Microsoft customer relationship management (CRM) software. Dogs Trust is mainly a Microsoft user, with other back-office applications in place such as Office, SQL and GP Dynamics. 

However, one of the main projects for 2017 focuses on migrating the entire user base to Microsoft Office 365, and the transformation programme currently taking place includes other significant elements, such as the move away from Citrix virtual desktops.

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The adoption of Microsoft’s Remote Desktop and RemoteApp products, which will also take place this year, is expected to deliver a significant reduction in the charity’s IT operating costs. 

“Citrix had become both costly to run and a technically difficult environment for us to manage, even with the assistance of a business partner,” says Burdett. “The move to Remote Desktop will deliver lower operating costs, as well as better integration with the rest of the Microsoft products we use.”

Using the new Remote Desktop platform alongside Office 365 and Skype for Business will also have other positive effects, such as increased collaboration in the business. 

“I will also be looking to use this technology to draw on the skills of key staff who may not be located in our London head office,” she says. 

Another noteworthy project on Dogs Trust’s agenda for 2017 is assessing the integrity of systems and data, as well as all access points into the business. This is to ensure the charity has all the appropriate technology in place to protect itself from the threat of cyber attacks.

Improving the contact centre 

Prior to the applications transformation, Burdett’s team addressed a major issue: the large number of calls its rehoming centres were receiving.  

These calls were both time consuming for rehoming centre staff, as they could instead be dealing with visitors to the centres who were there to potentially rehome dogs, and frustrating for supporters, who usually had to deal with long waiting times for the calls to be answered.  

Burdett set up a 20-seat, seven-day-a-week contact centre in a space the charity had in its Manchester rehoming centre in 2014. The facility has since been augmented, and deals with about 335,000 calls a year. It is enabled for outbound and blended calling, and resolves 77% of calls at the first point of contact.  

Central to this successful initiative is the implementation of a tool provided by Salesforce, which is used to log and notate all the calls. By using this data, the charity is now able to provide information to the business on calls, which in turn provides valuable data for decisions on future investment, projects and campaigns.

“Being able to use data to support decisions is a benefit we never considered when we originally thought about the project,” says Burdett.

Evolving the data strategy 

Things around data use have evolved significantly since Burdett’s team started to use call information to provide insights to the business. The team is currently busy with a number of projects around data security and integrity, as well as ensuring payment card industry compliance, data protection and initiatives related to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

All the modifications in regulations around data use and storage have brought more work and complexities to the technology function, says Burdett. “The rule changes around consent data in GDPR have meant we’ve had to employ a separate cloud-based system for handling consent, which is integrated with our current supporter database.

“Thankfully, being an early adopter of this service, we have been able to shape its development. This is not a project I would have chosen to start at this time, given the transition work we are undertaking, but with May 2018 looming, we had to move full steam ahead with this project,” she says.

“As a charity, we also need to take into consideration our requirement to comply with the fundraising regulations, which adds a further layer of complication to our processes and these projects.”

“Being an early adopter of this service, we have been able to shape its development. With May 2018 looming, we had to move full steam ahead with this project”

Bernie Burdett, Dogs Trust

Dogs Trust is now transitioning its current legacy system to a CRM platform provided by Microsoft.  

The charity is moving from a “green screen” system, which had been developed over several years, with many complex processes and external dependencies. The new system is expected to offer better functionality and usability, while still offering the same controls and quality that were previously in place. 

“CRM has required us to re-evaluate our business processes and question every step of the development process,” says Burdett. “The way we engage with the business has had to change to enable this, and we are asking them to take more responsibility for the deliverables.

“Once delivered, the benefit to the business will be immense, allowing staff to manage fast-paced marketing campaigns, get immediate access to data, and, eventually, a complete overview of our supporters and how we work with them.” 

Innovations and challenges 

When it comes to innovations and how any emerging tools could be applied to the charity, Burdett takes a sanguine approach. “Coming from the DOS [disk operating system] and floppy disk era, there are nowadays very few innovations that excite me. However, I believe the traditional IT boundaries are becoming more blurred, and technology surrounds us in every business process as well as our everyday life.”  

But that doesn’t mean the IT executive is not looking at technology developments, from the use of smartphone apps to manage connected home devices to location-aware wearables and social media use, to improve fundraising and engagement with the charity’s supporters. 

“The possibilities are endless, but right now it is imperative that we ensure our digital platforms allow us to make contact with smart device users and the mobile world in general,” says Burdett. 

“Allowing supporters to donate using their smartphone and using Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to continue to spread the word on the work we are doing on our many campaigns is vital, so I am always looking to see what the new app or trend is and how we can embrace it,” she adds.

Delivering under tight budgets

With so much going on, Burdett says her main challenge is similar to the situation of many of her peers, especially those working under tight budgets and delivering all of the work that has been planned. 

“I will be pushing both my teams and our business partners to deliver under tight budgets and deadlines – but that’s what I do! I will only achieve this through good communication, teamwork and lots of planning,” she says.

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