In May 2015, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine merged its IT and library services, appointing Jon Faulkner as its first ever CIO. Since joining, Faulkner has taken it upon himself to use data for strategy, unify siloed departments, and simplify IT support so the school's scholars and students can proceed undisturbed with their important work researching the likes of Ebola, deforestation, malaria, genetic mutations, population health and disease control.
There is a lot of supporting technology woven into the school's DNA. In fact, Faulkner says IT "underpins everything" that the students and researchers do.
He started at the school in September 2013 as IT director for a newly created, centralised team. Since becoming CIO, his roles and responsibilities have broadened – he now takes the lead on the school's library, its archive services, and provides direction for IT.
"It also gave me the opportunity to make particular differences in areas that, thus far, hadn't been looked into holistically," he says. These are information management – data – and in research support services.
The school has a lot of people generating, managing, and using data – but until recently it's been done in "quite disparate" situations. Information from corporate services hasn't been "tapped into, made visible, and used for both tactical and strategic decisions" – so the organisation is trying to understand how to use this data for immediate benefits.
And multiple departments are providing support services to the students and academics that are doing the research. "I'm trying to bring that, a bit more holistically, together," Faulkner says.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine first opened its doors in London's Docklands in 1899 as part of the Seamen's Hospital Society – the British charity that still provides support to the Merchant Navy. It was founded by the 'father of tropical medicine', Sir Patrick Manson, whose own work helped form the basis of mosquito-malaria theory. As Medical Advisor to the Colonial Office of the British Empire, Manson believed that doctors should be equipped to treat tropical diseases at each faraway outpost of Britain's imperial ambitions.
The school's present location on Gower Street, Bloomsbury opened in 1929, but it has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. Today, it takes more than 4,000 students, and although the large majority of these are signed up for distance-learning, as many as 700 come through the doors.
The IT team now provides file systems, networks, email services, web presence, intranets and virtual learning – not to mention legacy systems that are running years-long experiments, which cannot yet be disturbed or upgraded. "We know that sooner or later we are going to have to do something with quite a few Windows 7 and XPs out there," Faulkner says. The list goes on.
Because there is such a wide range of systems running at any one time, underlying IT needs to be an afterthought for researchers. To smooth over any bumps and to optimise the school's helpdesk, Faulkner has brought in the V6 platform from real-time analytics vendor Nexthink.
"We are aware we've had a fairly static number of helpdesk calls for quite some time," Faulkner says. "So I'm keen to bring in Nexthink to have greater visibility, to be able investigate what those underlying issues are.
"Another aspect is we have a helpdesk team with a third-line support team – the greater level of analysis they can pass on to the third-line support the better," he explains. "We have challenges where the information passed on isn't either what they need or the level they need it, and I believe Nexthink can enable us to hone in on where the challenges are, and provide better information to those further down the support line."
Faulkner also hopes the deployment will enable the helpdesk frontline to manage a greater number of calls to cut out toing and froing between teams. "We all know that if you create a call it has to get passed on to others at times, which adds more management of calls to a wider group of people," he says. An addition to this, the real-time analysis could help identify the root causes of any issues more quickly – thereby avoiding related future calls coming through.
As well as the typical issues like meeting expectations while managing the budget, there are other challenges to keep in mind at academic institutions – for example, culture. Just what are the attitudes to IT among scholars and students?
Researchers and scholars want to get on with their work just as most end users do. But there can be a certain resistance to change, no matter how positive the organisation-wide benefits are from an IT perspective.
"There is the wider dynamic of our end users," Faulkner says. "They don't always wish to engage with changes we are introducing. For example, we're moving staff to Office 365. We were on Novell Groupwise, and there is a large body of people who do not want to move from Groupwise.
"So there's the element of needing to lead the organisation forward – and also, for their benefit, keeping in mind what their appetite for change is and what the cultural backdrop is."
Taking a people-centric view to managing IT, though, does mean these benefits ultimately shine through.
Faulkner cites an example where researchers in the field needed to capture data.
"It might have been in England or over in Africa," Faulkner says. "What we've established is that there are many different needs. But fundamentally the same basic need of being able to capture data easily, securely and upload it to a central server using a handheld device."
So the school put a lot of effort into developing a service most people will be able to use, and although there's some small tailoring required each time, now researchers can reuse that concept for all new projects that require collecting field data, rather than having to reinvent the wheel.
And it is that willingness to keep the users content, happy, and almost unaware of the infrastructure where IT seems to spend much of its focus.
"We are trying to be as positive and responsive to our end user needs," Faulkner says. "We always have the extremes but the bulk of people are very content.
"The IT strategy has four main themes: collaboration and communications, flexible working, digitalisation, and optimisation," he explains. "The basic balance is we are trying to provide tools that will enable all of our staff and students to engage with services and each other in the most flexible way and reliably get a good experience.
"Behind the scenes of that, it's connecting things up to give a total experience, so if you want to do things you don't need to go to five different places."
Taking those aspects into account will benefit professional services as well as the wider academic community and students for their everyday activities, Faulkner says.
"Those four tenets of the strategy are the underpinning enablers for the school to do its work."