One of the biggest things Laura Dawson has done is change the team to understand that theory without context is just a textbook. As a result, the tech department has become the business rather than sitting outside it – a position that had led it into isolation, with shadow IT department proliferation. Her aim is to turn that shadow IT into devolved IT and help it flourish, creating freedom within a framework, and allowing the tech function to respond to the entrepreneurial needs of the organisation but still maintain the compliance essentials.

Name and job title
Laura J Dawson, chief information officer, British Council.

How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
The key area we are focusing on is bringing digitally and technology-enabled services to over 120 customers. Those services include enabling our colleagues to connect teachers to pupils across the globe. The key activity I champion is working together, breaking down silos and helping to remove the barriers we normally face in our organisations. Building trust and knowledge of each other's teams so we are better able to work together.

How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation, and to what extent?
This is an area close to my heart. Our organisation is about cultural relations, about building friendly knowledge and understanding. This is something that I espouse internally, by being honest and aiming for the win-win, and modelling the behaviour that brings us closer. I have introduced business partnering, our cultural norms (humility, credible assertion and critical loyalty) and introduced global team briefing activities to bring my dispersed teams together. In our team we hit the headlines in our organisation by introducing a social media campaign on #mycontribution not only to help the team see where they fit but also to drive a step-change in how the rest of the organisation viewed the professional services. There is more to do here, but some exciting changes.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
We provide support for many people across the world either learning English or taking English language examinations. In the year we were a large contract for delivering particular examinations; the time was short, the requirements very specific and complex, providing payment methods in multiple contingents. This was a complex suite of programmes including online book and pay and event administration in an organisation where there where high degrees of variation between countries and even sites on how exams and English is delivered. The key thrust of a lot of our work is helping the organisation to standardise what it should to, freeing us up to deliver more of the value-add cultural relations and thought leadership we need.

Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
As chair of a networking charity for tech leaders, we share and compare information to a high degree. As well as using the usual thought pieces from organisations such as CIO magazine, we benchmark against each other in the charity sector. I also network with other international and large organisations, looking for insight on how their operations function.

The focus for last year has been on our major infrastructure and how we can improve performance and price for a global organisation. Working with third parties to test the efficacy, resulting in multimillion-pound savings. There's always more to do. On the more strategic piece, we are currently introducing step-changes in how we utilise the wealth of data we have. We have introduced an integration platform that will allow us to reduce significantly our handling of data around the world.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
British Council operates in a matrix organisation. Over the years the technology department became somewhat isolated, as seen by a proliferation of shadow IT departments. Since I joined we have worked very hard to make those departments feel connected to us (they are not run by us). We aim to change shadow IT into devolved IT and help it flourish. This will allow us to create freedom within a framework, creating platforms at the global level that others can innovate on. This will allow the function to be responsive to the entrepreneurial needs of the organisation but still maintain the compliance needs of being a government department.

Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
We work along side the digital team within British Council. This allows us to recognise the different strengths of the two teams and place ourselves on the digital to technology continuum. The relationships between the teams were poor when I arrived but now there is a much higher degree of respect and value between them, and we will continue to build on this. There are things digital does that we cannot do and things technology does that digital cannot. That's fine and vive la difference!

Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and organisational structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
Our primary focus at the moment is helping to standardise the services we deliver to our customers to reduce unnecessary complexity. This includes integrating the different services and applications to reduce handover and reconciliation. By doing this we can take out the pointless admin and improve the time taken to reach decisions.

We recently completed a restructure in the leadership team in technology. This structure allows us to align more easily with the operational and strategic change areas of the organisation.

Finally, we were able to reflect back the strategic ambitions through the strategy programme, and identify the common themes and areas, which changed how we looked at the strategy process.

How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
We have a number of engagements forming a full communications strategy. Face to face is a network of business partners, and advisers, including information governance advisers, are across the world. Our team is called global information services and we run a magazine called TWIG – This Week In GIS. Our business partners (newly introduced) run a series of face-to-face engagements using creative connections to bring the outputs and outcomes to life. These are aligned with the business areas.

I have a blog (information rocks) and also we use Yammer, being the biggest contributors. We are also heavily involved with our diversity and equality teams introducing 'diversity by design'. I am also part of the British Council management board, which is all the top senior leaders in the organisation, the role of which is to decide the strategic direction and agree priorities, etc.

How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
We use Yammer internally and as mentioned are the biggest contributing team, with increasing response and contribution from other teams. A recent campaign was around wellbeing and mindfulness, which takes us out of technology and into the rest of the organisation. We also make a great deal of use of LinkedIn. I have a few articles published and we share thought pieces. Charity IT Leaders has a newsletter, which allows us to broaden to our sector. I write the editorial every quarter.

How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
Virtually via Yammer but also using the workshops mentioned above (with the business partners). We are building a network of external experts on key areas to bring in enthusiastic and sharp ideas for the team and others. Finally, we teleconference with other tech leaders to showcase strategy. This allows 'critical friend' behaviour on strategy and building the sector together.

Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
I am chair of Charity IT Leaders, which allows us to connect with expertise in my sector and to bring in key speakers across the industry. This allows us, together, to improve and develop. We use Gartner (but with a big pinch of salt). Other areas we look at include working with our existing partners on their tech innovation, attending events particularly, CIO dinners and roundtables. Finally, by taking time to read the wealth of information out there, via magazines such as CIO as well as LinkedIn and BCS.

Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
We have introduced a diversity by design campaign to mainstream inclusion. This looks at three key areas. The operation and services we provide include the right capabilities to ensure everyone has the tools they need to do the job, building solutions that are inclusive, and improving our communications to be more inclusive. A win-win for a technology department as it helps shed the geek image at the same time.

Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
The most important thing is creating the trust between teams, which we do as a leadership team with open conversation and driving for honest feedback. The key to collaboration is communication and building the network you need to influence beyond authority. The key to that is being authentic in your dealings and aiming for the win-win. I am competitive but for the organisation. Whilst there are always things I can improve about how I work and what I do, I like to think I make it easy for my colleagues to share and work together.

Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills, perhaps through mentoring, training or external activities
Some of the most inspirational development I have had is working with my peers across the sector to see what is (and what is not) good about how we operate. Through the Charity IT Leaders group we have included a stream called talented leaders which focuses on those leadership skills we need, including influence beyond authority, networking and collaboration and leading with authenticity.

I read an immense amount, with some favourites including The Cost of Bad Behaviour, Death by Meeting, Leading with Authenticity, Beyond Authority. Some of my development has come through listening to and learning from others, including some inspirational leaders at RSPB and the British Council, and from inspirational people below me who are the leaders of the future and far more talented than me. Ones to watch for the future include Adam Lennon at Plan UK and Tony Payne at Red Gate. Both are able to manage and inspire upwards – a rare skill.

What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
Data analytics, theory of change and the sharing economy. We're looking at ways of measuring and evaluating impact and reach in a not-for-profit. We are also looking at social digital boundaries and how to break them down for trust and engagement, digital cultural relations.

How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
At lot of the decision comes down to simple choices. Is what we want to do on the value-add part of British Council or the ubiquitous services we all use? Is it a mature market and do they do it better? The closer to the unique work of the British Council, the more likely the design (if not always the build) will be internal. As a global organisation, we need to move outside our walls in order to create the collaborative spaces, not just for our staff but for our stakeholders. That means looking for accessible but secure spaces. There are a number of levers in the decision from risk through to access and skills.

Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Never enough. We are encouraging more and looking at how we can lift our heads off the desk long enough to do so. It's a work in progress. As a starting point we create spaces virtually and are piloting knowledge lunches (virtual cups of tea) to share ideas and bring in tech expertise to chew the fat on tech. We will also be running a global tech forum for not only the staff in my team but the devolved tech I mentioned earlier.

Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We are currently rebuilding the sourcing strategy as over the years the boundaries and clarity of how we work with our key suppliers have become blurred. We are stepping up the capability on vendor relationship management, which was sub-optimal when I started and is a core skill.

We outsource a lot of our commodity work but have neglected in the past the skills needed to manage this effectively, so that is a core focus for us. Areas include global connectivity, datacentre, development nearshore and offshore, and a wholly owned subsidiary for shared services in India. We also have an outsourced 24x7 service desk for first line based in Bangalore. The next phase of sourcing will be looking again at the appropriate commercial bundles and aligning this with core service lines in the organisation.

Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
They might seem small things but we had a way to go. The first is bringing in single sign-on for our major ERP (can you believe we were still logging in separately!) – not exactly innovation, but a big win for the team. Also only travel and expenses, which when I first arrived was a clarion call to fix; our soft launch happened this month and looking good – it got a round of applause from the senior team. Because of who we are and where we are, a lot of the innovation is incremental.

The biggest thing I have done is change the team to understand that theory without context is just a text book, and this has completely changed how we approach our colleagues. We have become the business rather than sitting outside.

What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
One of the biggest deals we have is a collaboration with other international government departments (FCO and DFID) with Vodafone. This is a multimillion-pound deal under one agreement that allows us to benefit from the scale of three organisations. We are currently working to the next iteration and negotiated a tighter extension in-year to allow us to do that. Other deals include the integration platform, which forms a core plank of the whole organisations strategy to allow data to flow both operationally (for services) and strategically for evidence of impact and theory of change. Fujitsu won the deal and we are working towards live.

Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are

  • Often use: CIO peers, industry body, media.
  • Occasionally use: analyst houses, consultants.

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Yes.

How is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
Within the organisation we have appointed a senior leader outside of the department to act as senior information risk officer (SIRO) – all organisations in the public sector have this. We then have two committees that work towards improving awareness and taking action on information governance, which includes cyber security. We have a fully integrated team on information governance and within that resources for awareness and communications (we have a comms team within the technology team, which makes a huge difference). We have also collaborated with key business units to identify risk areas and the benefit of a mature approach to cyber security. There's more to do, but the foundations are there.

When did you start your current role?
October 2013.

What is your reporting line?
COO.

Are you a member of the board of directors?
Yes.

What is the annual IT budget?
£32m.

How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
Capex is held in a separate transformation budget, so almost all of the above is revenue especially in light of the outsourcing we do.

What your budget's operational/development split?
80/20, although, as mentioned, there is a separate transformation budget which we bid for, which is a further £25m on tech roughly.

How many users does your department supply services to?
11,000.

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Yes.

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Yes.

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
Being developed for 2016/17.

How many employees are there in your IT team?
251.

Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
No.

What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
251/100.