Department for Education (DfE) CTO Adrian Tucker recently completed an 18-month project to overhaul the department's ageing technology stack and create a mobile workforce.

The process was one of the biggest departmental IT upgrades in more than a decade. It involved the moving traditional data centres to Microsoft's Azure cloud, a complete overhaul of end-user devices, and upgrading all software to Windows 10 and Office 365.

With the support of annotation, paperless drive, auto-connect WiFi, and collaboration tools such as Yammer, the strategy has transformed the approach to collaboration and flexible working of a department split over multiple sites across the UK.

Mobile and Microsoft

"Mobility is the key thing," says Tucker, a member of the 2017 CIO 100 who was appointed to his role in August 2014 after a year-long stint as CIO of DfE subset organisation the Education Funding Agency.

"The Microsoft Surface devices mean that you're no longer stuck at a desk. You can now work pretty much everywhere. And the upgrade that we've done to the WiFi and auto-connect means that people can work in a cafe or in previously unused areas of the DfE, which with space at a premium in every business is an important point.

"It's also about how we start really exploiting Office 365 and Windows 10 and that interconnectivity. Teams co-locating maybe in London and Sheffield, or London and Darlington, can now collaborate on the same document and work on something in real-time whereas in the past that would have been dependent on a lot of email traffic passing documents back and forth. Now there's one version of the truth and people can work on that simultaneously."

The in-house IT team partnered with Microsoft to supports Tucker's ambitious timeline for the revamp. The company's Azure cloud platform, Surface devices, Windows 10 OS, and Office 365 software are central to the unified new way of working. Turning Microsoft from a supplier to a partner by sitting its staff next to the DfE team ensured that they shared issues for mutual benefits.

Other supplies have also changed their approach through collaboration with the DfE. Agreements with Trustmark and Capgemini eased the transition from on-premise to the cloud, and another strategic deal with Computacenter helped roll out 4,000 of the Surface devices in just eight weeks.

"We went for the Surface Pro 4 as well as the SurfaceBook and that gave people a genuine choice, but what I wanted to avoid is going for two very different devices otherwise we'd end up with a two-speed company," says Tucker.

Changing culture of education

Selling new technology to senior civil servants can be a challenging task. Tucker has reformed his approach to improving their understanding and attracting their support.

"When I started the role of CTO, I talked a lot about what technology was about and what technology could do, but I soon became aware that it probably wasn't going to be the right way of approaching it," he says.

"We started talking about what the technology would give in terms of the business and the efficiency that it would drive, and converting that into making sure that people understood that with more efficient IT there could be more heads doing other roles.

"We also talked quite a lot about some of the softer benefits around digital that could lead to us having a much more flexible work team with less time being spent doing manual tasks."

Tucker regularly works with the DfE management committee to explain the value of technology, and invited them to a Microsoft innovation centre to show how it can solve specific problems.

If that wasn't enough to convince them, the committee members also received a Christmas gift of a book on digital transformation as a festive boost to their understanding.

The management committee meetings of today prove his approach has been a success.

"A lot of the paper has gone, and most of them are now sat there with their devices, so they're living that mobility during the meeting," says Tucker.

"You've got people that are very au fait with these things at home; and just glad that it's finally at work, but at the same time, we've got people that thought Windows 3.1 was a step too far as well, so you're trying to accommodate across that whole line.

"When you see Directors and Director Generals using them, getting rid of the big piles of paper that once were in their place, collaborating and using the pen and annotating on screens, if you sat there 18 months ago you probably would have found that quite a hard jump to get through in that short period of time, but in the last six months that's become a reality."

Future plans

The new infrastructure requires new skills to run it, and Tucker is currently recruiting a CISO to ensure the systems are secure.

His principal objective for the year ahead is to continue to reap the benefits of the modernisation programme, and ensure that all the elements are running smoothly, but Tucker is also exploring emerging technologies and exploiting the department's extensive data troves.

"Digital's not there to make a bad process faster, it's about exposing value chains," he says. "One thing the Department for Education is not short of is data, and we also want to make fact-based decisions and data-based decisions, so machine learning with the right algorithms and the right target means that we can start making decisions based on what's really happening."

Tucker wants to connect all this data to avoid continuously asking schools for the same information and make more accurate predictions to better guide choices aroundeducation. The data could also directly help citizens, by helping parents review school results and better understand which one would suit their child.

He's confident that like most forward-thinking organisations the DfE will continue to treat technology as intrinsic to the success of the business and not just an isolated accessory.

"Traditionally IT has been very much a service to most businesses and over the last year and a bit it's more about how can technology start delivering business outcomes," he says.

"Instead of it just being a commodity that sits on desks, it now has a significant purpose in ensuring that the business meets its aims. It can also start talking about the art of the possible and sharing with business teams what they can now do with new technology and how that actually they can do things that perhaps wasn't possible even a year ago."