By balancing innovation goals with tactical delivery, Alasdair Redmond has gained a succession of quick wins to maintain the transformation momentum and organisational buy-in. In the process, he has delivered significantly reduced operating cost, a stable infrastructure, new capabilities in areas like collaboration, and innovative solutions that deliver a new pedagogy in the classroom.
Name and job title
Alasdair Redmond, Group CIO, City of Liverpool College.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
As a backdrop, the education sector requires radical change to mitigate the impact of sustained funding cuts and as skills needs change in the economy. This is driving a more commercial approach and also requires the development of innovative ways to educate. My role is new for the group and the board has high expectations that technology can act as an enabler and catalyst for this change. This in itself has given me a strong mandate to lead the development of products and new services. I have focused on two main areas: building a sustainable and flexible platform to enable growth and new ways of working, and developing a credible innovation function – one that is integrated to our partners and can develop next generation solutions.
I have driven this change from a new IT strategy, closely coupled to the overall business strategy. This has allowed me to develop a project portfolio that addresses tactical changes and longer-term goals. Specifically, these are: infrastructure redesign, elimination of legacy customisation in our application portfolio, process change, the formation of an information security function and the creation of an innovation team. By balancing innovation goals with tactical delivery I have gained a succession of quick wins. These have helped maintain momentum and organisational buy-in. This translates into significantly reduced operating cost, a stable infrastructure, new capabilities in areas like collaboration and innovative solutions that deliver a new pedagogy in the classroom.
How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation and to what extent?
The level of transformation we needed to achieve required a very significant degree of cultural change – primarily from an inward-focused mind-set to one which is much more commercial. We also needed to address challenges of empowerment, risk taking and innovation. I have used a structured programme of introducing new processes and technology enablers as well as the identification of bright spots – examples of individual behaviours that can act as a catalyst for others. Perhaps the best example is the formation of a new group company, providing outsourced services to the sector. This brought several in-house teams into a commercially focused IT organisation serving the other group companies and external customers.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
- The formation and successful operation of a new group company. This provides outsourced services to the sector and is on track to deliver in excess of £1m savings in its first year of operation.
- The transformation of our infrastructure. In doing so we are the first college group to migrate to the Jisc Infinity datacentre. This gives us significantly more flexibility and resilience as well as the ability to serve sector-specific customers more easily. Computer Weekly and a number of other publications have featured this as sector-specific innovation.
- The introduction of Office 365 to enable greater collaboration and flexible working for our Group. This has particularly benefited our national training business, which has a large field workforce. We have coupled this with a device strategy that provides Surface 3 and other flexible devices to our staff. In the training company this has streamlined learner engagement and reduced process time significantly.
- The introduction of SmartRoom, our next-generation classroom. This has been carried out in partnership with Microsoft and other key vendors, and is already showing demonstrable improvements to pedagogy. In 2016 we will embark on a joint project with Microsoft R&D to explore the use of machine learning and smart sensors in the classroom.
- The introduction of a range of best practice process changes. These include a PMO, ITIL and the appointment of a group information security manager. In relation to the latter I have now secured board oversight of information security; with a swathe of DDoS attacks late in 2015, this proved timely.
These changes lay the foundations for more cost-effective operation, greater flexibility to introduce further change, and a platform for transformative innovation.
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Information about our learners and the skills needs they meet in the employment market is our primary need. In the last part of 2015 we implemented a significant transformation project to redefine the information structure, processes and systems that underpin this.
Early wins have included the introduction of a real-time business dashboard to enable the business to more effectively identify and respond to changes in learner performance and business need. I have also introduced a work management system. Having defined a service catalogue for all support departments, we can now capture user service requests and track them through the various departments supporting the business. This has helped us to better categorise user need and make more efficient use of resources.
We are also running a learning analytics project in partnership with Jisc. This is focused on capturing a variety of data across our next-generation classrooms to better understand how we can deliver effective education. We will extend this to IoT data in 2016.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
I merged the IT functions from the various group companies into one structure. We have then moved this new team into our outsourcing company, to serve both internal and external customers. I have a board-approved IT strategy which directly aligns to group and individual company strategic objectives. We’ve mapped this back to the goals of departmental heads to ensure we maintain continuity of focus.
Structurally I have organised into infrastructure, solutions management, planning and governance, and management information (this incorporates funding and compliance, which is sector-specific). In the restructure I introduced a new innovation function. I also lead business support services, which is not IT-focused.
Within the outsourcing company I have specific responsibility for sales and marketing. This is largely anomalous and reflects my background in outsourcing. The IT organisation operates a business partner model with regular interaction with key stakeholders. We also communicate through a blog and town hall type events.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
This has been an important focus, particularly within our national training company. It’s a specific strategic objective for IT and we work closely with marketing to help shape both strategy and delivery. Engagement is across students, employers and clients, so we essentially have a mix of B2C and B2B. My role has been to guide on both engagement and technology. We have delivered new web presence for two group companies and are working within our innovation team to gather additional sources of data. With this we believe we can dynamically align our curriculum offer to skills need.
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
Much of this work has been focused around the project to deliver the new outsourcing company as it harmonised processes, teams and systems as well as defined the services that IT and other departments would deliver. The introduction of a service catalogue and work management system has been a significant enabler to process improvement, efficiency and customer experience. It was a very visible step-change for the organisation and continues to bear fruit, particularly in the transition to greater customer focus. Having the data and holding IT staff accountable for performance has helped, but we’ve also seen greater empowerment in our internal customers. This supports more use of self-service.
We have also partnered with Microsoft to support the introduction of Office 365 and a new device strategy. We’ve used this as a driver of greater collaboration, flexible working and to open up further process changes – primarily streamlining legacy paper process to online.
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?
I use a range of different media. These include a blog, newsletter, brown-bag lunches, surveys and town hall events. I also make a point of maximising the face-to-face time I have with the wider organisation. I have tended to focus communications on the more exciting and engaging aspects of technology enablement – in the main the work our Innovation team is doing. However, we have also made information security a significant focus. The blog has seen more traffic than I would have expected. This is encouraging and affords a discussion with the wider team. Our events have also seen positive feedback, particularly where we have run open training sessions.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
Having spent some years working for a leading global company, I have developed a strong personal network. I tend to use this primarily to validate thinking and seek out new ideas. Within this I have always established mentor relationships. I find these provide the best focus against specific goals. Beyond this, I use primarily LinkedIn and Twitter. Where I have a new need and don’t have the network to support it I will tend to use social media to identify leading thinkers in this area and connect with them.
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?
This starts with a technology strategy that directly underpins the business strategy. We use a business partner model to drive this, with stakeholder mapping across the group companies. I meet with the executive and strategic group leadership teams on a regular basis to discuss strategic priority and operational needs. I’ve tended to use a project portfolio to help the organisation prioritise. Where I want to explore the value in new technologies I’ll bring in vendors to present to the leadership teams. We’ve seen sustained and transformational change in the last year and this has kept us closely aligned to business need. Beyond this we will tend to engage the wider organisation through open house days and online channels.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
Our innovation team is the primary conduit for this. They are allowed 20% of their time free to research and prototype new technologies. We work closely with leading industry partners and this gives us early insight into new technologies. The team attend relevant industry events as needed. I also map existing skills to future need, which helps identify potential gaps. Personally, I give some time each day to technology research, usually in the early mornings before work.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
The formation of our innovation function is perhaps the best example in the last year. Appointing a female leader from a largely non-technical background has proven an excellent addition to my leadership team. She brought together disparate resources, many with poor customer-facing skills and developed a culture of customer focus and knowledge sharing. This has acted as a strong catalyst for change elsewhere within the organisation. She’s a future CIO in the making and a great example of the value in looking outside traditional areas for talent.
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
Aside from formal leadership meeting structure I tend to engage one to one with the various executive leaders in the group. This provides a more informal setting to explore new opportunities and ensure that I and the team have focus on operational priorities. I strongly believe that the foundation of good collaboration is delivering on our promises and then actively seeking to create value through innovation. A good example of this in practice is starting the year with no information security function and ending it with board oversight, a complete set of new and approved policies and a strong mandate to invest.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
I come from a global role as VP with a large US outsourcer – a Fortune 500 company that served primarily Fortune 100 customers. I wanted to spend a couple of years in the education sector to give back commercial sector skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
Before I took the role I spent time speaking with six CIOs from various institutions across the world. This proved an excellent starting point to understand the sector and how I could add value. Once in role I have worked with a mix of peers as mentors and industry vendors to ensure that I rapidly gained operational context.
I’ve previously led much larger teams – this one is around 150, so I’ve also had to adapt to a more hands-on role as we drive accelerated transformation. Candidly I’ve also used my own leadership team to help keep my focus and support at the right level for them.
I’ve already completed the delivering information services programme at Harvard Business School. The advanced management and leadership programme at Oxford Said Business School is next on my list.
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
Much new technology holds great opportunity, even when you look beyond the immediate hype. My primary focus is in two main areas: gathering data and analysing it. Therefore, machine learning, AI and IoT are key. Augmented reality in the classroom is on our roadmap. The latter has significant potential.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
Our strategy is one of significant growth, therefore I have to balance the long-term opportunity with the short term constraints, primarily cash. In the main this is moving us from in-house to cloud, via at least in part datacentre. I continue to work hard to drive out legacy customisation, which has been perhaps the single largest obstacle to overcome this year. Where I see meaningful intellectual property, I will look to develop using a hybrid in-house/partner model. A good example of that is our SmartRoom next-generation classroom.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
I tend to take at least 30 minutes in the early mornings for research. I also learn a lot from discussion with industry peers and experts. For our innovation team, we have given them 20% of their working week to research new technologies. For my wider team I’ve looked for specific opportunities, such as industry events, to support what they do personally. We could all do more.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We are highly cost-constrained and have to balance this with what in some instances is vendor-specific monopoly driven by curriculum design. There are also public sector procurement constraints. In all instances the sourcing goal is first to identify a supplier we can see as a strategic partner, one who understands the journey we are on and wants to be part of it. I then look for the best balance of sustained benefit and cost.
Microsoft has been significantly better to work with in the last one to two years than previously – and I speak as someone who once ran a Microsoft Gold Partner. They are genuinely committed to innovation and have been extremely supportive.
Jisc provides for our data needs through the JANET network and the Infinity datacentre. I found that good executive engagement with Jisc has been a great catalyst to identify shared value and innovation. Phil Richards, Jisc’s chief innovation officer, jointly presented with us as the AOC (Association of Colleges) conference.
Tribal provides our learner management systems and again, through good executive engagement, we have built a strong partnership. It's one in which we are jointly pursuing sales opportunities through our new outsourcing company.
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
SmartRoom, our next-generation classroom, combines furniture and room design, technology software and hardware, as well as new approaches to pedagogy. We’ve used it to continue our journey in gathering learning analytics, and will extend it in partnership with Microsoft R&D and Jisc to IoT and machine learning. It positions the group as a leader in the sector and enables continued transformation of teaching and learning.
I introduced RFID tracking of students during enrolment. This is a time when many thousands of prospective students come through our doors. Queue management is critical to ensure we recruit the right students onto the right courses. I used RFID-enabled key fobs to track students in real-time through a web dashboard. Using this we could load-balance resources at each stage of the process, develop a better understanding of the dynamics of invited students and walk-ins, and sometimes just simply help find a parent who had lost a child.
There are other areas which I would consider to be less innovative, but perhaps in the sector are so. A good example would be migration of our infrastructure to Infinity datacentre and the development of our network to enhance resilience.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
Microsoft as a partner in sector-specific innovation led to the creation of a Microsoft showcase classroom and subsequently our SmartRoom offering. Tribal as a vendor and a commercial partner provides accelerated transformation solutions to the sector. Jisc as a partner in sector transformation helped us become the first college group to migrate to the Infinity datacentre, a framework negotiated through Jisc – covered by Computer Weekly and other publications. Misco as a hardware supplier helped our migration to Surface 3 devices, providing digital literacy training to staff and facilitating a CYOD scheme.
Rank in order of importance your sources for innovative technology suppliers
1 Analyst houses. 2 Media. 3 CIO peers. 4 Industry body. 5 Consultants.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What is the annual IT budget?
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
Around 20% capital.
What is your budget's operational/development split?
Around 25% on innovation, the rest operational.
How many users does your department supply services to?
Circa 30,000. This includes over 1,000 full-time staff (campus and field-based) and a large body of campus and remote students.
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
Almost all staff are in-house. I expect this to change as the outsourcing company starts to deliver larger customer programmes.