Francis Crick Institute Director of IT Alison Davis helped merge around 1,200 staff from two former institutes into a new organisation in 2015, with Europe's largest biomedical research centre based in London's King's Cross due to open by the end of 2016. Once in their new bespoke building the focus is to make sure the Crick fulfils on its promise as a digital organisation, while Davis sees huge opportunities in the sector with virtual reality and the visualisation of biomedical data.
Name and job title
Alison Davis, Director, IT&S, The Francis Crick Institute
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
The Francis Crick Institute is a new centre for biomedical research which is being set up in London. The Crick aspires to be one of the world's leading medical research institutes. In order to achieve this, as CIO, I need to ensure that the IT capabilities that are provided align to that aspiration and help to attract the best scientists. I am responsible for circa £25million investment in new IT capabilities and the effective delivery of the associated projects. The successful delivery of this programme of work will benefit the Crick researchers and collaborators. I am an active member of both the Crick Executive Committee and the Operations Management Committee. We have Awayday sessions where I participate in discussions of the wider Crick strategy and how we are going to effectively deliver the Discovery Without Boundaries vision. As a former research chemist, I also attend research retreats where I take an active interest in understanding the different areas of biomedical research that are being undertaken by the Crick.
How as CIO have you affected cultural change and / or behaviour in your organisation and to what extent?
The core of the research labs that will form the Crick have been merged from Cancer Research UK's existing London Research Institute and the MRC's NIMR institute at Mill Hill. The merger to form a new organisation in a brand new building with new ways of working that help to deliver on the Crick vision of discovery without boundaries and collaboration, involves significant cultural change. This affects both the Crick scientists (our end-users) and the IT staff that I have inherited from the former Institutes. The IT programme and I personally, have been very active in engaging with our end-users to discuss new ways of working in the new Institute. This will be a big change to scientists who are used to working autonomously in labs and who are now moving to an open plan, collaborative environment. Things as simple as the move to multi-function devices and away from personal printing, are a big change for our users, which have required significant engagement and discussion. I have encouraged the team to develop infographics which help to visually communicate the rationale for change in a clear poster format. In addition, I have been working with the IT team to develop new ways of working for our new environment and we have developed shared values for the IT organisation to enable us to bring together staff from the former Institutes to work together.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s company performance
On April 1 2015, the Crick successfully merged around 1,200 staff from the two former Institutes into the new organisation. Prior to that point, the Crick had essentially been a startup, with a staff of around 100 and newly implemented IT systems (HR, Finance) supporting just that user base. On April 1, we had to onboard 1,200 staff to the HR, Payroll, Finance and Procurement systems and migrate all of their email (circa 4TB) to Office 365 with all of the associated change management. For HR & Payroll, we were dealing with a TUPE transfer of staff from two different organisations with different contractual terms. In terms of email, we had 4Tb of historical folders to migrate, we have both Mac and Wintel PCs, scientists install their own email clients and one of the Institutes was not on Exchange. We achieved all of this successfully – one of our scientists told me on the day of transfer that he was impressed with the smoothness of the email transfer, having previously thought that this was not achievable; our staff were all paid at the end of April. In addition to this, on April 1, the Holborn fire meant that we lost the link between two of the former CRUK sites, which was being run for us by CRUK, so we were also immediately in a disaster recovery situation, which had to be managed with the users and with CRUK. Since April, the team have been bedding in the new systems and working to deliver the projects which are required in order to migrate into the new building. This has included successfully supporting the construction project, including providing the underpinning networking to the complex building management system and supporting network queries related to the testing of this system; having physically installed all of the networking equipment in the data centre, which we are now in the process of commissioning, so that the full network will be up and running in time for practical completion; delivering key corporate systems, such as the logistics system for the new building, in advance of the completion, so that these can be tested and rehearsed ready for implementation. In addition to all of this, we have had to continue to run IT across the existing sites, for a longer period than was originally intended, owing to delays in the building delivery.
Describe how you have used organisational and third party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
After joining the Crick, I made the case for the Crick to have Gartner EXP membership, which has benefitted us in a number of ways in setting up the organisation. For example, discussions with Gartner analysts have helped us to evolve our thinking around the implementation of our information security policy, which is a particular challenge for an organisation that wants to be simultaneously collaborative and “porous” in the context of sharing data, but also to be able to do it safely and comply with information handling principles. We have also used Gartner analysts as a sounding board for digital strategy development and for the review of contract terms, which has been directly beneficial to the Crick in. In addition, I frequently attend Gartner workshops and networking groups. I participate, and encourage my team to participate, in external networking with other similar Institutions, learning from other users of Big Data within and outside the biomedical field. We have strong relationships with the DIRAC astronomy network and with EBI. These linkages have directly benefited the organisation in terms of sharing information and occasionally resources with other Institutes. I also participate in the Pharmaceutical Industries Information Exchange which links the Crick with commercial pharma companies and Government, to share information on security considerations in the sector.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
The Crick is primarily a research organisation with scientists who are following their own basic research interests as well as collaborating with each other. However, it also needs to have a strong Institute Operations core in order to deliver consistent services. The IT organisation is organised in two main groups, Core IT and Scientific Computing. The Core IT team are responsible for the platforms and infrastructure that are used by the organisation as a whole, including systems of record, such as HR and Finance. The Scientific Computing team works closely with the researchers on specialist scientific solutions. This organisation allows us to operate in a bimodal way, with the Core IT delivering robust and sustainable platforms, while scientific computing is typically more agile and can partner closely with scientists to sandbox solutions. We have governance structures that are also split along these lines. There is a steering group for the Operational Applications (systems of record), which covers the corporate systems such as Finance and HR and also scientific systems which need to be robust, such as LIMS and instrument booking. A separate steering group covers Scientific Computing capabilities, which are more flexible; therefore the focus of this group is for the scientists to review how the resources are being used and, with the Scientific Computing team, manage and refocus resources in a more agile manner. Both groups report to an overall IT Governance Committee, which reports to the Executive Committee.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
It is my overall responsibility to deliver technology that supports the Crick strategy. In working towards this, I have developed a view of three areas of the Crick that could be described as “digital” which has been widely shared. The first is the science that we do, where the Crick’s computational researchers are developing new algorithms and approaches to analysing data. The Scientific Computing team works closely with these scientists in order to understand and jointly develop the platforms that will underpin their research. The second is the “digital building”; enabling the networked building management system, using unified communications and social networking to enable the development of a Crick community inside the new building and introducing a “wayfinding tool”, initially to help people to navigate the building and also to locate colleagues and resources.
The third strand is the digital enablement of the wider Crick organisation, reaching outside the Crick Laboratory building to create collaborative linkages with other institutions. This is already in the initial stages with the GlaxoSmithKline LinkLab project. Within the IT organisation we have deliberately set up a digital development team. This team has the responsibility for some conventional activities such as the external website and intranet, but is also encouraged to explore new ways of using digital technology to support and enable the organisational goals. They are developing the wayfinding application and are looking at other opportunities such as Google Cardboard.
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
As the Crick is currently in the process of being established, everything that we are doing (and that is covered in the above responses) is in order to enable the Crick to deliver, not only on the short term goal of getting into the new building, but also on the longer term goal of delivering the vision of Discovery without Boundaries. In delivering this programme, I have built strong relationships with my fellow operational directors and these, coupled with my involvement with senior meetings, enable me to suggest the use of technology as an enabler for future developments. I encourage my team to take a research-based approach to IT, looking at new technology and how it can benefit the Institute. As a tangible example of this, I encouraged our digital development lead to explore the opportunities of using Google Cardboard as a way of enabling virtual tours of the new building, as it is now difficult to get access while the builders are in a very high pressure phase of testing the environment. She has shown this to our Chief Operating Officer, who is very interested in the potential. In addition, she is now looking at how this can be used in scientific visualisation.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation (e.g. via a blog/seminars/newsletter etc.) about your team and the role of technology in the organisation and what impact is this having?
As part of the overall Crick programme, I participate regularly in roadshows with the sites to discuss the progress of the IT programme. In addition, we have specific IT engagement activities that we initiate in relation to the projects. I and my team also participate in an Institute Operations User Group to discuss service performance of all of the operational functions.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
I am active on LinkedIn and have a Twitter account, both of which I use to keep up with discussions across the industry.
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?
At the moment the Crick is just forming. We have created scientific user groups and I engage with existing groups to discuss technology implmentation as well as running specific project engagement activities
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management e.g horizon scanning, technology strategy workshops, involvement in industry events and bodies
Horizon scanning, encouraging the team to take a research mindset to early sandbox testing of new technology, membership of the Gartner EXP programme and attendance at conferences and networking events. These can be very varied - for example, I will be facilitating a discussion at a Proventa Oncology meeting in March, on the use of Informatics data.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
I am mentoring a junior female manager in my team who has come from a non-IT background and moved into IT. I have also improved the culture of the team by organising work on shared behaviours, which was very positively received and I have also organised a social styles workshop for my direct reports and their reports, to improve the strength and understanding of the management team.
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
I am a member of both the Executive Committee and the Operations Management Team. I have a strong collaborative style and am very open with my peers. As an example, I was asked to lead a cross-functional review of some activities at the former Institutes which did not fall specifically into the IT area, to establish where these should sit in the new merged organisation. This was successfully completed and the activities transitioned. I have also worked collaboratively with peers as business project sponsors for the implementation of systems, such as HR and Finance, with positive feedback.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills, perhaps through mentoring, training or external activities
I have been in management and leadership roles since the age of 25, at Glaxo. I have developed my skills in a variety of ways. In recent years, this has been primarily through self-initiated executive coaching (one set of coaching on personal impact, another on motivating teams), mentoring (via the Gartner EXP programme) and workshop sessions. I have also benefitted in an indirect way from mentoring the member of staff as this has made me reflect on the full range of techniques that one can use for interventions, which has been a good refresher! She has also offered some feedback on the way in which I work which has been an interesting validation.
Are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with: Machine Learning / Artificial Intelligence; Data Analytics; NoSQL; wearable technology; Enterprise Apps; Internet of Things; Automation and Robotics; 3D Printing; the Sharing Economy; Anything else?
We are interested in exploring data analytics in more detail but have only just scratched the surface of this. In particular, the visualisation of biomedical data is an area which I believe is a huge opportunity and I am personally passionate about. I have mentioned the investigation into the potential use of Google Cardboard in the answer to previous questions. I have a personal interest in wearable technology and have owned three generations of Samsung Galaxy Gear watches.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach – e.g. from consuming services from the cloud or on-premise products through to spinning up in-house development teams for bespoke work?
We have a stated strategy to adopt cloud solutions unless there is a good reason why this is not feasible or appropriate in a particular situation. We have a preference for off the shelf solutions, or white box solutions that can be tailored, rather than developing bespoke applications. In the context of developing scientific platforms, we look to learn from best of breed architecture and we are not afraid to be leading, working with systems integrators to deliver solutions.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
We do not specifically set aside time. However, when starting a new project that requires a technology investment, we do use the Gartner and other resources to do a full market scan rather than simply using a known vendor.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
Our strategy has been to work with a number of key suppliers to implement the new Crick Institute. These have been sourced through OJEU procurements or framework agreements and include: North Highland & Cordless - Project Management resources; Block and Cisco - Local area network & IP Telephony; Agresso - Finance; CoreHR - HR & Payroll; OCF (DDN, Lenovo & Mellanox) - data centre high performance compute & big data storage; Microsoft - Office 365 (via JISC academic framework). We are also open to working collaboratively to create new frameworks as we have done with JISC and other academic partners to take a new approach to sourcing offsite data centre space collaboratively.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We have two major strategic deals. The first is with Block as our network systems integrator - and via them, with Cisco. This brings both the networking for the new building, which is critical as the scientific data capture requirements need a high capacity and robust LAN, and also the unified communications suite which will enable effective working across the building. The latter is important as some areas of the building will have restricted access, yet we still want staff to be able to collaborate with each other. The second strategic deals is with OCF as the systems integrator, together with Lenovo, DDN and Mellanox, to supply the initial storage and compute capabilities for the new building, which amounts to ca. 3000 cores and 4.5Pb of raw storage and which is critical to enable us to start migrating labs into the new environment.
How do you rate the following as sources of innovative technology suppliers:
Analyst Houses - Always referred to
Consultants - Often use
CIO Peers - Often use
Industry Body - Occasionally use
Media - Occasionally use
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
How is cyber-security led and discussed by senior management?
As we are just setting up the Crick, I have been running a series of workshops, supported by KPMG, which has helped us to develop a cyber security roadmap. Senior management have been involved in the interviews and workshops, The report has been reviewed by the Operations Management Committee and will shortly be reviewed by the Executive Committee. It is also my expectation that it will go to the Board. There is an operational Security Steering Group which covers all aspects of security, which is chaired by the Director of Security and where I represent information security.
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?
£9.4M (this is the annual budget - I also have £25M setup budget)
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
£1.4M Capital, rest revenue
What number of users does your department supply services to?
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?
53 (we also have a large number of outsourced staff but these are for the setup project only - until end of 2016)
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?
Intention is 100% insourced