Acknowledging that the British Council’s centralised resource pool was not delivering the expected benefits, that accountability was being diluted across teams, and that a gap had emerged between business units wanting change and the management of that change, Laura Dawson designed a new model to deliver change. It recognises that for many organisations change is now a constant and needs to be managed, but that agile methods and waterfall management don’t always mix well. Her ‘run and change’ approach in business units has allowed her to focus resources on what matters. And her belief in strong business partnering allows IS to be a critical friend, to integrate more fully with colleagues, and not just help the business but be the business.

Full name
Laura Dawson

Job title
Chief information officer

Company name
British Council

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Within our global information services and working closely with other expert colleagues we are building models that allow greater flexibility in development of product while staying true to minimum standards of design, privacy and support. We have built further on our ‘freedom within a framework’ strategy to put in place platforms for delivering what we do. Over the last year we have introduced a step-change in project management and business analysis capability, helping our colleagues to identify key opportunities, deal with big challenges (including the proposed closure of a VPN in China and data storage in Russia) and improve efficiency.

There have been some key wins in the year for the organisation through effective technology, including the work on our online level check, which has made big improvements in the customer journey for English teaching and saved over £3m in costs over a number of countries. This is all part of an inspirational collaboration with our English business unit colleagues to deliver a new teaching centre management product that is improving the work of our teachers and back-office staff as well as the customers themselves.

The influencing of what we do as an organisation is based on strong business partnering, allowing us to be a critical friend, as well as our three cultural norms of humility, critical loyalty and credible assertion. This approach has allowed us to integrate more fully with our colleagues and not just help the business but be the business.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
The breadth of what the British Council does is huge. We work in 110 countries in a number of business areas, and the need for cultural relations and friendly knowledge and understanding between the peoples of the world has never been stronger. The global information services team has delivered support, drive and success for a multiplicity of areas.

We have delivered joined-up data across all business streams to provide key performance indicators and a credible dashboard on the whole work of the British Council. It all delivers a more efficient way of showing the evidence of what we do, how many people we engage with, and what impact we have. This data allows the organisation to shape policy on relations with other countries, opens doors to discuss difficult subjects, drives funding and shows a credible, transparent and professional face for what we do. While we still have a way to go, the foundations are there. Our colleagues are excited about what we are doing together and it is also allowing our back-office teams to get a far better understanding of the impact we have across the world. It’s a win-win.

We have developed a new and more confident governance and assurance structure that takes a more objective approach to architecture and security. We have introduced FAIR as a risk management and assessment methodology that allows a more balanced, less risk-averse approach. It has been used in assessing risks for both live systems and proposed change, and is allowing us to save time and effort later on. This is coupled with a confident operational risk committee that is removing the pain from managing information risk and dealing with issues as well as introducing key risk indicators to monitor our progress and drive behaviour. While this sounds dry, we have also coupled it with an awareness campaign linked to our organisation’s flagship Shakespeare Lives campaign – ‘privacy piracy is not new, Shakespeare got there first’. This included posters, banner ads and email footers using Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello, among others.

We have delivered a considerable number of solutions across the world, including improved unified comms through a significant deal with our delivery partner, the online level check, and an innovative use of Office 365 in Ghana to allow external collaboration with partners on some of our society and programmatic work.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
The key area of involvement has been in designing a new model for the delivery for change. Our organisation had focused on a centralised resource pool to reduce cost and improve skills, but this model was not delivering the expected benefit, accountability was being diluted across teams, and a gap emerged between the business unit wanting the change and the management of that change.

I have designed and am now implementing a new model, which uses practices from the management of IT in the delivery of our business functions. The model recognises that for many organisations change is now a constant, and that the original PM3 model (portfolio, programme, project) may not be sufficient. Change needs to be managed, but agile methods and waterfall management don’t always mix well, and the wrong method can sometimes destroy progress.

Adopting the concept of ‘run and change’ in business units allows us to focus our resources on what matters, but that still leaves the need to ensure skills are improving and that we meet minimum standards for design and implementation. We are also splitting build from implementation and moving the implementation closer to the country to ensure we are driving the change, getting a strong feedback loop, and capturing the benefits.

In technology, we have implemented and are rolling out on-screen marking for our exams business, allowing us to normalise and optimise our business functions and mark English exams all over the world. This is not only a big technology change but also a major cultural and logistical challenge.

I have already mentioned the online level check and our collaboration work in Ghana.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
The global information services department consists of 250 people spread over the world, including a big hub in Noida in India and Warsaw in Poland. Over the last two years we have implemented a major transformation to introduce service line management and drive clarity on who is doing what and where.

Our culture in the early years needed to focus on getting the basics right and driving for service and flexibility. We are now sharpening the culture to bring a more confident approach, a more authoritative voice as a strong and integrated part of the business. We have built the framework of minimum standards and created an engagement model that helps colleagues navigate us. The cultural norms have remained true and helpful – humility, credible assertion and critical loyalty – and this new phase allows us to lift the maturity of how we do things up a notch or three.

We are seen by senior execs as clear on our budgets and focused on the right things, playing with a straight bat and ‘getting it’ on key issues for the organisation. We have been seen as exemplars in the organisation for driving change and improvement. The aim is always to deliver the right things, so the rest of the organisation can do their jobs. Our strapline is smoothing the way to British Council success.

Last year we ran a global forum for all technology staff in the British Council. It was an opportunity to bring together not only people in my team but local IT staff who had previously felt neglected and isolated. This has given us a big lift in being one team and also getting the most out of the talent we have across the world.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
Our big programme in this area is tech-savvy leadership – a multichannel, multidisciplinary programme which has been designed and is now in execution to support colleagues in operating and leading in a digital world. It involves a series of short-term and long-term interventions starting with an ‘iconic event’ delivered as part of an overall 21st-century leadership programme developed by our HR department but in partnership with me and my digital colleagues. The programme includes using existing meetings to bring key topics into discussion (eg showcasing product development or communications techniques), and mutual mentoring between tech-savvy staff and less tech-savvy senior leaders. There are drop-in sessions on how to use kit, safe spaces to share ideas, an executive assistant group where we equip them with tools and techniques to support the executive teams and also maintain a feedback loop.

We are also covering key areas such as privacy, service and security by design and what that means so that expectations on how to deliver are managed. Other audiences include programme managers and senior business unit leaders. Finally, we are sourcing and delivering keynote speakers for management board ‘in days’ to provide inspiration and remove concern about innovation and the opportunities that already exist.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We have a number of initiatives in this area around vendor management. Last year we introduced vendor management into the department (prior to my arrival it had been in a different team!). This has allowed us to be closer and more collaborative with our vendors. Where this is bearing fruit has included:

  • support in areas where we have had resource gaps – eg architecture
  • moving sharply and at pace to deliver unified communications
  • identifying £100k of savings through better management of contracts including clearer benchmarking
  • ramping up and successfully using a nearshore partner for development of key exams systems, allowing us to increase our enterprise-class development and flex with demand
  • our engagement with suppliers has allowed us to improve existing services and costs and move us up the hierarchy for our major suppliers, making us better to do business with and delivering effectively for the British Council.

We are in the middle of a more focused sourcing strategy, which will look to deliver effective services at the right price.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
The big mantra in our team is diversity by design. This includes a number of key strands:

  1. The services we provide allow everyone who works at British Council access. We build this in by design and know one size does not fit all. There is a push to ‘just ask’ rather than assume what people need.
  2. We design our customer services with diversity in mind. And we make sure we test our strategy by peer review with our equality, diversity and inclusion team (they run a cross-check service).
  3. We monitor and drive diversity through our recruitment processes to make sure we have the most diverse team possible.

To drive this home, our most inspirational speaker at our conference focused on how accessible technology benefits us all, which was a big opportunity for a global team. The big surprise was the realisation that some of my team didn’t know what a guide dog was.

I have also contributed to a white paper on gender equality in tech. Our Charity IT Leaders conference will be focusing on diversity in all its senses, including diversity of ideas and thinking.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
My team refer to itself as the engine. The structure is pretty traditional but tried and tested. We have:

  • a strategy team with business partners, business analysts (including practice management for non-GIS business analysts) and portfolio/demand management; this team also runs the strategic design authority
  • a design and development team with project managers, development resources (including partners), architecture (although incubating solution architecture at this stage) and infrastructure
  • a service delivery function with operation (service lines), service engagement models, transition and vendor management; this team also runs the operational risk committee
  • information governance and risk management supporting the teams with consultancy and advice on privacy, security, etc, and developing minimum standards
  • a management office which supports culture, communications, branding, organisational governance work such as EDI assessments for diversity, regular reporting and KPIs, macro benchmarking and financial governance.

We have a full engagement model which:

  • aligns our run operations (service delivery) with the direct operation overseas – it’s a more globally aligned function
  • aligns strategy and design and development with our various business units for a more product and strategic alignment using business partners
  • aligns development resources with key business units including setting up an exams-focused unit (exams is our biggest demand area) that delivers incremental and continuous change on our exams platforms
  • aligns our information governance to all areas using information governance and risk advisers across the world.

We are introducing stronger and more professional standards for non-GIS staff working in technology or information through the development of a practice management function. This includes ‘injecting understanding’ of minimum standards for development, contracting into key events and setting up a skills framework using SFIA.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Main suppliers include

  • Vodafone – connectivity and telephony
  • CGI – deskside support in UK, partnering on architecture, global service desk, datacentre
  • DCG – nearshore partner for development resources
  • Seal – SAP support
  • Salesforce – CRM
  • Microsoft and Phoenix – Office 365.

While we haven’t had any major new deals, our focus has been on extracting great value out of our deals, and we have reduced total spend on all contracts by over £1m this year. This includes improved exploitation of the contract, negotiation on existing contracts, and tighter control of contract issues resulting in reductions and paybacks. While this sounds painful for the vendors, our relationships have never been stronger.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
We will deliver tools and capability for more peripatetic workers including OneDrive, Office 365, standards on other tools, and more on unified communications. The key will be driving demand and utilisation by demystifying and empowering people to feel confident in using the kit.

We will improve implementation and roll-out of new solutions, and drive improvements in programme delivery at reduced cost. We will build on the change model described above.

We will deliver greater data standards and integration and drive excitement in the beauty of data. We will pull a really strong community of interest together on insight and analytics to become a force multiplier on data utilisation and power.

We will put communities of practice in place and drive skill development across a number of areas. Practice management is not soft and gentle. It is bringing the same rigour and drive for professionalism that can be seen in other professions, such as finance, legal and medical. While many of the practitioners will not be in my line, setting the standards and helping people achieve them is critical to professionalising the service.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
This is key to what we do and we already operate in mainland Europe. Our organisational aim is more important than ever to ensure we maintain friendly knowledge and understanding for citizens of all of the countries we operate in and with the UK. We will maintain our technology presence in Poland and celebrate the success we get there and build on it.

We will continue to work with our EU region on digital engagement in particular.

When did you start your current role?
October 2013

What is your reporting line?
COO and thence CEO

Are you a member of the executive leadership?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
We have an exec director of partnerships, innovation and digital and we work very closely. Our focus for him is currently partnerships and fundraising, but also product development. We are working together to broker engagement with third parties.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Monthly but pop-ins too.

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
Headcount is about 9,000 but the user base is closer to 14,000.

IT budget

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation's revenue?
£35m with an additional £6m in other entities, so £42m in all.

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
75% run and 25% change – roughly.

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. Analyst houses
  2. Industry bodies
  3. Consultants
  4. Media
  5. CIO peers

IT security

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

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Yes and they report to me, but with an independent committee to add objectivity. The CISO needs to be able to influence free-standing regardless of reporting line. Same as CIO!

British Council IT department

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 or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • ERP
  • CRM
  • security
  • enterprise applications
  • social
  • networking/communications.

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
• Cloud

  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • ERP
  • CRM
  • datacentre/infrastructure/server
  • security
  • AR/VR
  • enterprise applications
  • devices (mobile)
  • devices (desktop)
  • networking/communications
  • RPA.

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
Robotics interestingly...

The EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?