Six years ago, Neil Williams arrived at an IT services department focused predominantly on the delivery of technology rather than service. It was reactive in approach, and seen by customers and stakeholders as a necessary cost centre rather than a value-adding, engaged and business-led service. Since then, he has led the service to a position where focus on business engagement and provision of an assured, flexible and transformational service are the norm. The change of behaviour, focus and approach he has instilled has delivered major benefits to the business, and seen his own influence and contribution extend beyond IT to influencing corporate strategy and corporate transformation.
Director of IT services
University of Derby
How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
As director of IT services at the University of Derby, I hold a key role in creating and driving business change and influencing strategic direction through both the application of technology and supporting the overall change agenda of the organisation. Working in partnership with my senior colleagues, I have delivered change in multiple areas of the business, responding quickly to increasingly complex change in the HE sector. With the support and commitment of colleagues and my department I have enhanced the staff and customer experience, the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation, the business intelligence and decision-making capability, and resource scheduling and utilisation.
These improvements have been in addition to the management and leadership of the constant improvement to the overall IT service provision, technical strategy and operations, and cybersecurity. I have combined the capability and development of the IT workforce with technical leadership in our sector, trust with my stakeholders and the ability to lead change to create a sector-leading IT capability with over 30 shortlisted national awards in just four years. Within these award nominations I was shortlisted in 2016 for the fourth time as CIO of the Year.
I influence and support a wide range of areas across our business, ensuring that I offer the right balance of leadership, partnership and support to my colleagues and stakeholders, who rely heavily on their IT provision to respond to market demands. As an employer, the IT function within the university has one of the highest national scores for staff engagement; as a service provider, the IT function has over 99% satisfaction from our staff; and as a provider of service to our students, we have one of the highest satisfaction scores in the UK. In addition, we have been externally benchmarked in the top quartile across overall IT performance.
The excellent level of service we provide is supplemented with multiple strategic change projects operating in close partnership with our business where each project has a direct connection to the strategic aims of the business, improving our income generation capability, our resource utilisation, our decision-making, our student experience, our staff experience, and our overall efficiency and effectiveness. Over 30 strategic change projects were delivered in 2016 that contributed to the university’s continued growth in a highly competitive sector.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
In the last 12 months I have partnered closely with key colleagues and stakeholders to deliver over 30 strategic projects, where each project directly underpins a strategic aim. These projects are categorised into five primary areas to ensure focus and delivery to the strategic needs of the organisation.
Decision-making: Development work was completed to support decision-making using new data warehouses, reporting and analysis tools, supported with comprehensive data definition and collation activity across the majority of the data systems. These data sets are used in multiple decision-making entities across the university, and combine both monitoring systems and predictive analytics. Information flows and data governance have been enhanced and architecture improved. In partnership with colleagues across the university we now have several new information sets that did not exist previously, which are being used as evidence to initiate institutional improvement.
Planning and resources: Developments have completed with key colleagues and stakeholders to create, manage and exploit resource usage data better (eg timetabling, space utilisation, budget forecasting) and to predict and manage allocation of staffing and physical resources better. These data sets are now being used to manage the deployment of our capacity to strategic areas more effectively, ensuring the organisation can maximise its return on investment.
Self-service: Self-service improvements have been completed for both staff and students, including responsive web interfaces, to enable mobile access to corporate services and data better. CRM and marketing support projects were completed to improve prospect management and conversion for the organisation through better information access. The digital record for students was enhanced to enable improved personal support and information flow, which aid our students in achieving their potential.
Income generation: Several developments were completed to exploit responsive web design, and enhanced mobile access and CRM technology to attract and convert prospects. New market-leading user interfaces were designed to improve user experience with legacy ERP systems, ensuring prospective students remain engaged with the institution through their journey into higher education.
The above all directly contributed to achieving our corporate plan, which explicitly identifies IT systems as key enablers to success.
However, the above is only part of the success for the last year. Additional change has been delivered across multiple aspects of the organisation which improve our overall performance. In the last 12 months I and my team have helped improve the cybersecurity of the institution with sector-leading technology and support services alongside improved training and communication to our staff. In particular, the awareness of attacks that target human behaviour has been improved to reduce risk in areas such as phishing.
A new working relationship and portfolio management structure was developed for our colleagues in estates teams to ensure consistency in delivering an expansive and challenging estate development portfolio. This work was recognised through a sector-based award shortlisting.
A portfolio of internal work was established targeting efficiency and effectiveness in IT operations – eg monitoring, account creation, service delivery – to ensure resource can be released to support the strategic portfolio. We have managed to continually re-assign our resource capacity to meet new demands through constant review and improvement of our internal operations.
Furthermore, the underlying infrastructure of the university has been further improved, with new storage systems, numerous technology upgrades and increased security. Programmes continue to replace network infrastructure and storage systems as part of the strategic development of IT capability to create a flexible and agile virtual infrastructure. Projects including the migration of staff email to Office365 were successfully delivered in exceptionally quick time: six weeks from start to completion.
With the above challenges and constant change, increasing demands and the need for IT to respond positively to institutional demand, my team and I also remained focused on ensuring our colleagues within IT, on whom all this work depends, have one of the best working experiences in the UK. Staff engagement activity was enhanced and further embedded into departmental activities, resulting in world-class staff satisfaction scores – our highest ever in 2016.
What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
The last 12 months have seen me deliver innovation across the University, within the IT field and more widely as a leader within the institution.
I have led the vision, creation and delivery of a programme of multiple, related IT projects to improve business performance, efficiency and effectiveness, and the customer experience. The programme, delivered in close partnership with colleagues and stakeholders, combined third-party services, cloud provision, internal systems and internal staffing provision to deliver sector-leading capability across multiple areas of business performance. Effectiveness/efficiency of IT and its alignment to institutional strategy have been substantially improved, and the mechanisms to ensure this continues are in place. Every area of strategic priority has been improved in some form.
I have also worked closely with key colleagues and stakeholders innovating and exploiting technology, processes and ways of working for wider business benefit, and ensuring strategic aims are fully supported. This innovation includes new ways of working in our online education business (which is recognised as sector-leading), new ways of protecting and managing information to meet increasing cyber threats but also to prepare for GDPR, new approaches to customer engagement to improve the attractiveness of our organisation and ease the process of entering higher education, and new analytics capabilities that change the nature of the conversation between the university and our students so we can support and help them achieve.
The innovation has been both technology-based and non-technical. In the latter case, I led work across the university to change the approach to workload allocation for my colleagues in the academic community to create flexibility and agility within our workforce planning. I have also supported new initiatives for additional income streams through helping with university-wide change management. Technical innovation has been driven primarily in the areas of cybersecurity, information management and protection, communication and collaboration, big data and analytics, infrastructure management and virtual infrastructure deployment. 2016 in particular has seen a significant level of innovation in how we monitor and manage our PC estate and the experience it offers our customers through sophisticated monitoring and analysis.
I understand that finding innovative ways to deliver business value is about driving improvement for the business: in the right way, with consultation, with engagement and with collaboration towards strategic goals. I have continued to use my expertise to help the organisation deliver its change programmes and my team are now regularly asked to provide guidance to business units on transformation, workforce development and process improvement.
I make sure that ITS keep up to date with both industry and sector innovations. I engage regularly with partners, attend international and national events (eg Gartner, IDC) where broader IT trends are covered and sector-based events (eg UCISA/ JISC) to ensure I have a strong working knowledge of HE. I support staff attending and contributing to events (Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft), and have established mechanisms to feed their new knowledge back into the department.
Personally, I am an adviser to organisations for IT in education such as IDC and Oracle. I engage auditors to monitor performance against both sector and industry to ensure we understand how well we are managing our department and technologies versus trends rather than simply which technologies are used. We are and aim to continue to be in the top quartile in a benchmark group.
How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
When I took the role of IT director in 2010, the IT services department was unbalanced – focused predominantly on the delivery of technology rather than service. ITS was reactively oriented, seen by customers and stakeholders as a necessary cost to the business rather than a value-adding, engaged and business-led service.
Since then, I have led the service to a position where the focus on business engagement and the provision of an assured, flexible and transformational service is now the norm. This change of behaviour, focus and approach has delivered major benefits to the business, and has enabled my influence and contribution to extend beyond the IT systems to influencing corporate strategy and corporate transformation.
Embedding clearly that our customers, quality and professionalism are at the heart of everything we do, I established a comprehensive skill set requirement for all service staff. It includes formal, technical certification and an ongoing commitment to their development as professionals with the level of values and behaviour we expect as one of the key service departments within the organisation. How my staff achieve success is as important to me as the work they undertake. It is key for me to lead by example, with strong values and working practices: passion, commitment, respect, tenacity, honesty and openness.
I have continued to embed a clear understanding of what I need from my staff to deliver a professional, high-quality IT service that the university could be proud of and, vitally, to ensure that all staff understand the role they have to play within this. I aim to lead by example and provide a role model for many of those within my teams who have aspirations to be leaders in the future. I am used by the HR department as an exemplar to my peers in staff engagement, professionalism and leadership.
More directly I am recognised by my staff as being always available to guide their careers – something I believe to be extremely important and worth much additional, personal investment. I undertake one-to-one meetings with every member of staff within ITS (122 members) to catch up with them on a more personal basis in addition to regular team meetings. I am very visible within the department and take the time to stress that I will always make time available if staff wish to see me.
I remain focused on staff professionalism, and have developed a very clear approach to staff development. Target setting was overhauled with values and behaviours now embedded within targets so that an appraisal has to balance how something has been achieved with what was achieved. This is unique in the sector. I went further: all appraisal outcomes are now based on a calibration unique in the university, where middle managers meet and agree all appraisal results before they are given. It is a mechanism unique in the sector for ensuring fair and open appraisals.
As a result, 2016 saw my department’s highest ever engagement score: 8.9 points above the organisational average and above the best ever score for any given organisation. 70+ is upper quartile in the UK, 80.2 is one of the highest ever achieved scores and probably the highest satisfaction score of any IT department in the country. This is the culmination of a sustained investment to improve which has moved the IT department from 64.5 in 2009 (average for the UK but 3 points below the university). Colleagues working within ITS at Derby are 20% more engaged at work than the UK national average and are in the very highest index for engagement in the UK.
Combining this with a step-change in our customer satisfaction levels, which now average 99% satisfaction and the work I and my staff continue to progress in embedding IT into the heart of the business, I have been given the opportunity to influence a change in culture for both the individual and for the whole organisation. I have achieved this by a very high focus on valuing my staff members and making IT services the best place to work in the university.
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?
One of the areas I am most proud of is how I work collaboratively with my CEO, our executive and my senior colleagues across all areas of our business. I advise, guide, support, console, encourage and work closely with my senior colleagues to continually drive organisational improvement. This section asks how I communicate ‘digital’, which is in effect simply the day job. I also spend time assisting the organisation to develop outside of its digital agenda, helping to support and improve all aspects of the business so colleagues can achieve their strategic aims.
Specifically in terms of our digital agenda I work with my CEO and board on process improvement, improved analytics and reporting, improved customer and staff experience, improved efficiency and automation, change management, security, governance, compliance and income generation opportunities. In effect, every component of the business forms part of a regular dialogue with the board and CEO that takes place through formal and informal means – and on a daily basis.
This dialogue continually seeks to address many critical success factors for the digital university:
Internal capability: Do we have the right staff, attitude and ability to understand and commit to exceed the ambitions of the institution’s digital agenda? Do they understand the role they play in embedding technology at the heart of the organisation and how they are key to exploiting opportunities to impact directly on the health and wealth of the organisation and every single student, staff member and stakeholder engaged with Derby?
Tools: Do we have the right toolsets, systems and processes in place to allow us to successfully deliver a bimodal approach to governance and delivery of services to the corporate entity while having the agility and responsiveness to provide competitive edge and (in the best-case scenario) digital disruption?
Ability: Do we have the ability to provide services which enable academics to transform teaching and learning into content-rich, collaborative experiences, and do our services enable Derby to be at the forefront of connectivity, communication and collaboration in the wider community?
Skills: Do we and our colleagues in academic, research and professional support departments have the knowledge and capability to be able to exploit the systems and technologies we put in place, securely and in the knowledge that we remain in full control of our future?
Understanding: Do our external partners understand our agenda and are they fully able to support our ambitions?
The role I undertake in this collaboration is therefore a critical component part in driving the university forward. I am able to do so with the knowledge that I am not ‘communicating’ digital, but facilitating the delivery of an agenda which is both understood and increasingly embedded across the institution.
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?
I have led several successful partnerships with suppliers, ranging from enterprise systems through to innovative infrastructure technologies. I work closely with our partners ensuring the relationship is mutually beneficial, and we exploit and utilise innovation and best practice wherever we can through dialogue. These relationships include the larger vendors such as Cisco, Oracle and Microsoft, as well as mid-sized partners and local providers.
My management team and I operate open and honest relationships where we are clear where we have our strengths and weaknesses, where we need help and where we can offer help. I am personally on an advisory panel for Oracle, and my teams also act in similar roles. We attend and contribute through presentations and panels at a number of supplier events both in the UK and internationally, and have been used in multiple case studies, the most recent of which has just been published, where our work with a PC management toolset has been captured in promotional videos by our partner.
How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
As a department we pride ourselves on the opportunities we create for our workforce to develop and on our recruitment approach, which creates opportunities for a diverse set of people to join us, gain experience and develop.
Our recruitment is purposely designed to find talent that may not typically gain entry into experienced IT roles as we focus on the person, not the technical skills they offer. We use recruitment processes that do not operate to a pre-built model and can adapt to circumstances, allowing us to see the best that our candidates can offer. Examples of this include:
- We interviewed an individual who was extremely nervous and poor at interview and struggling therefore to find work. While this meant they did not get the role on offer, we brought the individual in on a short-term temporary contract to give them work experience and gain some confidence, and provided some coaching. They now work for one of the largest cloud companies in the world.
- We have interviewed and recruited talent with no real certification and qualifications, but a clear passion for IT and making a difference. These candidates have proved to be major contributors to our department, and challenge the norm.
- We have interviewed candidates who did not fill the requirements of the given role, but clearly had outstanding skills and capabilities, and so found them temporary work to come and help change our ways of working while also gaining valuable experience.
Development of the existing workforce continues each year to improve. In 2016 I met with every individual in our department to have one-to-one conversations. These conversations create opportunities to adapt roles, change focus and priorities, support development, and identify and rectify issues or perceptions. Discussions varied from personal support and issue resolution, to career development and coaching, through to retirement planning, but all helped assess and develop the workforce and how we as an IT organisation could improve. Specific development opportunities have been put in place with our female workforce through the Aurora developing future leaders’ programme, which is a women-only leadership programme focused on higher education.
As a department within a university we also provide support and case studies to a diverse student body, helping to develop and encourage the future workforce into IT through career support, placements, presentations, coaching and case studies in their teaching. As a university we have a vital role in widening participation, and our department fully supports this aim wherever we can.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
The IT organisation has a fairly typical structure with three main strands:
- portfolio office, security and governance
- development and operations
- service delivery.
This structure was put in place in 2010 and has operated well, ensuring close alignment with our customers through service delivery and portfolio office, and a focus on delivering benefits through our development and operations teams.
The service delivery team is aimed at ensuring all operational work within the university is supported with an integrated, effective support response. We achieve 99% customer satisfaction. This department aligns effectively with meeting the business needs for a one-stop shop for IT.
Development and operations is the strategic part of our department, which is driven more by the strategic planning of the university. The department ensures it is aligning to business strategy through its engagement with business planning processes and corporate change portfolios.
The portfolio office is a key contributor to the organisation as it structures and delivers the digital transformation activity of the university where an IT activity is required. This team advises and guides business users on best practice approaches to change management, and also offers organisation-wide training, coaching and support to business units.
The security and governance teams within the department are somewhat unique in that we provide oversight of all information security within the organisation, including data protection and not digital information. The team provides training, information and facilitate knowledge transfer to business units on the governance of information.
To support the dialogue with the business we operate an IT steering board, and I sit on the multiple business unit strategic boards to ensure alignment.
I ensure all strategic IT change activity is communicated to the business units and consulted on to ensure we are delivering the priority business needs.
There is a process whereby the corporate strategy links and informs business unit strategies, which then are used to inform/create the IT strategy and portfolio of work. There is a clear and direct line of sight from corporate strategy to projects, operations and individual objectives within IT services.
Techniques such as dev/ops are not appropriate for our organisation, but flexibility and agility is created through agile, short-term project boards and project scoping, which are kept tight in terms of timescales (six to 12-month phases) while all aligning with longer-term strategic technology objectives.
What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
We have made a number of strategic technology deals within the last 12 months and have a number currently active. Examples include a major network replacement project using Cisco technology, new virtual learning platforms, new customer engagement technologies using Oracle, and a range of additional security capabilities using Microsoft.
What are your key strategic aims for next year?
My key aims for next year are to drive and support business change in the areas of income generation, decision-making, planning and resource utilisation, and our customer experience. This will involve additional CRM, analytics, portals, ERP and workflow developments alongside many other projects where we will develop our enterprise system support.
In addition, we will be moving more towards a hyperconverged infrastructure to build on our highly virtualised platforms, and enhance the performance and security of our network capability. We will be enhancing communication and collaboration technologies and pay particular attention to information security and the soon to arrive GDPR.
How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
Brexit will potentially have a number of impacts on our organisation in terms of recruitment of both students and staff from the EU, engagement with current and future partners, and the cost of supporting the business (the US dollar rate). All of these potential risks are being actively managed across the organisation to mitigate those risks we can, to ensure that we continue to offer the best experience to our students and staff, and that our organisation continues to grow and benefit from the broadest possible range of expertise, capabilities, facilities and opportunities.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
I have two line of reporting: for IT matters, I report to the deputy CEO; in my corporate and transformational change role, I report to the CEO/executive.
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?
Such functions form component parts of my organisation rather than discrete roles, and report directly to me.
How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
5% of revenue
What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
65% operational, 35% new developments.
Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:
- Industry bodies
- Analyst houses
- CIO peers
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?
Combined information governance and security functions – direct reports.
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?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- enterprise applications
- machine learning/artificial intelligence
- devices (mobile)
- devices (desktop)
- 3D printing
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- enterprise applications
- devices (mobile)
- devices (desktop)
What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
I am investigating/experimenting with a number of technologies that directly support our corporate plan. Areas that are somewhat new to universities that we are working with include:
- cloud-based ERP technologies – especially social cloud tools and customer experience
- data analytics and predictive modelling
- responsive web design
- virtual storage
- cloud infrastructure
- cloud productivity tools
- enhanced network security
- enhanced information management
- mobile security
- virtual application deployment
- configuration management and system deployment
- multifactor authentication
- hyperconverged services.
The above are trends/areas that are developing within our sector, and directly support the changes taking place within our industry or following government policy.
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?