John Hemingway joined the highly prestigious research-intensive Durham University in 2019 with a brief to ‘turn around’ IT provision. In the latest edition of our ‘Transformational Leaders’ interviews, John talks to Berwick Partners’ Alex Richardson, Principal Consultant in our IT & Digital Leadership practice, who placed him into the role, about his first year in post, the response to the COVID crisis and his future plans for IT at Durham.
When we met earlier this year, I told you the purpose of this interview would be to talk at a high level about your time with Durham so far, but now I can’t not ask you about your response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What was your immediate response to the UK-wide lockdown, and what were the short/medium term actions that you took?
It’s going ok, we’re obviously busy dealing with the reality of the pandemic. We’ve had a lot of online exams which have actually gone very well. The reaction of the students has been good. So now it’s looking at next year and trying to get some sense of what exactly the situation is going to be, i.e. will any international students turn up? and if so, what’s the model going to be for teaching?
From my point of view, what I have been most pleased about is the way the institution has responded to the challenge of the coronavirus. We have an IT advisory group which is made up primarily of academics, they keep me honest as to the academic agenda and how we are meeting that.
I recently did a summary presentation about what we have done by way of response to COVID over the last few months. One thing that was good at Durham was that we declared our hand quickly. The institution took a very clear position, we knew what the intention was and could plan against that. I created a small team of about half a dozen and they locked themselves away for two days. At the end of that, they came out with the plan. First, we had some tactical things that we needed to do but they were really just change requests, so we put an emergency change process in place meaning we could get things through quickly. The things left were small pieces of project work so we made sure that we had project managers assigned to each of those to ensure they had a degree of deliverability.
What we also did was go back to the institution stating all the things we needed to pause. Prior to lockdown we had a big ongoing project portfolio of around £20m, so we had to, in effect, carry out a major and rapid re-prioritisation process. We had a priority ranking comprising;
- P0 projects: Essential to enable the COVID response;
- P1 projects: Critical to what the University was doing;
- P2 projects: To be continued but only if resource allowed;
- P3 projects: To be paused for six months.
This re—prioritisation approach enabled us to quickly free up capacity to respond.
We also deployed MS Teams in 48 hours; we put a lot of capacity behind helping people get up to speed with it. We also deployed Zoom in two weeks. We decided to use both platforms at Durham as they do slightly different things. MS Teams is a collaboration platform, it allows users to share documents and other things really well. Zoom, however was designed specifically as a video-conferencing platform. It works well for that and particularly for anybody who is having bandwidth issues, it tends to give a better experience. We also did not want to put all our eggs in one ‘cloud basket’ so decided to opt for both.
Within MS Teams now we're starting to use the live events functionality to give a more produced and moderated experience, particularly around open days this summer. Teams live events can cope with up to 10,000 people with moderated breakout sessions for specific groups within that.
What about the way teaching is delivered?
Anything that was going to be delivered as a lecture we encouraged people to use our lecture capture system; Panopto and record it. They can record a lecture on a smartphone at home and upload it there. Students can then access it asynchronously, at a time that suits them. We have been fortunate so far as existing students were pretty familiar with our offering, but in the next academic year we will have a different delivery model coupled with a bunch of new students who will need to work out how to use everything. We've got to think about and how we do that and what extra on-boarding and orientation we might do for students.
Do you think there will be a fundamental shift in methods such as to flipped classrooms and options such as blended learning etc?
The biggest limitation is the physical estate, so if you take our biggest 500 seat lecture theatre and impose social distancing, it is reduced to about 50 people. We also need to think about the practical sessions in the labs and study spaces, in the library and computer rooms etc. We will be adopting a blended approach as we absolutely want each student to have some face-to-face interaction each week. We think that contact time is really important.
The biggest challenge for us is, understandably, the international market. We currently have good acceptances internationally, many with deposits paid. If you look at some of the surveys that have been done, only 2% of international students say that COVID is going to stop them travelling abroad. What we're doing in our areas with heavy international numbers is looking to do two intakes next year. We will have an October start and a January start. About 75% of international students say they would prefer a face-to-face start in January to an October start with the first term online.
So, COVID aside, take us back 15 months to when you came to Durham as CIO, what was the brief?
The first thing this was actually the IT operation itself, to get the reputation and the reliability of the service out of its boots and we have absolutely achieved that. You could talk to any of my key customers and they will talk to you about the difference that they experience now which is down to the raw ability in the team.
Then we had to tackle the technical debt and make sure the big projects deliver. We are 100% on track so far. HR payroll is done, as are the applicant CRM (RNGS) and phase one of Worktribe. The big-ticket items have come through.
The next thing was to work out and develop a strategy. I recently went to Council to talk through the proposed strategy, which went very well, and the draft is being endorsed by the University Council. The University has also brought in some IT industry experience with two new Council members. They have been really helpful and acted as good sounding boards.
What did you find, when you first arrived and started to look under the rocks and stones at Durham? What was the situation?
The biggest problem was a real separation between the IT organisation and the business. There was massive mistrust in both directions. People in IT were nervous of putting forward ideas, and of engaging with the business, because they thought they would just get slapped down. I had to establish trust around the senior IT team and then spend my first three months getting out around the institution and talking to key stakeholders to understand their perception.
Then it was a case of getting hold of the project side of things. Historically, Durham hadn’t been clear with defining who was responsible for a project and it tended to buy standard software but then customise it to high heaven!
So not all the building blocks for success were necessarily in place to begin with?
No, but what I did see was a team that wanted to do well. There was a lot of ability here and a couple of new key appointments has brought the team together.
What did you do then to give your people the confidence and the ability to start to shine?
The most important one was that it was clear that this was an executive level role when I joined. That meant that I was directly accountable to the Vice Chancellor which enabled me to take proposals to the Executive Committee. Having done that, the challenge was to actually deliver them, which we have also done.
The second thing was going out talking to stakeholders and to show them that their issues were being addressed, taken forward and resolved. This created a sense of an IT service that was listening; there was an IT-wide drive to develop a bit of humility and to be more listening than telling.
Lastly was consultation. When we were planning to do things, we got out there and spent time in the University to talk to people about it, almost overly reaching out to the organisation.
In terms of giving the team confidence, the key has been to give very clear feedback at the point at which something happened. So, if you’re seeing people doing it well, celebrate that straight away. But if you see someone that is not doing it, challenge them and ask them what they could do differently? The other thing we did was very clearly sharing good news stories. When people say person XYZ was fantastic, we set up a whole MS Teams’ channel just to call out people who’ve been complimented. The other thing is empowering people. If you empower people and they do step forward and they get a good result, then they'll do more of it.
So where are you at Durham now? If I were a student or a member of University staff what difference have you made for me?
Well you’d see greater reliability in the services you are consuming, you have got a much richer set of resources available accessible anywhere to do the things you need to do. You have an IT organisation that if there’s something you want to see changed, you’ll get listened to and it will be acted on.
So COVID aside, what's next over the next few years?
There is still a lot of technical debt which we will be sorting out. We’ve adopted good service management principles, but now want to move on and see how much of DevOps we can bring in but we’ve some work to do on ourselves procedurally before we can do that.
We also want the customer experience to be truly digital. At the moment, we work from the service out. The real shift over the next three years is to work from the experience in. Where we start to look at the user journey and then determine how we can deliver that experience. Beyond that I’d like to become commercial, to sow the seeds for generating income. I’ve identified some ways we can do that.
One final question, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have bitten the bullet and recruited a Director of Information Systems six months earlier! I’ve brought in somebody from outside the sector and she is already working out very, very well, so that is a lesson. The other thing I could have done was to come more quickly at the strategy. With hindsight I could probably have started off that work a couple of months earlier, because I had somebody who was very capable within the team.
Well, John thank you very much. This has been a fascinating session I’m really pleased to hear that the University clearly has the CIO it needed, and that we did a good job in finding you!