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CIO Podcast: Alan Hill CIDO, University of Exeter

The Horizon CIO Podcast is brought to you in partnership with Future Processing:
To discover what to include in your RFI, download How to write an RFI for outsourced IT Projects from Future Processing at:

“It’s hot on the exoplanet Wasp 107 Bravo, 500 degrees celsius and that is very important. A team of experts from the University of Exeter has detected helium in the atmosphere of this exoplanet, they used the Hubble space telescope to analyse light passing through it and they have discovered helium by looking at the data and analysing it,” says Alan Hill, Chief Information and Digital Officer for the University of Exeter.

Hill, speaking at a Horizon CIO Network roundtable recently, has been leading technology at the Devon university since January 2016 when he joined the institute from the British Army. The move into academia wasn’t an effort to avoid being shot at, the former Army CIO was attracted by the opportunity to completely change the way a university operates.

Universities are under going significant change. The move to tuition fees in the UK has been headline news since it was introduced by the Labour government, as a result academic institutions now compete for students, because students means revenues. The tuition fees for UK resident students are set by the government, but for international students the institutions set their own fee rates.

“An annual fee is around £9000 a year, for international students that can be double, so recruitment of those is a highly competitive market, so the offer you give has to be compelling. You need to respond to their application quickly and get them signed up,” Hill says of enrolment pressure Exeter faces, “that sounds like retail,” he adds.

Research too drives revenue, both in terms of grants to carry out research, but it also attracts students.

“Focusing on research and changing the IT operating model without dropping the ball is a risky business,” Hill tells the CIO Podcast. “Research is vital for the university as part of Russell Group – the research intense universities. Because research drives big money, creating the capability to support research means buying high performance computing.”

New role for IT

“We find ourselves as an IT organisation pushing our people up, forward and getting close and personal to the staff driving those research opportunities,” Hill explains of how research into exoplanets, dementia or energy require bespoke technology and analysis. “We are having to transform from an old style IT organisation providing infrastructure and applications to be right down in the business colleges, a central shared service, business driving activity.

“The skills of the IT staff make the difference, they are the people who do the specialist programming to support the research into the atmosphere of exoplanets light years away. So we have really had to focus on digital services,” Hill says.

“We are pushing IT staff up into the marketing and admissions teams, designing CRMs that are about closing the deal and driving income. We need to move ownership of the IT and digital services up and out of IT. We need to get people who understand education to own the digital services, not me as an IT expert. What do I know about how to educate or research?”

Hill adds that his team has been changing the governance “so they own it, they describe what they want. To do that we needed to pick up the whole operating model and turn it upside down. We need an IT operating model that is fit for the modern environment. So its design led, service centric and absolutely customer focussed.

“And that empowers the IT staff in a way you haven’t seen before and during that process, we kept an important aspect of delegation to the point of discomfort,” Hill says of his leadership style.

“I am not the controlling authority on all things, I have to delegate to ensure the delivery is at pace, so delegation to the point of discomfort is a really important part of what we are trying to achieve. That is not my idea, that is something that comes from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

“Customer is not an easy word in higher education, but student journey is entirely applicable. Can you recreate an Amazon online shopping experience for students who are submitting their work for marking? Can we design so work goes through the plagiarism checker, it goes through online marking, the comments by the academics are in short videos or text and it arrives back in the students inbox at the right time and the grades are instantly put in the analytics database and it arrives on their smartphone in an App? That is the kind of customer journey we are talking about,” Hill says of how a university has to have a technology ecosystem akin to retail.

“This means creating immersive digital services that create an environment around the student, they get everything they need in one click in the format that is highly personalised to that student. So if you learn in pictures, if you understand and conceptualise things in that way, that is how stuff is pushed to you, or if you want things in pure text that is how you get it,” Hill says of taking lessons from personalised offerings in financial services for example and placing them in academia.

“In research we have management systems that pick up an academic’s slightly hair brained idea and take it all the way through bids, grants, analysis, delivery and the impact, which is what research is all about,” Hill says of creating new workflows. “It is all about being data and insight driven.”

Secure university

“While we are doing all of that change, we have to talk about security. My experience in the Ministry of Defence is extensive in security, the game there is to understand where people were landing in your enterprise, in your network. Can you pick out three or four needles in the haystack and put them together and understand why they are there before you take any action?” Hill says of security management during his career in the Army that saw him rise to the rank of Brigadier.

“In a university, where is the data? Who has their hands on it? What is valuable? The University of Exeter is big into bio science and energy. Who is interested in our energy research? There is probably quite a few state actors that would be quite interested in our battery research.

“I moved from a military environment where we have some quite clear threat actors to an environment where university and IPR (intellectual property rights ) has to move forward. We are dealing with academics who are very single minded, they are completely dedicated to their cause, they do not trust many of the systems, but they trust to keep it themselves. How do I put more security around them? Because I know they are acting as a honey pot,” Hill says of the security challenge.

Business continuity

“We have worked really hard to get the university to understand what are you going to do when the website goes down? We run a lot of services through the website, the recruitment, confirmation and clearing activity it is really important.

“We did two exercise at our silver level command we worked up a scenario, working with the police of having our website hijacked. Basically ransomeware and we had to move to an alternative.

“How long can we last without our website? Hang on, we are right in the middle of a major recruitment campaign. If you are off the air they will sign up to other universities as there is an offer available. The next scenario was the website was off and another site pops up and all the student financial details are captured.

“We did that at gold level then, the directors, we run the same scenario, are you going to pay the ransom, big debate between the CFO and others who say we need to get back up and running, so we are working on alternative plans. We are trying to work out where we are in the battle rhythm of the university to understand what it is, what we need to do and we have a really productive discussion about how we will respond. Because we know this will happen, it is about how you respond that matters.”

We asked Hill if there were military and education parallels. “With the customer, it is a mix of demanding age ranges all determined to succeed that is true of both,” Hill responded. “Special services are required by some, they might be very demanding academics or generals. Data is more important than ever before to these people.”

The Horizon CIO Podcast is brought to you in partnership with Future Processing:
To discover what to include in your RFI, download How to write an RFI for outsourced IT Projects from Future Processing at:

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About Mark Chillingworth 278 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.

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