CIO Masters Series: Mark Bramwell, CIO of Oxford Said Business School

The CIO of one of the world's elite business schools strives to bring users and IT closer together so they can learn from one another and create better business outcomes.

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At first, stepping onto the campus of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, opposite the Oxford train station, is like stepping into an experience. Designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, who also designed the London Opera House, the campus delicately blends classical outdoor architectural design, complete with amphitheater, columns and cloisters and oak paneled theaters, with a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Oxford dreaming spires.

As I wait for Mark Bramwell, Oxford Saïd’s CIO, in the open plan atrium, there’s a continuous throng of students from all over the world proudly taking photos of themselves in front of the school’s emblem, and there’s a feeling that both the building and the institution seem balanced — classically influenced marble surfaces meet selfies and Twitter.

Founded in 1996, the school is already one of the world’s highest ranked business schools, competing head to head with prestigious institutions like Harvard, Stanford and MIT Sloan. This year, its MBA program was ranked sixth best in the world outside of the U.S., and the institution was ranked among the top 10 business schools in the world for its open and executive MBA programs. From my discussion with Bramwell, it’s clear that the school’s success is the result of an entrepreneurial culture and the strong sense of community that the institution fosters both at home and abroad.

In plain sight

As we navigate our way through the campus, one of the first things I learn is that Bramwell moved the IT support desk to an office that's next to the main reception area. While at first this might sound like a tactical or trivial move, it is in fact the first sign of his deeper strategy, because it brings IT support, a function that many organizations are all too happy to hide, out of the shadows and into direct contact with the stakeholders. Providing personable face-to-face support it just one benefit of this new move. Its real purpose is to help bring users and IT closer together so they can learn from one another and create better business outcomes.

Using an analogy, Bramwell tells me that he doesn’t want a team of waiters, whose purpose is just to serve, as is so often the case with IT departments. He wants a team of maître d’s and sommeliers, individuals who can anticipate their users’ needs, make recommendations and provide a valuable personalized service.

As with many IT organizations, Bramwell’s operation sits horizontally across the business, which elevates it into the position of being a department that has a genuine holistic oversight and freedom to roam; this freedom, which is also a responsibility, is one of the key components that Bramwell hopes will make Saïd Business School even more successful in the future. No single department has all of the answers to all of an organization's challenges or conundrums, and it’s only by working together that individual business units can help an organization thrive.

New world frontiers

Every academic institution is being disrupted and attacked on all fronts. On one hand, technology has helped new and old adversaries alike open up new routes to market and extend their reach. On the other, new and emerging business operating models and paradigms are forcing business schools to rewrite and iterate their programs at a rate they’ve never experienced before.

With every challenge though comes opportunity, and for forward-thinking organizations like Oxford Saïd, the question is less about how to defend the core business and more about how to take advantage of new trends. Bramwell, better perhaps than anyone else, knows that technologically the school can’t stand still.

The concept of the borderless organization is nothing new, it’s been with us for a decade or so. But new cloud-, digital- and mobile-enabled business models, combined with a drastic fall in the cost of creating a new business, mean that it's now easier than ever for anyone to venture into new markets and disrupt established incumbents.

Companies like GE and Unilever, which never before offered business education and MBA programs, are increasingly trying to encroach on the elite business schools’ markets by offering a mix of both on-premises and off-premises education programs -- the latter more often than not being delivered by what has come to be known by the acronym MOOC, which stands for massive open online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students can enroll and participate in MOOCs, and as the quality of these programs rises, it’s easy to see why elite business schools like Oxford Saïd and Harvard may feel as though they’re under siege.

Bramwell sees that there are places for both types of business models in Oxford Saïd’s portfolio, and he believes that there will always be a place for bespoke, on-premises executive education programs that provide a learning experience that online alternatives simply can never match. Similarly, there’s also an option and a place for leveraging the technology of MOOCs; for example, it’s impractical to fly 3,000 executives into the U.K. to take part in a training program. Even though Bramwell’s attitude may seem like a sensible one, it is in fact a crucial one that’s all too often understated.

In today’s world, the amount of choice and variety, all of which are principally underpinned by technology components, is increasing and the real skill, one that Bramwell seems to have a superb grasp of, is how individuals and organizations can harness what’s available to create business advantage, even in the face of adversity.

Meanwhile, Bramwell’s take on technology might also take many people by surprise. Ironically, he doesn’t believe that technology is a differentiator, it’s the way that the course materials are curated and the quality of the learning experience that matters the most. Learning is a personal engagement, and every one of us has our own individual learning style, whether that’s on-premises, off-premises, tablet or laptop. Excelling at delivering that superlative experience is the one that Bramwell and his team are focused on supporting.

The supplier world

As we begin to discuss the topic of suppliers, I can see a glint in Bramwell’s eye. Arguably the supplier-client relationship should be one of the more valuable relationships that an IT department has. As we continue our conversation, I wonder if there’s a place for a supplier education course within Oxford Saïd’s curriculum, because I’m sure that, curated properly, it’d be a popular one.

Bramwell believes that there are two distinct trends in supplier markets. The first is the huge rationalization, streamlining and consolidation of Tier 1 companies. The second is the explosion in the number of new vendors and startups. Although each market has its pros and cons, one of his main challenges is simply being able to differentiate between the experts and those who are good, poor or just plain bad.

Bramwell describes his role as 80% relationship and 20% technology. And while he says that he has almost always found walking around the faculty offices, the halls and the canteens engaging because it allows him to listen and learn from the stakeholders who rely on his department, it doesn’t appear that the same can be said for many of his suppliers. This is something that Bramwell recognizes and is actively trying to address by encouraging his most strategic partners to spend time at the school so they can understand, see and experience the importance and impact of the products and services they provide.

As executives who work for suppliers know, it's vitally important that their client-facing sales teams be able to tailor and personalize the benefits that their particular portfolio of offerings will have to both individuals and to the client organizations.  Simply regurgitating sales collateral pro rata won’t do much for your credibility.

It took me just a few minutes to understand that Bramwell is focused on helping Oxford Saïd deliver a better learning experience, that he doesn’t see technology as a differentiator and that he wants to understand what investments will help the school advance the furthest. In one fell stroke, for vendors who listen rather than tell, those are the keys to how you become relevant.

Bramwell says that he is demanding but fair with suppliers, driven by his high service expectations. If he has kindly blocked out an hour in his day for you, it’s unlikely that he’s going to want to hear the usual industry spiel even though that’s almost always what he gets.

Big data, the cloud, digital, IT as a service (ITaaS) and mobile — it’s funny how every meeting seems to revolve around those topics, irrespective of the conversation flow. And during every meeting, he’ll ask basic questions such as “What is digital and what does it mean for you?” By his own admission, he doesn’t feel that any of the suppliers get it right, and based on my own conversations, I’d have to agree with him.

Cloud computing is ostensibly your service provisioned from someone else’s computer. Digital has existed since the advent of the first computer program, and mobile is simply something you listen to or eyeball. As for ITaaS, another popular industry term, Bramwell argues that IT is a vital part of the business so while many suppliers would like to dumb it down to just simple service provision, the real value of IT lies in enabling the business, and that requires engagement, collaboration and understanding — things that can’t be downloaded over the internet from an obscure offshore data center.

Compartmentalized, undeveloped and without context, technology is essentially useless. But when it’s combined with innovation, vision and purpose, it’s the foundation that can differentiate your business or turn an industry on its head. In many cases, it can be said that the suppliers that Bramwell meets already have the tools he’s looking to use or deploy. What they haven’t taken time to curate, though, are the answers to how they will help take the business further.

Conclusion

The CIO’s role is more relevant than it has ever been, but more often than not it’s the individual that makes the role and not the other way round. Entrepreneurial CIOs like Bramwell — who lead from the front and by example, who believe that they and their teams are there to enable the business and help it create competitive advantage rather than to just support it — are often the pioneers that help ensure an organization prospers.

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