by Edward Qualtrough

University of Exeter Chief Information and Digital Officer Alan Hill interview – Creating the digital edge

Jan 29, 2019
GovernmentIT Strategy

Credit: IDG

University of Exeter Chief Information and Digital Officer, Alan Hill, is refocusing the Russell Group institution’s strategy from a systems to a services approach in order to “accelerate its digital journey”.

Previously a Brigadier in the British Army as its Deputy CIO and Head of Information Superiority – the de facto CIO since only those with the rank General are bestowed a C-level title – Hill was Commanding Officer of the 3rd Division Signal Regiment and the Commander of the 11th Signal Brigade.

Joining the University of Exeter in early 2016 from a stint at the Ministry of Defence where he was the department’s Head of Operate and Defend, Hill has instilled an ethos of ‘Design, Develop and Operate’ in his function. He is now prioritising digital transformation initiatives which will add value to the university in education, its research IT capabilities and improve the student experience – while preparing Exeter for the opportunities and challenges of the future.

Hosting CIO UK at the picturesque Devon-based campus, Hill outlined the strategy of “creating the digital edge” with the goal of making the University of Exeter stand out among the UK’s and the world’s leading institutions.

“The technology has moved on now, where services are clearly the right methodology,” Hill said. “We, however, have been very much system focused. We’ve had to move now, quite dramatically, in our skill sets and in our technology solutions to become service integrators.

“This is the fundamental architecture for going forward, for creating the agility and speed to market for digital services. That’s why we have the design, develop and operate structure – to make sure that we do that properly and appropriately.”

Hill noted that the failure to move forwards with technology transformation programmes posed a significant risk to the university. Digital initiatives meanwhile needed to be complementary to physical infrastructure projects, which had refreshed the university campus.

“I think for many Russell Group universities, their reputation is very strong, and that acts as a strong recruiter for research and for international students and home students,” he said. “That can only last so far. You have to have the facilities, the buildings, the spaces, the academic strengths, and the digital environment around it. And it is absolutely the heart of every single thing we do now.

“You can’t afford to drift behind.”

At the University of Exeter there has been a quadrupling of capital investment in digital and IT in the last two years, Hill explained, that had provided “a real bedrock from which to step off from”. Around that the responsibility of the Chief Information and Digital Officer has been to set the vision, build the governance structure and enable the upskilling of the function to support the new operating model.

“We’ve got a proper design-led organisation,” Hill said, adding that with the hundreds of change projects taking place there was now a clarity of delivery, responsibility, management and accountability that had become unclear under the systems model.

The main University of Exeter site is two campuses, with a shared campus in Truro where the medical school is, and another shared facility with University of Falmouth for the arts college. The two universities also own equal parts of an organisation titled FX Plus, a managed service provider to both institutions. The digital and IT function at the University of Exeter is just over 130, serving around 4,800 permanent staff and some 22,000 students. Hill said that this business transformation process had required new skills and a focus on the outcomes and customer service as well as service delivery.

“That’s a huge transformation for everybody involved here,” Hill said. “We haven’t changed our staff numbers, but we’ve used innovative approaches to fill gaps, and that includes changing the structure.”

Hill said that his team included recent apprentices with more incoming, and current staff on internal apprenticeships with opportunities to develop new skills and secure promotions.

“We are well poised now to deliver digital services at pace,” Hill said. “We are getting really, really business focused – we absolutely understand customer service. We absolutely understand that it is a business-driven activity; it’s not internal IT stuff.

“One of the big changes we’ve made is in the ownership of IT and digital services. We’ve created a governance structure where the business decides on the priorities and on the total cost of ownership and on the features they want. They’re clearly directly closely supported by my business partners, by my technologists, but actually it’s the business who own it now.

“When we have a prioritisation debate across all the digital services, it’s not me having to argue the case; it’s the business owners discussing the business merits of each of those things, which I am supporting.

“We have moved from virtually nothing to a mature governance structure, and I think that has enabled us to really push into the business, for them to own it and understand it, for us to help them at every step of the way such that we end up with a business-driven set of requirements with real clarity and real accountability in it.”

The transformation agenda has been as much about catching up with the organisation’s technical debt as it has been concerned with offering an improved student experience. Hill added that the board and executive leadership were completely behind the projects, which aren’t seen as IT initiatives.

“The university has recognised the centrality of digital services in its offer to students and to the research community,” Hill said.

“It all feeds up such that when we’re asking for a capital investment, they understand it’s not just Alan’s list of good ideas. These are business-led initiatives with us absolutely up close and personal with the business owners and helping them understand what’s the art of the possible.”

The student experience is high on Hill and the university’s list of priorities. The Chief Information and Digital Officer spoke about the ramifications of the upcoming demographic dip – to vastly oversimplify this is a decrease in the number of school leavers who will make up a significant majority of those entering the tertiary education system.

As such, institutions like the University of Exeter will be competing against other universities to attract a smaller pool of teenagers. Some estimates calculate this drop at around 14% by the early 2020s compared to the 2010 figure. The number of 18-year-olds will then begin to rise again.

Hill noted the importance of the National Student Survey and the university league tables, with Exeter aiming to be consistently in the UK’s top 10 and the top 100 in the world. With one question about ‘IT’ in the National Student Survey, it’s imperative that Hill’s function can live up to the expectations of an increasingly demanding cohort of students paying many thousands of pounds a year in tuition fees.

“Making sure that student experience, from an IT and digital perspective, is the best it can be is really important,” Hill said.

Digital learning environment

Hill demonstrated the university’s iExeter App, which he said had a 95% take-up in the last academic year. Registering 45 million clicks on the mobile application’s tiles, this represented on average eight times a day for each student. From its washing machine monitor to student listings and automatic attendance registration for international and medical students – who are obliged to attend classes – Hill said that it was a major channel for the university “which has to work”.

“Okay, if the washing machine API is not working very well you can go and have a look,” Hill quipped, “but if attendance monitoring is not working very well that could be serious. It’s moved from a nice-to-have to a critical part of the operation.”

Lecture capture – streaming and recordings of the lecturer and their content – is also redefining the learning experience for students, according to Hill. He said that the previous academic year there had been 650,000 views of lectures, which are stored in a cloud service and available an hour after the lecture. The course leader ultimately decides when they will be available, however.

Hill noted how Boxing Day saw the peak demand for lecture access, and joked with his team whether this was related to studious enthusiasm ahead of January exams, or if students were trialling their latest devices received over the Christmas period.

Installed in 400 rooms across the campus the lecture capture tool is integrated to the timetable so highly automated, and Hill believes it marks something of a shift in the learning process when new technologies make learning more personalised

“I do see the virtual learning environment becoming a real focal point for the education experience,” Hill said. “That doesn’t mean it’s the only one, but I do see a bit of a shift from a lecture to the digital learning environment.

“Face-to-face is very important with an immersive digital wrap or immersive digital environment, if you like. That deeply personalised experience is what will change. That will be a differentiator for universities, without doubt. I need to learn in the way that I learn, and the automation needs to understand how I learn and support me in it. That’s going to be new. We’re seeing parts of it now, but I think it’s got a long way to go and great opportunity to increase student outcomes.”

Indeed, Hill spoke to the CIO UK podcast at the end of 2018 about the workplace of the future, and noted how he expected artificial intelligence to have a significant impact on how students learn .

“Like most people I think the really fascinating area to watch is the AI area,” Hill said. “And in education this will enable higher education establishments like Exeter to create deeply personalised learning opportunities for students in ways we’ve never been able to do before.

“I think that will really enhance student outcomes.”

Research IT

Even though there is one bespoke technology question on the National Student Survey, Hill said that just like other areas of life digital touches every aspect of student life whether that is teaching quality, student employability or research excellence. It was in research IT where Hill said Exeter was making significant progress.

At each of the University of Exeter’s six colleges there had previously been separate IT teams, which Hill said had been loosely coupled with a ‘core IT’ unit. While the old model has been centralised, research IT – which floats between the academics and the IT team – has been left as a distinct body of specialist technology skill sets supporting academics with expertise around data, programming and hardware. Hill said that their value was immediately realised “through cost recovery of research grants”, and what started off as six was now 18 and “a business contributor to this line of business and this income stream”.

“We’re trying to get away from IT as an overhead. Digital is value. Research IT is a value statement,” Hill explained, adding that his team was “helping the discovery of atmospheres of exoplanets 200 light years away”.

To demonstrate the highly specialist skill sets, Hill introduced CIO UK to a member of the research IT team – Dr Krisztian Kohary. The Hungary-born astrophysicist has degrees from Budapest University and Philipps-Marburg University in Germany, where he was a postdoctoral research assistant. Dr Kohary was also a research fellow at Oxford, has 59 publications in his name dating back to the late 1990s, and outlined how the initial ‘push’ from research IT had quickly become a ‘pull’ from academic staff who saw huge value in the elite team.

Cyber security

With his military background, Hill places significant emphasis on robust cyber security processes and believes that the higher education sector as a whole needs to greatly improve its competencies.

“However, people are getting aboard Cyber Essentials and Cyber Essentials Plus,” he said of the National Cyber Security Centre’s certification programme. “When we did Cyber Essentials Plus, there was only a total of four universities in the UK at that level.”

There is a business angle to improving cyber security as well. Hill said that being certified meant that the University of Exeter was able to win research grants from the Ministry of Defence or from critical national infrastructure organisations. Citing concerning reports from 2018, Hill added that it’s not unreasonable to believe that most university research, if not all of it, has already been stolen by foreign nation states.

“If that is true, and there’s no reason to suggest it wouldn’t be true, then we have a lot to do to understand our security landscape,” Hill said. “Where is our data, and what is important to us? Now, we’ve got this juxtaposition; I need to protect some data, but we have an open data policy. Our research data is all open, but there are some things that I need to protect – intellectual property, which is going to make us income.

“That needs a level of maturity in higher education in the UK that is guaranteeing that the vast amount of money that the government is going to pump into research, including after Brexit, that we need to take our responsibilities of guarding our IP and our research effectively for the nation. And that’s why we’ve been building our security capability here.”

Hill said that cyber security was thus a board-level issue, and that the pragmatic response from a Brigadier with years of experience in scenario planning was through rigorous response exercises. In military parlance, wargaming, to test different possibilities and the effectiveness of different responses.

“What’s important is the board gets that,” Hill said. “The board understands that cyber security risk.

“One of the most important things in all the security work I do with the board, is to remind people that it is going to go wrong, and it’s about how we react and respond that is important.

“They recognise it is going to go wrong, but nobody can say we were asleep at the wheel.”

Artificial intelligence and the future workplace

Discussing future technologies and the future of work, Hill returns to artificial intelligence and the impact it could have on learning, even if the hype is drowning out the more pragmatic conjecture.

“Of course AI is the big title at the minute,” Hill said. “We’re all struggling to see how we actually translate that into deliverables, but I do see that supporting education, creating that deeply personalised experience.”

With the University of Exeter’s new Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Institute, Hill is most excited by the education and research opportunities, and in particular how Exeter’s AI research will support and be integrated into the institution’s other services.

Hill explained to CIO UK that in an area of low unemployment which included big players in the IT and digital services space like NHS Digital, the Met Office and a burgeoning startup ecosystem, it was a competitive environment for recruiting.

Looking at the way undergraduate students learn and interact, Hill said while discussing the Workplace of the Future that it was a CIO’s role to help create a working environment which appealed to the incoming generation of workers so organisations could realise their transformation objectives.

“The collaboration is going on in the digital environment and that’s where these students are learning to work,” Hill said. “Even as we walk through this campus and we see them sat in the quadrangle in the sunshine, looking through their phones or their laptops, they are into digital collaborations.

“That means to me when they get to the workplace they are expecting that environment. So the workplace of the future is about centralising around a digital environment, but making the physical environment fit to whatever comfort or style they want to work in. I have to think about that if I want to recruit youngsters because I need to create a work environment they are comfortable with, that they want to come to, and where they can do work of real value.”