by Rhys Lewis

V&A’s Sarah Winmill on sharing ideas and resources with other charity IT chiefs

Nov 16, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

The role of the CIO means that not all today’s IT leaders necessarily started out in technology, but Sarah Winmill must be one of the few to have arrived at tech’s top table via the Royal College of Music.

Winmill, head of IS services at the Victoria and Albert Museum, studied viola for four years before a spell at the ticket office of the Royal Albert Hall sparked an interest in systems administration and networking that brought her, via the Historic Royal Palaces and Royal Academy of Arts, to the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design in Kensington, West London.

To add another string to her bow, in September 2009 Winmill succeeded the Salvation Army’s David Clayden as chair of the Charities Consortium IT Directors Group (CCITDG), a network for IT bosses of major UK charities.

The group, founded some nine years ago by a handful of charity-sector IT leaders, provides a forum for IT chiefs to get together to discuss and share ideas.

Members include such household names as Barnardo’s, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Prince’s Trust, the Zoological Society of London and Sadler’s Wells, as well as less well known associations like legal education provider The College of Law and global music teaching fund ABRSM.

Membership isn’t a given for the IT chief of any charitable body. Members should be registered UK charities with an annual IT spend of £2m, an overall turnover of £25m and a sufficiently complex networked IT infrastructure.

The group meets quarterly to discuss technology issues within the charity sector, to share and encourage best practice, to exchange thoughts on purchasing and procurement and to evaluate suppliers and consultants. Members also provide support in managing large projects like CRM implementation, PC refresh and data warehousing, and around half the members­ take part in an online benchmarking process, sharing information on systems, software, budgets, salaries, staff, governance and environmental policies so that they can measure themselves against their peers.

Specific technology requirements are addressed in special interest groups, with Microsoft Office 2007 and Sharepoint Sec­urity teams already established and technical and GIS groups on the way.

But the key goal of the CCITDG, says Winmill, is to bring like-minded IT chiefs together to share experiences and ideas and encourage the promotion of IT within the member associations.

“The aim of the group is to make sure IT is positioned appropriately within the charity sector, and within the relevant charities,” she says.

“What’s most exciting is that they absolutely want to work together. It’s astonishing to be in a group of charity IT directors because they will actively talk about something that in the commercial sector would give them their market edge.

“They want people to do anything they’ve done that takes money out, increases productivity and helps them meet the core aims of their organisation.”

When we met, Winmill was preparing for the group’s annual conference, held in mid-October in Stratford-upon-Avon. The theme for the event was ‘Collaborate or Perish’, a warning which has become even more stark given recent financial upheavals, but which the 97 members of the group have been keen to embrace.

“What’s hard for charities is that there’s just no fat,” says Winmill. “For us it’s always­ been a case of make do and mend, and now it’s becoming a question of ‘What can we turn off’ and not ‘What can we do less of’.

“Central government is being pushed towards collaborative projects, but in our sector we’re seeing the drive for collaboration coming from IT directors, not the FD.”

One example of such collaboration is an IT support line set up by Christian Aid, VSO and several other charities in order to offer 24-hour support to field workers.

Winmill herself is finalising a deal with an international relief charity to mirror the V&A’s data on their servers and vice versa.

“It’s an idea we stole from the RSPCA and the WWF. We’ve both got datacentres with spare capacity, so why not do it? I’ve got the security of knowing that my data is mirrored a few miles away, it doesn’t cost anything and we’re saving tens of thousands of pounds a year by buddying up.”

The CCITDG, she says, facilitates such schemes, but at the moment there is still a reliance on personality rather than policy.

“The VSO/Christian Aid project was really down to the extraordinary efforts of one or two committed individuals and a group of key directors who were willing to push forward. The challenge will come when you start to see changes of personnel and one or two champions moving on.”

Match makers

The group brings together IT leaders from the breadth of the charity sector, and finding a likely partner is as much a matter of facilities as fields of interest.

“We have relief charities, housing asso­ciations, educational and animal charities and museums in the group, but you don’t need to find an absolute match.

“Museums themselves are very different. We’ve all got collections, but a carpet here is different to a battleship there, and there are different ways of cataloguing so we don’t even share the same systems. A museum is not a high-availability environment, it’s all about high data integrity and security, and I’m happy putting my data in the trust of a charity with the same values as us. Likewise they’re thrilled to put their data into the middle of a museum which is full of millions of incredibly priceless objects – we take security quite seriously!”

And certainly more seriously than they took their IT setup until Winmill arrived for a second stint at the V&A in 2006.

“The V&A has struggled with IT. There was significant underinvestment in infrastructure a few years ago and the whole place was feeling the effects of that. There were core network issues taking down email a couple of days a week and we were really in trouble.

“There were 1000 machines in offices, galleries and reading rooms, but there were 15 to 20 models of PC in use and as for change control, it was pretty much the Wild West. But because they’d had that pain, I was very fortunate to be able to get commitment for investment.”

As well as sorting out the network, servers and storage infrastructure, one key ­investment for Winmill was in a digital asset management system which would allow the museum to share its collection with researchers and members of the public via a revamped website. She chose two Hitachi Adaptable Modular Storage 1000 systems, deployed by Viglen and equipped with 60TB of capacity each, scalable to 200TB, a capacity that should meet the V&A’s needs for the next seven years.

“The capacity for storage here is prodigious,” says Winmill. “We have photographers taking fabulous images of almost three million objects.

“At the moment we have 15TB of digital images and our web team has put our catalogue of 1.2 million records online, as well as images of around a third of those; most of those are available for download for personal use.

“The web team have created an internal API for the collection, and we’ve exposed that API in beta form so that people can tap into our collection and repurpose it. And that’s what’s museums are about – making­ stuff the nation owns available to people.

The classes of information that can be stored alongside each artefact are also ­being increased to give the museum’s 200 curators and visitors rapid access to information and also to improve the management of each item.

“We’re upgrading our collection of ­information system into a collections management system, which in IT terms is taking a database and building a workflow around it. We will be able to manage conservation, photography and shipping – we sent 3000 fragile items on touring exhibitions each year, and we need to plan for gallery refurbishments. Until now it’s all been done on spreadsheets and paper.”

Rethinking the business

The V&A was founded almost 160 years ago, and talking to Winmill it seems as though some of today’s business processes may have been instigated by founder Henry­ Cole. High time, then, she put a business process engineering project in place.

“We’re going through layers of archeol­ogy of process, and there’s real scope for us to make significant administrative improvements. To loan an object from the museum is a 78-step process involving at least four forms, for instance.

“We’re not a highly IT-literate or business-savvy organisation so talking about BPE would put the fear of God into people. Instead we talk about how the work works.

“Many of the curators have been here for many years – with a collection like ours why would they want to move on? – so it’s a very delicate operation to unpick things they’ve been doing for decades and ask them why they are done that way and if they could do them better.

“The best case is to let them come up with our great ideas,” she jokes.

But it’s not just about bringing information systems up to date. Among the 5000-year-old exhibits are examples of cut­ting-edge technology that go unnoticed by the museum’s two million annual visitors.

“Our conservation scientists were using RFID technology almost as soon as it came out. If we borrow an object we have to guarantee that it will be kept in fairly consistent conditions, and we have to report back on that, and we’ve got RFID beacons in display cases measuring temperature and humidity and gathering information on a half-hourly basis.”

As well as the technology on show in the offices and galleries, such as touch-screen systems and off- and online ticketing and retail systems, Winmill’s brief covers scientific equipment, an X-Ray machine, a printworks, an arts centre and even a forge, used for conserving metalwork using traditional methods.

Alongside her position at the CCITDG, her role as ambassador of BCSWomen and her day job at the V&A, Winmill is following up a master’s degree in data communications by studying for an MBA with the Open University. Her studies back up the consensus that IT leaders are edging away from technology and towards the business.

“I did the master’s to prove that I could do the technical stuff. What I find exciting now is leading people and leading strategy. In the next decade it will become less about the ones and zeros and more about business requirements and contract negotiations,” says the former network administrator whose first Head of IT role came when she left the V&A for the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005.

“I look at my tutor group and almost three-quarters are involved in IT – I just want to make sure I’m demonstrably skilled up. An MBA means you can talk the language of the other people round the ­table. Everyone likes to be communicated with in different ways and an MBA adds more tools to your utility belt.”