by Edward Qualtrough

Science Museum Head of ICT Jason Oliver interview – Catalyst for transformation

Mar 07, 2017
IT Strategy

Science Museum Head of ICT Jason Oliver is reinventing the perception of the technology and IT function at one of the world’s most visited museums from a back-end support group to a front of house enabler geared around the experiences of its millions of visitors in London and audiences around the world.

Encouraging his IT team to live the remit of the Science Museum to inspire and enrich lives, Oliver highlighted his function’s involvement in astronaut Tim Peake’s live BBC broadcasts from space as programmes his team helped make possible.

Oliver joined Science Museum Group – which includes the National Media Museum in Bradford, National Railway Museum in York and Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester – in July 2015 from the Royal Opera House. Inheriting an aging technology stack and a skilled team seen as a support provider to the group, Oliver’s first job was to get IT back on the map and change its image as a cliched department of no.

“Previously IT reported reported in to HR, and now I report to the Director of Corporate Services,” Oliver said. “That created a much closer relationship with me being able to present business cases and speak to the people who were decision makers on the financial side about what needed to be done.

“I’ve got an extremely close relationship with the Director of Corporate Services Jane Ellis and Jonathan Newby, the Deputy Director and COO,” Oliver said of the organisation’s leaders that sit below SMG Director Ian Blatchford.

Oliver said that some of the foundations for repositioning technology and IT were smoothed by the organisation’s Digital Director John Stack so the new IT chief could start creating and implementing his strategy.

“I started engaging and reaching out to different people within the executive and within our board in a far greater fashion – now I sit on the steering groups for most of our high-level business projects,” Oliver said.

“IT is not a support function anymore. Technology drives nearly everything that we do across the group in some form or another.”

Business engagement

Oliver gives the example a month into his role with the Science Museum’s groundbreaking Cosmonauts exhibition where IT had not been privy to early stages of communication and not long before the launch permanent flooring needed to be ripped up at unnecessary cost and strife to ensure it was ready to go live.

“What I tried to get people to recognise is that early communication not only helps the wider business make sound decisions, it also reduces cost,” he said. “It also makes it less stressful, because we can deliver things far, far easier.”

With close to 100 major business projects now on the horizon, Oliver said that now the IT function was being asked to be involved from an early stage, a significant move forwards from its previous positioning within the organisation.

“Historically IT would have been consulted the day before we went live with the gallery much like the Cosmonauts; now we’re there on day one,” Oliver said. “Actually here we can steer it from the outset, and that’s really important for us.

“We’ve gone from not knowing what the demands were of the business to having 80 active demands sitting in our backlog at the moment.

“We’d rather be in a position knowing that the business is trusting us to drive this stuff forward and that we know what we’ve got coming through the pipeline than how it was before and actually we were the department of no.

“Now it’s much more about yes, we can do that, but we need to manage expectations that we probably can’t start that until June or we can’t start that until September. We’re able to articulate now back to other departments the reason why we can or can’t do certain things.”

Embedding IT

To complete a full integration and turnaround, Oliver’s end-goal is a future where technology does not even exist as a separate department let alone archipelago adjacent or siloed from the rest of the organisation.

“I don’t want IT to be looked at as an independent function in the future. I’d like to get it to a point where the things that we’re doing are embedded in all of the other departments, and we had quite a minimalistic approach to IT as an independent function.”

Oliver’s strategy has involved restructuring and empowering the IT team to relay the foundations across the group in order to serve the needs of all of the organisation’s customers.

The technology chief now has four heads of department who are direct reports: a head of business engagement and intelligence, a project management office, a head of design and architecture, and a head of technology operations.

Oliver said that the new challenge of an invigorated team that likes its new methods of operation is that the expectations on the department and of the department have grown.

“The restructure started to bring out people’s confidence in ourselves; it’s certainly got more people motivated about the change,” Oliver said. “I’m really lucky that everyone bought into what I was trying to do.

“They have responded brilliantly. Some people have really stepped out of the shadows and just become absolutely crucial to everything we’re trying to do. My senior management team stepped up.”

Oliver said one of the first things the team identified was a need for Science Museum Group to have a better understanding of its customers and visitors. It’s difficult to build up a relationship with people, the CIO explained, if visitors in general arrive at one of its sites, see what they want in any given exhibition and leave with the group unable to understand who they really are.

Looking at the market, Oliver and his team deployed popular arts CRM tool Tessitura – originally developed by the Met Opera in New York to manage ticketing, marketing and fundraising and subsequently spun out as the not-for-profit cooperative Tessitura Network – in order to better understand and engage with its customer base.

Relaying the foundations

Running alongside a focus on Science Museum Group’s relationship with its customers is a technology infrastructure refresh to provide the organisation and its sites greater resilience – as Oliver described getting back to basics and laying the foundations for a bigger change and transformation.

This involved installing new networking equipment with breakouts to AWS and Microsoft’s Azure cloud, a strategy which enables a collection of physical museums to be able to exponentially grow its digital collections.

Oliver said that this was creating a hybrid environment of public and private cloud capabilities, and with the implementation of Tessitura being SaaS-based opening up a number of innovation opportunities.

“We want to go further down the data analytics of routes people are taking around the museum in real-time, start linking that information in with AR and Tessitura, so that we can start to build up real patterns around our visitors, our audience, and improve the experience for them,” Oliver said.

“We have moved in the space of eight months from low-performing, non-resilient, not-robust networks with legacy storage and legacy applications, to having high-performance, resilient stacks out in different clouds, building our own private cloud and moving to a new HR system, ticketing system and looking at a new finance system.”

This was described as a period of catching up by Oliver, with a step change from an infrastructure of around seven or eight years allowing the team to be in a position where they can start adding value.

Board support

The backing of the Science Museum’s board has been a crucial factor in Oliver and his team’s ability to deliver the changes.

“There’s part of the strategy which we refer to as cost optimisation, and we’re only dipping our toes in it at the moment,” Oliver said. “What we mean by that is how can we take existing processes, how can we attach or monetise value to that, and then how can we use technology to demonstrate that we can save costs through doing that?

“That’s going to be a really big thing over the next two years because the board and the executives have really backed me. There hadn’t been any significant investment in IT here for eight years before I got here; since I’ve been here I’ve had approvals of business cases for security, for LANs, for WANs, for CRM, Office 365. When you add all that together, it becomes a significant amount of investment.

“I’m eternally grateful to the executives and the board for allowing me to drive forward, to make this transformation. Because that’s what it is, it’s transforming the way that we do business and the trust they’ve shown in me to actually lead them through that.”

One of the early victories in securing this executive buy-in was an office move which enabled Oliver to “really engage in strategic conversations about remote working” and unlock the mobility potential of the business when previously less than 50 people were able to work remotely.

Vendor management

Oliver said that one of the biggest opportunities for Science Museum Group was in vendor management – working better with the organisation’s suppliers and building new relationships with technology providers.

The CIO said that technology and IT companies wanted to have an association with the Science Museum and that the group was trying to raise its profile with a number of suppliers. Oliver also praised his dedicated IT procurement leader who was building a strong ecosystem of suppliers with good relationships between the organisations – with the vendors responding well to the notion of adding value to the Science Museum’s visitors rather than selling in to the museum group.

One area where CIOs could improve vendor management was by working closely as a community or network, Oliver said. Although of course, this knowledge sharing has benefits far broader than relationships with the IT supplier market.

“I’m really fortunate because I came from the Royal Opera House and having Rob Greig [Director at the Parliamentary Digital Service] and Joe McFadden [Royal Opera House CTO] as people I can talk to serves a massive benefit,” Oliver said. “I can turn and ask questions at any time, and that can be reciprocated.

“The museum group, whether that be Lydia Weller at the British Museum or next door at the Victoria & Albert, allows you to explore different options – which could have the potential to save the sector a lot of money through different approaches.

“We’re not in competition and should be able to collaborate, and we should be able to share information that means both museums are going to provide a better experience for anyone who visits.”

AR and hyperconvergence

Oliver revealed that the organisation was investigating emerging technologies which could transform the back-end and front face of the group.

Hyperconverged infrastructure could make sense for the Science Museum for the types of data the organisation deals with and from a cost perspective, Oliver explained. Furthermore, augmented reality products from organisations like Microsoft with its AR Hololens headset provided a host of opportunities from the digital delivery of the museum’s collection to a potentially more ‘enterprise’ benefit of how the museum goes about designing its exhibitions and positioning its objects.

“The idea of being able to walk into a space with merely a headset on and physically put graphical representations of our objects out in that category and then redesign the gallery from within the headset – that could save thousands of hours and thousands of pounds,” Oliver said. “It could do some creative things that you could never ordinarily do with objects.”

For now, Oliver’s focus is on some of the manual tasks his IT department performs which can automated or scripted so that the team can concentrate of the work that adds value back to the business. It is having the correct underlying infrastructure and foundations in place that enables this, Oliver said, so that the Science Museum can extend its reach across the world with digitisation taking a prime place in its strategy for years to come.

“There’s so much going on,” Oliver said. “I love it, I’m really passionate about what we’re doing. I know that other people within the sector enjoy it as well when I talk about what’s going on.

“I think it’s a really, really exciting time for our sector, and I’m glad to be in the sector helping to really drive it forward, because technology has gotten to a point now where we can fundamentally improve and change the experiences of our audiences. It’s really great to be in a position to actually influence that and do that myself.”