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


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."