Digital leader insights: Jason Oliver on trust, transparency and communication

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Recognized as one of the top 100 CIOs in the UK, Jason Oliver has been successfully transforming and disrupting technology in business for many years. His strategic leadership has been optimizing and driving change at a variety of organizations, from public, charitable and cultural, to his current position in education, as Director of IT & Sussex Projects at the University of Sussex.

Digital transformation in higher education

Like many organizations, higher education institutions are going through a digital transformation to improve operations and services – a transformation that has accelerated in response to the pandemic. From data privacy and cloud-first strategies, to digital integrations such as online learning and app-based services, universities are quickly becoming living enterprises with employee and student experiences being the core motivators for transformation.

Oliver tells us that “because technology is pervasive across so many things we do, the main change has been that my portfolio has broadened during this period. A large amount of my work has been making sure that the IT provision is there, and identifying where technology can add value to the wider institutional strategic objectives so that we can teach and research effectively.”

IT leaders need to drive forward-thinking frameworks

At the University of Sussex, a 2025 strategic framework was developed to become a more agile organization with a more flexible operating model. This plan includes greater emphasis on technology-assisted research and a shift in the method of teaching. Innovative learning methods aided by smart digital technology are being implemented. This strategic framework also includes technologies such as AI and machine learning that will be used to build an intelligent research platform and improve the knowledgebase.

“As we move forward, and certainly over the next two to three years, our use of machine learning, AI and RPA is going to grow exponentially. But before so, we have to get the foundations right. And that's where we’re at the moment — we've focused strongly on getting those foundations of the network, the platforms and our approach to development right, which will set us up for when we start to introduce those technologies”, Oliver shares with us.

The framework also has a central focus on people – through developing its staff to ensure student success in the future. Incorporating greater external engagement will build promising relationships between students, businesses and industry, and will better enhance the shared knowledge and entire community.

“The richness of insight that you get from investing individual time with your team, especially coming out of the pandemic, there could not be anything more valuable.”

Addressing social responsibility, the strategic framework additionally outlines a plan to tackle the university’s environmental impact. Oliver has played an active role in developing the sustainability strategy, leading to the university’s first submission in the Times Higher Education rankings, where it has subsequently been recognized as one of the top 50 universities worldwide in 2021 for its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and 10th in the world specifically for the ‘No Poverty’ SDG.

Oliver explains, “This past year has enabled me to accelerate the technology requirements of the organization, while concentrating on other supporting areas of the operating model and getting the strategic alignment in place to be able to drive those areas forward.”

The CIOs responsibility as a team leader

A successful digital transformation is not possible without strong collaboration and communication within the team. Although people have always been an important focus for Oliver, he’s been especially conscious of maintaining a collegiate environment through the pandemic, and having transparent conversations to ensure he is addressing team needs.

“What has been really in focus this year is the mental wellbeing of my staff and the lines of communication both within the team and outside of the team. It hasn't been smooth sailing, but it's made me focus on the communications and the people elements of my role, even more so than beforehand.”

“I had to be patient to allow the team to adapt,” Oliver continues. “Everybody adapts at different paces, and the reality of it is that my team responded brilliantly.” The university’s CIO operates with the knowledge that the success of any team comes down to building a culture of trust and establishing open communication channels to know where his support is needed.

Enabling employees to do their best work at their own productivity level requires not only trust but also the right tools and technology. This became clear to Oliver when lockdown forced remote working — not everyone had the screen space or high speed connection at home to work most efficiently.

“This past year has enabled me to accelerate the technology requirements of the organization"

While virtual platforms enhanced communications, it came at the expense of lost face-to-face, social interactions. Having adapted to flexible working conditions during the pandemic, Oliver says “it would be a retrograde step to return to how things were before. If we can find a balance between the social aspects, the screen real estate, and the productivity you get from home working, then I think that ultimately it will make us more effective as an organization.”

Fostering symbiotic relationships is crucial

Joint ventures with external vendors, suppliers and partners are also going through a transformation, and as Oliver accurately states, “a transactional approach is a thing of the past.” Organizations and individuals are making ever more conscious decisions about who to partner with, invest in, and associate with, while also taking into consideration the alignment of respective motivations and the value-add for both parties, both of which are needed for a strong, quality, symbiotic relationship.

The same mentality applies when approaching communications with the university’s customers. Oliver tells us, “our customers are our students, researchers and academics. So I have these same conversations with my team: we have to look at customer retention and creating a collegiate relationship. We can offer so much more around support, education, training, development than the transactional approach of old.”

How digital leaders can secure the future success of an organization

When planning for the future, trust and communication are needed to achieve the best employee experience, customer experience, and overall success of the organization. There are always areas to be improved, and Oliver has a plan for how to continually enhance and improve the culture going forward:

“I'm sitting down at the moment with every member of my team, asking them what's worked well and what hasn't over the last year, and what they think the priorities for our division should be over the next year”, Oliver explains. “The richness of insight that you get from investing individual time with your team, especially coming out of the pandemic, there could not be anything more valuable.”

To hear more from Jason Oliver and other CIOs, CDOs and CTOs around the world, listen to Episode 1 of the Living Enterprise Podcast series.