In this episode of ANS TechTalk, Chris Huntingford, Director of Innovation at ANS, is in conversation with Nick Gilbert, Chief Information Digital Officer for the University of Sussex.
Hi Nick, let’s start with you telling us about your role.
I look after digital at Surrey University. It’s a highly centralised institution, and I’m responsible for ‘where we are’ and ‘where we want to take the organisation’. I’m also involved with UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association), so I have a sector-wide role, too, looking at digital maturity and how we can help CIOs and their digital teams best fulfil their critical missions.
What is your ultimate goal: where do you want to be?
Well, if you ask 100 people in a university that question, you’ll get a whole range of perspectives – and that’s because their interests are as diverse as someone studying the impact of the Romans on our common law to launching satellites: not many businesses of our relatively small size sit across everything like that, so our IT strategy has to be pretty smart. We have to build a team that’s able to respond in a really agile way.
We’re trying to be all things digital to everyone across academic, management and administrative systems, and we have to take all those people along with us as we change processes.
Partners like ANS and Microsoft help us build out the experience layer so our people have what they need at their fingertips. I’m super-pumped about what happens when we move into Low Code space to build on that platform.
I’m interested in your thoughts about the whole ecosystem approach?
In the UK, higher education is in a real financial crunch. In some ways, that’s a blessing because it enables us to drive some divergent and emergent thinking.
So, we’d got really good at ERP (enterprise resource planning), and a big chunk of CIO work has been putting in these big monolithic platforms for, like, student records system replacement. But if you add up the costs for the next 10 years, there is zero chance that most institutions in the UK will be able to afford all these things, so people have begun to realise that they need to prioritise.
Talking with you guys at ANS and Microsoft, what became clear is that we needed to do less of these big cyclical ERPs, trying to fulfil 100% of our business requirements. They might take 4 years to put it in, we’d only use 50% of the features, and then after 4 more years, we’d have to start again.
So, what’s the solution?
We look at the stuff that really matters and how we can do it ‘good enough’ quickly and cost-effectively – as much of it as is possible in as small a number of systems as possible. So you don’t have to integrate, say, 55 systems, but three or two or one.
The more you can scale down the challenge, the more you can do, the cheaper and faster it becomes and the easier it is to get the right density of high-quality talent you need to do it for you. I’d rather run one system with 80% of the features but do it really well.
I agree. The whole system of monolithic platform delivery is changing – we’re now entering the era of enablement.
Yep. I want smart people, enabled to build great things for my organisation and do it fast. With guidance and guardrails, of course.
What do you think the future will hold, thinking about things like AI?
Getting people enthused about the art of the possible is tricky, but what’s cool about AI is that you can immediately rattle off 20 different uses for business. Most people recognise some of them straight away – it’s a place where tech transcends the boundaries between, say, CEOs and super-enthusiastic digital people.
I have modular systems and power platforms where my team can inject AI-driven parts of the process into the workload as one of the tools that sit in a deliberately designed organisation.
We know we can build out layers in the power platform. So we’re going through these big best-of-breed ERP capabilities and the models in them, stripping them out and turning them into parts of a shared ecosystem with a common data layer that’s easy to maintain.
We’re doing that rapidly but progressively. It’s not like big ERP drops, but a constant 5 improvements a month, a cadence of delivery our sector isn’t familiar with – but when they look back after 3 months, they see 20% of the technology stack has been improved, and then in another 3 months, 20% more.
To achieve this, I need the stakeholders across my whole environment – academic, management and administration – to be on board with getting 80% of the features. They need to be comfortable with it going live with 50%, knowing they’re going to get 30% more in the next quarter.
This kind of ecosystem is the only way my sector is going to keep pace with all the changes that are happening in the sector and technology. With a few others, we’re creating a blueprint to move towards a different model.
I love the approach. And it’s obviously working, as you told me earlier that your University’s National Student Survey score has gone from 102nd in the country to 4th following your recent 3 year strategy. That’s amazing.
Digital is part of that, but not all – and we’re now looking to the next 5 year window to build on that success.
Exciting times. Thank you.