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CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, CIO, Saïd Business School

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CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, CIO, Saïd Business School

Mark Bramwell recently passed the seven-year mark as CIO at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Having previously held long-term senior positions with Wellcome Trust and WH Smith, Bramwell certainly likes to get his teeth into a technology leadership role. What’s more, he tells Computer Weekly there’s still lots for him and his team to achieve.

“It’s a crazy industry and sector to work in, given my diverse background, but that’s what makes it exciting,” he says. “The University of Oxford is a wonderful place to work. But I also love working in technology and transformational change.”

Bramwell says his roles and responsibilities have changed regularly during his seven years at Saïd. He says the variety comes from the ongoing challenges of pushing digital transformation in the education sector, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. The key message, he says, is that you have to be ready for the unexpected.

“That’s a natural part of the role of any CIO,” says Bramwell. “You’ve got to be flexible, adaptable and you’ve got to change. You’re a change leader, so if you’re not comfortable with change yourself, then you’re probably not in the right role.”

From setting up home working to establishing remote-learning capabilities, Bramwell’s team faced a barrage of requirements when the first lockdown came into force in early 2020. The good news, he says, is that his IT team – and the technology they had already put in place – was ready to help overcome the challenges facing the institution and its students.

“We were very fortunate,” he says. “It tangibly demonstrated the value of investing in IT. Many organisations were the same, but we were prepared and could pivot really quickly because all the core infrastructure was there to support remote working, home working, remote connectivity and remote teaching.”

“You’re a change leader, so if you’re not comfortable with change yourself, then you’re probably not in the right role”

Mark Bramwell, Saïd Business School

Bramwell says the technology strategy leading up to Covid had focused on moving 100% to the cloud and making the most of software as a service. Saïd had already invested in Zoom, Microsoft 365 and Oxford Hive, which is an immersive virtual meeting and presentation experience that can be used by more than 80 participants simultaneously.

The institution also used content platforms Canvas and Moodle and third-party partners, such as GetSmarter, to deliver personalised content to students.

“We had all the building blocks in place,” he says. “Our effort was centred around supporting the training and education and exploitation of the technology, rather reinvesting in new tools.

“So we were fortunate, but I think it actually helped magnify to the executive board what our technology investment has been for and the difference it’s made. As an organisation, they really understood why technology was important during the Covid pandemic and, like many organisations, I think that brought a new-found level of respect and understanding for IT.”

Providing new learning experiences

Bramwell’s positive sentiments show how remote learning has come of age over the past two years. Often considered hopelessly inferior to face-to-teaching, the provision of online education matured rapidly as cloud-enabled lessons filled the gap left by lockdown regulations. Now it has established a role, the heavy use of technology is likely to continue.

While students have returned to the classroom at Saïd in record numbers this year, technology makes it much easier to reach an increasingly global audience. Bramwell says a high-quality experience means providing great content to all students, whether they are returning to the classroom, continuing to learn online or doing a bit of both.

“I think we will continue to provide the balance of all three,” he says. “There will always be a need for open programmes, where students are taught fully online. And that is certainly true for the short term, because of the new ways of flexible working that we are not going to revert back from.”

To meet this demand, Saïd continues to hone its virtual-learning approach. As well as its continuing commitment to cloud-based video-conferencing, the institution is also exploring how it might use facial recognition to automatically analyse elements related to student participation and engagement, such as emotional intelligence and empathy.

“There is a technological angle, an academic angle and an experiential angle,” says Bramwell. “We’re now moving towards what you might call a 24/7 learning model. Technically, online learning for us is about providing a portfolio of applications and solutions that are most appropriate for the individual, the client and the organisation.”

Creating a strategy for change

Bramwell says the post-Covid age presents an opportunity to focus on some new areas. He is now into his second digital strategy since becoming CIO at Saïd.

“That’s pleasing in itself,” he says. “I take personal pride in the fact that the board gave me an opportunity to write a second one, so I took that as a big vote of confidence.”

One of the preparatory steps for this new strategy has been to review the shape and size and the roles, responsibilities and capabilities of teams delivering the institution’s digital systems and services. Bramwell says that is an increasingly critical task for all CIOs. In fact, it’s almost a constant work in progress.

“Being in a change role, it is important that we pivot and flex our teams to reflect what is needed from technology and what the needs of the business are,” he says. “I am proud we managed to retain virtually everyone in the team and actually grow the team during the pandemic.

“That goes against the trend in terms of the ‘Great Resignation’ that we hear and read about across the technology sector. So, I take pride that we’ve managed to build a really credible, high-performing team who have got each other’s backs. We identify and see ourselves as one team – and that has helped with retention.”

Developing a sense of empowerment

Bramwell says a strong teamworking ethic comes from the top, and his key to success is establishing a transparent and respectful leadership style.

“I try to make myself very open and visible for the team,” he says. “I tend not to operate in hierarchies. We are all one team, from the front-line IT service desk engineer to the director of service delivery and operations, and on to me.”

Bramwell also shows humility. He might be in charge of the department, but he doesn’t view himself as untouchable. “If I don’t know something, I tell people – it’s alright for me not to know,” he says. “Yes, I’m the CIO, but I don’t know everything. We have recruited people because they are the subject matter experts. So we say: ‘You help me and tell me how it should be done’.”

Across the department and out into its interactions with other people in the business, Bramwell says he has worked hard to create an environment of empowerment, trust and honesty. He says the team celebrates the big successes, but he also remembers to say thank-you for every job well done.

“Sometimes, two little words go a long way,” he says. “It’s not all about money and remuneration, although that’s an important part. Sometimes just acknowledging people when they’ve done a good job is a big help as well.”

Delivering big programmes

Bramwell says his team has a range of projects to get their teeth into during the coming years. His new digital strategy is now nine months old, and delivering the targets within that strategy will be critical to long-term success. Two big programmes are the priority right now, says Bramwell – including helping to deliver Saïd’s forthcoming Global Leadership Centre.

“That’s a £65m capital redevelopment renovation of what was our power station,” he says. “That centre will open in 2024. It’s going to be the centre for global executive education. It will be a central hub and think-tank for the world’s leading C-suite executives to tackle world-scale problems, whether that’s sustainability, energy or remote working.”

Technology will play a critical role in helping these bright minds to develop creative solutions to the globe’s biggest challenges. The centre will provide high-quality and connected accommodation, including 121 bedrooms, flexible classrooms and access to a range of collaborative systems and services.

Another big programme for the IT team will be managing the school’s investment in Salesforce technology. Bramwell says this project aims to integrate the institution’s data into a single version of the truth. With a tighter grip on its data, Saïd will be able to boost operational efficiency and create stronger customer relations.

“From a customer or student perspective, it’s about giving us an end-to-end journey from inquiry through to recruitment and on to admission, and then through their academic studies to graduation, matriculation and on to alumni, before hopefully becoming an ambassador for the school, and – if we get all that right – a donor and supporter,” he says.

Ensuring great service

Bramwell says his continued efforts to lead digital transformation will be accompanied by a period of business change. The school is making some senior appointments, including professor Soumitra Dutta becoming the new dean.

“The spine of the executive team is going to be totally new,” he says. “Embracing that change – and finding new ways of working through fresh initiatives and the new ideas that these executive roles will undoubtedly bring – is going to be a big focus.”

Two years from now, Bramwell expects the Global Leadership Centre to be ready to open. He also expects the institution to benefit from a fully integrated set of enterprise-class applications that automatically integrate data across services to provide a single source of truth to staff and students.

“We will have delivered and executed our digital strategy and we will have realised the benefits through that,” he says. “And, more importantly, the technology and the service and the delivery that we give to our customers – which is good now – will be even better.”

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Confessions of an in-house creative strategist on feeling unfulfilled, difficulty in returning to agencies as the ‘pay is less’

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Confessions of an in-house creative strategist on feeling unfulfilled, difficulty in returning to agencies as the ‘pay is less’

The war for talent between agencies and brands’ in-house agencies has cooled. Even so, for adland talent who’ve made the move in-house, some say they are looking to go back to agencies after feeling creatively stifled. It’s not the easiest strategy to execute.

In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we hear from an in-house creative strategist about their experience, why they want to go agency-side now and how pay is keeping them from doing so.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the in-house experience like?

I’ve been in-house for about a year. It’s very one-sided. The difference between agency and in-house is that with agencies, there [are] a lot of opinions and ideas [outside of the brand message] that go into creative. With in-house, you have the brand’s message and all creative is reflective of the brand’s message. With in-house, regardless of trends in the market, it’s a lot of ‘we’re going to stick to this one way of doing things’ mentality. It’s a lot of opinions about what the creative should be based on what it has been before. It makes it hard to introduce something fresh. It makes it hard to hire or be a new hire. If you’re not actually going to adhere to advice from new hires, what’s the point in getting new people? Are you just bringing people on board for a second opinion? That’s what it feels like.

Sounds like you don’t have the creative control you desire.

It feels like more of a second opinion role than to get something to manage or control. [Where I am now] it feels like we’re leaning more into what [our strategy] used to be than thinking about what we could be. That’s a big issue with in-house. With agencies, like I said, there’s a lot more trial and error. With in-house, a lot more of this is what we’re doing, these are the funds we have and this is what has worked in the past. In reality, a lot of what worked in the past, when you put it back into the market, it’s not going to work anymore. 

Why do you think it’s more challenging to get to a new creative strategy in-house?

With agencies, you have multiple perspectives. You’re working on multiple brands. You can see something working for another brand and talk to your client about it. You can pivot. You have the background and perspective to [pitch that pivot]. When you’re in-house, you only have the knowledge of your brand and what’s working for you. 

Are you looking to go back to agencies? 

Personally, I am looking to go from in-house to agency but I get paid a lot more being in-house than what I’ve been offered at agencies. I’ve been in interviews with agencies where they’re telling me that I’ll be learning [programs I already know how to use] so that’s why the pay is less than what it should be. There are agencies I’ve interviewed with who ask me to move to New York for less than what I make now and make that work. [With inflation,] there’s no reason why salaries aren’t also increasing. 

So you’d like to make the jump creatively but it’s hard when the compensation isn’t up to what in-house offers? 

It’s hard. I’ve been lowballed, too. They’ll post a salary for a position, go through the interviews and then offer less than what’s listed on the salary description. What was the point of putting the salary range there? I feel like people are putting salary ranges on job descriptions just to attract people with the experience that they are looking for but by the time they make the offer, it’s not what they said it would be. It’s offensive.

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