Medical research is a critical element of healthcare in equipping clinicians with the knowledge and medicines to tackle current and future diseases and epidemics.
Such research is normally associated with Petri dishes, microscopes and lab coats, but a robust IT infrastructure is needed to supply academics and students with the tools they need to pioneer research.
This is where Jon Faulkner, chief information officer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), comes in. V3 spoke to Faulkner to hear how he explores ways to improve how technology is provisioned and managed by the institution's 55 IT staff.
Smoothing IT services
IT service management is not the most interesting aspect of the technology world, but it is crucial in ensuring that hardware, software and digital services are provisioned in an effective, timely and sensible way.
The LSHTM has more than 4,000 students and 1,000 staff working in over 100 countries, so a solid IT helpdesk is needed to provide the technology they need at the school and in the field.
The school has a 12-strong helpdesk team that uses BMC’s FootPrints software to manage over 500 calls a week. Faulkner explained that it was difficult before the use of FootPrints to log, prioritise, manage and categorise the calls.
“I arrived at the school a couple of years ago to find that a helpdesk service had been put in place but that it was very much recently adopted in terms of processes and tools,” he said.
Helpdesk software is a good way to familiarise IT staff with the concept of workflows and the discipline of passing instances to the correct teams. However, Faulkner also wanted to transform the helpdesk into an IT management service.
The LSHTM IT team has adopted IT infrastructure analytics tool Nexthink V6 that sits on top of FootPrints and provides data on the entire breadth and process of IT service delivery, including monitoring security and errors that crop up on the school’s infrastructure.
“Nexthink really just enables you to have a view of the whole end-to-end experience and allows you to dive into what is actually the problem as opposed to what appears to be the problem,” said Faulkner.
The benefit is the ability to equip the helpdesk team with the tools they need to find and fix IT problems themselves without escalating it to the next level of IT support.
This allows more problem solving to be carried out early in the service process, which prevents people being shuffled between IT teams as they try to work out who can solve a given problem.
“Through that greater level of ability to analyse where the problems are, if it does actually have to get passed on to support teams downstream, the analysis and quality of input into the helpdesk call, which then gets passed on, are of greater quality, depth and detail than they were previously,” said Faulkner.
Adding analytics into the helpdesk enables staff to gain an insight into the activity on the school’s infrastructure, helping to spot flaws, such as local network failures or jobs not being sent to printers, which allows more rigorous management of the problems.
This allows the helpdesk team to be more proactive in tackling instances and to solve problems before they escalate to the point that people realise they are there.
“It’s trying to get to something before people or too many people start to identify there is actually a problem,” he said. “It is much more like an analytical tool which monitors pretty much everything it can find on your networks and all the way out to the end-point."
Nexthink’s analytical capabilities also include spotting security flaws in the infrastructure, allowing the IT team to gain more visibility into IT operations and spot a suspicious file on a student’s or staffer’s device.
“[It gives us] the ability to potentially track where weaknesses have been exposed and exploited, and who is likely to be affected,” said Faulkner, highlighting how Nexthink helps identify areas that are not an obvious vector for a security breach.
Making life easy
Faulkner’s aim is to reduce helpdesk calls by 15 to 20 per cent and eventually create a system that gives non-IT staff the tools to fix problems and provision products and services themselves without needing to involve the helpdesk or wider IT team.
This approach can give staff more control over the technology they use and free up IT to work on technology that benefits the school as an academic organisation rather than simply keeping the infrastructure ticking over.
Faulkner is looking at replacing FootPrints with fully-fledged IT service management software from the likes of ServiceNow and TOPdesk, but in the meantime Nexthink provides a layer of operational insight to boost the helpdesk’s capabilities.
Moving towards the cloud
Another way to free the IT team from more arduous tasks is to move non-critical IT systems into the cloud, a mission Faulkner has been undertaking to shift the shape of LSHTM’s legacy IT infrastructure.
However, rather than pushing all non-critical IT into the cloud, Faulkner took a more strategic approach by moving only those systems that had reached their upgrade cycle.
His approach is effectively a way of adopting a digital transformation that gets the most out of the school's on-premise IT before switching to cloud-based services.
“They’re important services but they are not core to what our organisation is doing, and that will be the defining factor of [cloud adoption],” he said. “Instead of introducing an in-house [system] we will procure a cloud-provided one.”
Faulkner explained that any IT overhaul, such as a library management system upgrade, will try to involve the cloud.
This phased approach to the cloud has seen students move to Office 365 as their productivity software, with staff in the process of following suit, and adopting Skype for Business, which hooks into phone services provided by Mitel to provide a unified communications set-up.
Many companies use the cloud as a way to cut costs and staff numbers, but Faulkner said this was not the case with LSHTM.
“It’s the element of freeing up people to be able to do more value-adding,” he said. “I’d far rather have people developing improved functional services for our end users than just looking after boxes in rooms.”
Freeing up IT staff to work on software and services that benefit the school comes with its own challenges, specifically overcoming the division between developers and teams in charge of IT operations.
Faulkner has adopted the DevOps approach whereby the two teams work closely together rather than in silos.
“Typically that approach is better than the siloed approach,” he said. “I’ve always found if you have a development column and a separate operations and support column you end up spending a huge amount of time on handover and potential areas of communications conflict.”
This effectively means that Faulkner can have the right mix of IT staff working on the right projects. These include exploring how the school can make better use of its data to aid academic and operational activities.
“We have lots of data from an administrative and academic point of view which is not being used as fully as it might for the benefit of the wider organisation,” said Faulkner.
He explained that LSHTM currently uses Microsoft SQL Server as its database platform with analytics provided by QlikView.
But he wants to push the school’s data analytics further by creating connecting datasets and analysis that allows the school to make tactical and strategic decisions on areas such as future teaching and staffing levels against workloads, projects and research.
“It’s building a greater level of business acumen and realising how useful data can be and building it into the school,” Faulkner concluded.
Academic science and technology have often gone hand-in-hand in terms of specialist hardware. But Faulkner’s approach to the use of IT in an academic institution highlights a trend of digital transformation permeating into all manner of sectors, from heavy industry to academia and government.
Faulkner, among others, is an example of how digital transformation and the use of technology as a driver for business need strong leadership and a savvy use of IT as well as business nous.
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