The Department for Education (DfE) decided to make the move to Microsoft Azure as part of a wider modernisation programme that began two and a half years ago with a vision of becoming a more agile organisation, with the ability to bring new digital services to market rapidly.
To underpin this strategy they wanted to establish a more portable and resilient infrastructure that could free them from existing premises (the relocating of a data centre being an expensive and time consuming operation), as well as enabling better use of data to solve problems and provide better services, whilst also rationalising costs.
Helen Walker, the department’s Chief Technology Officer, explains: “Whilst we are still at an early stage in our journey, we have learnt a lot and invested in our own capabilities to give us the ability to work in a more agile way. The move to Azure provides interconnected interdependent technology that can underpin that rapid agile approach.”
Helen points out that although there are many benefits to be gained, the journey can prove challenging and it’s important to be prepared for that. When asked what advice she would offer to other organisations looking to make the move, she talks primarily about skills and culture:
- Get experience on the team: It’s hard to be the path finder and without the battle scars it's really difficult to know if you are doing the right thing. Good architectural design and solutions engineering, for example, is important, and you may need to buy that in.
- You will break things: In order to rebuild you will need to break things. Spend as much time and effort as you can understanding your own infrastructure and applications first, using external help as needed.
- Communications and engagement are critical: It is important to manage the expectations of heads of service and get their buy-in. It would be great for there to be no disruption, but that is not the reality and there will be the need for user testing.
- Buy-in from the top team is required, and to do this you need to create a compelling vision.
- Take the team with you: This is a great opportunity for the team to upskill: it will stretch them but being a part of the journey will boost their own development.
There are still challenges ahead. As in many organisations silos still exist, but the DfE are working towards being ‘one team’, including making external partners part of that team for collaborative working.
Cultural change is happening and pilots help the wider organisation to understand the opportunities that digital represents. “We have started with a discreet number of services, so that those experiences can help us to learn and amplify a successful approach. We don’t believe in a wholesale change, rather in multiplying those small successful changes over a broader range of services,” says Helen.
“Our digital team is small but well formed. We are starting to explore how data flows can give answers and provide different options, and encouraging the organisation to think differently about problem solving,” she adds.
The DfE recognise that this is only the beginning, and that they need to keep evolving. They are not able to predict what the future technology landscape will look like, but by moving to Azure they are more able to adapt as the technologies and supplier models change.