You've had your ICT Audit and Review, you've created your ICT Strategic Plan - now you need to implement it across your multi-academy trust (MAT). Sounds easy, doesn't it? But if it's that easy, why is it rarely done and done well?
Andy Waring was an IT Director in a growing MAT before he joined Novatia as an Education ICT Consultant. We asked him to provide some insight for senior leaders into the kinds of challenges that could lie ahead for them.
Andy, what types of challenges did you face?
As IT Director I had to put together the ICT Strategic Plan and then implement it. Then I experienced the same challenges that I help our clients work through now.
Best to start with some context.
Many MATs have a historic ICT mess. Different schools have been brought on board at different times, each with their own ICT systems. Every different IT system brings its own issues to manage and resolve.
Most MATs and Schools also run their IT reactively.
What do you mean by running their IT reactively?
You always have a long list of issues and complaints that need to be sorted NOW. Often your IT team will use a sticky plaster fix to get through the day and then not have time to return to implement a permanent fix. The issue will just come and bite them again further down the road.
The result is that the IT Team creates more work for themselves. It can look like they need more staff when, really, with the correct plan in place they may need less team members.
Good examples of this are when your Network Manager comes to you saying, “Look, we keep running out of disk space, you need to spend £x,xxx to fix it” or teachers approach you with “Our interactive whiteboards aren’t working properly – it needs to get sorted!"
These are valid complaints that need addressing. However, the ‘sticky plaster fix’ for these means the culture and cycle of ‘react, react’ rather than, ‘plan, implement, enjoy the benefits’ is perpetuated. This is costly and ineffective.
What else provided a challenge to creating a scalable and sustainable ICT Strategy in a MAT?
First: getting buy-in about the ICT Strategic Plan from all Teaching and Learning staff and the Management Team.
You should have involved them in the consultation about it, but that could have been months ago. These are busy people. They are also people who are not thinking about ICT at a strategic level – they’re focused on how it affects them right now and helps / hinders them in their job.
So, going to either group and saying, “It’s time to implement this Five Year Strategic ICT Plan” is not going to be their priority while their whiteboards still aren’t working and they can’t manage the Absence system.
Would you say their support is vital?
Absolutely. These are the end-users of what you’ll put in place. Getting them on board as you roll it out, ensuring they then use it and get the benefits of it is crucial.
It could take a few years to completely roll out an ICT Strategic Plan; everyone needs to understand that and how at first it can seem like you are getting nowhere. So, their buy-in is utterly crucial.
So, how do you go about this?
I always make sure that we tick off a few ICT quick wins first.
Every MAT IT Department will have a Register of ongoing issues and problems. Find the ones that cause most annoyance to the group of people you want to talk with. Sort those issues out. Show them that you can make a difference to them now.
Then start to engage them with the Five Year ICT Strategic Plan and how much better it could be – if we have the patience to build it together over time.
What about the Senior Leaders? Do they present any challenges?
Yes. Chief Executives, Heads, School Leadership Teams (SLTs) all need to support the implementation of the ICT Strategic Plan too.
The difficulty here is that SLTs can change as people are promoted, retire, move on. This is why it’s essential that the Trust retains leadership and overview of the Strategic ICT Plan and that Trustee’s are fully bought into it as well.
If Senior Trust staff leave the Trustees will still be there driving forward with the plan.
Okay, let’s talk about budget …
The available budget defines how quickly the ICT Strategic Plan can move. A unified, sustainable and scalable IT Strategy comes at a cost.
This is where undertaking a proper ICT Audit and Review is crucial. It allows you to say, ‘What have we got already? Does it meet our needs now and in the future? Can we make it work for us? And if not, what does meeting our needs look like?’
Once you know what you can use of your existing ICT (and this includes things like support contracts), you then know what you need to bring in. That’s one line of budget.
Next, you need to allocate budget to getting those ‘quick wins’ sorted so you can bring everyone on board. That’s another budget line.
Finally, you need to decide where the budget comes from.
What are the options for where the budget comes from?
So, one of the core aims of an ICT Strategic Plan is to deliver cost-savings. Where these cost savings are going to be made can be a driver in where the budget comes from.
For example, bringing in a single reprographics supplier for all schools across the trust and putting in place a centralised print solution in each school, rather than individual money guzzling printers on each desk. This meant that the Trust then saved enough money to be able to recruit 5 extra teachers across the Trust. However, the biggest school made the biggest cost savings – should they then get more of the extra teachers?
In that case then, should this school pay the upfront cost of bringing this system in? Or should the MAT pay the upfront cost? Or the cost be split? Or should each school contribute budget to the Strategic ICT Plan every year for five years and this pot is used to deliver the Strategic ICT Plan?
There is no right answer. It depends on each MAT and their set up and culture. But these discussions and reaching agreement around budget can be a huge challenge.
I like your example about centralising reprographics and saving enough money to bring in five extra teachers. But is this realistic?
Yes. I did it.
The savings were only there if people gave up their desktop printers and there was some resistance, but the benefits were very real. It was a huge win for the MAT but also for my team – it built up real trust in what we were doing. It proved that a strategic approach to ICT could bring the benefits that matter most.
Any other key challenges that spring to mind?
Oh yes – a big one: in-fighting.
What do you mean by this?
A typical example is that everyone in the schools agrees that the idea of integration is great. It means teachers can move between schools easily, able to deliver their lessons on the same system and provide cover for each other.
However, it falls down when each school is in love with their own system. It’s no longer about, ‘What’s the best solution for all of the schools in our Trust?’ but, ‘We have something we know and that works so they can change, not us.’
I’ve had people threatening to resign if I implemented a certain system. That can be quite challenging.
How do you overcome this in-fighting?
You build trust. As an IT Director, and now a Consultant, I need people to trust me. I have to prove to them that I can deliver ICT solutions that work for them and/or save them money - this goes back to quick wins. The centralised reprographics example I gave was a huge trust builder - it proved that I was on their side.
You also have to build and maintain relationships with people; implementing an ICT Strategic Plan takes years. You can’t communicate with people once then disappear to make ‘it’ happen. You have to keep them up to date, keep getting their feedback, addressing it and, crucially, show them the progress that is being made.
Thank you Andy, for sharing some of your expertise.
If you’d like further details then download this FREE Novatia Note, ‘How to implement an ICT Strategic Plan in MATs – FOUR vital actions to take’.
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You can also visit our webinar page to catch Andy discussing some these challenges, as well as offering advice on how to overcome them.