The Department for Education’s (DfE) has freed workers from their desks and upskilled internal IT staff with a mobile working strategy delivered at pace over 18 months.
With an office move on the horizon and two data centre contracts nearing the end of their lives, CTO Adrian Tucker set about modernising the DfE’s “ageing” technology stack as quickly as possible.
“We had robust systems but they were ageing and becoming old-fashioned,” Tucker tells IT Pro. DfE “needed to move on into the future” from its reliance on data centres, and its Office 2010-running Windows 7 thin client devices meant staff couldn’t work away from their desks. BlackBerrys enabled workers to access email on the go, but couldn’t open PDFs, meaning staff were unable to feedback on policy documents when they were outside of the office.
“Whilst it wasn’t archaic, it was restrictive and a lot of the elements of it were going end of life, so we had a choice,” says Tucker. “We could’ve dealt with the immediacy of the London move and just moved a single data centre and left it at that, or we had the opportunity to pitch for the total transformation of IT.”
Tucker’s vision of a mobile, cloud-first workforce fitted in with the Government Digital Service’s digital agenda for Whitehall, but what was unusual was the pace at which the DfE planned to enact this change. “Even Microsoft at the time raised their eyebrows,” admits Tucker.
But he wanted staff to get used to mobile working before the building move – in the new premises, space will be at a premium. Redmond was one of DfE’s key strategic partners, and along with replacing the BlackBerrys with Android devices, DfE decided to roll out Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 devices over introducing Windows 10 thin clients, because of the extra mobility.
With devices that double as laptops and tablets, “there was no bad choice”, according to Tucker, while people could switch between the Book and Pro 4 nine months after choosing one if they wanted to.
Adrian Tucker (courtesy of DfE)
Within just seven weeks, Microsoft and Tucker’s IT team had rolled out 3,500 of the devices, with “floorwalkers” dressed in bright orange patrolling the floors to step in and help users.
“That gives you a sense of the pace wrapped around the entire programme,” he says. All 5,000 DfE and education agency staff now have their chosen device and print much less, because they can take their documents with them on the Wi-Fi enabled devices.
Tucker explains: “With a device you can take with you, with an annotation pen, people just don’t need to print. When they’re in meetings it’s not a static copy it’s [a] live [document], their email’s still coming in, they can have discussions with their team in a meeting to get answers, it just makes the whole flow of business much stronger.”
The new Surfaces also meant DfE migrated from Windows 7 to Windows 10, but while Tucker admits to some minor upgrade issues, he says it went more smoothly than he expected.
“Clearly you have to get used to a different look and feel, but we certainly didn’t see a significant spike [in support requests] around the jump,” he says. “It was more about ‘where are things’. You get that in the early days and part of the reason we had the orange-vested floorwalkers was so that people were on the ground instead of having to ring a call desk. They were there to answer things, silly things like ‘how do you shut it down’.”
Deploying Office 365 to support collaboration
Bringing Windows 10 into the workplace has allowed the DfE to exploit other technologies, like Microsoft’s cloud suite. For example, with OneNote, previous meeting minutes are quickly searchable, as opposed to the old paper copies that “tended to go straight into the confidential wastebin”, says Tucker.
“We’re now bringing in a lot more around Skype for Business and Power BI tools for our analysts and really starting to exploit OneDrive and that whole collaboration piece,” he adds. Teams around the UK can work on the same document in real-time, without a continuous stream of emails or various versions of the same file.
Tucker is also looking at bringing in collaborative messaging tools, like Microsoft Teams, although no tender process has yet been started.