From education to employment

You Can’t Fly If You’re Afraid of The Clouds. Embracing Cloud Technology in FE.

In early September 1929 stock prices in the USA started to decline leading to the market crash of the 29th October that same year, an event that became known as Black Tuesday.

The period that followed was to become known as the Great Depression, a time when many people lost their trust in banks and started to hide their money in places such as under the mattress, in the attic or in items in their home.

Money under the mattress 1 e1472815496105

The time and the context has changed, but some of the behaviours we see from this part of  history apply to the relatively slow adoption of cloud technology in the UK public sector today, especially in regard to behaviours like trust.

Keeping on-premise systems such as storage area networks is the modern equivalent of hiding your money under the mattress. It might feel safer, but the truth, and compelling evidence, suggest differently.

My contention is that three fundamental issues must be addressed to overcome this challenge and enable the positive change in technology enabled innovation the FE sector badly needs.

These three issues must be tackled head on:

  1. Trust
  2. Data
  3. Security


trust sm 1

Someone once said to me that you can trust three people as long as two of them are dead (thankfully they hadn’t just confided in me), and trust is a major issue holding back cloud adoption in the UK public sector.

You can see this in surveys and research relevant to the topic where public sector IT staff cite ‘security’ as a barrier despite the compelling evidence to the contrary.

To create the circumstances under which change can happen we must understand the cultural reasons creating the resistance. Fear of a perceived loss of control is clearly part of the story, yet most people considering cloud technology will likely use online banking and certainly if challenged argue they do so as it’s preferable to travelling to a branch to access banking services.

In short it saves time, money, it’s efficient and makes life better. Yet when it comes to the UK college digital infrastructure too much of it remains on-premise, incurring unnecessary cost and risk in the process. We expect to manage our money online, yet we expect students to travel to a branch.

I often hear colleagues raise concerns about the extent to which cloud platforms can be trusted in contrast to systems that are physically on the campus.

When we think about popular culture and the media, it clearly hasn’t helped. We can all quote a giant business who had a service outage in its cloud system and ended up on the headlines as a result, or a data breach (Facebook, T-Mobile etc) or wider issue relating to the use of cloud systems.

However popular media can act as both an amplifier and an echo chamber that distorts the facts, and is so often cited to support subconscious bias.

For a superb TEDx talk on this, watch ‘What to trust in a “post-truth” world’ by Alex Edmans where he illustrates this point by referring to tales we can all relate to.

For example take the ninety year old who smoked thirty cigarettes a day, sound familiar? Yet the facts are that smoking is fundamentally dangerous to health and for every one story like this there are vastly more that differ, just ask an oncologist.

Whilst the news might report a data breach involving a business that’s a household name and some may use such examples to reinforce their bias or a particular perspective, unless such arguments can be triangulated with several examples of corroborating academically rigorous evidence it is no different to fake news.

It’s unlikely we will see a news headline that says ‘today millions of the world’s leading businesses used cloud technology, and everything was fine’.

Yet this is the case, every day, where it is business as usual. In the public sector a cloud first approach is more business as unusual, but it needs to shift to the default position in fact the UK Government expects it.

Given I am yet to see a single copy of a college financial regulations that does not use the phrase ‘best value’ or similar somewhere in it, it is surprising that the Boards and Audit Committees of FE do not appear to be asking more probing questions in this direction. At least, not yet.


According to Forbes the world now creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day meaning that in the last two years alone more than 90% of the world’s data has been created.

Even at a local level the trends are consistent. Storing data and operating systems locally requires a lot of machines, energy, support, and ongoing maintenance and carries higher operational risks. These factors combine to create the need for larger expenditure than could otherwise be the case. 

what is big data

A recent article by GovTechLeaders highlighted that it’s now more than five years since the UK Government implemented its ‘Cloud First’ policy to set a framework for the public sector when buying new services and systems.

The Government has made it clear that cloud solutions should be considered first when undertaking options appraisals for new technology.

Indeed it is mandatory for central Government systems. The comparatively slow adoption of cloud technology across the wider public sector therefore creates something of a paradox in that it provides colleges who are strapped with cash with the opportunity to realise strategic level efficiencies, resolving so many of the salient issues and challenges that senior teams and their Boards debate, yet adoption is slow.

For a very detailed and academically rigorous assessment of the risk and sensitivity analysis of cloud computing, along with some of the opportunities, the 2017 paper ‘Risks and rewards of cloud computing in the UK public sector: A reflection on three Organisational case studies’ by Steve Jones, Zahir Irani, Uthayasankar Sivarajah and Peter E.D. Love is well worth a read.

Additionally a recent report produced by Eduserv titled ‘Local Government Cloud Adoption 2018’ using data secured through the Freedom of Information Act (I am sure Eduserv gained many public sector friends through that exercise) revealed that 81% of the 373 Councils who responded were maintaining on-site digital infrastructure.

It doesn’t quantify the cost comparison of this approach when set against cloud alternatives but any relevant and suitably qualified professional in the technology industry would immediately know that huge efficiencies and service benefits could be achieved through a cloud first approach in this context (unless they happen to be in the business of selling support contracts for on-site servers).

Even central Government and politicians realised this back in 2013 yet more widely across the UK public sector the benefits are still not being realised.

So why is this?

Sometimes all you need is a million pounds….

With many colleges operating multiple systems and processes, many of which are themselves ageing and not cloud native, migrating these systems to the cloud is sometimes neither a quick or easy process (indeed in some cases it might not be possible), but with the right support in most cases they can be transitioned.

The elephant in the room is this takes resources. Most colleges do not have cloud architects available to increasingly stretched IT Directors, quite the contrary.

Like many in education, senior technology managers in colleges are having to do more with a lot less, working with downsized teams, shrinking budgets and stakeholders with rapidly increasing expectations.

Often technology leaders in colleges know exactly where they are, what’s wrong and where they might like to go, the challenge is one of resources.

The mission is not to spend more on the same, but to put the fuel in the tank to get to the preferred future destination. That takes investment and strategic resource allocation on the right priorities.

Thinking big, starting small.

Whilst investment in cloud technology pays off in a big way and can be easily quantified in a business case, the expertise to execute these plans is often external to the college and that requires additional resource allocation.

On this point, former Vice President Joe Biden once said,Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value’.  

For Audit Committees across the FE landscape this matters. If a failure to invest adequately in the right digital technologies doesn’t feature in the top risks on the corporate risk register, then it might need revisiting (I rarely see this yet ironically I often see a failure to recruit to target in red). Starting with a small series of projects aligned to the larger vision can yield big results.

Often I see a focus on the wrong part of the problem. When I see this I am reminded of a business partner who was once dealing with a crisis in a logistics firm where a fleet of lorries couldn’t leave the base because the software running the computer and the printer had gone wrong and they needed a ticket printing to leave.

The trucks were built up like a convoy and the IT engineer could not work out how to reboot the software and get it operational again. My business partner just took a cable and connected it directly to the printer. The software issue could wait.

The problem was getting the tickets printed to enable the convoy to move, not working out why the software had gone wrong. When it comes to college corporate risk registers if a failure to invest adequately in cloud first infrastructure doesn’t feature highly, but a failure to achieve retention targets does, it’s the equivalent to focusing on the printing software. One of the most commonly heard complaints in college cafes from learners is about the technology, wifi, computers and so on.

In times of austerity with colleges facing a perfect storm of financial headwinds difficult choices must be made, but for Governors and senior leaders digital technology should now be regarded as important as any wider utility such as plumbing, and should be given the same status.

The sensible approach is to build a detailed set of fully-costed time-bound milestones, starting small, but that over the course of the plan achieves the preferred future operating model. A digital roadmap so to speak.

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Wayne Dyer once said that only the insecure strive for security. It’s an inconvenient truth for the public sector. The cloud is far more secure than on-site storage or on-site systems.

According to Open Access Government their research suggested that a majority of enterprises had reported that cloud is more secure than their previous legacy systems and wider evidence is there for those who seek it out.

Additionally when it comes to compliance with the GDPR again cloud technology is an ally removing many of the risks associated with data breaches (as cloud  adoption tends to result in a strategic reduction in paper usage).

Look at it this way. For a cloud vendor, their core business demands data security, it’s the highest strategic priority with associated investment prioritised accordingly. Few colleges could honestly make the same claim (I refer to the quote from Joe Biden earlier).

‘The key to change… is to let go of fear.’ Rosanne Cash

Given the widespread adoption of mobile technology (hard to find someone without a mobile phone) ask your average class to show their phones and you will be presented with an array of powerful and expensive technology.

As many colleges still struggle to work with the concept of bring your own device the world has actually moved beyond because clearly they already are. What is needed now in FE is an enable your own device policy and for curriculum planning to embrace it.

This matters because students are already in the cloud and already have the kit to access it. Faced with constraining and ageing technology within many colleges it makes strategic sense to harness the devices that students bring within the teaching and learning process.

Mobile devices be it phones, tablets, chromebooks or laptops are a major asset to support self directed learning. For any college with a cloud first strategy they will already have worked out that the wifi is an essential utility along with cloud systems that use it wisely.

In adopting a cloud first strategy flipped learning and blended learning become the norm, enabling face to face time with teaching and support staff to be focused on the deeper mastery and exploration of the learning that has already taken place in online, collaborative social spaces.

Ever observed a lesson with a teacher at the front of a room filled with students watching YouTube? Hardly the best value from the teaching hour. However in the absence of the right technology many behaviours like this become a by-product of the environment.

To embrace the possibilities of cloud technology colleges will need to continue to leave behind the dogma of the past. For technology staff concerned about losing their jobs as a result of moving to cloud technology, the risk of losing it by not using cloud technology is far greater.

UK Government Digital Service

In February 2018 the UK Government Digital Service published further guidance restating the commitment to a cloud first policy. Of particular note for the Audit Committee of colleges again, it stated that organisations could ‘choose an alternative to the cloud but will need to demonstrate that it offers better value for money’.

Note that cloud is the first port of call, and the emphasis on alternatives is where justification is needed. In most colleges currently, it’s more common to see the reverse of that approach.

The cloud offers the prize of overcoming existing legacy limitations and providing senior colleagues with some much needed good news. Cloud technology not only saves strategic sums of money, but can usher in a range of innovation including analytics, artificial intelligence and enhanced security as well as innovation in more flexible ways of working aligned to the digital age.

This can support much needed growth in our struggling colleges. For example, a proposition to an employer using platform agnostic technology that enables college solutions for business to be delivered in a location and time independent way is a compelling proposition, since time is most definitely money.

Set against a pitch from a college using legacy systems requiring an apprentice to attend a campus twice a week and it’s not difficult to see who is likely to win the contract.

Most leaders I know in education don’t care too much about the details of a particular technology, but they do care passionately about their ambitions for outstanding teaching and learning, managing declining budgets whilst reducing operating costs in a sustainable way, securing greater control over their systems and processes and reducing strategic risks across the organisation.

They care equally passionately about putting their organisations onto a sustainable growth trajectory. Cloud technology can deliver this and colleges can harness the possibilities.

Institutions like Coleg Cambria or Leeds City College have an established proven track record of digital innovation and are banking the benefits, and I am thrilled to see the momentum increasing with organisations like the National College Creative Industries moving to a cloud first approach, among others, to support its ambitions for growth in apprenticeship numbers along wider benefits.

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Cloud isn’t high risk, it’s low risk and high reward. I learned the same principle early in my investing career where it seemed completely obvious to me that the old saying ‘high risk equals high reward’ was blatantly not true. In investing, high risk equals high risk, and the risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.

On premise technology systems are both higher risk and lower reward.

Every college will approach cloud technology in a way tailored to its preferred future vision but the common theme that applies to the entire FE landscape is the need for an appropriate rolling cycle of investment in cloud infrastructure to support ongoing innovation and agility.

When it comes to a cloud first strategy, low risk equals high reward. Importantly it will better align colleges to the stakeholders and market forces shaping its environment.

As we head towards 2020 almost any new software application purchased will be cloud native. If part of the purpose of our colleges is to prepare people for the future world of work, a cloud first approach is a prerequisite.

In the rapidly changing times of the opening years of the digital age where innovation isn’t optional, a cloud first approach will be critical to the future success of the FE sector.

Jamie E Smith, Executive Chairman C-Learning

Jamie Smith Newsroom Strap

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