How a massive five-year transformation plan was delivered in a week, because of coronavirus

One organisation fast-forwarded a five-year digital transformation strategy and got 22,000 people working remotely in a week.

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The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak and the introduction of social-distancing measures in the UK in an attempt to slow the outbreak are having huge impacts across society and making organisations rethink everything about how they operate.

It's a particularly big problem when your organisation relies on face-to-face interaction like the University of Sussex, based on a single-site campus which is now closed due to the pandemic.

The obvious solution was to use technology to help staff and students get online and interact, but the institution was far from ready. A week before lockdown, just 100 Sussex staff had the ability to work from home via remote desktop protocol.

But now 3,000 staff and 19,00 students can connect to the institution and work or study from home, a massive switch to remote working across the university delivered in super-quick time.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The answer, says Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, was to fast-forward a five-year digital transformation strategy – which includes the introduction of cloud-based applications, networking and video-conferencing technology – that's been more than a year in the making.

"What's happened on the back of the coronavirus is that a lot of that five-year plan for transformation has had to be condensed into a week," he says. "A decision was taken that we had to respond to coronavirus and that's led to me trying to then move that five-year roadmap and strategy into a one-week deliverable."

The creation of this strategy has been Oliver's key priority since joining the institution in September 2018. His aim is to help an organisation that has traditionally under-invested in technology to embrace the opportunities for distance-learning that digitisation affords.

Oliver's plan for digital-led change recently received sign-off from the senior leadership team as a fully-costed transformation strategy. Once the impact of coronavirus became apparent, the Sussex IT team turned that long-term plan of action into a short-term business reality.

"Because we have support for the initiative, making that argument to bring that digital transformation forward because of the benefit that it will bring given where we are now, particularly with people working remotely, was a much easier argument than it would have been if we'd had a standing start," he says.

The IT team at Sussex has fast-tracked the implementation of a range of technologies, including Canvas' learning-management platform, Panopto's lecture-capture software, Citrix's virtual desktop infrastructure, Microsoft Teams for collaboration, Zoom video-conferencing technology, and AWS-supported bots.

The IT team had already spent the past few months thinking about how it was going to implement Canvas and Panopto as part of the digital transformation process. Oliver says that work has been expedited, so that the university's remote-working students now have a full, online-learning environment.

SEE: Working from home: Getting your team ready for the switch

Lectures are streamed online and are available for viewing afterwards, including full captioning, meaning the resources are accessible to everybody, including students that don't have English as a first language.

Those initial foundations for a learning environment have been bolstered by permission from the senior leadership team for the IT team to implement Zoom video-conferencing technology. The university will use this software to create real-time seminars with staff and students.

"That's potentially transformative – the IT team has developed a single sign-on system, with integrations into Panopto and Canvas, so that our students and our academics have a complete digital environment that mirrors in-classroom experiences," says Oliver.

The IT team continues to hone its approach. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, it had recently commissioned a proof-of-concept study into using a Citrix virtual desktop environment to help stream educational apps. Once again, a decision was made to expedite the implementation process.

Oliver says it usually takes at least six weeks to introduce Citrix into an educational environment. However, his team has completed that implementation work in a week, meaning students can access the apps they need securely when they're working from home.

This fast-paced transformation highlights how the spread of the coronavirus has created demand for rapid change, led by CIOs. 

SEE: Coronavirus: 'We got 10,000 staff remote working from home - in one weekend'

Oliver said that the need to adapt to remote working has helped staff to embrace collaboration. University staff were given access to Microsoft Teams last week and now almost all back-office functions are operating on the platform.

"We're having our daily coding meetings using Teams," says Oliver. "A number of the people involved in that meeting are people who wouldn't have been confident using video-conferencing tools at all. But it's been a case of needs must and people are really embracing these new ways of working."

Oliver says Sussex is also working with AWS to develop a machine-learning-powered bot that allows the IT team to field frequently-answered questions automatically and to auto-route students to the online resources they need, such as software-installation files and user guides.

"It's all about making sure our academics and students have the right level of guidance and training to be able to use the tools effectively to ensure continuity of education as best we can," he says.

SEE: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

In many ways, then, Oliver and his team are making the most of a very bad situation. While they'd rather not have to deal with the world-changing impact of COVID-19, they're adapting quickly to this new way of working. The end result could be that the future of education arrives far earlier than they might have anticipated.

"We're always going to be constrained as a university by our geography – we're a single-site campus and you can only fit so many people into that space," he says. "The logical step for us has always been to embrace digital technology to help us expand. Online distance learning is a facet of that – and everything that we're doing now because of coronavirus will feed into the overall growth ambitions within the institution."