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Six lessons from a year in the cloud

When the coronavirus pandemic forced UK businesses and public services into a series of lockdowns over the past year, digital technologies in the cloud enabled organisations to continue operating. Here, companies with differing levels of experience of using the cloud name their key takeaways

1 Do the basics and then improve

At the outset of the pandemic, Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust decided to accelerate its tentative use of cloud computing. First, a secure, encrypted virtual desktop was launched to support more than 1,000 staff working from home and satisfy strict governance. Shifting clinical applications like e-observations called for a longer conversation.

“We pushed ahead and harvested massive benefits,” says Stephen Hardy, associate chief information officer at the trust. Clinicians working from home and consultants in situ could view observations of patients at any hospital to identify deteriorating patients and remotely escalate treatment. The contactless, and safe, aspect of e-observations was added collateral.

Looking back over a gruelling year, the biggest lesson is to exploit the cloud’s scalability, to take small steps and to iterate, says Hardy. “With a ‘big bang’ implementation, the planning takes ages. With the cloud, it’s easier to focus on one area and then iterate. You do the basics and then finesse over the year.” Lesson two, says Hardy, is not to reinvent every wheel just because you have the cloud. Telephone consultations are practical and adequate in many scenarios.

The trust has started a Silver Linings programme, which identifies innovations that will be kept and enhanced post-COVID-19. “We’ll have a lot more of the workforce working remotely; the flexibility means better staff retention. E-methods for clinical services are here to stay. We’re moving towards a single portal that a clinician can log on to and see everything we know about a patient,” says Hardy. 

2 Make support flexible

Independent UK law firm Burges Salmon found the biggest lesson learnt when the firm accelerated a nascent cloud migration was to make support a priority. “Given what people have been through and dealt with in the past 12 months, one stress we can take away is the anxiety of technology not working. We can give our people the comfort of having the tools to do their job,” says Eddie Twemlow, Burges Salmon head of IT and operations.

Twemlow increased the size of the service desk team to ensure staff always had access to support when working from home. “Pre-COVID, there were always colleagues around to offer support. Once at home, this was removed in an instant and staff often worked irregular hours, too, fitting work around home schooling,” he says.

To ramp up support fast, staff were relocated into the support team. Receptionists who weren’t needed to meet and greet, and personal assistants made the adaptation. The organisation, as well as the technology, had to be flexible. Twemlow says: “It showed we were committed to looking after our staff; some of those people have permanently moved to the Technology team.”

The company has a strong collegiate culture and functions such as the AGM and socials were also continued virtually by using collaborative tools provisioned by the cloud. Work capabilities, such as virtual hearings and video conferencing for trial presentation, were rolled out faster too. “Largely, though, the cloud programme held true,” says Twemlow. 

3 Design digital touchpoints into the day

For a company adept at software and accustomed to running its GPS tracking business from the AWS cloud, the pandemic lesson learnt by RAM Tracking was how to acclimatise culturally. With all staff working remotely and disparately, “we realised more had to be done around creating regular contact, scheduling meetings with management and retaining watercooler conversations,” says Scott Chesworth, RAM Tracking operations director. 

However seamless and performant the cloud and sophisticated its dashboards, people can’t work in isolation. “Our staff needed regular touchpoints on a daily basis to keep morale strong. We have to retain the human touch in interactions. You can achieve a lot through video conferencing, but a couple of touchpoints need to be designed into the working day to have a chinwag,” he says.

4 Take a business-led approach 

For Calico, a not-for-profit organisation in the north-west of England that provides housing, women’s refuges, and drug and alcohol treatment services, the pandemic provided a massive push to the cloud. “We’d already engaged with BCN Group about delivering a [cloud-based] Microsoft 365 suite in the future. Then COVID happened and we had to up our game,” says Anne-Marie Thornley, head of ICT at Calico.

IT had previously taken a backseat at an organisation dedicated to delivering front-line services. “Suddenly we had to change the mindset of individuals and management to provide access to robust and secure collaboration tools,” says Thornley. The lesson is to be more business led. Previously projects had been IT led. This time the project was led by the executive and wasn’t something IT was “doing” to the organisation. 

The bonus of this approach is many staff embraced new ways of working, especially those who’d been less confident. “They have a lot more tools in their box to connect and collaborate with customers in new ways,” says Thornley. 

5 Deliver products that meet customers’ needs

Recognise Bank launched in November in the middle of the pandemic, a bold move driven by the “chronic under-serving of the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) community”. So says Jason Oakley, founder and chief executive of Recognise and former head of commercial banking at Metro Bank. His proposition is relationship-led banking that’s digitally enabled. Making the launch possible during the pandemic restrictions was nCino cloud technology.

Recognise Bank was licensed in November, but has already learnt lessons when it comes to delivering on its proposition of trusted adviser. “A pandemic changes the way you onboard clients; we’ve developed virtual onboarding over Teams or Zoom,” says Oakley. Recognise has also changed the way it instructs valuers and lawyers to fast track loans and streamline esignatures. “It’s about convenience and touchless, remote trading, and the cloud caters to that,” he says. “It motivates me to harness cloud technology to improve user experience for the SME.”

Cloud technology speeds up products that cater to customers’ changing needs. And, with the vaccination programme going well, businesses need a route out of the pandemic and that means access to working capital. “They have to rejuvenate and get going,” says Oakley. 

6 Pitch user experience, not performance

Prior to the pandemic, it had been a struggle to transform the University of Reading from an on-premises IT operation to a cloud-enabled organisation. Significantly, there was a barrier in procurement embracing the capital-expenditure versus operating-expenditure model and the big discounts on software licences available to higher education institutions were holding the university hostage. For IT, the challenge was to establish the necessary governance that would make cloud solutions economically viable.

COVID cut through a three-year hiatus. Frame, a virtual desktop from Nutanix, was deployed to every employee, delivering a secure bundle of collaboration and office tools accessible from their home device. Kevin Mortimer, head of operations at the university, says the big lesson learnt has been to pitch IT differently. “Previously we’d focused on performance and efficiency instead of the user experience people are consuming,” he says. 

“COVID’s been an opportunity to change how the organisation works. Frame makes peoples’ lives easier and the cloud has reset our university landscape.”

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