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Imperial College London

A National Computing Centre IT Department Accreditation case study.

According to the Times Higher Education, Imperial College London is the fifth ranked university in the world. Not bad for a university that was established as late as 1907. Imperial is also unusual in that the syllabus is entirely science, business, engineering and medicine focused. The IT department is pretty unique too (amongst the Russell Group of universities) in that all IT services, including the telephone system and virtual learning environments, are run centrally. When you have 8,500 undergrads, 4,500 postgrads, 6,000 staff, 800 honorary users, eight campuses alongside numerous out-stations to serve that can be a challenge. However this is something IT Director Arthur Spirling takes in his stride, as do the 220 staff in his department.

IT must be run professionally”, said Arthur, “We operate with all the rigour of a commercial enterprise with defined SLAs, and 5 nines reliability. We have adopted both PRINCE and ITIL standards, have achieved an excellent reputation within the university and always strive to do better.”

Whilst Arthur knew his department’s performance was good, he appreciated that the function would benefit from an independent appraisal of their systems, processes and practices. “ITIL and PRINCE are good methodologies to adopt, but don’t give us an independent stamp of approval for performance overall”, said Arthur. “This is particularly important in academia as my teaching colleagues are regularly assessed by independent authorities (such as The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which assesses the quality of research in universities and colleges in the UK). We felt if IT passed an independent assessment of our performance then we could justify ourselves to our customers and colleagues – after all academics are subject to peer review!

Last year the National Computing Centre established the first independent and holistic assessment for IT Departments , the NCC IT Department Accreditation (ITDA). The ITDA assesses IT departments across 105 distinct areas of best practice under the headings of Business Management, Business Direction, Business Generation, Delivery and Operations and Customer Relations. Departments are assessed against the NCC Standard which is based on current best practice and created with the input of the wider NCC Membership community. All applicants, whether they pass or fail the assessment receive a business improvement plan to ensure that any recommendations are seen through. The ITDA assessment approach is evidence based which means that the actual assessment typically takes only one day.

At first Arthur was a bit sceptical about NCC’s ability to assess the performance of his large department in one day, but after the initial Orientation Visit where the requirements for the assessment were discussed with the NCC Assessor, he brought together his immediate management team and tasked them to assemble the evidence required. This was duly done, and six weeks later the NCC Assessor returned to complete the Assessment – in one day. It wasn’t an easy ride, but the Assessor's recommendation was a pass and this decision has now been independently moderated and accepted by NCC and Imperial College London now appear on the NCC Register of Accredited IT Departments. The Achievement of the award involved the whole team with junior managers demonstrating an inherent commitment to professionalism in the work they do.

It was a good outcome”, enthused Arthur, “the process stimulated the whole team to think more widely and deeply about what they were doing. Through the process we recognised some interdependencies that we hadn’t appreciated before and we facilitated new groups to provide the evidence the Assessor was looking for.”

Apart from the obvious benefit of achieving an independent assessment of their capability, the ITDA process engendered a greater sense of pride and professionalism in the whole team, in fact the process enabled everybody in the team to see and respect what their colleagues do.

We can stand head and shoulders alongside our teaching colleagues now we have independent recognition that our business processes and performance are amongst the best. The ITDA is much more than a tick-box audit that is forgotten about when the consultant is gone, it makes you think about the function holistically, helps you prioritise, recognises contributions made and motivates the team to do better next time”. said Arthur.

The National Computing Centre is an independent membership organisation for IT decision-makers. Founded in 1966 the Centre provides independent advice, guidance, best practice and experience sharing to help those responsible for IT make the right decisions. NCC is non-profit distributing, owned by and run for its members’ benefit.

The ITDA can be applied to IT departments of all sizes, whether out or in-sourced.

Read more about NCC IT Department Accreditation

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