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NCC IT Department Accreditation - a catalyst for change

AQA - ITDA Case Study

The latest organisation to have successfully completed the National Computing Centre IT Department Accreditation is the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), Michael Dean investigates.

AQA is the biggest provider of general qualifications (GCSE and GSE etc) in the UK and one of the “big three” English unitary awarding bodies. It is established as a not for profit charity. Each year it awards qualifications to around 1.7m students who sit c3.2m GCSE and c1.0m GCE examinations in c7,200 schools and colleges. As you might imagine AQA also have to deal with peaks and troughs in activity around the annual examinations timetable. The permanent staff of 1,100 is augmented by as many as 25,000 teachers who serve as examiners and moderators. IT accounts for about 10% of the full-time staff and they deliver a full portfolio of internal services across 6 locations whilst also managing a number of extranet services for external stakeholders.

Inevitably Director of IT, Peter Dawson faces both challenges and opportunities, but he puts safeguarding the confidentiality, integrity and availability of AQA’s data at the top of his priority list, “Given the sensitive nature of our work, the security of our data is paramount.” The team also includes the information security specialism which plays an important role in business continuity planning and risk management, and has steered AQA through re-certification for ISO 27001. “IT is developing a good reputation in AQA”, observes Peter “but we need to establish a mutual understanding with the business about what a good catalogue of IT services looks like. The ability to benchmark ourselves against a recognised industry standard was a key factor in our decision to seek IT Department accreditation from the NCC.”

Peter’s response has been to initiate a programme for change founded on three strategic elements:
Firstly, he is looking to encourage greater innovation at AQA by assessing more effective ways of providing services and solutions and by fostering a more pro-active culture in IT that creates a compelling vision of what a good portfolio of IT services should look like.

Secondly, he is seeking to bring better governance to IT by providing a robust framework so the rest of the business can see and judge how effective the IT department is, and also by instilling greater accountability in the IT team.

Finally there are strategic projects, such as delivering more extranet based services to customers and stakeholders, increasing remote working capabilities (a substantial increase is predicted), meeting the growing information security challenges associated with these developments and aligning the skills and capabilities of the Department with the changing needs of the business.

The three elements are being drawn together to cover the IT Department’s contribution to AQA’s enterprise wide Strategic Action Plan.

“We set ourselves some pretty big objectives, so when we heard about NCC’s IT Department Accreditation Scheme, we thought it would be a great catalyst for both the management of strategic changes and also the delivery of ongoing service refinements” observed Peter.

The NCC IT Department Accreditation Scheme (ITDA) is an independent appraisal of the performance of an IT department, designed to drive business performance through a common framework for continuous improvement. The assessment scheme which underpins the NCC ITDA examines an IT department’s performance against 110 common controls, enabling the IT department to compare and understand its own strengths and weaknesses. The ITDA is also an accreditation scheme, so those IT departments who score well will also be awarded with a recognised accreditation to the NCC Standard. The ITDA provides a framework for Business Management, Business Direction, Business or Service Generation, Delivery and Operations and Customer Relationships. Discovering the ITDA was timely for AQA who are now using the ITDA framework to underpin their contribution to the Corporate Strategy.

“The ITDA has provided us with a mechanism to pull together the work we had already started across IT in a coherent way. Because the ITDA is a community standard, it gave us a clear set of definitions, enabling us to see and measure what good looks like at AQA. And because it’s an external assessment, it carries a lot of weight internally.” Enthused Peter, “The ITDA has helped us facilitate a mutual understanding of what IT can do for the organisation. Part of the process involved gaining stakeholder feedback and this has given us some real insight into where and how we need to develop.”

All departments who undergo an ITDA Assessment also receive a bespoke Action Plan which helps to focus any areas for continuous improvement. These findings will also be woven into the Corporate Strategy Document and communicated to the rest of the organisation.

“We opted for the ITDA because of the independent assessment and business improvement framework, however it is always nice to receive an award and it is a great message to our business colleagues who can now see that AQA’s IT function measures up to the best” said Peter. For Peter and his management team the serious stuff starts now, reviewing the Action Plan, setting priorities and delivering the strategic plan, run in parallel with the ITDA. “We are looking forward to the first annual ITDA review, because we know we can deliver what we say we will”.

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