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Solving IT challenges in Multi-Academy Trusts

Forget any stereotypes you might have about the education sector.

Long considered a bureaucratic, risk-averse and laggard sector, education has played second fiddle to the corporate world in many regards for years. In IT that reputation has always been largely misplaced, and now with the rise of the Academy Trust in the UK - which allows schools to gain funding both from the state and from private sources - Academies have become trailblazers. Economies of scale combined with the increased freedoms of Trusts (vs traditional state schools) have fuelled a tidal wave of fervant ambition that has seen Trusts undertaking wide scale acquisitions and mergers at a speed far beyond anything seen in even the most rapid paced corporate industries.

In just a few years some so-called Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have acquired tens or even hundreds of schools. MAT IT teams are left with the daunting challenge of trying to figure out how to merge IT infrastructure, reduce costs, centralise services, migrate data, and bring about a whole realm of technical changes - still with relatively modest budgets. The struggle is real.

But luckily for them, there are some silver bullets that can solve, or at least significantly alleviate, a lot of the major IT challenges faced by Multi-Academy Trusts. What are they? Well first, let's look at the challenges.

Duplication and cost management

It's likely that at least initially each school will have its own infrastructure, Active Directory, application tenancies and licences, storage servers, databases, management information systems, cloud infrastructure and so on. 10 x schools = 10 x IT infrastructures, 10 x costs, 10 x processes, 10 x maintenance, 10 x management, 10 x things that can go wrong. Removing this duplication provides MAT IT teams with a massive opportunity to simplify operations, reduce costs, and provide a great return to the organisation... Easier said than done?

Centralisation vs institutional autonomy

The appeal of centralising IT infrastructure in MATs is fairly obvious - it simplies processes, reduces duplication, makes cross-institutional collaboration easier, and can significantly decrease costs. If done well, this can provide a solid foundation to the long-term success of school acquisition and transformation for MATs. However, each MAT is different, and for those distributed over a wide area or encompassing different types of schools, there may be a number of practical issues that can only be remedied by a local instutional IT team with its own autonomy. How can a MAT provide the optimal balance of centralised efficiency and localised effectiveness? 

Complexity, organisation and process

Localisation can provide some great benefits, but if MATs are working to a grand Trust-wide vision or want to enable collaboration across the group, fully autonomous localisation can cause major headaches. The main issue is the inconsistency of process. If each local team has its own systems, own set of processes, and its own culture, the MAT IT environment as a whole becomes very complex and heterogenous. It can be next to impossible to accomplish major strategic initiatives at the group level in these environments. How does a MAT create a simpler and more consistent environment, while allowing local teams the autonomy to get jobs done without requiring cumbersome bureaucratic sign-off procedures from the central authority?

Cloud vs on-premises

Everyone in modern educational environments have more-or-less a uniform level of access to the Internet. Not everyone would have access to specific on-premises services hosted in a different school's data-centre. The cloud, while far away and disparate, is much easier to centralise and adapt to an organisation's specific requirements than any on-premises system. This is especially true in a fast-changing heterogenous environment like a MAT. 

The whole principle of the cloud as-a-Service model empowers consumer flexibility and fickleness - not the lasting commitment of capital investment and physical assets. A cloud service can support your organisation in the long-run, but if your requirements change, then you can walk away relatively easily. Getting to the cloud on the other hand, requires new skills, new systems, new processes and a new way of thinking. 

Breaking down silos

While centralising IT can benefit MATs in terms of operational efficiency and cost savings - one of the top organisational benefits is in lowering barriers between institutions. It is likely that MATs will have schools with different Ofsted ratings (ranging from 'inadequate' to 'outstanding'), MATs have an opportunity to cross-fertilise the knowledge and process that have driven the successful institutions into the schools with poorer scores - thereby increasing the quality and success of the group overall. IT has to potential to either facilitate this process, or to add a lot of frustration and inertia. How do you ensure your IT environment and strategy is well-aligned to the needs of your organisation at the group and local level?

User lifecycle management and digital opportunity

Basic processes like identity provisioning from Active Directory to Office 365 can become highly complex and cumbersome in MATs with a large number of Active Directory domains and Office 365 tenancies. Manual provisioning processes and basic identity systems struggle in complex environments, and adding separate identity systems for each institution is yet more duplication and wasted resource. Having a decent identity management system at the Parent level of your MAT with links to each subsidiary institution can centralise and simplify the identity management process and save a lot of money. Role-based access in the identity administration portal can also allow the central team to administer group-wide configurations, while allowing local IT teams and personnel to undertake basic processes like user unlocking, attribute changes, and password resets. 

A centralised identity infrastructure can also provide the basis for cross-institutional collaboration. If you had staff who worked at several schools, but didn't want them add complexity and frustration to their role by having multiple identities, passwords and associated accounts to manage, then an identity system can help bridge access to resources across multiple organisations and domains. 

Furthermore, a cloud-based identity system provides the foundations for your organisation to better integrate its services, or even develop new services for external stakeholders - including prospective students, parents, governors, trustees and alumni. 

Data migration and tenancy consolidation

There are three major opportunities for centralisation of applications and digital services -

  1. Migrating from on-premises systems to the cloud, e.g. moving from Exchange Server to Office 365
  2. Cloud-to-cloud tenant consolidation e.g. merging 5 Office 365 tenancies to 1 single easy to manage tenant.
  3. Active Directory Forest consolidation, e.g. to bring institutions under a single unified MAT domain

Migration projects, however, have the tendency to be complex and expensive. And while the benefits are there, there isn't generally the same level of institutional enthusiasm for tenancy consolidation projects as there is for the implementation of a whole new system. Often, organisations will just put-up with a sub-optimal IT environment in order to avoid the headache and expense of data migration. 

Application onboardings and organisational agility

As the size of your MAT increases and with little centralisation, the process of onboarding new applications can become a major organisational headache. This can really slow your organisation down, and make change very problematic. One of the main benefits of a centralised identity and access management system is in its ability to quickly integrate with new applications. As 'middleware', and IAM system sits between your organisation and the third party applications and effectively removes the burden of you having to manually integrate applications old and new into your infrastructure and workflows. 

Change as a constant

The pursuit of central MAT teams should be the development of a recipe/framework for the successful acquisition and transformation of schools. You could say the same about most modern organisations, but in MATs especially: change needs to be viewed as a business-as-usual process. Figuring out what that recipe looks like, and putting in the foundations - the technology infrastructure, the processes, the teams - that you know will not only adapt with your organisation, but will actively enable that organisational adaptation to happen, should be your #1 IT objective.
 

IAM Cloud - the silver bullet 

There are some reoccurring themes to the challenges above, which can be summarised as: "How do we make IT simple and agile, while reducing cost, and empowering our organisational process?"

The foundation to IT centralisation and control in the cloud is identity

 

Identity provides the control plane to effectively manage who can access what and how. Having a centralised cloud-based identity and access management platform allows organisations to both centralise IT processes and application management, while delegating processes to local teams. It helps MATs to bind their IT infrastructure together as tightly or loosely-coupled as best suits their organisational goals. 

It provides the basis for a formalised central process for the management of existing applications and the onboarding of new applications. It provides a consistent technical framework for onboarding and supporting applications. 

 

How IAM Cloud helps:

DUPLICATION AND COST MANAGEMENT

  • A single tenancy of IAM Cloud can support the infrastructure for unlimited sites. 100 schools, 100 Active Directories, 100 Office 365 tenancies? You still only need one implementation of IAM Cloud. This vastly reduces duplication, complexity and all associated costs.
  • Cloud Drive Mapper, IAM Cloud's cloud storage integration utility, can also remove the need for on-premises file servers by better leveraging the free storage from OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online.
  • Yes it really is possible to spend money to save money! 

CENTRALISATION vs INSTITUTIONAL AUTONOMY

  • There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this, so IAM Cloud instead provides a system that can accomodate full centralisation, full localisation, or gradients in between.
  • With role-based administrative access, IAM Cloud's identity, access and password features can delegate certain tasks to local administrators while maintaining central governance of the core identity configuration.
  • Design the processes that work for you, don't be pushed into bending your business around an ill-fitting product. 

COMPLEXITY, ORGANISATION AND PROCESS

  • Identity providers are 'middleware' that create a consistent standards-based approach to onboarding and supporting applications. The MAT no longer has the burden of supporting identity and access requirements for applications. Instead that responsibility falls on the identity provider, IAM Cloud.
  • IAM Cloud can bring about consistency and simplicity to your IT infrastructure, and allow the MAT to define procurement criteria for applications. E.g. supporting SAML, a common federation standard, which ensures both consistency in IT management and in the end-user experience. 

CLOUD vs ON-PREMISES

  • With the right identity system and process, the cloud is just as easily and effectively governed and secured as an on-premises system. Identity is the main source of control in the cloud.
  • Identity services are enablers to all the benefits of cost savings, flexibility, mobility, and organisational agility that the cloud as-a-Service model provides. 

BREAKING DOWN SILOS

  • The cloud combined with a good identity management service can enable cross-organisational working and collaboration in a way that's simply never been achievable before with legacy IT. 
  • Teachers, employees, potentially even students could move seamlessly across sites maintaining access to resources without creating a major headache to IT or overly complicating your infrastructure.
  • IT need no longer be a barrier or an inconvenience, and can instead actively help support the cross-fertilisation of skills and knowledge to help improve the performance of the MAT as a whole. 

USER LIFECYLE MANAGEMENT AND DIGITAL OPPORTUNITY

  • When you move off-premises and into the cloud, your whole way of thinking can shift too. Digital technology has had a major impact to the learning and teaching experience in educational environments, what's stopping digital disruption from transforming the way that schools engage with their external stakeholders too?
  • With identity in the cloud and digital services in the cloud, then you can start thinking about better ways of engaging parents in the learning and development process. You can better integrate your governors and trustees. And you can build lasting valuable relationships with your alumni

DATA MIGRATION AND TENANCY CONSOLIDATION

APPLICATION ONBOARDINGS AND ORGANISATIONAL AGILITY

  • Identity providers like IAM Cloud already have pre-configured connectors into third party applications like Office 365, G-Suite, Blackboard, Moodle and a vast array of other applications. This both reduces the burden on your organisation and can significantly speed up the onboarding process.

CHANGE AS A CONSTANT

  • An identity platform like IAM Cloud can provide the foundation for managing IT in the cloud. It can allow IT to focus on supporting users and the organisation's business requirements rather than getting stuck in the weeds in complex application onboardings. 
  • IAM Cloud provides a consistent management approach and a framework upon which the organisation can develop and evolve its IT offering to internal and external users long into the future.
  • IAM Cloud provides MATs with the underlying technology to substantially enhance the IT integration and consolidation of new schools, and better manage their existing groups.

IAM Cloud won Microsoft's Worldwide Education Partner of the Year award in 2015, and is a Microsoft Gold Partner.

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WATCH IAM CLOUD IN ACTION

 

cloud drive mapper, onedrive mapping, sharepoint drives

 

 

Topics: Blog, office 365, change, identity management, single sign-on, cloud migration, Microsoft

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