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CIO Innovation Series: Mark Bramwell, CIO of Oxford Saïd Business School


At first, stepping into Oxford University’s Saïd Business School’s campus, opposite Oxford train station is like stepping into an experience. Designed by Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, who also designed the London Opera House, the campus delicately blends classical outdoor architectural design, complete with amphitheatre, columns and cloisters and oak panelled theatres, with a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Oxford dreaming spires.

As I wait for Mark Bramwell, Oxford Saïd’s CIO, in the open plan Atrium there’s a continuous throng of students from all over the world proudly taking photos of themselves in front of the school’s emblem and there’s a feeling that both the building and the institution seem balanced – classically influenced, marble surfaces meet selfies and Twitter.

Founded in 1996, the school is already one of the world’s highest ranked business schools, competing head to head with prestigious institutions like Harvard, Stanford and MIT Sloan. This year its MBA was ranked sixth best in the world outside of the US and ranked in the top ten business schools in the world for the Open and Executive MBA programmes it delivers. From my discussion with Mark it’s clear that the success the school’s seeing is the result of the entrepreneurial culture and the strong sense of community that the institution fosters both at home and abroad.


In plain sight

As we navigate our way through the campus one of the first things I learn is that Mark’s moved the IT Support Desk next to the Main Reception area. While at first this might sound like quite a tactical, or trivial thing, it is in fact the first sign of his deeper strategy because it brings ICT support, a function that many organisations are all too happy to hide, out of the shadows and into direct contact with the stakeholders. Providing personable face to face support it just one benefit of this new move, its real purpose is to help bring consumers and ICT closer together so they can learn from one another and create better business outcomes.

Using an analogy Mark tells me that he doesn’t want a team of waiters, whose purpose is just to serve, as is so often the case with ICT Departments. He wants a team of Maître D’s and Sommeliers, individuals who can anticipate their user’s needs, make recommendations and provide a valuable personalised service.

As with many ICT organisations, Mark’s organisation sits horizontally across the business which elevates it into the position of being a department that has a genuine holistic oversight and freedom to roam; this freedom, which is also a responsibility, is one of the key components that Mark hopes will make Saïd Business School even more successful in the future. No single department has all of the answers to all of the organisation’s challenges or conundrums and it’s only by working together that the individual business units can help the organisation to thrive.


New world frontiers

Every academic institution is being disrupted and attacked on all fronts. On one hand technology has helped new and old adversaries alike open up new routes to market and extend their reach; while on the other, new and emerging Business Operating Models and paradigms are forcing business schools to rewrite and iterate their programs at a rate they’ve never experienced before.

With every challenge though comes opportunity and for forward thinking organisations like Oxford Saïd, the question is less about how they defend their core business and more about how they leverage these new trends for business advantage. Mark, better perhaps than anyone else, knows that technologically the school can’t stand still.

The concept of the borderless organisation is nothing new, it’s been with us for a decade or so now but new Cloud, Digital and Mobile enabled business models, combined with a drastic fall in the cost of creating a new business, mean that is now easier than ever for anyone to venture into new markets and disrupt established incumbents.

Companies like GE and Unilever, who never before offered business education and MBA programmes, are increasingly trying to encroach on the elite business schools’ markets by offering a mix of both on premise and off premise education programmes; the latter more often than not being delivered by what has come to be known by the acronym ‘MOOC’ which stands for Mass Open Online Course. Hundreds of thousands of students can enrol and participate in MOOCs and as the quality of these courses increases, it’s easy to see how elite business schools like Oxford Saïd and Harvard can feel as though they’re under siege.

Mark sees that there are places for both types of business models in Oxford Saïd’s portfolio and believes that there will always be a place for bespoke, on premise executive education programmes that provide a learning experience that online programmes simply can never match. Similarly there’s also an option and place for leveraging the technology of MOOC’s in instances where, for example it’s impractical to fly 3,000 executives into the UK to partake in a programme. Even though Mark’s attitude may seem like a sensible one, it is in fact a crucial one that’s all too often understated.

In today’s world the amount of choice and variety, all of which are principally underpinned by technology components, is increasing and the real skill, one that Mark seems to have a superb grasp of, is how individuals and organisations can harness what’s available to create business advantage, even in the face of adversity.

Meanwhile, Mark’s take on technology might also take many people by surprise. Ironically he doesn’t believe that technology is the differentiator, it’s the way that the course materials are curated and the quality of the learning experience that matters the most. Learning is a personal engagement and every one of us has our own individual learning style, whether that’s on premise, off premise, tablet or laptop. Excelling at delivering that superlative experience is the one that Mark and his team are focused on supporting.


The supplier world

As we sidle onto the topic of suppliers I can already see a glint in Mark’s eye. Arguably the Supplier – Client relationship should be one of the more valuable relationships that the ICT department has. As we continue our conversation, I wonder if there’s a place for a supplier education course within Oxford Saïd’s offering because I’m sure that curated properly it’d be a popular one.

Mark believes that there are two distinct supplier markets. The first is the huge rationalisation, streamlining and consolidation of Tier 1 players, while the second is the explosion in the number of new players and start-ups. Although each market has their pros and cons, one of his main challenges is simply being able to differentiate between the experts and those who are good, poor or just plain bad.

Mark describes his role as 80% relationship and 20% technology and while he’s almost always found walking around the faculty offices, the halls and the canteens engaging, listening and learning from the stakeholders who rely on his department, it doesn’t appear that the same can be said for many of the suppliers. This is something that Mark recognises and is actively trying to address by ensuring and encouraging his most strategic partners to spend time at the School understanding, seeing and experiencing the importance and impact of the services they provide first hand.

As any executive working for a supplier knows, it is vitally important that their client facing sales teams are able to tailor and personalise the benefits that their particular portfolio of solutions will have to both individuals and to the client organisation.  Simply regurgitating sales collateral pro rata won’t do much for your credibility here.

It took me just a few minutes to understand that Mark is focused on helping Oxford Saïd deliver a better learning experience, that he doesn’t see technology as the differentiator and that he wants to understand what investments will progress the business the furthest. In one fell stroke, for those vendors who listen rather than tell those are the keys to how you become relevant.

Mark admits that he is demanding but fair with suppliers, driven by his high service expectations. If he’s kindly blocked out an hour in his diary for you it’s unlikely that he’s going to want to hear the usual industry spiel even though that’s almost always what he gets.

Big Data, Cloud, Digital, IT as a Service and Mobile – it’s funny how every meeting seems to revolve around those topics now, irrespective of the conversation flow. During every meeting he’ll ask basic questions such as “What is Digital and what does it mean for you?” and by his own admission, he doesn’t feel that any of the suppliers get it right and from my own conversations I’d have to agree with him.

Cloud is ostensibly your service provisioned from someone else’s computer, Digital has existed since the advent of the first computer program and Mobile is simply something you listen to or eyeball. As for ITaaS, another popular industry term, Mark argues that ICT is a vital part of the business so while many suppliers would like to dumb it down to just simple service provision, the real value of ICT lies in enabling the business and that requires engagement, collaboration and understanding, things that can’t be drawn down over the wire from an obscure offshore data center.

Compartmentalised, undeveloped and without context, technology is essentially useless but when it’s combined with innovation, vision and purpose it’s the foundation that can differentiate your business or turn an industry on its head. In many cases it can be said that the suppliers that Mark meets already have the tools he’s looking to consume or deploy, what they haven’t taken time to curate though are the answers to how they will help take the business further.



The CIO’s role is more relevant than it’s ever been but more often than not it’s the individual that makes the role and not the other way round. Entrepreneurial CIO’s like Mark who lead from the front and by example, who believe that they and their teams are there to enable the business and help it create competitive advantage rather than to just support it, are often the pioneers that help ensure an organisation prospers.

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