Fixing 'collapsing IT infrastructure' at Kew Gardens

Stuart Sumner
clock • 14 min read

Ian McKetty walked into a tricky situation when he became CIO at Kew Gardens, with an under-invested IT estate, unskilled teams and a huge disconnect with the business. Here's how he turned it around

In the mid-17th century Henry Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Tewkesbury, founded the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It has grown from there to its current size, occupying 330 idyllic acres of West London.

Think of Kew Gardens and most people will bring to mind its sculpted parks, and perhaps the large, heated greenhouses with their tropical flora.

But the organisation, which employs around 1,100 staff, is really about scientific research, with the tourist attraction something of a sideline.

For example Kew's herbarium, among the largest in the world, has over 8.5 million plant and fungal specimens. Its library houses over 750,000 volumes, and its illustrations collection contains more than 175,000 prints and drawings of plants.

Herbarium at Kew Gardens

The history of the place is not lost on Ian McKetty, Kew Gardens' CIO, but it is far from his sole focus.

"We have to maintain the old Kew, the ancient part of Kew," says McKetty. "But ultimately, we are a modern organisation with a contemporary voice. Kew is not only the lovely gardens, they're really a by-product of our science.

"We really lead the world in botanic science."

Kew's mission is perhaps never more relevant than today, with the effects of climate change visible in every news story.

"The world comes to us to help them better understand, to plan for and manage the impact of climate change, food security, these very current issues," he explains.

"We also have the Millennium seed bank, which is a critical resource for mankind because we gather and preserve seeds. Some of these are endangered, but many more are extinct in the wild and we are able to propagate those."

Kew's global significance therefore is obvious, and the importance of the technology function within the organisation is well understood.

Ian McKetty, CIO, Kew Gardens

An executive board of nine people, including McKetty, run Kew.

"The fact that there's IT representation on the board is a complete departure from the norm, because there was never a CIO on the board before me," says McKetty.

"The previous CIO reported into a board member, but wasn't on the board himself, and that just didn't work. The science part of Kew has begun to wake up and to realise that it needed support and guidance around technology. There were decisions that were being made at the board level that just weren't mindful of technology."

Remediation and a collapsing IT estate

McKetty joined Kew in early 2017, and immediately found that his work was cut out for him.

Desktops were awful, the infrastructure was literally collapsing.

"When I started I had two main tasks. One was remediating. The IT at Kew was underinvested, and hence had deteriorated to a point that it was beginning to affect the ability of Kew to function. Scientists were unsupported. Horticulturalists struggled with ancient systems for the web that were two decades old.

"Desktops were awful, the infrastructure was literally collapsing. And that needed to be fixed before we could move on to the more important work underpinning Kew's future plans.

"They'd had an IT department since the mid ‘80s, and the thinking hadn't really evolved since then. And they've made some bad choices which meant they had some poor systems.

"I reorganised the department, then put a business case together to go both to the Exec board and the Trustee board to get funding. That was primarily aimed at the replacement of core infrastructure, and some extra resource with the skills we now needed to serve a modern Kew.

"We got the funding in mid-2017, and we spent nearly two years implementing the changes. That means we've brought in much better skills. We've focused our IT people on two areas. One is to commoditise the obvious services that only need to be sector average, the obvious stuff that we need to have, but don't differentiate us.

"And we have put the main effort behind the differentiating services. Those are the services that support and underpin the work of our scientists, and our horticulturalists."

McKetty adds that the organisation is now at a point where they've solidified the infrastructure.

"Now myself and my team can go into a meeting and we won't be immediately met with a barrage of, ‘My laptop's broken!'"

Bringing Darwin into the 21st century

With the early problems tackled, one of the first of the differentiating services to launch is the new digital system to store Kew's horticultural specimens, most of which today consist of flowers pressed into ancient books by Victorian hands.

Examining specimens at Kew Gardens

And the digital databases they do operate are held in disparate locations with little to no integration.

"The Integrated Collections Management System will integrate all of that data to give us the unified landscape upon which we can create a unique repository for each species, or for a certain type of collection," said McKetty.

It will then become an open resource that the world can actually begin to draw on.

He added that the project is very much in-line with Kew's broader remit to allow the knowledge it stores and produces to be available to anyone, anywhere.

"We create and disseminate the knowledge we produce. The long-term benefit is that we can share this information with the world. So, the plan is we will have all of our collections in a state whereby we can interrogate the information, collate it, manipulate it and share it.

"It will then become an open resource that the world can actually begin to draw on. We have a unique botanical collection here because we have, for instance, a lot of the data and botanical specimens that Darwin brought back on the Beagle.

"But to access that currently you need to be here. So ultimately the plan is that we want people to be able to benefit from that, wherever they may be."

He explained that the first step is to digitise and integrate the ‘living collections' database, which contains data on various types of trees and shrubs.

"That will deliver in about March 2020, the rest will phase in over three to four years."

Renovating the front of house

Another of the early differentiating programmes is to renovate and improve the 'front of house' systems, including EPOS, CRM and business intelligence capabilities.

McKetty says that this is part of a programme to implement an improved visitor-facing systems programme.

"We're replacing all of the systems and services that touch the visitor. The aim is to unify the experience, and give them a frictionless means to access Kew. It needs to be an easy and seamless way to navigate us remotely or on site," he adds.

McKetty explains that currently the organisation has no way to understand its visitors and their spending patterns.

"What we lack now is the ability to analyse the data we have. We don't have systems now that support us in generating any meaningful form of insights, so we can't dig into the data.

"So for instance a visitor might spend 20 pounds in our Orangery. But what does that mean about the person? Where were they from, what's the demographic profile around how they interact with us? We have no means to understand that."

The Orangery

"In order to do perform our science we have to generate an income and I think we get the balance pretty well spot on, but you don't want to turn Kew into a theme park. But ultimately, we need the money to do the science.

"The visitor-facing systems programme will help us understand our customers better and appeal more to the people that generate the most amount of income."

Kew is analysing the market now and assessing suppliers.

"We're soft market testing now. We had three potential suppliers in recently, and there are several more that will come in. We need systems that are easy to integrate. They also need to be easy to build on and pain-free for our people."

McKetty also explains that whilst these systems must have certain qualities, he's not looking for best of breed.

"While it's important that they work well, they're not differentiating systems. They need to be good, but they don't need to be the best. But the ICMS, the collections management system, must be world-class, because it differentiates us."

Building trust

Whilst these projects are attention-grabbing and create their own legacy of improvement and success, McKetty is keen to emphasise that none of it would have been possible had he not begun by fixing the original infrastructure.

A lot of what I've been doing is building trust around the board table

Whilst that's partly about having a functioning backbone on which to build further services, it's also about trust.

"Kew had a very poor experience of IT before me and threw money at all sorts of esoteric solutions that never delivered. And a lot of what I've been doing is building trust around the board table.

"Because if you don't have trust, then ultimately the end user level won't be effective. And I think we've really gone a long, long way, to dispelling the old fears of IT dictating what users should have. The old perception was that IT doesn't listen, doesn't really care and is neither connected nor aligned with the business. We've overcome that.

"So we can have robust discussions around the boardroom table. The rest of the board know that I want the same thing as them."

He explains that IT is now invited to the early stages of business planning for all types of programmes, giving them early visibility of upcoming requirements.

"Now the business invites us to the early stages of their own planning. At some level all of the other directorates are reliant on our support, and I think that that's a wonderful place to be."

Turning such a negative situation around is a real credit to McKetty's leadership. He tells what he describes as a ‘cheesy' anecdote to illustrate his management style.

"It's the story where JFK went to NASA back in 1962 to visit their boffins before the the lunar landings. He met and shook hands with everyone, and on the way out, he saw a guy with a broom, the janitor. So he said: ‘Hello, my name's, John F. Kennedy, what are you doing?' And the guy said: ‘I'm putting a man on the moon'.

"Obviously, it's a little cheesy, though I believe it actually happened. but it's about contribution.

"I've had to work hard to move the thinking of our own people in IT to understand that it isn't about just delivering the basics, we have to buy in to the mission. And the mission is to move Kew in to a position where we thought-lead, we disseminate, we generate knowledge about botanic science, and that we take our place in in preserving the planet."

Being mindful of change

McKetty is leading some large change programmes at Kew, and he acknowledges that it's a delicate environment that requires a careful hand, both in terms of technology and culture.

"Change here can have quite an impact, you have to be really mindful of taking time to hear all of the factors before making any making any changes," he says.

"That's because of both cultural and technology challenges. The culture here is about preservation. A lot of people at Kew have been here for many decades. So you have to be mindful of the fact that we all feel like curators here, so folk will be circumspect about change. You have to be able to explain why and how it'll be beneficial to Kew.

"And some of the systems here are creaking. Some of the science databases that I referred to before are thirty years old. And the data in them is so important.

"Some of our older data doesn't exist in any other place on the planet, so we can't be gung ho, we have to be supremely mindful of that need to do no harm."

One aspect of that change is introducing some high-performance compute (HPC) capability to Kew. The desire is to mine some of the unique scientific data the organisation holds, which largely has escaped analysis until now.

"Some of our younger scientists are au fait with newer forms of research genomics, and geospatial data analysis.

"We are a little behind the curve in providing services for these scientists who just need to need brute power to do their work. The HPC cluster we're in the process of ordering now is pretty modest, but we have plans for much, much more."

McKetty adds that this equipment won't necessarily all be owned and operated by Kew, but is likely to be a mix of on-premises and cloud-based.

"That's partly because we need to manage it, but also because the useful life of HPC is quite short."

The skills gap

McKetty also discussed recruitment, given his recent need to refresh the IT team. He explained that the Kew brand helps, given that he's not able to pay anything approaching the salaries available at the big city banks.

"I would say that 70 per cent of the new recruits here have an interest in Kew. And they want to be here, because they could go a few miles down the road and get a lot more money.

We would never have actually moved forward with the people that we had

"And it's that trade-off of lifestyle or interest against the extra money. The skills that we lacked before were primarily in infrastructure. We had an infrastructure team that had evolved from the dark days, and had learned enough to prop up the old systems, but didn't have the experience nor expertise to imagine a brighter future."

He explained that all of his recruits share one key characteristic.

"We would never have actually moved forward with the people that we had. So, the first person that I recruited was a great, experienced head of infrastructure.

"He has great experience of not only hardware, but also in service provision. And my ethos is that service provision is key. All my main recruits have shared a similar outlook - service first, and to do whatever we need to get that right.

"Another senior appointment was the service manager, someone separate from the operation with a critical eye to look at all the aspects of our delivery and to improve the service. We had no service or change management before me. So change was at best haphazard, and at worst disastrous.

"We now have processes and procedures, and we plan."

McKetty admits that all of these additions and changes may sound obvious, but adds that many organisations get these basics wrong, then struggle to understand why nothing works.

"We do the obvious stuff that all sounds very easy. But actually, when you don't understand how to do it, nothing works.

"We also have a new project team. And these people are experts in their own fields. We had a pretty disastrous team before, the capabilities were just not what we needed."

The previous IT team experienced a 30 per cent staff churn in McKetty's first year, and he describes the current level as "pretty minimal".

"There are now 40 full-time IT staff, and there are some contractors too.

"Now they're all delivering some outstanding work. And that's because we've taken time to find people who have a passion for Kew and to deliver great solutions.

"We know we can't pay top dollar for people, and that serves to delay us somewhat, but they're out there somewhere. And if you can appeal to people based on the Kew brand, and on our mission, then you really can find some outstanding people.

"I just managed recently to recruit a programme manager for our visitor-facing systems programme. He's taken a step down from a programme director role for this. He spent 11 years at Capgemini, he's got great experience on an international stage, but we managed to convince him that Kew's a place where he can excel and can make a contribution.

"We have to temper our offer with what the benefits are. Kew's an exceptional place. We can't pay you top whack but ultimately if money's your motivation, then that's fine, but that doesn't work here. So we end up with people who really want to be here."

It's been a real transformation at Kew already, and the overwhelming impression is that the historic and scientific importance of Kew is in very safe hands as it transforms for the 21st century.

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