Debenhams Ottaway Virtual IT Director

Definition and implementation of a IT strategy for a progressive regional law firm.
Executive Summary
Client challenge:
To align IT with business and improving reliability and performance whilst bringing expenditure in line with industry benchmarks.

  • IT issues were a regular occurrence which hampered productivity
  • Expenditure on IT had risen to 9.6% of turnover – a premium price for sub-optimal service.
  • Lack of a thought-through and comprehensive IT strategy had led to an ad-hoc “shopping list” approach

BDC’s Solution
To develop and execute a IT strategy to resolve fundamental challenges with the current provision.

  • Undertook detailed IT strategic review which factored in the impacts of earlier business decisions in developing future strategy.
  • Identified a program of short to mid-term projects to improve day to day issues.
  • Developed a longer-term strategy to full address all issues identified in the initial review
  • Re-negotiation of contracts to improve terms, detail formal SLAs whilst reducing cost.
  • Executed the agreed strategy.
Engagement impact

  • Cost reduction strategy in place and on track to bring IT expenditure in-line with industry benchmarks.
  • Significant risks and technical issues caused by hosting arrangements and application delivery methods are resolved.
  • Enhanced end-user support with strict SLA in place with penalties for poor performance
  • End-user experience much improved with enhanced mobility

Below is a brief overview of this technology journey:

Short-term Tactical Quick Wins

Our initial recommendations were focused around undertaking tactical remediation activities to address immediate challenges including :

  1. Working with the incumbent supplier to adopt industry-standard processes and protocols to address day-to-day supplier performance issues.
  2. Determine the hosting and delivery strategy for Peppermint in order to address several long-standing issues.
  3. Address post-Peppermint, go-live training needs and improve system adoption.

Peppermint Hosting & Delivery

During the Peppermint project, it had been decided, as was common advice at the time, to set up and install the Peppermint solution “on-site” on servers provided and hosted by DO’s outsourced IT provider. In essence we had a 3 way relationship that had to be seamless for any chance for this to work optimally.

This led to significant expenditure of time and energy in coordinating configuration and upgrade changes between the parties, resulting in some system outages, and there was no clear ownership of issue resolution which led to some difficulties. The Peppermint platform puts a significant overhead on the hosting partner and with hindsight DO realised that it requires a deep skill-set in several different Microsoft technologies.

In order for DO to make an informed decision, we worked with the management team and Peppermint to define a clear business case and presented this to the CEO and equity partners who unanimously approved the proposal

Recommendation
Move hosting of the Peppermint solution from the incumbent IT provider to the cloud solution offered by Peppermint themselves.
  1. Comprehensively simplified the technical environment and challenges for DO’s incumbent provider.
  2. Increased the resilience of the Peppermint solution including full fail-over which was not offered by the original setup.
  3. Provided the ability to upgrade to the latest version of Peppermint which would have been difficult with the incumbent solution. Note: this is run on a completely different version of Dynamics and SharePoint; remaining with the original “on-site” solution would have meant a complete overhaul of the infrastructure and significant investment in that work).
  4. To complement the new hosting approach and working with the CEO and some partners we negotiated an improved (from standard) contract with Peppermint and ensured that DO had a robust but equitable final contract with all the protection you would expect from a cloud service provider and which addressed previously unmanaged risks, also creating a detailed exit plan.
Recommendation
Change the delivery of applications from “Citrix App” to full “Citrix Desktop” mode.
  1. Ensured that Peppermint was delivered to the desktop in a way which was compliant with Peppermint and Microsoft’s requirements.
  2. Addressed issues with Peppermint not reliably filing emails – a must for DO’s compliance requirements.
  3. Increased reliability of applications integrations with Outlook.

Peppermint Training & Adoption

During the Peppermint project go-live phase staff had been trained in the basics of Peppermint with particular focus on the introduction of new feature such as online billing authorisation. Some ad-hoc training had occurred on functional areas but there was not a firm-wide in-depth knowledge of all areas of the system and nor was their a long-term view on system adoption and end-user efficiency via training. DO were also reliant on Peppermint for all aspects of system customisation and development.

Recommendation
Employ a full-time internal IT trainer / application specialist
  1. A dedicated resource to provide formal training and support to increase end-user knowledge and efficiency within Peppermint.
  2. Focus on supporting the mid to long-term needs of DO in its adoption and use of the Peppermint platform.
  3. A internal Peppermint expert who is capable of undertaking system customisations thus reducing reliance on and cost of the Peppermint professional services team.

Long-Term Strategic

Our secondary recommendations were focused on the DO’s long-term IT strategy:

  1. Reducing IT expenditure to the market benchmark of 5% of fee income, whilst at the same time extracting better performance and creating tight relationship with IT service providers.
  2. Reducing risk of the IT outsourced hosting and support arrangements.
  3. Improving the desk-top application experience & performance for end-users.
  4. Improving the mobility and usability of remote access solutions.
  5. Increasing security by implementing enhanced procedures and tools.

Hosting & Service Provision

As early adaptors of cloud and outsourced IT services DO’s setup was typical of a “Cloud v1” configuration. IT services were delivered from a bespoke platform setup and supported by their IT provider with end-users running applications via Citrix.

Whilst this type of operation was a leap forward for many firms a few years ago they are restrictive in terms of use of technology and the resource needs of modern feature rich applications such as Peppermint can lead to significant performance issues within Citrix platforms such as those seen at DO.

One of the most significant challenges facing DO was that termination and data-extraction clauses in early cloud-based systems such as DO’s, are not as tight as one would hope and there was a significant risk because of the lack of an exit strategy as it is during such transfers that traditional cloud providers seek to charge excessive rates to undertake the work.

Our strategy therefore had to not only address technical challenges such as system performance we had to address a long-term business risk (and cost) of changing IT partner at the end of the contract term should that be necessary.

Given these challenges BDC developed a vision where all specialist or legacy applications such as Bighand, Videss, and Isokon would be delivered from servers on the Azure platform, whilst other needs such as document storage for teams and individuals and licensing would be via Office 365. All services will be consumed using powerful mobile devices or desktop PCs which would deliver a better end-user experience and address mobility challenges.

It’s rare to find an IT adviser who takes a hard look at the entire business strategy before formalising ideas based on how technology should underpin it.

David is fearless in his independent questioning and analysis of suppliers, ensuring we have made informed value adding choices in our procurement and day to day management of our technology needs.


Solving our PMS desktop delivery issues through the Azure infrastructure with fat client solution was a game changer.”

Paul Khan, CEO Debenhams Ottaway

Recommendation
Move from a bespoke private cloud setup onto the Microsoft enterprise platform.
The recommendation to move to Azure and Office 365 not only aligned DO with Peppermint’s own strategic direction, it was also a recognition that, in our view, the “Microsoft Cloud” approach will become the de facto IT platform of choice for the majority of medium-sized firms.It’s particularly interesting to note that since going live in mid-October, there has been a lot of press relating to Farrer & Co and other major law firms announcing that they are planning to follow the same strategy as DO and move to the Microsoft Azure platform. Contributing factors include :

  1. The Azure platform provides tier-one grade security and reliability at a cost which is affordable to a top-200 law firm. This, together with tools such as remote device management, multi-factor security, Microsoft’s commitment to GDPR compliance and provision of UK-based data centres, alleviated any regulatory concerns.
  2. Many law firms remain nervous of cloud-delivered technology but, in truth, the security and products provided by Microsoft Azure are much greater than a firm like DO could achieve on its own, which means that DO’s responses to tenders or in regulatory questionnaires will now be a much better proposition.
  3. Microsoft Azure platform provides a level of security and reliability which is, frankly, over and above the capabilities of most other IT service providers’ bespoke solutions.
  4. DO’s strategy means that, should the IT service provider fail to deliver to the agreed SLAs, DO will not face having to move the whole solution again. Instead, the services would continue to be delivered via the Microsoft Cloud and a new Helpdesk and support provider.
  5. The Office 365 platform provides a full range of functionality which will address DO’s immediate and long-term needs.
  6. We also believe that the cost of the solution will go down over time.
Recommendation
Removal of Citrix
During our review, we had identified the challenges of operating Peppermint in a Citrix environment. Having thoroughly investigated this avenue, it was our conclusion, based on the impact on end-user experience and system stability, that delivering Peppermint via Citrix was not a sustainable option.

  1. A fundamental change in the new environment had to be the removal of Citrix and a return to a traditional PC deployment and with that the aligned need to ensure there was robust internet connectivity and monitoring and patching of the local devices.
  2. The return to using local computer power and functionality also meant that end users could benefit from technologies such as touchscreen, handwriting recognition, working off-line and speech recognition, none of which was possible in the Citrix environment and which have aided productivity since go live.

Role of the IT provider

The move to Office 365 and Azure and removal of Citrix simplifies and clarifies the role of the IT service provider.

The provider is no longer focused on management of the infrastructure and essentially becomes a true service provider able to focus on:

  1. the support of end users.
  2. the management of other 3rd party suppliers.
  3. supporting enhancement project activities.

Should the worst happen and the provider not adhere to service standards their replacement is easy as the infrastructure will not need to be changed or data moved.

Service Partner Selection

In order to implement our vision it was essential we had a service provider who could deliver it. This also gave the opportunity to ensure that the vision set out and agreed by the CEO and partners stood up to external assessment.

Recommendation Undertake a competitive partner selection process
The project was managed by the firm’s powerful IT steering group which was responsible for (and to which we at BDC were accountable to) governance and delivery of the IT strategy and its component projects.BDC ran a detailed and unique procurement process that covered everything from ‘fit’ with DO’s culture; through to an assessment of capability, ROI, customer credentials and an ability to deliver on a tough SLA. Our invitee mix therefore included large generic IT providers, niche, nationally-known, legal-sector specialists and local IT service providers. This rigorous process gave DO the confidence that our vision was leading-edge and could truly give the benefits outlined rather than being another case of IT consultants over-promising and under-delivering

  1. Defined a bespoke selection process and created a detailed requirements document.
  2. Analysed the market of potential partners casting the net wide to ensure that our vision was subject to rigorous external challenge.
  3. This was a transparent process where all potential partners were provided, (under NDA), DO’s vision and operational/security requirements.
  4. Respondents were also given the opportunity to put forward any alternative solutions which they felt would be a better fit to the challenges identified.
  5. Eight potential suppliers were invited into the selection process and given the opportunity to meet with DO to ensure that they fully understood what was expected of an IT service provider.
  6. In a tough competitive world it was disappointing to see some invited suppliers’ lack of engagement. For example, several of the vendors did not take the opportunity to come into the office to meet the DO management team and, instead, just submitted standard proposals. It was hardly a surprise that such firms were discounted from the process very quickly – This was in effect ‘natural deselection’.
  7. We then undertook a detailed analysis of the ITT (RTT) responses via a balanced scorecard approach covering the levels of engagement with the process, their proactivity in and quality of questioning and any thought leadership which they had shown during the response period. A detailed analysis paper was presented to the IT steering group and three potential supplier partners were shortlisted.
  8. After the second-round presentations and due-diligence process Quiss Technology was seen as the best fit for DO. We then entered into an often forgotten rigorous preferred-supplier, due-diligence process, which included a thorough contract review and renegotiation.
  9. This included definition and negotiation of a challenging, performance-focused service-level agreement, which included end-user performance targets for key applications.

Conclusion & Implementation

The implementation of the strategy was an extremely complex project which involved changing all aspects of DO’s IT setup. This was a true “ice berg” project.

During the execution phase our role became that of the project “critical friend” and sponsor. Having worked with the Quiss technical project to define a comprehensive project and risk minimisation plan, the vision was successfully delivered despite the complexity of this strategy.

2 comments

  1. Excellent article and great work David particularly on the Azure move. Privileged to have worked with David on two occassions. A hands-on consultant and just gets on with the job! He is certainly fearless in his supplier/vendor research and questioning, this has provided us with knowledge to make more informed decisions. With a passionate team and great work ethic, it all makes a huge difference in consultant-client relationships!

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