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CIO Interview: Ian McKetty, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

_DSC4036An ornate garden on the western edge of London famed for its Victorian glasshouse may not initially appear to be the natural home for innovation, but Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is exactly that. The famous curving glasshouse followed hard on the heels of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851 housed in what became dubbed the Crystal Palace, cures for malaria, giving the industrial age access to cheap and plentiful natural rubber and the merino sheep that now fills the vast empty inland of Australia are all economic innovations and business models that Kew gardens played a major hand in the creation of.

Today the institution continues to be a seed bed for horticultural development and its Millennium Seed Bank is a back up system for climatic disaster should society need to counter the ill effects of development. EnsuringRoyal Botanic Gardens, Kew continues to be able to grow our horticultural knowledge and opportunities as well as remain one of the UK’s leading tourism destinations requires a well tilled information and technology strategy.

A year ago former CIO of the National Trust and now CIO with energy firm EDF Sarah Flannigan joined the board of Kew and was immediately asked to sow the seeds for a new CIO. Flannigan approached this title while the search practice of Hays also put out shoots. Ian McKetty spotted an opportunity to flourish and is today Kew’s CIO and excited by the opportunities to grow.

“I was clearly employed for my IT expertise and not my green fingers,” he quips from his office that is blessed with a tree-lined view across the Thames. “Kew has ambitions to be rightfully recognised as much more than just a lovely green space on the edge of London,” he says of the rapid and sustained growth enjoyed by the organisation in recent years. “But IT failed to keep pace with increasing expectation and eventually became a poor cousin.”

“Demands have ramped up and expectations are through the roof resulting in a lack of ability to deliver,” he says. McKetty joins Kew from the Higher Education sector and sees many similarities inhow ambitious and demanding organisations like RBG Kew will quickly fill the ‘requirements vacuum’, which appears where IT consistently fails to “be an enabler” and shadow IT starts to increase in order to meet unfulfilled demand.

“Higher Education often tells the same story, in those situations where faculties and departments are consistently unable to get the IT services they need, they will inevitably start to create their own,” he says.

Like many of the modern breed of CIO, McKetty sees the potential opportunities in shadow IT, but is also acutely aware of the risks to governance that can result. But the appointment of a new CIO at RBG Kew isn’t just about stemming the wrong kind of growth.

“This role is the last puzzle piece, to sort out IT with a CIO on the executive board and putting emphasis on the realisation that IT is important to Kew and has a voice on the top table to lead the change. McKetty says the board level element to the role is crucial: “When you are drawn into the strategic planning early you can influence the outcomes, you are not getting the last minute requests. It is trial by fire as we are far behind, but that is the excitement of it,” he says.

_DSC4128Opportunity to grow

“There are very few easy wins. My three points of focus are number the science. Science is the underlying reason for Kew and that is what we excel at. We cannot hope to retain the expertise if we don’t provide for them. Secondly support for the business services,” McKetty says there is an element of “getting away with it” with systems that just about work and an organisation that is “not shaking the tree too hard”. “That is one of the great things about Kew, the togetherness, but, it has allowed it to not deliver as it aught to.” McKetty plans to introduce a series of commodity services.

It is also proving highly beneficial to have Sarah Flannigan as a member of the Board of Trustees, as McKetty works to transform IT services at RBG Kew. “Sarah is a wonderful sounding-board,” he says; “You could not ask for a more switched-on and supportive Trustee who is brimming with great ideas, insight and energy.”

First shoots

“Cloud is undoubtedly the way to go, we have already moved our desktop applications and email services to Microsoft Office 365 and we currently partner with Unit4, using their Agresso service to host our Finance and HR systems,” he says of using off-the-shelf technology to remove resourcing constraints from the organisation. “We compete with other premier visitor attractions in one of the most vibrant cities on the planet.  Museums underwent this type of transformations up to 10 – 15 years ago, so when you go into many of the major museums or galleries in central London, you realise just how slick and seamless their visitor-engagement services have become – they are immersive, targeted and highly-interconnected.   RBG Kew is on this very same journey and IT has a central part to play in delivering a world-class experience to our visitors.” 

“I envisage 18 months of intense, focused effort to get core services embedded and operating efficiently and we have secured initial funding from the Executive and Trustee boards,” he says. “It is not all fix, fix, fix though.  We have some key projects which are current, including plans to implement a High Performance Computing (HPC) platform for our scientists and researchers.“  This will be McKetty’s second HPC implementation and the CIO is already looking at helping to modernise the Customer Relationship Management (CRM), electronic point of sale (EPOS) and visitor Ticketing systems which are currently disparate, but very loosely coupled.  The future of these key systems will see a highly integrated, intelligent and scalable system, which drives comprehensive analytics and data mining.   

“We aim to introduce a fully integrated system from which we may begin to comprehensively understand visitor trends and habits, in order that we may interact with them more intelligently and more consistently, he says. 

“Many IT teams consist of the disillusioned, people that don’t feel they get the breaks they deserve, bringing bike to those people is what I bring to a position. If you can bring consistent success and fuel the team and energise them and show them what success looks like they will follow you to the ends of the earth. IT can be a dark place to work in.

McKetty has a team of 45 full time staff and expects the team to grow to 50 as he revises the structure to one that aligns projects to “departmental needs”.

With the introduction of Office 365 Microsoft has become one of the key suppliers to Kew alongside Unit 4, Extreme Networks and Virgin.

McKetty joined Kew in February 2017 having been CTO of City University in London since July 2011, an organisation he joined from the Cass Business School where he spent six years.

“Many IT teams seem to consist of the disillusioned; people who don’t feel they enjoy the opportunities or recognition they fully deserve.  Part of my leadership style is to bring hope and optimism to those people.  If you can bring consistent success, self-belief, energise them and show them what real success looks like they will follow you and fully support your vision.  IT can be a dark place for a team to work in if as a leader, you fail to instil a sense of hope and possibility amongst your people”. 

“Cass was a phenomenon.  I joined in 2004 and at that time it had aspirations to punch significantly above its weight, by competing with the most well established global business schools.   I am pleased to say that we pulled it off, it was the most amazing time, Cass projected itself as one of the premier go-to Schools for MBA and MSc, and in a few short years it happened,” he says of Cass Business School, which is now a global brand. 


That experience led to the CTO role at City University London where again he helped the university grow significantly.  In terms of organisational size RBG Kew is smaller than City: “you can’t help but be enthused at RBG Kew, it is highly driven and you get the sense that we are all a part of something completely essential,” he says of his change in roles.  “I feel as though I have joined RBG Kew at such an exciting time and every day I learn more about the importance of our work here and I see more opportunities for IT to help enable innovation and discovery. There’s more here than just the pursuit of profit, there is the science, horticulture and an unshakable belief in the value of knowledge,” he says. 

It’s not only the backbeat of science, visitors and history that strikes the right chord for CIO McKetty, outside of the Kew hothouse he’s lead guitarist in a successful tribute band to Madness and The Specials. 

“It is a great antidote to every other aspect of my life and I crave the adulation,” he jokes of having played to crowds of up to 20,000. “Three or four years ago we were playing in the back rooms of pubs.”  With a young family, McKetty says the split between Kew, home and the band “keeps my feet on the ground and keeps me energised”. 

Widgets Magazine
About Mark Chillingworth 217 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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