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CIO interview: Jason Oliver The Science Museum Group’s rocket man

Jason OliverIn the Making the Modern World Gallery of London’s Science Museum stands The Rocket, the locomotive designed and built in Newcastle by Robert Stephenson.  For business technology leader Jason Oliver everyday is rocket science. Oliver is ICT Director for the Science Museum Group, a nationwide set of exhibitions of the role science has played in history.

The Science Museum Group includes the Museum of Science and Industry Manchester where the weaving looms will deafen you and instantly transport you to the chaos of Manchester’s manufacturing heyday, Bradford’s National Media Museum and the National Rail Museum in York where Hornby becomes reality.

“On the one hand we are a traditional museum, on the other we are an academic establishment as we have the nation’s premium collection of artefacts,” Oliver says in his office above the busy Kensington museum in London.  “Each of the museums are very different in their own way and it is all about creating a different environment.There is a real opportunity to establish them in the community and within these cities there is a vibe going on in the museums to embed them.

“Over the last seven years the cuts from government have meant we have had to focus more on driving our own revenue,” he says of the economic reality. The entrance queue was substantial first thing in the morning when Oliver and the Horizon CIO podcast meet, but museum entrance is free.

“Our demographic is 15 – 30 years old, it is the one where the rate of change during their lives has been so great, so for us the challenge is how do you continually put together content for these people,” Oliver says of embracing digital methods for museum visitors, schools and academia. “The other side of it is that it is not just about the people that you serve, it is the online reach.”

As Oliver makes clear, the role of an organisation like the Science Museum Group is also about having “a duty of care” because of the substantial academic support the museums offer.

Like many business technology leaders, Oliver has been working on refocusing the technology organisation within the Science Museum Group to ensure it doesn’t operate IT as a business support, but enables the business to focus on new customer services. 

“The team was just a support function and we have changed that now. We are no longer involved in at the very end of projects, but from the start. We are now a real stakeholder with a relationship with the business that means they consult with us early,” Oliver says. Adding that he sits on many of the main steering groups within the organisation.

Oliver joined the Science Museum Group in July 2015. To change the perception of ICT he did “a lot of visible consulting and a lot of listening to understand the challenges. It really excites me, the range of discussions we can now have”.

The re-focus of the team coincided with a modernisation of the technology in use at the museum in areas such as a new local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN) and the datacentre.  Oliver and the Science Museum Group have also taken the opportunity to adopt cloud services from both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure.

“We were struggling with storage and we are a content driven organisation, but we did not have a strategic approach”, Oliver says not moving to the scalable services of the cloud would have been “risky”.

Lovelace
Ada Lovelace helped and inspired Charles Babbage’s computer, which is displayed in London

“AWS gives us flexibility and robustness. It is important for an organisation like us to have those relationships with major vendors,” he says of working with the giants of Amazon and Microsoft. Oliver and the museum has also been building relationships with Cisco, HP, Intel, IBM, Ricoh and Nutanix. These relationships were more than a bit of useful social branding for major vendors, the ICT Director says.  He cites how when Alison Vincent was CTO at Cisco she was able to provide a strong business technology counterpoint to organisational discussions and she made a significant contribution ensuring the right level of influential people in the UK technology sector engaged and understood the value of the museum. 

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“It is really important to get these people buying into the strategy,” he says.  Oliver adds that the same effort is also put into working with the UK’s scale up and SME technology sector. “It is as important to have relationships with the more agile businesses as they can be much more supportive. The choice of partners is really important as that is what makes you more agile.”

Oliver found his way to the Science Museum Group via a close cultural cousin the Royal Opera House where he was Head of Technology Operations working with CTO Rob Grieg who went on to the Parliamentary Digital Service as Director.

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