How the Human Rights Commission’s CIO learned to stop worrying and love the cloud

Although aging infrastructure helped drive the HRC towards cloud services, the move has also opened new possibilities for collaboration, Ron McLay says

Around two years ago, Ron McLay was chewing his fingernails wondering what the hell he was going to do. The Human Rights Commission’s chief information officer had found himself facing what seemed like a near-insurmountable collection of problems: Aging infrastructure, a tight budget across the HRC, and a workforce that increasingly needed the ability to collaborate and work offsite.

“A lot of our equipment, particularly things like our VoIP system — we had an aged Avaya voip system — a lot of it was out of warranty, or was on extended warranties, or it was end of life. We just lacked the funds to be able to move forward and to refresh it,” the CIO explains

“We were also struggling to cope with a workforce that was highly mobile,” he adds. “Many people relied on remote access; some were travelling to remote areas around Australia to meet up with remote Indigenous communities for example, or were in other capital cities, interstate, or overseas — in Geneva or New York at the UN offices.”

The HRC is an independent statutory body established in 1986 by an act of parliament. Its responsibilities include education about and promoting public awareness of human rights, resolving discrimination and human rights complaints, monitoring human rights compliance and undertaking policy and legislative development.

The commission is led by a president under which there are seven commissioners, each of whom has an area of human rights they oversee: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, the aged discrimination commissioner, the children’s commissioner, the disability discrimination commissioner, the human rights commissioner, the race discrimination commissioner, and the sex discrimination commissioner.

The commission itself has around 120 staff, but the HRC network has around 200 people on it; as well as the commission, another federal government agency and a small non-government organisation are on the network.

The HRC used to have offices across Australia but now is located at a single site in Sydney. However, of the 200 users on its network, some 60 per cent have remote access.

“We’ve tried to be a very innovative federal government agency, and being a small agency we’ve had that luxury — we were the first federal government agency to standardise on the iPhone, and also, I think, the first federal government agency to use SharePoint back in 2001,” McLay says.

“But in later years with budget cuts we found ourselves in quite a parlous situation,” he adds. “Pretty much all of my backend equipment was aged and of course the risk of failure was increasing. We were actually seeing the physical failure of hard drives and that type of stuff.”

“There didn’t seem any way to go forward,” McLay says. “There were a lot of things that needed to be upgraded and I lacked the resources internally to address them – or so it appeared.”

“We were particularly concerned about our telephony system,” he adds. “We’d been early adopters of VoIP but we never realised the benefits that we wanted.

“I think that 14 or 15 years ago when we went to the market for VoIP, we saw a world where videoconferencing would become a normal part of business, alongside things like instant messaging and presence etc. But with that technology that we were using we were never able to realise it in our environment effectively, for all sorts of technical reasons.”

At the same time, there were other emerging needs within the HRC workforce.

“We were very keen to promote the use of videoconferencing and there were a number of business drivers,” the CIO explains.

One example that McLay gives is the regular commissioners’ meeting, which happens around every two months. It brings together the president and all of the commissioners, with some senior executive HRC staff attending on a needs basis.

“There was never a time when all of those commissioners and president were in the same place at the same time,” the CIO says.

But for McLay, the tech challenges facing the commission were also an opportunity and laid the basis to a significant embrace of cloud services across the organisation, he says.

“Along came an opportunity to leap into the cloud and to go to Office 365 and to Exchange Online, to go to SharePoint Online and to completely refresh the environment we have here,” he explains.

He had begun having informal chats with cloud service providers a few years back, but November two years ago, a conversation with Microsoft convinced the CIO that this was the way to move forward.

“I just saw that this was the way out of a lot of the issues I was facing – that the cloud and a cloud PBX and Exchange Online were going to solve a lot of the business needs and problems that we were experiencing at the commission,” he says.

In conjunction with the Department of Finance, the commission ran a three-month project with Data#3.

“In three months, we completely transformed the network. We turned it into a hybrid network with much of the infrastructure now in the cloud,” the CIO says.

As a replacement for its old VoIP system, the commission has embraced Skype for Business in a big way, McLay says, rolling out a range of hardware to facilitate the shift and to lay the basis for increased use of videoconferencing .

The HRC more recently went to market searching for videoconferencing solutions both for its small ‘huddle’ rooms and for its large hearing room, which accommodates up to 200 people. The proposed solutions submitted in response to the request for tender were overwhelmingly Polycom-based, the CIO said.

“It was clear that Polycom was going to meet our needs in terms of useability, reliability, and warranty,” McLay says.

As part of its comms overhaul, the HRC has purchased 11 Polycom RealPresence Trio 8800 IP conference phones, 67 Polycom VVX 500 handsets, as well as two VVX 600 handsets.

To provide videoconferencing capabilities for its large hearing room, the commission is assessing the RealPresence Group 700 and RealPresence Group 500 platforms from the vendor.

Change management

Shifting from desk phones to Skype for Business was always going to be a significant exercise in change management, McLay says.

“Changing to Skype for Business from hard handsets was always going to be a challenge and we knew that,” the CIO says. “Putting webcams on people’s desks was also going to be confronting for a number of staff.”

An additional challenge was driving increased use of video: “There are obviously some staff that are very accustomed to using it, but many staff who wouldn’t even think to do it,” he says.

“It was always going to be a challenge; it’s a big change-management issue. And we’ve had projects here at the commission over the years where we haven’t handled the change management very well and the user take-up has been poor as a result,” McLay explains.

“We knew that changing to a heavily videoconferencing-based environment and changing to a headset environment and a softphone environment was going to require a lot of handholding.”

Over the months leading up to the Skype rollout, the CIO’s team staged information sessions about the technology.

“A lot of staff knew that video was going to be pushed because travel costs were beyond the means of many people here; there was reduced money to spend on travel and so one way to still effectively do business was to make better use of video.”

The HRC ran intensive training sessions, he says.

“We browbeat and nagged for people to go to the course,” the CIO says. “We got almost 100 per cent participation. I’m not exaggerating – we pushed really, really hard. If my staff couldn’t get someone booked into a course, I would ring them up or I would go and see them. If they didn’t turn up to the course, me or my staff would book them into the very next course.”

All of the executive staff were put through the course alongside their peers. “We tried to avoid any one-on-one scenarios,” the CIO says. “This eliminated a lot of the user resistance straight up, so that when we went for the go-live day, there were a few people who had just returned from leave who we hadn’t caught beforehand, but we pretty much had the whole of staff already trained.”

On the day the commission went live with Skype for Business, there was “an army” of people walking the floors and staffing the service desk, the CIO says.

“We left short-cut operations on people’s desks, we published lots of manuals onto the intranet. We continually advertised it right up until the day we went live. It was a very, very smooth rollout. And then we saw people’s usage of things like the Polycom equipment started to rise, and things like IM and presence begin to be utilised by the staff.”

“We’re about to do a post-implementation review in concert with Microsoft and we’re trying to take a quantum leap forward with video,” he adds.

“We still haven’t fully cracked the video room system situation yet,” he adds, with the HRC still working to finalise the cameras that will be deployed.

The commission is also still pushing Skye for Business out to some end users who are working remotely, the CIO says. Around 70 per cent of HRC have some sort of flexible working arrangement in place; ranging from the ability to work from home, typically on a part-time basis, through to measures including paternity leave, flex time, part-time work and job sharing.

Skype for Business means that people will be able to communicate and collaborate with staff that are office-based, with a combination of their HRC-issued MacBook or iPhone and the Polycom equipment at the Sydney site allowing videoconferences.

Looking forward

It is an irony that, although cost constraints helped drive the embrace of cloud at the commission,— and even leaving aside cloud’s capex/opex tradeoff — some tech spend looks set to increase: “Once we got into the cloud, suddenly the world opened up and things we couldn’t even conceive of doing, suddenly we could do,” the CIO explains.

For example, the commission has started testing Microsoft Teams — the Slack competitor launched earlier this year.

“That has the capability for instantaneous videoconferences, and that might be one way that we can use the Polycom room systems: Use Microsoft Teams with it and quickly pull people together,” McLay said.

The future for the commission involves making even more use of cloud, the CIO believes.
The HRC is currently moving more services in the cloud and is currently in the process of moving its data into the cloud, McLay says, migrating it on a unit-by-unit basis.

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