IT for art’s sake

IT for art’s sake

IT is often but one brush-stroke of a complex picture. Meticulous planning can be the difference between make and break – a challenge for an IT director who joins as the project is about to culminate.

There is just a week to go before the official opening of your employer’s flagship $31 million art gallery, the most significant civic project in 25 years. But you still need to wire it up with the IT systems needed to run the centre – including its shop and café – as well as protect, display and maintain the exhibitions. This was the challenge facing IT staff at Christchurch City Council, with technology but one component of a multi-faceted, multi-million dollar project. The council’s recently– appointed information technology services (ITS) manager, Phil Wright, says IT was “not a big part of the overall project”. Its needs were “dictated by the bigger picture”.

The bigger picture

The Christchurch Art Gallery had been on the cards for many years, with plans only coming to fruition in 1996 when the funding was in place, helped by more than $15 million of community fundraising.

The site, on the corner of the city’s centrally located Hereford and Worcester Streets, was just bare land. Everything had to be transformed from plans, constructed and installed.

Now, it is home to one of Christchurch’s leading visitor attractions, with an imposing undulating wall of tinted glass, around 75 metres long and 14 metres high.

The architects were the Buchan Group, who had to design the centre to fit over 5500 artworks. The building was planned to replace the Garden City’s existing Robert McDougall gallery.

Council officials had already agreed on the business case. But while the centre uses some advanced technology, IT is just a tool, rather than its centrepiece.

The project was planned and the early stages implemented under the city council’s old IT structure, with different parts of the IT department providing different skills and services instead of using a single project director or manager.

Business project manager, Mike Noonan, reported to a council committee. IT did not report separately.

Wright arrived in March, for only the closing stages of the mammoth project. He would spend only between 30 and 60 minutes a week being briefed, and says the council had 100 other IT projects on the go at the same time. Total IT cost for the art gallery project, says Wright, was in the “low six figures”.

Council business analyst Ian Chapman and support analyst Paul Sheppard took leading roles in the three-year project, as did former senior network engineer Andrew Martin, who was responsible for establishing the IT support structures. Mohammed Sayeed, now the council’s IT customer services manager, had a key role in communicating with the contractors and the business.

Sheppard says much of the IT work on the gallery was done in-house; even though, overall, the project had several dozen contractors.

Talking shop

The council expected the centre’s shop to be five to 10 times larger than the one in the old Robert McDougall Gallery, with a correspondingly larger turnover. Inevitably, it needed a computerised Eftpos point of sale system, rather than be manually managed as in the old store.

Chapman says the council put the Eftpos system out to tender, first carrying out a detailed evaluation and then setting out the scoring methodologies and highlights. When the council received proposals, it then scored them accordingly.

The tender went to Christchurch-based Cash Register Doctor, which supplied QuickPos software on Celeron 500 PCs, customised for touch-screen cashiering. The system also handles inventory and stock levels.

The city council realised this Eftpos system was only a small part of the business, so integrating it to the council’s core SAP financial systems would have cost more than it was worth. However, the IT systems are integrated with the CCC network.

State of the art

Of course, everyone has Eftpos these days, but what about the electronic intelligence to care for the paintings? When the gallery opened, it staged a major exhibition, ‘The Allure of Light’, featuring French impressionists and other paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria worth more than $300 million.

The EBOS lighting system, explains Sheppard, provides an “anywhere” web-interface to minutely control exhibit lights throughout the gallery spaces. The system can also store these settings, so the lighting for similar exhibitions can be turned on at the flick of a switch.

Sheppard says the lighting and related environmental monitoring are very important, as they are part of the gallery requirements for winning the opportunity to showcase exhibitions as they tour the world.

Typically, galleries must provide six months of humidity and temperature readings to prove they have a stable environment. “It’s not just a case of shifting pretty pictures from one place to another,” he says.

And, to prevent any damage, the council replaced filters in the air-conditioning to ensure there was no residual dust from construction.

Security is “very sophisticated” but, for obvious reasons not wanting to reveal much, the council will only say it is a Siemens-based system providing digital surveillance and secure access for staff. Security cordons also allow staff to control entry.

Since the centre was built on vacant land, telecommunications were all new, using the council’s telecomms partner, TelstraClear.

Basing its required 40 staff and 40 terminals in the centre, with related email and internet use, the council settled on a private internet protocol fibre-optic cable connecting the centre to the council offices, several hundred metres away in Tuam Street.

Sheppard says it was simply a case of extending existing systems. Christchurch City Council is a Dell desktop and HP server network IT shop, using Microsoft software, with Cisco networking equipment and HP Proliant servers.

“Everything is set up so it is modular and fits in with council standards. The current switches run on a fibre-optic backbone, which is securely sited in lockable closets. It feeds through a Cisco router and connects to the council office hub, which has staff available 24x7,” Shephard says.

Other technologies used include exhibition staff working in high-end graphics packages such as Adobe, VectorWorks and Macromedia, to simulate spaces when planning exhibitions. They first began using a virtual gallery mapping platform in 2001 to plan for today’s shows and so they can sell ‘concepts’ for potential exhibits.

The curator’s staff members use the internet and the council’s library services department to research background articles for exhibits and plan seminars for the Friends of the Art Gallery organisation.

Project logistics

Construction of the centre took three years, with the IT element planned to take place over the past 12 to 18 months, but installation had to be co-ordinated with the completion of the building. There were days on which IT staff could not enter it, and entry had to be negotiated with the building manager, Mike Heineman.

Restrictions on entry could have played havoc with setting up the IT network. But the council tested the Eftpos system and the network in the civic offices and did all the training there, also.

“We had all the shop equipment tested here and working, because we could not go to the environment. That’s how we got around the problem of late entry. The building was not finished until the week before it was due to open,” says Chapman. “The project was not late overall, but it would have helped to have had a more leisurely run. But, when we got to the gallery, it was just a plug-and-play exercise.”

The IT staff kept everything as simple as they could. Wright arrived at the council just two weeks before the centre opened, saying the project had no “major issues” of which he needed to be aware. Project management seemed “well thought-out”, but there was the usual final “scramble”.

In spite of joining late, Wright had no problems getting up to speed, thanks to the standards technologies deployed, but “logistics at the end put pressure on the guys to be flexible and responsive”.

There is little that could have been done differently, Wright believes, but if he could alter anything he would give IT staff more time on site and would have created a project manager as a single point of contact to improve communication. This approach would, he says, have created more accountability for IT delivery; more risk management on the project from an IT perspective; and have improved communication. However, the separate teams communicated well, thanks to Sayeed’s contribution.

IT staff had to work with Heineman to gain entry into the building, so “communications were important” and the project shows how crucial “good relationships” can be.

However, says Chapman, in spite of the hindsight of wishing to have appointed a project manager, and a few niggling things picked up during testing, the project proves council procedures have worked well overall.

Sheppard mentions a minor hiccup regarding the closets in which the switching and wiring patch panels are stored. There are five of these per floor, with switches connecting everyone to the main network – around 20 altogether – and they also house the EBOS lighting system.

The council needed a dust-free environment and could not install its expensive IT equipment until the builders had finished work. There were ongoing issues, says Sheppard, in trying to obtain guarantees concerning the security of these closets. “We didn’t want people getting access willy-nilly and compromising the network. It’s like leaving your keys in the car. We were a bit concerned that there were still contractors working and accessing closets that really needed restricted access.”

Rectifying these concerns involved liaison with Heineman and putting up signs to ensure contractors steered clear of the wiring closets. “There’s nothing more worrying than seeing the main PABX closet open and a contractor finishing off wiring. It’s all about monitoring risk and the realities of a new building, making sure you have security – you think you have and you haven’t, trying to rectify that.”

As with most building projects, the gallery was still under construction right up until the opening date. “We did not put equipment into rooms that were insecure,” Sheppard stresses. “It sounds like overkill, but there were systems we could not afford to compromise.”

Sheppard concedes the placement of the wiring closets could have been better – as extra ones had to be installed in additional locations – but he emphasises redundancy was built-into the system. “Even if one of the lines failed, it would be fine. There were three lines of fibre connecting the wiring closet at each floor.”

Measuring success

Nevertheless, council staff members were generally unaware of the activity behind the scenes. The impending reorganisation of the IT department was not a distraction, because people were so focused on ensuring everything in the art gallery project worked.

Chapman says staff buy-in was not an issue, because the gallery was “a large project everybody was proud to be part of”.

No return on investment can be deduced, Wright argues, saying the council is a ‘not-for-profit’ organisation, so such calculations would be inappropriate. Furthermore, as a new building, no before or after comparisons can be made.

However, IT was essential to the success of the project, he emphasises, and it supported the project’s business requirements. Synergy with existing IT architecture was also a key to success. “We would have not been able to have the exhibitions,” Wright says. “It had to work.”


Phil Wright joined Christchurch City Council aiming to “make a difference” within the 2200-staff organisation. He had recently arrived back in New Zealand after 15 years in the UK, for “a better quality of life”, expecting to work in Auckland or the capital. But Wairarapa-born Wright thought the Canterbury-based role “looked and felt good”.

The 40 year-old Wellington University graduate spent his last three years in London, as head of IT strategy for financial protection services company Securicor.

Prior to that, Wright spent nine years at Commercial Union insurance, starting as a systems programmer in the early 1990s before moving into network management.

Christchurch City Council, he says, is very diverse in its activities, with much planning and consultation in the public space. This includes consulting staff as well as the public.

Although he refers to the council as “the business”, Wright reminds us the “business benefits” of projects are not solely financial. There must be other factors, such as social: The so-called triple bottom line.

The New Zealand public sector’s culture differs too, in allowing a better balance between work and home life. A typical day for him runs from 8.15am to 5.45pm, although he does not watch the clock, ensuring instead that the job at hand is done well – for which the hours required can differ.

Rather than attending numerous meetings, Wright prefers building relationships with key business stakeholders, suppliers and service providers; maintaining the key functions of the IT department; ensuring operational service levels are met; and ensuring the correct project governance. But he says his role is still developing, so he cannot put exact percentages on the time required for these activities. Already, he has started planning the capital and operational budgets for the 2004-2005 financial year.

Wright has passed on the day-to-day management of most vendor relations to line managers, although he does still see some. New Zealand is fortunate, he believes, in having fewer suppliers than the UK. “The UK suppliers have huge capability, but there are also many cowboy suppliers. Even the big vendors sometimes have second-rate consultants. Someone’s reputation means more in New Zealand. If someone messes up here, everyone will know about it.”

However, Wright says the biggest issue facing him as an ITS manager is prioritisation and planning resources. “Developing and communicating an overall systems strategy would be the biggest pressure. How to develop forward planning so we can anticipate the business,” he says.

He prefers talking about and communicating the systems strategy internally, he says; whether it be to business analysts and technical staff, or to other parts of the council: “Understanding what it means, so other people can plan around it.”

Rate your challenges

When interviewing IT directors, MIS asks them to rate the challenges of managing a project. Here, Christchurch City Council’s IT services manager Phil Wright ranks his general project management challenges.

Most challenging

Keeping projects on time and budget

Getting support of other stakeholders (including users)

Finding and motivating the right staff – and developing their skills

Managing vendors

Strategy and planning

Getting support of board and CEO

Selecting vendors

Managing emergencies

Least Challenging

Top management tips

In order to keep projects on time and in budget, Wright says, it is essential to have clear project planning, as well as sound monitoring and reporting, featuring regular checkpoints along the way.

While the above might be the ‘worst’ element of being an IT leader, Wright says, managing people is the best. Employers need structured selection and staff development processes, he says, but bosses should “Give people a chance” and “Take a calculated risk with them.”

Normal service will be improved

Christchurch City Council has recently completed the restructuring of its 70-strong IT department, claiming the change will improve its service to council department, as well as save money. The IT department’s motto is “Enabling people through technology”.

The restructuring did involve some staff cuts, but these were minor, affecting only three people. “It was more about establishing processes,” says Wright. Restructuring also created the single top-level post of IT services manager, filled by Wright.

The council’s IT boss was MIS manager John Edmonds (who now works for Phil as systems manager). However, the old information systems department was smaller than ITS; strictly speaking, there was no IT department. Wright reports to Simon Markham, former director of information, who is now the director of information and planning.

Christchurch City Council’s IT department has an operational budget exceeding $10 million, of which just over a million is spent on capital projects.

In recent years, major schemes have included putting council property and infrastructure data on GIS systems; implementing SAP financials and human resources; and the GEMS local government application; as well as developing a web-based intranet.

Last month, the council introduced its new IT department. Previously, the department had a core MIS group, traditionally focused on technology and the help desk; a business systems group looked after SAP and the GEMS applications; a geo-data teams looked after GIS systems, plus personal and property data; an e-council or web team took care of online operations, and there were “pockets of peripheral support in various other departments,” Wright explains.

“The problem was, this led to inconsistent delivery of IT services and inefficiencies drawn around by different priorities and resourcing,” he says.

Council staff did not find it easy to deal with the IT staff, and had they gone to another group of IT staff they might have been delivered something different.

“Some parts of the IT department were very technologically focused at one extreme; others were very business-focused at the other extreme, almost too helpful in business projects that did not have much business benefit.”

The new system sees the IT department (now called IT services) organised around four functions.

Customer service looks after the service desk, the call centre and other customer-facing roles. A business solutions group provides systems strategy, consultation and project delivery. A systems group looks at operations, network services and application support. Finally, data intelligence works on the management and development of corporate data and initiating the council’s document management program.

The council believes the restructuring will make the IT department more customer-driven, help it better understand what council staff members want and enable the team to deliver their needs.

“This is a big cultural shift in general. There’s a difference between what people ask for and what they need. We have to facilitate that. IT has to step up to be an enabler for business improvement, as opposed to be a gatekeeper of technology,” Wright says. “Ultimately, we want to move the IT department to be a true partner with the business (the council).”

The re-branded IT department became IT services on 1 September.

When Wright joined the city council in March, the restructuring was already underway, with much consultation and union involvement. He was given a framework within which to operate, with set budget targets and business objectives, leaving him to “stick-on branches”.

“With the restructure, there are certain rules, certain targets, budget reductions and headcount cuts in certain areas. But the size and the scope and some of the rules were not necessarily fixed,” he says.

The IT department suffered a long period of uncertainty, but this appears to have ended with his appointment. Staff seem happy and are now assessing the impact of the restructure.

But they might not have too long before facing further upheaval: In September, Christchurch City Council’s new chief executive, Dr Lesley McTurk, announced a major shake-up, though she has yet to finalise the details.

As MIS went to press, there were reports in the media that around 11 of 21 senior management positions were to go.

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