BMJ Chief Digital Officer Sharon Cooper joined the heavily siloed organisation three years ago as CTO, helping transform what was once called the British Medical Journal with her determination to pull down the barriers and champion collaborative teams. She's also moved the product development platform from Oracle to Postgres, slashing the time-to-market cycle, and reduced infrastructure provisioning time from weeks to hours through automation. Yet technology is just a tool she says, and what really drives digital strategy and transformation is people.
Name and job title
Sharon Cooper, Chief Digital Officer, BMJ.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Recent changes in remit have led to my promotion from CTO to CDO, and I now have responsibility for our user experience/R&D lab, a venture I helped to set up two years ago, as well as direct P&L responsibility for one of our key digital portfolios. As part of the executive leadership team I get to play a key role in every decision we make, and running the technology team that develops those products, predominantly in-house, I am part of the team that shapes every product and its experience.
How as CIO have you affected cultural change and behaviour in your organisation, and to what extent?
I strongly believe that the transformation to agile that I brought into the technology department over two years ago is being picked up in many departments. We are actively trialling agile approaches to content creation, the mainstay of our business. You will see daily or weekly standups and retrospectives in many departments now, including legal and HR.
The organisation I joined three years ago was heavily siloed, and I have been a very strong part of the changes we have brought in to remove those barriers and increase collaboration between teams. That change in a very hard-set siloed culture has led to changes in our approach to product development, reduced costs by departments sharing infrastructure and services that previously would have remained separate, and provided a more consistent and joined-up service for our customers. The transformation I have led has directly resulted in the recent promotion to CDO.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
We moved 60% of our products so far into DevOps in 2015, allowing us to improve our delivery and release cycles, getting products and functionality to market faster, delivering more code and more releases without any increase in headcount.
We have just completed our migration from Oracle to Postgres for our product development platform. This has removed a significant support cost from the business, and improved the time taken to make changes to products and to release them. This change also greatly reduces the risks in our datacentre migration in 2016.
We delivered two brand-new products to market in 2015, built from scratch in under 10 weeks with new development tools. Automation in our development processes has reduced time to provision infrastructure from weeks to hours, and will be reduced further in 2016 in our new datacentre. Our new datacentre will improve security, availability and development timeframes. It also provides us with the capability to switch off development machines when not in use, switch from private to public cloud to third-party public cloud, scaling up and down to suit peaks in our product usage – that drives costs down for us.
I led the development of the two brand-new products, and another complete product refresh – all three were delivered in less than 10 weeks each, using a combination of new technology and existing platforms to reduce development time and cost. All are delivering above expectations in terms of sales and revenues.
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Our CoLab R&D facility, which I set up two years ago, now regularly brings in customers and users to help provide insight into what and how we develop new functionality for products, as well as new products themselves.
Our key market is doctors and we now have two doctors with us every week, always involved in product decisions, giving us invaluable insights into their daily lives and how our products fit into that. This has not only helped create new products, on more than one occasion it has clearly demonstrated that although our idea for a product was sound, the market need would not be met within our capability and we stopped investment plans, focusing that investment in other parts of our business.
A significant amount of work in 2015 on our customer data has started to show benefits. One campaign saw an 8% increase in budgeted sales as a direct result of simple improvements in customer data.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
We buy in our core traditional desktop and network IT from our parent company in our head office, and we allow our local offices to run their own IT locally to agreed standards and SLAs. That significantly reduces the cost of running a global business with a reasonably large number of people, highly distributed across the globe. It fits with our business strategy of devolving as much as possible to local operations.
We manage the back-office systems for those applications that matter most to our business, using cloud-based and SaaS platforms to enable collaboration across remote teams and single systems where appropriate. We outsource software development for products where we do not want to build capability in-house, and have a small number of trusted partners that we work with. We manage our critical and most complex systems for our products in-house; in these products every line of code is our IP, and as valuable to us as the content that it supports.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
I am responsible for our digital strategy development.
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
We focus on what technology helps our teams get the job done well. A great example of this is our suite of communication tools. In China our team use WeChat, in Brazil it's WhatsApp. In those countries those tools are ubiquitous – it's what our customers use. We could tell staff they can only use Skype or Hangouts, but it gets in the way. Using these tools our staff are more efficient, more relevant to their key customers. I try hard to treat technology as a tool; it's the people that drive our digital strategy and our transformation.
At the moment, we are taking large chunks out of our processes by having people empowered to ask "why are we still doing this?" and to do something about it, rather than hit a brick wall of layers of approval. Staff are encouraged to work on the less is more principle. Last year we ran a competition for staff to demonstrate how they could remove complexity, with some amazing results.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
I really encourage secondments to the tech team. We now regularly have staff from other departments join us for a few days, weeks or even up to a year, learning new skills, such as agile, coding, design, UX, and returning to their business units.
We use our BMJ Google+ communities to share information, insight and to have discussions. It started with my CTO update, but there are now over 40 communities, many of which revolve around technology development, but are run by our product owners and others.
Our corporate newsletter has its own community, which features the tech team. I have encouraged the team to start a technology blog, which some are now starting to contribute to.
I will often attend departmental team meetings and host lunch and learns/tech and cake sessions to highlight key messages, or bring in key speakers. This raises awareness that digital is a skill that everyone should have at varying levels, bringing diverse teams together and sharing knowledge in a way that doesn't invade people's main working space.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
I use a number of the main social channels, but am not active as I could be. The past few years have been about bringing those conversations inside the organisation, and my focus has been there.
How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
Every two weeks there are at least four show and tells for releases to products across our portfolio. They are open to all in the organisation, are held on hangouts and are often recorded for those who cannot be there physically or virtually. At times around 10% of the whole organisation is in a single space discussing technology.
In 2015 I hosted an internal hack day, asking the business for hacks. We were overwhelmed with 60+ suggestions that would fix business problems, develop new products or improve existing products. Over two days the development team worked with a wide range of business colleagues to create working prototypes for seven of those 60 ideas. We will be running hack days into 2016, and taking forward some of the 2015 ideas into full-scale production.
Our CoLab usability and R&D lab will run sessions almost every week looking at how to develop new product ideas, bringing teams together from across the organisation. As every product we create is digital, the alignment between tech and the business is very strong; we can't create products without it.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
It's some of everything – conferences, webinars, reading blogs, emails, industry publications, the people you follow on Twitter or Linkedin. I'm part of a variety of networking groups, go to meet-ups and other groups of individuals with similar interests. Personally I tend to avoid the major tech supplier-style events, because we don't use much enterprise software in our business – it's not always relevant
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
The hackday was a fantastic opportunity to further enhance the culture of collaboration in the team, which we have been growing over the past 18 months. It allowed the team to experiment, learn, manage their own deadlines, try new tools and have fun.
I already have a reasonably diverse team, with over 30% of staff coming from outside the UK, and nearly a quarter of the team are female. The tech team scored the highest satisfaction scores across the whole organisation in 2015: rating outstanding on the Best Companies To Work For index, and scoring higher than the overall organisational score.
Describe how you collaborate with and influence the organisation and its leadership team
I spend time listening to what the leadership team determine they need. I ensure that simple things work and annoying things go away quickly. When they raise a more general IT issue, it gets fixed. I ensure that they know that the team delivers, always; when it can't, they understand why. I take the time to make sure that they understand the levels of complexity, but in way that makes sense to them. I use scenarios and always ensure that any IT development or spend is driven by business value, directly improving and delivering what they are trying to achieve.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
Less training, and more on the job. I learn by watching how others successfully achieve change and try to emulate that. I don't try to pretend to be more technical than I am, but I employ great people who I trust and empower to make the right decisions and to lead in their own right.
My senior leadership team are among the biggest achievers in this role, and the feedback across the organisation that they receive reinforces this continually. I ensure I make time for everyone in the team, and I always give credit and reward publicly at the team and company level for individuals' achievements on a regular basis. For any team achievement, no matter how small, I bake for them.
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We are looking into a number that are relevant to our business models and our industry.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
Two straightforward questions: 1. Should we do this, or can someone do this better than we can, for the same or lower cost? 2. Is the code a core part of our IP and assets that we can monetise?
If it's a commodity that someone can do better, more securely and cheaper, then we outsource. If it's a core part of the essence of the products we sell and our revenue streams, we tend to insource. Cloud and SaaS are a significant part of our infrastructure, but decisions are made on what we need the tech to do, and where it works best.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Yes, although not in any specific, regimented way. The engineering team have time to assess new technology and then share their findings with the rest of the team in their meetings. We don't have a formal approach, but everyone is encouraged to learn and share.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We look mainly to mid-market, SaaS, open source and innovative suppliers. Our sourcing strategy is to find those suppliers that work and think like we do, that want to work with us. We tend to avoid suppliers where we might be the largest customer, and also those major enterprise vendors where we are so small we don't get noticed.
Most of all it's about the working relationship, and that comes through in the tender processes we run. It's how they deliver as much as – if not more than – what they deliver.
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
I have implemented almost full automation of our deploy processes. The remainder will complete once we finish our datacentre migration. Alongside that we have put in place DevOps for the majority of our digital products delivered via the in-house development team.
Machine setup used to take up to two weeks to get a new development environment; we're now running at a few hours and by mid-2016 it will be measured in minutes. Huge impact in a two-week sprint cycle.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We have a number of new deals in place. They bring flexibility and automation, and allow small teams to deliver far more effectively without increasing headcount. The key driver in each of those deals is finding suppliers that have enough flexibility built into their business models that can support us to work in the way we choose, rather than us having to bend to multiple suppliers' more rigid approaches.
Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are
Often use: CIO peers, media. Occasionally use: analyst houses, consultants, industry body.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
How is cyber-security led and discussed by senior management?
Significant board focus and support for two approaches: protecting ourselves as much as we can against the risk of attack, and ensuring that we are prepared if there is one.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What is the annual IT budget?
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
What is your budget's operational/development split?
How many users does your department supply services to?
500 internal staff; millions of external customers.
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
Being developed for 2016/17.
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?