Sharon Cooper used 2016 to assert her authority, removing a layer of intransigent leadership that was blocking change. She then radically altered the way in which the business created and managed content, reinvigorating staff with a new way of working that was more rewarding and more productive. Her product team restructuring has focused on creating content that users value, resulting in a product that had its most successful sales year ever. Entrusted by the board to find a way to drive the BMJ into profit, her plan should double revenue in five years.

Job title
Chief digital officer

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
In January 2016 I took on the responsibility, including full P&L, of running one of our key digital products, alongside my responsibilities for the technology team. I was also given responsibility for our user testing team/facilities (the CoLab). I also maintain the strategic technical insight for the whole product portfolio, including all of our journals.

Under my leadership this last year we have restructured the product team, removing a layer of intransigent leadership that was blocking change, despite strong user evidence that the market needed a different product. In late 2015 I had led the work on a significant strategic initiative to radically alter the way in which we created and managed content for our non-journal products. This strategy was approved at the end of Q1 2016, and a significant new contract midway through the year provided an opportunity to test out the planned changes as a pilot.

The approach worked really well, staff were reinvigorated, and a new way of working that was more rewarding and more productive was introduced. Full-scale roll-out of that team change started in Q3 2016. New leadership was promoted from within the existing teams, who had been desperate for change, and the progress is already making a difference in what we do and how we do it.

Much of 2016 was taken up with the first phase of a complete redesign of our journals platform, the most significant change it has had in over 10 years. This will continue into 2017, but will deliver improved functionality, stability, speed and opportunities for growth.

Our CoLab continues to grow in its ability to drive change in our products. It is at the forefront of all of our product development and enhancements, not just our online products, but our printed journals, reshaping our live conferences/events, and even looking at internal systems to see how we can improve the user experience for our staff.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
Key highlights:

  • took on responsibility for our leading digital product, including its product management and content creation team
  • a strong remit and request from the board to find a way to drive the product into profit: set out a plan which should achieve doubling of revenue in five years, subject to investment in the underlying foundations of the existing web product and data stores
  • restructured product teams to focus on creating content that our users value and will consume, as opposed to reviewing a defined set of content whether it’s used or not; it should deliver improved usability and usage as content is more relevant to users
  • product had its most successful sales year ever, although there is much work still to do
  • completed our datacentre migration, enabling full automation of over 200 virtualised environments
  • the project won Cloud Project of the Year 2016
  • the datacentre move took nine months to complete; if we wished to move now it would take a few days – the entire stack could be moved with the touch of a few buttons
  • our dev environments were relocated to AWS in December, and are switched off at night, saving money and the environment – we’re waiting to see how that plays out
  • further savings expected in ongoing hosting as we move through 2017 and 2018 as a result of the virtualisation and automation work done to date
  • set out the core digital competencies that we expect all staff to maintain or attain – now incorporated into the appraisal and performance management system and working it into objectives in 2017
  • along with my team, delivered the company’s first corporate digital strategy, fed from digital strategies and roadmaps for each product; the roadmaps were built collaboratively with my digital strategy team and the product managers
  • determined our first set of digital build standards for working consistently across our in-house and outsourced development teams – small things like this matter
  • completed the vast bulk of our data migration from our old and decaying network drives into a cloud-based drive solution; it was a massive clearout of old data, reducing information governance risks, and improving our information asset registers
  • changing working practices around content creation and sharing to make use of collaborative working tools reduced content cycle times from weeks to days or even hours in some cases.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
A few examples:

  • I led product innovation for one of our core products, including running a content team hack day where everyone who worked on the product took all the insights from several months of user feedback and testing, and prototyped and brainstormed ideas of what would have to change in both the product interface and the back-office processes/tools to make those user needs come to life and be achievable and sustainable.
  • I worked alongside our director of strategy on an approach to collaborative partnerships with startups, utilising our core brand strengths to facilitate growth for the startup.
  • Our team held a second internal hack day. The winning hack was developing a speech interface for one of our products.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
By introducing the digital competencies we have made everyone think, if not yet act, on what their own role and what their team’s roles should be in working in a digital economy.

The digital competencies are now a part of our recruitment criteria, especially for non-technical roles.

The continued improvements in our agile processes pushes out into wider projects, where we see take-up of the use of monitoring and progress tracking tools such as Trello, iterative change, daily stand-ups and co-located teams working together for short periods to achieve a common goal.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
The digital competencies have been a strong start here. We have also run an extremely popular ‘being digital’ presentation to every single department, trying to explain what we see in the digital strategy team as key for us as individuals but also the company as a whole to play a role in a fast- changing world. The presentation has been popular, and we’ve run it for a number of organisations in the health space within the UK as well as at meet-ups and other events.

As part of the hack day we invited a much younger audience, thinking about how our products will be used by those still going through the upper ends of secondary school, and we intend to continue our Millennials Day approach in 2017. Their insight was hugely valuable in making us think about how and where people will interact with us.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We utilise a significant amount of open source software, which has reduced our reliance on large third-party suppliers, who often do not have the time to provide the levels of support that SMEs such as ourselves need. We are probably more aligned to a startup in terms of our tech stack than a traditional company. The move from Oracle to Postgres has improved the stability and cost-effective support of our products that rely on database technologies.

When working with all of our suppliers we look for an alignment in terms of culture and values. We are a very values-driven organisation, which makes us focused on efficiency, effectiveness and the value of any service we buy. But we also look to the wider values of the organisation, what it stands for, how its staff are treated and how they treat each other. We’ve sought to build partnerships with our key suppliers, where they can understand what drives us as an organisation.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
We approach diversity in terms of skills and backgrounds as well as other attributes, such as gender. We continually seek the best candidate for any vacant role and we continue to have an extremely diverse tech team, despite the ongoing recruitment challenges of being a small player in a high-demand market. We also actively offer secondments, both short and long-term, for individuals in other divisions, who may work with us for a few weeks, or a day a week for a year, to learn and improve their technical skills, returning to their own division with increased knowledge.

We have created the opportunity for an apprenticeship role within the team that we can recruit to in 2017, again to broaden the levels of knowledge and experience.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
IT in terms of the ‘tin and wires’ is a commodity for BMJ. We don’t need to run it, so we outsource everything to do with the main building we are in to our owner the BMA – hardware purchase and maintenance too. We also outsource our main hosting and datacentre provisions for our online products to specialist platform providers or other solution providers that work in the way we want to. Our focus is on the tools and services we need to create the products that drive our revenues and profit and back-end tools we need to support our customers and end-users’ use of those products.

Those functions are tightly integrated into our non-technology departments. Our technology vision and strategy are aligned to support the overarching business strategy running alongside it – always seeking to enable the business to grow the opportunities it believes it needs.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Our main deal in 2016 was our datacentre. We renewed and renegotiated a number of providers who are important to us but are often small businesses offering unique solutions in the publishing world. We tend to avoid large strategic deals with large vendors because they do not drive value for us.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
To grow our products into greater profitability by focusing development on our core applications and products. To rebuild them so that they delight their users, who continue to subscribe and renew their business with us.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
We are keeping a watchful eye on what’s happening. Insofar as much of our business is outside of Europe, we have not seen a significant impact. The harder to predict challenge is the impact further down the chain from us – say in research grant funding, –that may have an impact on our business in the longer-term future rather than immediately around an exit.

When did you start your current role?
Jan 2016

What is your reporting line?

Are you a member of the executive leadership?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
Product managers – most report to me.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
All staff

IT budget

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. CIO peers
  2. Media
  3. Industry bodies
  4. Consultants
  5. Analyst houses

IT security

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
VCISO – report to my CTO.

BMJ IT department

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?

How many employees are there in your IT team?

Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • ERP
  • CRM
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • devices (mobile)

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • security
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • devices (mobile)

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
AI, machine learning, deep learning.

The EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?