by Doug Drinkwater

How UK CIOs responded to shifting business models

Nov 02, 2020
CIODigital TransformationIT Leadership

COVID-19 has forced organisations to reimagine business models, customer and supply chain relationships and working practices. Here, three UK technology leaders discuss how they managed through that disruption.

COVID-19 coronavirus cell models lie scattered across a keyboard and workspace.
Credit: Mixetto / Getty Images

Since the emergence of COVID-19, organisations have had to reimagine business models, reorganise customer and supply chain relationships and reassess working practices. In some cases, businesses have sought government loans to ensure survival, while others have accelerated transformation initiatives to meet rising demand for digital services.

So, what has this disruption meant for the CIO? We asked the question at the first virtual CIO UK Summit in September.

Navigating small pivots, not wholesale changes

For many CIOs, the first act after the UK lockdown was rooted in practicality, with most employees requiring working laptops, desktop PCs and collaboration software to be able to work from home.

Aline Hayes, director of technology for Experian in EMEA, explained how the early days were just focused on enabling employees to work effectively from home, especially departments like contact centres, which were used to working together in one location.

Hayes says the crisis has been about making “smaller pivots” to existing operating models, while considering how client and supplier relationships would work in the virtual world.

For Graeme Hackland, CIO at the Formula One racing team Williams, the coronavirus pandemic was less of a small pivot, and more of an emergency stop.

With the Formula One season postponed on the evening of the first race in Australia, Williams was one of the UK-based teams called upon to use its engineering expertise help make ventilator equipment for hospitals.

“The whole pandemic was really disruptive for all sports, and obviously F1 was very disrupted — we were called off on the Friday of the first Grand Prix without a wheel turning. And if we’re not racing, we’re not earning,” he says.

Hackland does, however, add that the crisis brought the sport together, with the teams, regulators and promoters quickly making long-awaited decisions on budget caps and new COVID-19 safety protocols to get the season back up and running.

Global crisis doesn’t necessarily mean new strategy

Despite the disruption, Hackland dismisses the notion that his IT strategy had to fundamentally change. In the early days of lockdown his team had to scale up the ability for staff to remotely connect to core business systems—from 70 concurrent users to around 1,000 inside ten days—but the long-term strategy remained largely untouched.

“We haven’t actually had to adjust too much. We had a highly mobile workforce anyway, with at least 60% of our staff regularly working away from our main facility. The biggest impact was obviously on our manufacturing and operations people, who physically need to be on-site. Our digital transformation, either by luck or judgement, was based on mobility, collaboration tools, and getting the right data to the right engineer, no matter where they are in world, at the right time. All of that fitted in really well with the challenges we faced as part of this pandemic.”

Christopher Adjei-Ampofo, CIO and head of procurement at digital currency trading platform Uphold, concurs, having seen revenue, user registrations and employee productivity grow.

“We’re already cloud-first, we’re already remote, and so what we found is that people working from home, their productivity shot through the roof. So we didn’t have to change anything in our IT estate,” he says.

Risk and opportunity arrive in equal measure

Coronavirus has also provided an opportunity to innovate and emerge with new market offerings.

Hayes says Experian took the opportunity to talk to clients virtually, to help them investigate future operating models and even educate less technically savvy users on the virtues of videoconferencing and collaboration software.

Client management also changed at Williams. Where previously commercial partners would have been invited to the historic race circuits of Spa or Monza to see the cars in person, they had to make do with new digital experiences. F1 sponsors spent marketing and sales budget on eSports events, while the Williams’ Advanced Engineering Group found another way to show customers how work was progressing on production vehicles.

“Usually, we’d go and visit customers, or would have customers coming to the site to look at their projects to see how far we’ve progressed,” says Hackland. “We’re having to switch a lot of that to a digital mode as well now, so that’s been quite challenging, when as humans we are used to just going and touching a car, seeing it and sitting in it.”

However, with progress comes a changing risk landscape, especially for Adjei-Ampofo at Uphold.

“As a company’s growing, especially in our space, fraud also grows. I guess we didn’t spend a lot of investment in fraud and security [before], so we’ve had to shift focus to those areas, and to start investing a lot more in security solutions to prevent fraud coming onto our platform,” he says.

Yet for credit reporting agency Experian, even increased risk presented an opportunity.

“Fraud has become a heightened risk and so what we’ve been able to talk about is our anti-fraud and ID products, and talk about it in the context of COVID,” adds Hayes.

Revaluating supply chain relationships

Supply chain relationships have also come under strain, particularly for manufacturing entities like Williams, which relies on materials from suppliers in Europe and the Far East.

“Some of our supply chain are really small companies, less than five employees, who will be providing us with niche parts,” says Hackland. “So part of our responsibility during this whole period has been to stay in touch with them, to make sure that they are OK, that they’re doing well, that they are going to be there when we need them, as we start to manufacture again.”

Ultimately, all three CIOs have seen a rise in prominence as a result of the pandemic however.

“As leaders in IT, we’ve been able to step up and help our organisations,” says Hackland. “I don’t think I’ve seen an IT function get as much praise as we have in the last five months, in how we’ve helped the organisation, from the board and executive leaders across the organisation.

“Our colleagues at every level have been very grateful to be able to continue to work and, in some cases, just to stay in touch.”

To watch the full session from the Summit, please see the video below.