by Thomas Macaulay

Atkins CIO Richard Cross drives digital thinking with a startup mindset

May 02, 2017
CareersConstruction and Engineering IndustryIT Leadership

Atkins CIO and Chief Digital Officer Richard Crosshas developed a reputation for consistent excellence in his two-decade career as a technology and IT executive, and has again been recognised as the private sector leader in the 2017 edition of the CIO 100.

“I have been in IT for 30 years and a CIO for 20 years and this is the most exciting time I have ever experienced in the industry,” he says. “Never before has there been such a massive opportunity for IT to move out of the back office and be at the heart of the future of the whole organisation.”

Cross was recognised by the CIO 100 panel for the second successive year as a business and customer-focused digital and IT executive driving the cultural transformation agenda at the engineering, design, consulting and construction company – and also having influence extending outside the organisations to partners and clients of the organisation.

Atkins has grown from a single London location when it was founded in 1938 by Sir William Atkins, to the UK’s largest engineering consultancy with more than 300 offices on six different continents. The company recently accepted a £2.1 billion takeover offer from Canadian rival SNC-Lavalin.

The business transformation has been reflected in the digital one led by Cross, which echoes the visionary approach of his company’s founder.

“2016 has seen a shift from IS pushing digital thinking into the business,” says Cross. “The IS organisation now works directly with external clients, helping them to shape their technology and digital strategies, incubating and co-creating new products and services and, together, delivering value to clients and to Atkins.”

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Cross joined the company as CIO in 2014 and added the role of Chief Digital Officer and its emphasis on digital and innovation to his CV the next year. The former ITV executive is responsible for making the company more digital and selling new digital services and products to its customers and always takes the steering wheel in driving digital through the company.

“I firmly believe that IT leaders who don’t step into this role will end up with IT departments that just get left behind,” he says. “This repositioning of IT has required what I describe as a revolution in our IS organisation to fundamentally shift its purpose from being a function to being a business – with strong commercial and business skills as well as technical skills.”

His strategic mantra is to focus on products rather than projects, a concept he says is now outdated.

“Our focus is now on products and three-month chunks of work,” he says. “This shift from projects to products means that business product owners work directly with IS product management teams to make sure that the end customer experience drives the prioritisation, development, and deployment of new products.”

Atkins staff can now work anywhere at any time by using cloud-based technologies and provide support services around the clock to reduce waiting times. The company has drawn inspiration from startups in an agile and lean approach of build, measure and learn, which has led to increased revenues and improved margins.

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In 2016 Cross set out an innovation manifesto and framework that has resulted in a thriving Atkins Digital Store, a Digital Playbook of tools and approaches and global digital disrupter and innovator networks to the use it.

He focuses on emerging technologies such as VR and AR technologies to provide enhanced design visualisation for clients and project teams, digital survey and mapping technologies including drones to bring the site to the client’s desktop, and Big Data transport modelling that reduced the time to process 140 million major road network data points from four days to 29 seconds.

The use of emerging technologies is supported by an Atkins digital incubator that generates ideas, products, services and business models using lean startup tools and techniques. It’s currently incubating an Internet of Things tool for retrospective sensoring and asset monitoring of legacy buildings.

“A lighter touch governance is in place to fund experiments and incubators, based on two-week sprints designed to validate hypotheses around technical feasibility, business viability, and customer desirability,” he says. “With failing fast as an underpinning principle, rapid decisions are made to ensure that teams can progress at pace, pivoting where needed to build out the products and services that will add the most value.”

His team has worked with clients to co-create products, service, and new commercial models, a collaborate approach that also led last year to the introduction of Office 365, Yammer, self-service, and smartphone apps and partnering with start-ups to enhance our core capabilities in key markets.

“What’s been really encouraging in 2016 is the good progress we have made in flipping some of our key relationships from that of customer to partner, co-creating new business models, revenues and joint go-to-market propositions,” says Cross.

“Digital is now a company-wide conversation and dialogue, with digital engineering at the heart of the organisation.”