by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan on transforming to support member base

Oct 27, 201411 mins
IT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment IndustryNonprofits

A year ago, the National Trust launched its ’50 things to do before you’re 11¾’ campaign. In doing so, it reinvented itself as a provider of exciting days out in the great British countryside, whereas previously it had been seen more as a dowdy organisation that was concerned with preserving grand old houses.

Organisations aren’t able to reinvent themselves with clever marketing alone, though – a full business strategy with technology at its core is central. Enter Sarah Flannigan, CIO for the National Trust – exactly the sort of energetic and persuasive business technology leader you’d expect of this scale of challenge, and the modern nature of the National Trust.

In 1895, Octavia Hill, one of three founders of the National Trust, was concerned with the inhabitants of major cities like London and that natural beauty should be preserved for the wider public. Today, the National Trust manages a wide variety of landscapes from the South Downs and East Anglian fens to the Lakeland fells and mountains, as well as many castles, manors and mill houses.

“The Trust’s core purpose is to look after special places forever and for everyone,” Flannigan explains at Stourhead, Wiltshire – one of the Trust’s most visited properties in 2013. “It’s a big business. We are one of the largest membership organisations in Europe. The Trust is composed of a series of businesses, with 350 property managers, and each of these is a business within the business.” The organisation has prospered in recent years, despite the economic difficulties the nation has suffered.

“The National Trust seems to be recession proof. If people don’t travel abroad, then they choose a staycation with days out, instead. We offer spiritual refreshment. It’s good value and we’ve got better at savvy marketing,” she says referring to the ’50 things’ campaign.

But while the Trust has stayed in the hearts of UK citizens and its tourists, the organisation’s back office operations had become as manual and antiquated as an historic watermill.

The National Trust is currently undergoing a three-year £40 million transformation project, dubbed the Systems Simplification Programme (SSP), which Flannigan describes as her baby. “I can go on about SSP forever,” she says, “but you need great technology to support our member base.

“Our challenge is to remain truly relevant for the long-term, and the Trust needed a sea change in how it engaged with its supporters – whether they are members, volunteers or people on a working holiday. We had no idea who these groups were and we needed to know more. We didn’t even know how many visitors we had each day.

“The first half of SSP is about increasing revenue and support, and the second half is about reducing internal bureaucracy and inefficiency,” she explains. Flannigan reveals that the Trust has four million members and receives 20 million pay-for-entry visitors per year, a data set that needs to be captured and analysed, so that the Trust can understand those behaviour patterns – their likes and dislikes – and modify its business model to remain relevant.

SSP also transforms the outdated back office and practices, with modern standards across the organisation. Together, these modernisations will deliver over £90 million in benefits to the Trust, she says.

Cashing in

Tills form the beginning of every interaction with the Trust, and these are key to the success of the SSP plan, too.

“Tills are at the heart of what we do. We have 3,000 cash registers that aren’t linked together, and it takes six weeks to extract their data. That’s an age. We need an integrated EPOS system, then we can integrate all the back-end retail stock management data, as well as ingredients for the cafés and even the recipes. This also means we can offer instant rewards like discounts to volunteers. There’s no point having a membership card if you can’t offer a differentiation.

“I’ve been obsessed with tills since I arrived, and they were at the heart of this dramatic change,” she says. Focusing the CIO strategy for the National Trust was keeping her awake at night when she joined the organisation in 2010.

To clear her mind, Flannigan walked across the Mendip hills one cold, frosty afternoon and realised the journey she had to take the organisation on.

“I wrote a two-page paper for the new Director General, describing an integrated programme focused on four areas – supporter loyalty, digital finance, BPOS and information management. It was the key to unlocking customer engagement, getting more income and freeing our people up.”

New developments are filtering through, with Trust staff and volunteers using handheld card scanners at gates, which Flannigan says the Trust use for follow-up communications with members.

Director General Dame Helen Ghosh was receptive to Flannigan’s ideas and document. Ghosh was on a mountain top talking about erosion as a result of climate change, and the ranger said if they had a choice of projects a new till would be their choice. No major project can succeed without the CIO and their department being accepted and engaged with the organisation, which is a challenge when that organisation relies to a large degree on volunteer members.

“We’ve had to have a DNA change in IT, so we’ve brought in people who are as brilliant at communicating as they are at technology,” Flannigan explains. “We’ve gone from the department of NO, to being completely engaged with the National Trust cause. The organisation is heavily devolved, so IT and finance can become disenfranchised.

“I’ve also introduced mandatory work experience. Nobody can work in our team unless they spend time working away from our headquarters – so we have a blog where people post their pictures and experiences of working in different properties.” Flannigan shows us a teddy bear wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that reads ‘IT loves special places’.

“The IT teams take the teddy with them when they visit a new site and they have to supply a picture as proof,” she explains. “It’s a way in for people, a real talking point – and it’s very powerful. This teddy has been to the summer solstice in Avesbury and to see a newly-discovered Rembrandt at Buckland Abbey. I’m always on the lookout for fun ways to engage the staff.”

Flannigan’s engagement activities dovetail with a wider organisational team building at the National Trust. When the previous Director General stepped down, Flannigan led a 200-strong flash-mob-style choral ‘Goodbye’ where a choir made up of people from all levels of the organisation sang three songs to her. “I played the piano, I’ve never played in public before, but the staff’s response was a great career memory,” she says.

IT restoration

“Over the past few years, our technology and our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) was holding us back. I was brought in to fix that.

“Four years ago, the Trust would have said that we were bad at IT, and the department was completely ignored. We’ve all worked really hard at changing that, and SSP and its investment is a sign of the confidence they now have in us.

“We’ve done this in a number of ways, but fixing the CRM brought relief, and we’ve also done a lot to sort out the ageing infrastructure of our properties.

“The upgrade to the network infrastructure has increased costs, but it will contribute value – and SSP is a huge part of delivering cost savings or cost avoidance. Now we can move email and data warehousing to the cloud,” Flannigan reveals. “We also carried out a big programme to reduce the number of contractors. We now have SSP contractors who are with us for a stated task, and that has saved us a lot of money.”

The National Trust also renegotiated all contracts with vendors and, for the first time, the Swindon-based organisation is seeing its cost base reduce.

“The Trust had suffered from poor IT leadership, so the organisation was right to be fed up, and the Trust confused organisational issues with technology issues. It’s not just technology that fails, it’s people, culture, behaviour and data.

“What used to happen was they would abdicate an objective to IT – it wouldn’t work and then they could blame IT.”

Today, Flannigan’s team consists of business partners, some of whom she says have no technology skills at all. This has helped the Trust rein in shadow IT, which, the CIO says, was as sprawling and organic as the Peak District landscape the Trust carefully manages.

Now there are no shadow IT budgets and projects, as Flannigan’s team has integrated them into their remit. There is only one large-scale vendor in Flannigan’s list of technology suppliers – BT – which is managing the upgrade to the rural network SSP will require.

SCC, Claremont and Adapt are key suppliers in support, Oracle deployment and hosting to the Trust.

“We like to operate with mid-tier vendors,” Flannigan explains. “The Trust needs to be in their top 20 customers, so I can call the chief executive. We are a nice brand to have and we have some nice challenges. Tier one vendors have a real problem with being agile, they are too rigid, too US and too sales led.

“Mid-tier vendors get that it’s about service and support, and that is where you get real value. The majority of our suppliers fall in love with us and go above and beyond the call of duty,” she says.

The Trust not only needs suppliers that can be agile, but also technology that’s easy and fun to use, as a large number of the users will be voluntary.

Historic future

“We’re happy to move quickly, but we don’t have a goal to be leading edge,” Flannigan says of the Trust’s attitude towards the adoption of new technology. Once SSP begins to deliver, the CIO is already looking at how technology can improve a range of the Trust’s activities.

“We are one of the biggest land holders in the UK and couldn’t survive without GIS (geographical information services). We want to be able to map our land and buildings right down to meter points or water sources – as clear land management is very important,” she says.

In March 2014, the Trust announced that recent storms had caused the largest tree loss in 20 years across its estate.

“We have a peripatetic group of people and we’re getting better at giving them technology – on tablets, for example. I want to develop a tree survey tool for tablets. That will be transformational for our people,” she says.

Flannigan talks about how she became a member of the National Trust leadership team. “I wasn’t going to come back to work as I was busy caring for my second son full-time, but I got a call about IT being in a crisis. I love a good crisis,” she says.

“I work very hard at being a mum for the kids – I strive to have breakfast with them and I’m home to read to them three nights a week. But the second they’re in bed I’m back working, so the Trust gets full value out of me. I get to be a great employee and do a 60-hour week that the kids are unaware of.

“That’s what carers and working parents do, and in the end, we all find the best way to do it,” she says.

Flannigan wrote a National Trust blog about her daily juggle between parenthood and leadership, which received an incredible response from the organisation. “There’s a comfort to know that it’s not just you. I was overwhelmed at the response. A lot of people told me how important it was to see a senior woman in the team doing that.”

Although the Trust’s CIO had run service management and delivery IT roles – prior to joining the organisation, she’d been running a bespoke conservatory manufacturing business. “I’d moved to Somerset for the good life and applied for directors jobs and ended up running a luxury conservatory business. They had a very demanding customer base,” she says.

As a parent and lover of the outdoors, Flannigan is happy with shaping the business and technology landscape of the Trust, an organisation that’s close to her heart. “I was brought up as a National Trust baby, holidaying on the Gower, she explains, “so it’s in my DNA.”

Sarah Flannigan CV

April 2010 – present CIO, National Trust 2006 – 2009 Sales and marketing director (2007-09), Operations director (2006-09), David Salisbury Joinery Limited 2001-2005 VP Global Service Delivery (2003-05) Operations director (2001-03) IPC Systems 1999-2001 IT service manager, Tullett Probon