by Mark Chillingworth

Save the Children CIO Andy Williams interview – CIO 100 leader has Agile ambition

Apr 25, 2016
IT LeadershipNonprofits

“I talk about the IT ambition rather than the strategy,” Andy Williams, Global CIO of Save the Children and leader of the 2016 CIO 100 says. Williams secured the top place in the CIO 100 for his focus on developing and delivering a new culture at the international charity. [View the CIO 100]

Although based in central London, UK, The Save the Children Fund, as it is formerly known, is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) which through its charitable status promotes the rights of children and delivers relief across the world, but most famously in poverty stricken or war-torn nations. Williams, like many of his peers in the organisation, speaks passionately about the heritage of the organisation and how it was formed in 1919 in a war damaged Great Britain that faced a fatherless generation after World War One. Around the world there are 29 Save the Children organisations.

“We are coming up to our Centenary in 2019,” Williams says at the Leicester Square headquarters. “The sector is in a really interesting period of change,” he says of the changing landscape his organisation existing in, just like those of his commercial and governmental peers in the 100. “There is a growing realisation that there has to be a more effective way of doing things.

“The lack of a profit means it is very hard to invest in IT research and development,” Williams says of the need to channel the maximum amount of cash into saving children. In juxtaposition, the Global CIO says the organisation “has a value chain quite similar to a professional services firm. We have to use our knowledge and evidence from our project work with children to create support from the public and our large donors, and to advocate and campaign with the very same governments that are not being proactive enough with national childcare services”.

“We are already raising money in nations other NGOs are still looking at,” he says and the ambition isn’t just restricted to brining more money in. “Save the Children want to create a platform for children to their own generation on.”

Williams joined Save the Children in October 2012 and took on the job title of Global CIO for a very good reason.

“I wanted to get rid of the centre and field view as it all depends where you are,” he says. Williams has IT leaders around the world, who report to their local COOs and are members of a steering group so that all strategy work is developed together. This focus on cooperation is central to Williams’ ethos and ambition. He has organisational charts where there are no boxes, instead the structure is a value chain.

“Part of my job is to take complexity out and I encourage people when they look at an organisational chart to look at the lines not the boxes. Don’t look at me as a box, see me as a linkage,” he says of how lines demonstrate the links of a value chain.

“Our ambition is around the lines and we want your help,” he says adopting the voice of the whole organisation and how they need IT’s help to change the lives of children. “I’m trying to get people to look at our organisation unfiltered.

“Our industry gets a bit obsessed with where we sit on the organisational chart,” he says speaking more widely about IT.

Williams also stood out in the 2016 CIO 100 for his information focus over technology. “Everywhere you look there was technical debt and information debt,” he says of when he joined Save the Children. “Technical debt is fine,” he says but Williams has little truck with information debt, adding that technical debt can, at times, be beneficial as organisations can skip technology updates and move straight from legacy systems to the most current and applicable technologies.

Williams says Save the Children is already a very agile organisation and has to be, it swings into action and delivers results in the most challenging and dangerous conditions, such as disasters and war zones.

“It is easy to introduce Agile and prototyping here as people cannot be totally sure what they want, but enabling business change in an Agile manner and how you get a big organisation to do Agile is a challenge. So I am constantly reviewing my leadership style.”