by Mark Chillingworth

Atkins Chief Digital Officer Richard Cross building a future design

Apr 26, 2016
IT LeadershipManufacturing Industry

“Chief Digital Officer is a buiness-oriented, value creation role, not an operational role” Richard Cross, CDO of engineering and construction company Atkins says. “It is less about running the IT and I sort of feel the CDO role could be the future of the CIO and the future of what IT can be in organisations.” [See also: Chief Digital Officer job description and salary – What’s the CDO role and how much do Chief Digital Officers get paid?]

It was sentiments like the above sentiments which helped secure Cross a leading position in the 2016 CIO 100. Cross joined Atkins in 2014, initially as CIO before becoming CDO in May 2015. Atkins is an international engineering firm that designs and manages the delivery of major built environment projects; it is a major partner in the creation of the HS2 high speed rail network in the UK and is listed on the FTSE stock exchange.

“The title doesn’t matter, it is about being in a place to delivery value into the business,” Cross says of his title change. But as you will see, it is how he can change the way the organisation works using digital methods that most interests the veteran business technology leader. As an international firm Atkins regions have their own P&L, apart from Cross’ department, which is one of the few central organisations in the architecture of Atkins. “We join the dots in the business and that is really important,” he says from his office high above Warren Street tube station in London.

“We talk about digital ways of working, using crowd sourcing to find an answer to a problem rather than relying in senior people. Another example is using a business model canvas that takes a few hours instead of weeks, as a business mode is developed on a single page in a facilitated session, it can take just an hour,” he says.

“We are very big on telling stories to show and share with people the ways to do things and group activity and we are using video a lot. For me digital is all these common aspects of web-based startups,” he says of how his team are actively disrupting Atkins by helping it change the way it works, not ripping apart the DNA that has made Atkins a global success story.

“We map these techniques so that they can be used across the business and can be used in tangible products that Atkins offers. For example we did an ideation for Heathrow airport and it is great to see it working with a client. It is so powerful.

“How do we take all the smart people and create something that is very powerful and will have an impact on the brand,” he says of how a CDO is driving a culture change. For his team that has meant a change to an Atkins product focus instead of technology services, which a number of transformative CIOs are using to create a better alignment between their team members and the end customer. As a result, it is no surprise that Cross doesn’t pay much lip service to the Gartner Bimodal IT model. “My view is that you can move almost everything to the new models. We haven’t come across anything that we can’t do in a digital way yet.

“We use Agile in leadership team meetings and have short sprints on each problem,” he says of how the boardroom now operates. “It is a philosophy and a way of working. In Norway Atkins is working on a design project for an arts centre in an Agile way, that in two weeks has captured a design and modelled it. Too many design processes rely on change and hand-overs,” he says of strict role based structures. “Everyone is working in parallel.”

Digital technology is creating the new methods and Cross is equally explorative and excited by these. “Take drones, they are such a great opportunity for us, we can do a survey in 3D in minutes which can change the way you manage a site. In a quarry you can assess the volume of the quarry and where to dig using a drone. The organisation gets a whole new model of control.

“Augmented reality means staff can do a safety inspection in a virtual world or use those drone scans to easily model a change to a design,” he says. Cross also believes data and the Internet of Things will be major opportunities for his organisation. “We have always used data, but when you have real-time data that will change the way we design and operate things because of the richness of the data, which means an organisation like Atkins can respond in real-time.” The CDO believes transportation will become intelligent mobility and change “how we transport people”.

“It won’t be five different tickets to get from door-to-door, think of how Apple would run transport? Real-time sensor data will create real-time scheduling.”

“I’m measured on changing the culture here, by moving the needle so that it has an impact on our share price,” he says of how a CDO can impact the interactions Atkins can have with its clients.

“When I look back at my time at ITV the whole business got digitised,” he says of the broadcasting role he had until 2010. “There were just a few channels, by the time I left there were so many channels that I have lost count and everything changed. Tapes were everywhere when I joined, there were none when I left. That same process is happening here.”