by Mark Chillingworth

BMJ Chief Digital Officer Sharon Cooper interview – Driving cultural transformation

Apr 26, 2016
IT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment Industry

BMJ Chief Digital Officer Sharon Cooper is the second CDO high-flyer in the 2016 CIO 100. A year ago Cooper was a CTO and the last year has been one of significant change under Cooper’s business technology leadership watch at BMJ, the publishing enterprise of the British Medical Association (BMA). [See also: Chief Digital Officer job description and salary – What’s the CDO role and how much do Chief Digital Officers get paid?]

Cooper describes her CTO role as being change focused, but says a CDO role is making sure that change happens “beyond the technology department” which chimes in unison to her CIO 100 top three CDO peer Richard Cross at engineering firm Atkins.

“I am helping make it clear that digital is very important to our organisation,” Cooper says. “What could artificial intelligence do for our business and our products when robots carry out surgery?” Cooper asks to demonstrate the level of disruption medicine faces – the Royal Marsden Hospital has already carried out a trial. “Will robots want to read our journals? Digital is AI and machine learning.

“Young doctors are already checking that they are on the right track with a diagnosis using their mobile devices, so for an organisation like ours we sit on their shoulder, helping them learn.” Cooper says of how she and her team have been given a remit to imagine and meet the changing demands from clinicians.

Interestingly, print journals remain an important part of the BMJ business and Cooper is proud to report a digital product moving into print. The CDO explains how important print is as a medium in certain markets.

“We could carry on in that way for the next 30 years, but who would come in and floor our market like it has in music or academics could find a way of publishing themselves,” Cooper says of the importance for the BMJ to balance supporting new and existing production methods. It is not only methods that are changing as CDO Cooper has to balance retaining the reputation of the BMJ as a world leader of quality medical information with changing customer behaviour.

“I have to get a product into profit, but it is not always about the bottom line, but you do have to deliver one,” she says.

The trade union roots of the BMA have been clearly demonstrated during 2016 as the organisation locks horns with the Conservative government over the number of hours junior doctors should work under a new employment contract the government wishes to introduce. As Cooper has stated, her organisation has to deliver a profit and she laughs when asked if these two cultures clash at times. Adding that the truth is that the BMJ is not seen as a publicity department for the BMA and how the two organisations often have divergent views on issues such as a right to die.

The culture change goes beyond understanding organisational roles between stakeholders, Cooper has been instrumental in changing the culture of the organisation, something the CIO 100 panel of experts said really stood out in her submission. A clear collaborative and cross functional culture has been developed by Cooper and interviewing her you can tell it is part of her make up as a business technology leader.

To drive home how important the digital business model will be to the organisation’s future Cooper and team have created a labs environment, not once, but twice.  A second lab is now at the centre of the BMJ headquarters and double the size.

“Labs are incredibly important as they set the tone. We are not Google but this is a place you can bring people and it is driving the digital culture with the doctors as we rely on them to tell us what works well and therefore what we should go and build.

“Every Monday there are two junior doctors in the facility and they go to meetings and for them it is a break from the usual,” Cooper says. The area has also become a cultural hub for organisation where all BMJ staff go to find out what is going on within the organisation.

“It is at the heart of the building and we deliberately put it there in the corridor to the canteen so people have to go through it,” Cooper says.

Cooper has done more than introduce a new working space, as you’ll see from her CIO 100 submission, the use of Agile and DevOps in an organisation that may find it hard to accept new methodologies is impressive, she’s also run hackathons that she says attracted a lot of doctors and also educated her about the information the BMJ has and how it can be used and more importantly improved.

As a business technology leader Cooper talks a great deal about empowerment and told her team the hackathons were to be run by the team for the team, but she wanted some workable code at the end of the process.

“It is also two days to try new tools and work with people you have not worked with before,” she says of a broader benefit. “They are really really exciting for the team and they got to present three Apps to our board. That was the culmination of my investment in the team,” Cooper talks proudly of how a team member developed to become a clear presenter that used no technical language to articulate the challenge they had overcome during the hackathon.

“Seeing my team behave in a totally different way makes me so proud of them. I can help these people get to where they want to go.”