by Divina Paredes

CIO100 2018 #24: Dr Claire Barber, Spark New Zealand

Mar 28, 2018
Big DataCareersCloud Computing

“Despite the rapidly changing technical environment and the huge exponential changes that we are seeing… it isn’t the technology that creates success; it’s the people that create success.”

Dr Claire Barber, chief digital officer at Spark, is clearly emphatic on the importance of the human component of any business transformation programme.

She has ample lessons to share in this area, having led the four-year $300 million re-engineering programme at Spark, and is now again on the frontline in the next phase major phase of the group – transitioning it from a traditional telecommunications company to a customer-centric digital services provider.

“Building teams, empowering them, letting them have autonomy, developing their skills mastery, aligning people to a common purpose and creating a culture of success is by far the hardest challenge,” she says, of this redoubtable task.

“We are creating a culture within an organisation that has 65 nationalities, that respects all of their cultural differences and breeds success while disrupting itself and evolving into a fully Agile@scale environment,” she adds.

“This challenge isn’t so much about technology – it’s about creating a new way of working to better serve customers, increase speed to market and embed innovation.”

Simon Moutter, managing director, concurs at the scope of change entrusted to the inaugural chief digital officer role at Spark.

Her extraordinary achievements over the last four years go well beyond the traditional CIO function,” says Moutter.

He says the Barber’s tasks included ‘untangling 1600 legacy IT systems’ through the re-engineering programme, and facing significant risks in delivering a sophisticated, modern IT stack with only 11 core systems.

She did it with exemplary people leadership and vision, says Moutter.

Claire is leading a revolutionary change at Spark, which is putting the new IT stack to work to enable the systems of engagement with customers, and move these into more digitised and automated processes, he adds.

The first chief digital officer at Spark

In 2016, Spark established a Platforms business unit and chief digital officer to consolidate the company’s capabilities and drive the digital transformation.

This customer and digital transformation builds on the earlier re-engineering programme that modernised and simplified Spark’s IT estate.

Barber, who was GM change and technology, stepped up as inaugural chief digital officer.

She says with the foundational elements in place, Spark is now getting the first wave of outcomes, one of which is getting the highest ever Net Promoter Score’s (NPS) with digital as the clear customer channel of preference.

During this time cross functional teams have been adopting new ways of working, she says.

We started in the areas of customer care, technology and product development, she says. These new ways of working have contributed to a company-wide move to an ‘Agile@scale’ transformation.

“Driving customer centricity into the culture of the business is critical in the transition of Spark to a digital service provider business model,” says Barber.

She says over the past year, her team have implemented a company wide customer experience framework, established a customer lab inside the building, developed a model of co-creation of solutions with customers and helped train over 120 people across the business in design thinking practices.

Our customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) design competency are already recognised as the most advanced in the country and feature in international case studies, says Barber.

“Most importantly, the results of this CX focus has seen a redesign of our digital presence and established digital as the most preferred customer channel.”

Spark has been actively investing in a new set of capabilities, ‘our data fabric’ that leverages big data and artificial intelligence, says Barber.

“We are currently building the production version of a rich Spark universe of data and applying AI and machine learning to create a ‘brain’ that understands not just what our interactions with customers are, but also the context of the interaction.

The teams are delivering new innovations every day.

Data-driven, customer focused

“We believe that as part of our transformation to a digital service provider, Spark will become a data-driven business. This work has created the ability for us to begin to understand and predict where customer interactions are likely to be value enhancing and where they are likely to be value detracting.”

She says they also invested in staff training and development opportunities during this period of change. This has delivered a major increase in employee NPS over the last 12 months.

As the organisation moves to Agile, Spark will continue programmes for growth and development, mastery and autonomy.

“Creating a sub-culture where norms and practices were different, was itself inherently challenging,” she says.

Showcasing success and demystifying the future continues to be part of transitioning to a new way of working.

“Effectively the organisation is now fully committed to a purpose driven agile approach as the best model to support the future business.”

Some of our early efforts contributed to understanding both the benefits of changing ways of working and how to go about it. Results from this early work include a substantial increase in journey and channel NPS (net promoter score) and delivered substantial improvements to the cost base of the business, she says.

“In some cases, we have reduced manual support in key business processes by over 60 per cent whilst substantially increasing NPS.”

Barber shares some of the innovation themed projects the Platforms team have worked on in the past year.

The first is the ‘new ways of working’ project which contributed to an organisation-wide agreement to move into an Agile@scale operating model. This includes a commitment to empower teams with authority and autonomy to innovate and co-create with customers as part of their jobs.

The group also established a framework for customer experience design and embedding that and design thinking disciplines into the organisation.

“We have also introduced a new big data capability and designed an AI-driven journey catalogue ‘brain’ to provide contextual awareness of all customer interactions in real-time.

“This is foundational to new ways of working and future data, AI and robotics innovations.”

“The teams are delivering new innovations every day,” she says. Spark’s data fabric is also being developed into a case study by a global research company to showcase how data can transform ways of working.

“Innovation is occurring within the building but also being recognised by others,” she says.

Barber leads a multicultural team, spanning over 65 nationalities. This means the team celebrates throughout the year a long list of culturally significant events, and staff are encouraged to lead the initiatives.

Championing core values

She likewise is a major supporter of Spark’s Diversity and Inclusion programme and is executive sponsor of the company’s LGBTQI community.

She proudly points out that Spark has received the Rainbow Tick accreditation, which is awarded to firms that complete a diversity and inclusion certification process.

She supports Women in Technology programmes, ranging from scholarships to participating in ‘shadow days’.

The latter is an annual programme where technology companies invite female high school students to observe and work with ICT teams for a day, to encourage them to explore careers in technology.

“A diverse and engaged workforce is critical to our success. We use eNPS (employee Net Promoter Score) extensively with qualitative feedback options so that we can stay connected to how our people are feeling.”

Staying connected, using a combination of collaborative technology and face to face meetings, is critical to her success.

“I am an active ‘floor walker’,” says Barber.

“We work hard to ensure all staff have access to key messages. Given we run a 24/7 operation we are mindful in how to reach everyone on each shift. Sometimes it is easier to communicate with a morning tea or a sausage roll than via any other mechanism,” she explains.

“Teamwork is really important. We often receive very open and honest feedback that provides great insights into what is working and what is not.”