by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #24: Chris Buxton, Stats NZ

Mar 28, 2019
Business ContinuityCloud ComputingInnovation

Chris Buxton says a major change programme over the past year has seen his team work on several technology-based projects with other business units across Stats NZ.

One of this is the creation of a common data ingest services, which provides a digital channel for receiving and ingesting new data from suppliers.

The team also built a common data processing system. Buxton explains this is a modular system built using Pentaho as a workflow tool, integrating R, SAS and bespoke modules to deliver an enterprise data processing system.

This system was used for Census 2018, and now supports several key statistical products.

“The modular approach means we can deliver new data requirements at far lower costs and far quicker than previously,” explains Buxton.

The nature of the product also means that rather than having a large software development team, the data scientists can develop, while analytics and workflow managers can implement.

This means the product is far more agile and empowers those with the data knowledge to execute, says Buxton.

A key benefit is the ability to integrate machine learning and AI algorithms into the dataflow for automated processing and data preparation.

“This is proving very exciting and although early days, is showing promise,” says Buxton.

The team also established a data lake as a common data management store for all Stats NZ data and Integrated Data Infrastructure(IDI).

“These technical innovations are transforming how we manage data and deliver statistics,” he says.

“They move us from a series of stovepipe systems to create a common data management system, which is supported by enterprise capabilities, and empowers the analysts to gain integrated insights from our data.

Standout innovation

Buxton says another standout innovation is the way he and his team now operate and manage digital services across the organisation.

“This has been a fundamental shift from an investment-led activity to an innovative, agile method that empowers staff and delivers innovative outcomes,” he says.

“We have combined multiple different techniques to provide a holistic approach to our operating model.”

Explaining how the innovations came out, he says that following their move to ITaaS, Stats NZ found the traditional operating model was no longer fit for purpose.

“We experienced spiralling costs, vendor services not optimised and poor staff and business engagement,” says Buxton.

“I recognised that a fundamental rethink of the operating model to deliver digital services was required.”

He says this was not just a simple redrafting of processes.

“I took a systemic approach to the problem, engaged staff to build a change programme to transform the operating model,” he says.

He recognised culture was the heart of the issue, so the team embarked on a cultural change programme to build a social organisation.

“We used collaborative technologies to change the way the teams worked together,” he says.

He says they were careful to avoid the pitfalls of the past in order to create the supporting culture and decision-making frameworks that would underpin their operating model and use them to support the change.

He says one of their biggest challenges was the onset of “tall poppy syndrome”.

“The successes were starting to disrupt other areas of the organisation,” he says. They dealt with this by having conversations based on fact and measurements.

“That means rather than an emotional conversation, we can talk about the improved performance and lowering of costs.”

“This was established as a staff-led change initiative,” he says.

The goal was to be an agile, collaborative organisation where staff are empowered to innovate, so the change in activity had to reflect those principles, he says.

Each of the streams has a senior leader who is there to coach and mentor the stream leads.

Buxton innovated around the governance framework by implementing a holacracy, enabling knowledge staff to make decisions and drive innovation.

“This approach is unique in the NZ public sector.”

On the road to holacracy

Buxton echoes a familiar challenge that his executive colleagues faced when implementing major change programmes.

“We faced critical cultural issues before we could make progress,” he says.

Examples of this were the constant references to legacy issues or previous restructures that were preventing staff from moving on.

To overcome that issue, a member of his team stepped up to help coach every team to come up with their work social charter, he says.

This is the social contract the team follows, and each member holds each other to it, he says.

“This has set the foundation behaviour so we can leave some of the baggage behind and move forward.”

“We influenced and overcame the cultural challenges using techniques such as ‘working out loud’,” he says.

“We used mobile collaborative technologies like Yammer and MS Teams to empower staff to have a voice in the group and raise questions, concerns or ideas.”

He encouraged the concept of “working out loud”. The staff receive a daily feed of everything the technology team is doing.

“The squeaky wheel tends to get the oil. That voice had tended to prevent change in the past and often undermined initiatives through incorrect information or gossip,” he points out.

“We created collaboration tools so that everyone had a voice and could contribute,” he adds. “That has had a positive impact to drown out the ‘noise’ but also enable those more open to change to have a greater contribution.”

“We have seen good engagement, with 60 per cent of the organisation viewing our group’s information, with the majority outside my group,” he says.

He believes their success is reflected in the technology and digital team’s Net Promoter Score. The team started from a low of -14 and saw a steady improvement to +9.

They also measured staff satisfaction with the IT delivery and have seen positive improvement of roughly +10 points in every area.

“Any improvement over +5 is significant,” notes Buxton. “These results show the major improvements we have delivered, while building a foundation for future efforts.”

“We improved the user experience by concentrating on the basics,” he adds.

“Getting a solid network, with good datacentre infrastructure and a high performing mobile desktop was key.”

“That has enabled us to ‘earn our seat at the table’, so we can engage in better innovation conversations with Stats NZ.”

As a very technical in nature, data driven agency, a programme to shift the organisational culture can hit some challenges, he points out.

“Invariably the prevalent culture is to say, ‘it’s not about the technology’ and hand any conversation to a business area that is not incentivised to take any concept forward,” he says.

He manages these by using data.

As part of the change programme, his team set up a measurement stream to provide transparency of performance to better inform and influence the organisation.

“Through this work we have been able to demonstrate the value that my team can bring, as well as showing clearly the cost drivers and opportunities to deliver improvements,” he says.

“We were able to deliver a direct cost saving of over $2 million in the first six months of the year. This has been through targeting inefficiencies and removing waste,” he says.

Buxton says the team also established the “Front Door process”, articulating how they establish new work and explore different solutions.

“This is now part of the organisational investment process, delivering improved investment outcomes,” he says.

“It also enables us to publish and communicate our work programme and roadmaps. Through this mechanism, we can clearly influence capability delivery and organisational roadmaps for change.”

Leadership is key to success, he concludes.

“I have seen so many people who are technically brilliant or may be exceptional managers but could not inspire their staff to success,” says Buxton.

He says the key to having a high performing team is having the right blend of people and a leadership that creates the environment for success.

“Having the honesty to stand up and admit their mistakes and do all that in a public way is important.”

“You have to lead from the front,” he states.

“Be visible and demonstrate the behaviours and mission alignment so that others understand and be inspired.

“That is at the heart of culture. They say that leaders don’t make culture, they just provide the catalyst. But they do shape the culture though their behaviours and the way they lead their teams.”