Interview: National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan on transforming to support member base

A year ago, the National Trust launched its '50 things to do before you're 11¾' campaign. In doing so, it reinvented itself as a provider of exciting days out in the great British countryside, whereas previously it had been seen more as a dowdy organisation that was concerned with preserving grand old houses.

Organisations aren't able to reinvent themselves with clever marketing alone, though – a full business strategy with technology at its core is central. Enter Sarah Flannigan, CIO for the National Trust – exactly the sort of energetic and persuasive business technology leader you'd expect of this scale of challenge, and the modern nature of the National Trust.

In 1895, Octavia Hill, one of three founders of the National Trust, was concerned with the inhabitants of major cities like London and that natural beauty should be preserved for the wider public. Today, the National Trust manages a wide variety of landscapes from the South Downs and East Anglian fens to the Lakeland fells and mountains, as well as many castles, manors and mill houses.

"The Trust's core purpose is to look after special places forever and for everyone," Flannigan explains at Stourhead, Wiltshire – one of the Trust's most visited properties in 2013. "It's a big business. We are one of the largest membership organisations in Europe. The Trust is composed of a series of businesses, with 350 property managers, and each of these is a business within the business." The organisation has prospered in recent years, despite the economic difficulties the nation has suffered.

"The National Trust seems to be recession proof. If people don't travel abroad, then they choose a staycation with days out, instead. We offer spiritual refreshment. It's good value and we've got better at savvy marketing," she says referring to the '50 things' campaign.

But while the Trust has stayed in the hearts of UK citizens and its tourists, the organisation's back office operations had become as manual and antiquated as an historic watermill.

The National Trust is currently undergoing a three-year £40 million transformation project, dubbed the Systems Simplification Programme (SSP), which Flannigan describes as her baby. "I can go on about SSP forever," she says, "but you need great technology to support our member base.

"Our challenge is to remain truly relevant for the long-term, and the Trust needed a sea change in how it engaged with its supporters – whether they are members, volunteers or people on a working holiday. We had no idea who these groups were and we needed to know more. We didn't even know how many visitors we had each day.

"The first half of SSP is about increasing revenue and support, and the second half is about reducing internal bureaucracy and inefficiency," she explains. Flannigan reveals that the Trust has four million members and receives 20 million pay-for-entry visitors per year, a data set that needs to be captured and analysed, so that the Trust can understand those behaviour patterns – their likes and dislikes – and modify its business model to remain relevant.

SSP also transforms the outdated back office and practices, with modern standards across the organisation. Together, these modernisations will deliver over £90 million in benefits to the Trust, she says.

Cashing in

Tills form the beginning of every interaction with the Trust, and these are key to the success of the SSP plan, too.

"Tills are at the heart of what we do. We have 3,000 cash registers that aren't linked together, and it takes six weeks to extract their data. That's an age. We need an integrated EPOS system, then we can integrate all the back-end retail stock management data, as well as ingredients for the cafés and even the recipes. This also means we can offer instant rewards like discounts to volunteers. There's no point having a membership card if you can't offer a differentiation.

"I've been obsessed with tills since I arrived, and they were at the heart of this dramatic change," she says. Focusing the CIO strategy for the National Trust was keeping her awake at night when she joined the organisation in 2010.

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