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CIO podcast: Babcock CTO Chris Lord on Conway’s Law and data

“Big data hasn’t or doesn’t always deliver the value,” says Chris Lord, the new CTO of Babcock International.  Lord has been at the forefront of a data focused businesses throughout his business technology leadership career and has analysed Conway’s Law and how it represents the data challenges CIOs and organisations face in digital transformation.

Chris Lord joined Babcock International Group as CTO in January 2018, the global infrastructure services business is FTSE listed and counts the Ministry of Defence and Network Rail as key clients. Before joining Babcock this year Lord was CIO for Collinson Group, which provide loyalty and insurance services, with its most widely known product being Columbus Insurance.

“I have seen all sorts of boards very frustrated that digital is just not unlocking the value that the Sunday Times colour supplement is telling them is there. So why is that? The pattern is your culture and your structure,” the CTO says.

Lord believes that the reason digital is not delivering the data led success organisations desire can be traced to Conway’s Law, as set out by computer programme expert Melvin Conway in 1967. Conway said: “Any organisation that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation’s communication structure”.

“Conway’s  Law came about and that talked about the correlation of the communications and the organisational structure and its policies and the software architecture that it delivers,” Lord tells the Horizon CIO podcast.

“What that really means is that an organisation that wants to use data at scale successfully, must remove the barriers to sharing that data across the organisation. Without that you don’t get the value.”

Lord was Programme Director at news and financial information services business Reuters when it was acquired by Thomson, a Canadian scientific, legal and business information business in 2008. Lord tells CIO peers how Reuters was an organisation that had a high level of matrix organisation. The matrix worked to ensure access to data was “as seamless as possible”. Thomson, the acquiring organisation had developed as a series of silos.

Lord goes on to paint an analogy of a truly open organisation where all members of the business have access to data and can add value to it. “An open culture and sharing data is a fundamental way that the organisation behaves and as part of that. Compare that to Silod Inc, all data is in silos and the only people that see the sales data are the sales organisation and what that means is that if they want to identify new sales prospects they only really have their data set to do that.

“I have seen that and I have seen sales organisations say no one else can see the rich data that we have got. If it gets out it could be bad and we want to keep control of that.

“There wasn’t a policy that said Sales are not able to talk to anyone else, it was an inherent prejudice, it was their way, they wanted to isolate what they were doing and keep some control over the sales process and for them that made a lot of sense, but for the rest of the organisation not very much sense. So you have to keep an eye on those prejudices.

“If your culture is one of silos and secrecy you will not deliver on the data potential. If you have that open data your opps team, with its access to server logs, can see how various trends in data call is behaving, what is being requested for example, and where there is more data in one particular topic,” Lord says of how everyone in the organisation can see data, visualise trends and alert the organisation to points of interest and react to them.

“You need to be able to correlate and confirm, and that becomes a lot easier if you can share data,” Lord says. The CTO describes how as CIO of Collinson Group he and his team were able to develop a new product from joining together the data of its two businesses, airport lounges through its loyalty business and the Columbus insurance business. “This allowed us to launch a product called Stranded Traveller at Collinson Group. If a flight is later than a certain amount of time, then you get a lounge access so that you have somewhere to sit and work out whether they are going to cancel your hotel. You can’t do that if you work in total silos,” Lords says.

“If you have silos you miss evidence that your clients are changing their focus. You can talk to clients and ask them questions, but you may not have any evidence, what someone tells you and what somebody actually does are two massively different things. One of the fabulous pieces of insight we found at Dunhumby,” Lord says of the Tesco owned data business he was CTO at for just under two years, “when we were working out how to encourage a healthy lifestyle, in a questionnaire people would say: ‘I am an unbelievably healthy person in an unbelievably healthy family’; and yet they would buy six packs of Mars bars every single week. So what you do and what you say are not always correlated and it is only by looking at the data that you can see that.

Data devised strategy

“There are many vendors and organisations that say you just need to buy their wonderful platform and low and behold amazing insights come out and you can spot amazing customers. No, data doesn’t work like that.

“You need to focus on the business question and then work with people who really understand the data. Monetising the data means identifying those opportunities and understanding what that means in data terms, so you you need to identify what you want to ask and then you need to identify the various elements, so the first part of that is the teams, those that make the decisions and those that make or gather the data. It is the teams across the cultural boundaries and those who work with the key data and those people who can identify issues in your policies.

“Remodel your team, you align them to break down the boundaries of location and process so that they don’t overlap. Make sure that they don’t only come together at the exec or board level, bring them together so that you have got those business conversations happening across the groups.

“You may need to change your reward structure to do that, they say that if you don’t observe something and reward it you don’t get that change and that is true, if you really want to change the way your organisation shares data, incentivise so that the data is spread across those people doing the sharing,” Lord says. The experienced CTO adds that data led strategies like so many change programmes are best done in small iterative developments:

”Start small, start with the areas that work most closely together and start with the data and its relevance. Just because one team has data that is not terribly relevant to it, that doesnt mean it won’t be relevant to others.”

In today’s economy and increasingly diverse supply chain, Lord says it is important to include an organisation’s partners.  He says this “cements a beneficial relationship and helps you and them to grow”.

“Company edges are becoming more fluid and they succeed as a result of the eco-system they work in.”




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