CIO of BT explains the practical steps to modernization and how to model inclusive behavior

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Brad Anderson: Today, I’m joined by Rachel Higham, the CIO of BT. For those of us in the US, that stands for British Telecom.

When the pandemic hit, and we all started working from home, what was the biggest change your company had to make and how did the technology team step in to help?

Rachel Higham: Our biggest change was helping our 110,000 colleagues and partners collaborate and communicate effectively while working from home. And we had to build out a range of new solutions for the government and the National Health Service, who, of course, struggled to respond to COVID.

Since that react phase, we’ve been looking at how we can support more sustained remote-working practices. Like, how we uplift our in-building technology to support hybrid working better and how we improve adoption of all the great features of Teams and Microsoft 365 to fundamentally change the ways of working across our company.

Brad Anderson: I’m curious, as you were kicking the tires for things like Microsoft 365, what are the attributes, characteristics, and capabilities you look for as you decide what you’re going to put into the hands of your associates?

Rachel Higham: We used to assess technology based on its functional criteria, but we didn’t really think about the experience—e.g., the actual journey a user would have going through a workflow or interacting with that tool. However, that’s now the highest weighting as we evaluate technology, which has been a real shift for us. We’ve done the work to define the personas across our organization, and we understand what that lived experience is for them. We understand their different needs and we’ve also captured the pain points they desperately need us to solve. So whenever we’re assessing a new solution or platform, we assess it against that bank of needs.

Brad Anderson: I saw you were listed as one of the 25 Technology Titans unlocking the power of data in 2020. How do you concretely foster a data-centric workplace and culture in your organization?

Rachel Higham: It’s all about building a data-centric culture first. You need to start by bringing together the people who are already passionate about the space to share what they’re doing. Then, you need to imagine what could be possible if you had access to the petabytes of data scattered across your organization.

You should think about what data or insight, if you had access to it, could add value, could drive operational efficiency, could help you serve your customers better or in a more personalized way, or could actually develop a new product or service.

One of our early examples brought together weather data with broadband fault data to help us predict the impact of lightning strikes and floods on our network, and actually move our engineers to the impacted areas ahead of a storm. By doing that, we’ve reduced broadband incidents by two and a half percent, which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s nearly 400,000 customers who now don’t experience weather-related broadband issues, which is phenomenal.

Brad Anderson: I was reading a case study about how organizations are modernizing, and had a statement which said, “The idea of modernizing is very exciting to people in the org, but that idea really isn’t going to go anywhere without a concrete plan to execute it.”

Now, as somebody who’s made some very successful modernizations, what goes into building your plans to modernize?

Rachel Higham: We talk a lot about how it could change the working lives of all the different personas we have across the company. How it would improve quality and productivity. How it would foster collaboration in partnerships and innovation. And yes, how it would transform our cost base, but more importantly, how it would enable us to respond faster to changing needs.

I think co-creation is the key word there. By involving your colleagues and customers in the creation of the vision, roadmaps, and transformation plans, you really ensure you’re modernizing in service of them. Our roadmaps transparently show, not only what new capabilities we’re building out, but what we also need from the business as enablers. I think that shift in accountability is important, too.

We also set a group of hero KPIs that show how we’re improving, quarter by quarter.  They show things like the level of reuse, speed to market, or level of cloud adoption and customer engagement scores. But, I think the biggest secret for us was spending as much time talking about how we were changing the way we work and our culture, leadership style, and mindset and behaviors, as we did talking about what we were going to deliver.

And then finally, we took a human-centered approach and invested in communications and adoption and engagement expertise, so we could provide the right support and coaching to help our people embed the new habits and working practices that were critical to our modernization.

Brad Anderson: I know one topic that you take very, very seriously is improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace. When you work with your leaders, what advice do you give them to get better at this?

Rachel Higham: For me, building diverse teams and creating safe, inclusive environments where everyone can thrive is the most important thing we do as leaders. My first piece of advice would be to make this, if not your top priority, then certainly one of your top three. Don’t delegate it. Continuously ask your teams and partners where they’re at. If they know it’s important to you, they will strive to improve.

Secondly, be data-driven. Understand where you are, what your ambition is, and where you have gaps, and then really challenge yourself on whether you’re doing enough to close those gaps fast enough. Once you understand the gaps, make sure you invest meaningfully to close them. Then, bring it back to you—you have to model inclusive behaviors relentlessly. And finally, celebrate positive behaviors you see around you.

Brad Anderson: If people want to hear more about the work you’re doing at BT, where would they go?

Rachel Higham: They could go on LinkedIn, search for Da Vinci, which is our transformation name, or BT IT Transformation.

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