An interview with Stephen Deakin - experienced Data and Digital Transformation expert

Written By:
Content Copyright © 2017 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

I thought it would be interesting to explore the TRUST issues met by a CIO in an Agile environment that is dedicated to “Digital Transformation”; one where speed of development and the ability to move as fast as the business is at a premium, at the same time as TRUST in the platform is essential. Without TRUST you’ll soon find yourself paying only lipservice to Agility, after someone agilely breaks Compliance or whatever, and the uncertain scope of impact of risk then makes the Management very risk-averse in practice. But, remember, managed risk is how the business makes money (and how it can afford to pay a CIO).

I am talking to Stephen Deakin, who was CIO at, and CTO for the Met Police and most recently has been working on a data programme for a central government agency. I think he is well placed to tell us about the challenges a CIO faces, particularly around balancing Agility and Risk.

Bloor: First, could you briefly describe your current role?

Deakin: I am working with technology and data strategies to support organisations in making the best use of their data about people, products and services, by making it more accurate, centralised and secure. I’m looking at the enterprise itself and the ecosystem the organisation operates within as a baseline and then making a deep dive into the individual technology stacks – to find what can be improved. I’m also supporting the data driven (and event driven) organisational themes that are part of the digital transformation, focusing on interoperability, privacy-by-design and security-by-design.

Bloor: I think that you see value in Agile, as a driver for “Digital Transformation” but what “guardrails” are needed, in order to maintain good governance and let all of the stakeholders sleep at night?

Deakin: You need to define the scope of the programme and the individual projects, and its context within the organisation’s operating model. To refine the scope, this needs regular engagement with stakeholders demonstrating either on storyboards or with prototypes. The danger of scope creep exists in agile projects in the same way as in waterfall projects but the regular interaction with stakeholders, in Agile, can make corrections early in the process. Agile projects need much more engagement from product owners than waterfall projects and collaboration (internal and external) technologies such as knowledge bases, screen sharing and online planning boards can help bring teams together.

Bloor: I think that the active engagement of all stakeholders is key to digital transformation. Agile developers need to hear about, for example, GDPR requirements for “consent” and “purpose” from people who understand the law, not people who read something once in the Economist. Would you agree?

Deakin: I think it is vital in Agile Development that the stories and the initial walk-throughs are with all the stakeholders from business areas: legal, compliance, marketing, and possibly finance. In waterfall projects, these stakeholders would be given a specification to review and provide input whereas in Agile environments they will be interacting in workshops. The agile approach also adds the discipline of regular demonstrations of prototypes or working code; and it’s often here where subject matter experts can see when things are not compliant. Stakeholders ask me to show the capabilities that are being built; and not ask for them to define specifications.

Bloor: Once you have achieved a culture that can support effective digital transformation of the business, how do you keep the organisation on-course – and how much is this a concern for the CIO?

Deakin: The Agile process comes with more instrumentation than traditional project models and where I think a lot of projects go wrong is that they run the people side of Agile, by forming multi-disciplinary scrum teams, but not the automation and monitoring. Metrics can show progress against the plans and overall architecture in dashboards – if these are supported by the narrative provided by the product owners. The challenge is to keep the business stakeholders engaged during the programmes, remembering that they are used to much less interaction with the technology organisation. If the walk-throughs are not to the point and interesting, then interaction with stakeholders will fall. I generally see things going wrong when there is too much delegation or absence in these meetings.

Bloor: How much of a CIO’s career is dependent on being successful at this, and how much is it dependent on things outside the CIO’s control?

Deakin: There is a lot outside of the control of the CIO and increasingly so as the boundaries become blurred between the organisation and the supply chain (or ecosystem) in which the organisation operates. API (Application Programming Interface) driven digital ecosystems and distributed ledgers (aka BlockChain) will create transparency for how efficiency and responsive technology is operating within the organisation.

Bloor: Can you describe the characteristics of the sort of digital transformation a CIO could be proud of?

Deakin: The sign of a successful digital transformation, for me, is that the introduction of new models and digital systems that are seen by staff and customers as a marked improvement in service, and a more desirable user experience, at lower risk and cost. For me, the Met Police body- worn video programme was a digital transformation that I was proud of, as it met all these characteristics.

Bloor: What about the challenges, the sort of things which look like a good idea at the time but which come back to haunt the CIO?

Deakin: There are a few things that will challenge a CIO such as too much technical debt, where design shortcuts are taken when building systems to hit deadlines, that will make it harder to change them in the future. In addition, making technology choices, and creating pet projects, without looking at overall architectures or seeing how they work in their organisations can lead to difficult integration efforts.

Bloor: Where do you see the future? What about the impact of Augmented Intelligence (AI) on the business – and the role of the CIO?

Deakin: AI will disrupt the CIOs role as much as Marketing Technology (Social Media Analysis, paid advertising and suchlike) uses AI tools to create a bigger technology budget and put technology budget in the hands of the CMO (see: The Rise of the Chief Marketing Technologist. To an extent, this is just CIO vs. CMO politics. CIOs will need to create a vision and strategy for AI with their stakeholders, otherwise it will emerge in the business units as islands of shadow IT. There is also a danger that some of the early efforts in AI turn into science projects which have little business benefit in the short term.

Bloor: And, to wrap up, can we distil some key points out of your experience. For the CIO, what works?

Deakin: It is important that technology teams, business stakeholders, end-users and vendors collaborate to achieve an agreed set of an outcomes, through off-site workshops, regular checkpoint meetings and more engagement with the technology development process. Ensure that you hire experienced people to help introduce Agile and digital transformation. Provide your current staff with the best environment and training – and the freedom to sometimes fail on ambitious digital projects.

Bloor: And, what doesn’t?

Deakin: Delegating or, worse, abdicating your digital transformation to third party consultants or service providers will not get success. Your people will see that you’re disengaged.

Bloor: Finally, what is the one vital thing other CIOs can learn learn from your experiences?

Deakin: It’s much harder than you think and will need more effort and engagement from the business stakeholders than ever before; so make the content easy for them to engage and interact with. Technology staff will need the right training, and cultural changes, to allow early failures to be learning experiences. Finally, introduce passionate Agile leaders who have undertaken digital transformation before and know what success looks like and can guide your people on the same journey.

Bloor: Well, thank you very much for all that. I think we are all, CIOs included, at the start of a very interesting journey. Whatever else, I don’t think the next few years are going to be boring for any of us…