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CIO interview: Karl Hoods, CDIO, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Moving to the cloud, developing staff skills and responding quickly to the pandemic – from a public sector IT leader’s perspective

Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), says every IT organisation, regardless of sector, faces a similar challenge – how to deliver value for the business.

The key to success, says Hoods, is for CIOs to look beyond the enterprise firewall. Digital leaders must consider how other businesses and sectors are being disrupted and apply that understanding to the challenges faced by their own employees and customers.

“I’d much rather understand what’s happening from my peers and other sectors, and then think about how we can use that knowledge to solve some of the problems that we’ve got internally,” he says.

“That’s the kind of approach we’ve really tried to take, and I’ve embedded that in the IT leadership team, so it starts to flow down.”

Hoods joined BEIS in April 2018 after four and a half years leading IT at Save the Children UK. In his current role, he reports to the chief operating officer as part of the corporate services leadership team.

Hoods was approached by recruiter Korn Ferry about the role at BEIS – and it appealed. “The sheer breadth and scope of work they’re involved in was attractive,” he says, reflecting on the interview process.

“It felt like a great opportunity from both a technology perspective and from the position of working with people in areas such as energy and climate change, who genuinely want to make a difference. It’s been great so far and the past three years have flown by.”

Hoods says the department’s strength of togetherness remained constant through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though his team was unable to work in the office, they managed to make their way through a significant volume of work. Hoods says this process was helped by the preparatory work he had already put in place.

The scope of the work he leads at BEIS is slightly different from other government departments. Hoods leads the core digital, data and technology capabilities, such as architects, infrastructure, business analysts and developers, but he also helps lead a shared services team, which includes IT provision for other government departments and agencies.

“We’ve probably got one of the most modern infrastructures across government”

Karl Hoods, BEIS

When he joined BEIS in April 2018, Hoods inherited a team that had just moved from an outsourced to insourced IT arrangement. He has focused on a range of projects – organisational design, teambuilding capabilities and capacities, and moving to a modern architecture – so the team can deliver what he calls “digital products”.

“The important part is for organisations to retain the thinking and the decision-making process, and not to hand that out to other organisations,” says Hoods, who explains how BEIS now consumes all of its services over the public cloud. The organisation does not run any datacentres or applications internally – everything is either on AWS or Microsoft Azure.

BEIS also takes a zero-trust approach to security. Hoods says that having a cloud-based, cyber-protection service works really well, particularly when it would be difficult to recruit the resources you need to run that kind of technology internally.

So, while the general shift in the IT department has been towards retained capability, BEIS is also open to a mixed model, where external services and resources can be used to fill an internal gap. Hoods believes this blended approach is delivering big benefits.

“We’ve probably got one of the most modern infrastructures across government,” he says. “We don’t have a massive legacy estate – as a policy department, we’re not a Department for Work and Pensions or a Home Office that’s running big transactional systems, so it’s somewhat easier. But we can flex quite readily, and we can move.”

Proving the benefits

Hoods provides two key examples of the flexibility afforded by his cloud-based model. First, when the government created the Vaccine Taskforce during the pandemic, BEIS was able to provide the teams to resource the project quickly, including all the supporting technology infrastructure that was required.

Second, the cloud also helped his organisation to support the overnight shift to remote working at the start of the pandemic. “Everybody went home, took their laptops and their chargers, and then they were operational the next morning,” he says.

Hoods’ team provided traditional desktop computer-type services and access to the applications and services they needed to do their work. That focus included the establishment of a Microsoft Office 365 environment. The IT department worked closely with the central policy teams and the Department of Health and Social Care to establish those requirements.

“We didn’t have any of the operational issues that some organisations faced,” he says. “So, I think we’re in a good place compared to many other organisations across both public and private sectors.”

On a day-to-day basis, Hoods’ 130-strong insourced IT team works on a mix of activities. A CTO-led infrastructure team deals with managing and overseeing the Office 365 environment, AWS and hardware provisioning, and the organisation’s service desk.

Developing great solutions

On the development side, Hoods runs a digital and data team that is split into two parts: digital development, which includes user researchers, content editors and full-lifecycle developers; and a data team, which looks at BEIS’s use of data, the implementation of data management platforms, and a future-looking view on analysis and business intelligence.

When it comes to the choice between buying or building technology, Hoods says BEIS will always have a mixed delivery model because of the scale of its operational activities. However, he continues to build the department’s development team in Birmingham and aims to recruit 15 to 20 more people in the next 12 months.

While this development team will be Hoods’ centre of excellence for development, he also continues to explore relationships and partnerships with other departments and bodies.

“We’ve had a conversation with Companies House and Land Registry about whether we create an automation workflow centre of excellence between the organisations and start to pull some resources and deliver together, rather than in isolation,” he says.

Hoods’ team often has to move quickly to create innovative solutions to business challenges – and no more so than during the pandemic. Examples include supporting the Cabinet Office as it attempted to roll out ventilators to hospitals.

Another example is the establishment of the digital services to support the push of lateral flow tests to a range of UK organisations. “We’ve been able to move quickly and build those things in space of days and weeks, which has helped with this effort,” he says.

Establishing important priorities

Outside of deploying technology solutions to business challenges, Hoods says one of his main aims over the next two years is to focus on people. Just over two years ago, he seconded an expert from the organisation’s HR team to help develop an approach to upskilling staff.

“We’ve invested heavily in that area, and we have quite a good culture in terms of learning and development,” he says. “We have good access to strategic suppliers and making sure we are knowledge-sharing and we are taking advantage of their R&D. So, there will be a continued focus on that over the next period.”

Hoods says another big area of focus will be innovation and data: “How are we innovating with new technologies? When do we start to use those in earnest? We want to concentrate a bit more on the proof-of-concept stage and to think about how we take new ideas forward.”

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On the data side, Hoods’ team is thinking about how it can exploit more of the data that the rest of the organisation holds: “Can we build an information as a service-type delivery, so that we’re exposing more of our data internally? But also, that it’s being used more widely across government to meet its wider agenda.”

Hoods says the final key area to consider is cyber security. Although his organisation already prioritises this area and scores well when it comes to cyber assessments, they are not complacent. “We’re in a pretty good position, but we also know there is a continuous threat in that space,” he says.

Building for the business

Hoods says the next move for his digital function will be towards a more product-based structure. Now his team has a good amount of capability and capacity, they will be looking at how to create individual units that are aligned to products, which means either policy objectives or a particular set of technology platforms.

“It will be a bit more of a devolved structure,” he says. “We’ve got everybody into a digital centre, so we could get the capability and the maturity in one place. The next thing will be about how we put those teams back into the business, so that their backlog and demand management is done by the business unit itself, rather than us trying to do that centrally.”

Hoods says his team already has to balance many different demands. His aim is to create a small central team, with the rest of the work devolved out into the rest of the organisation, so they are able to respond to organisational needs more quickly.

Close linkups with internal business units will be critical to the success of this activity. Hoods says he continues to work with the internal HR team on the training path for policy colleagues. The aim here is to get these people to understand different technologies and the potential impact that tools can create.

“We’ve had some success over the last two years,” he says. “We put in place themes. Every month there’s a new topic – we invite guest speakers in, and we talk about various subjects, including buzzy subjects like artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual reality. It’s just to create some awareness of what we’re doing and what technology can help us achieve.”

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