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CIO interview: Ian Turfrey, British Medical Association

"Think big, start small, act now" is the motto of the BMA’s CIO, as he leads the organsiation through a technology transformation strategy

The British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) CIO, Ian Turfrey, is putting improved collaboration and productivity at the forefront of the organisation’s technology transformation strategy.

As a trade union, the BMA has more than 160,000 members across the UK, supported by 600 staff countrywide. The association is also active in lobbying and informing government policy through its various committees.  

After joining the organisation a year ago, CIO Ian Turfrey set out a new vision, dubbed Members working anywhere working smarter working together (Mast), intended to better engage members in terms of what products and services can be offered, as well as staff.

“I was brought in to start a digital transformation at the BMA, whereby we knew there were far more capabilities out there in modern architectures, and I think it’s fair to say the architecture we’ve had in the past was not what was going to get us to the future,” Turfrey tells Computer Weekly.

 According to Turfrey, the BMA was “slightly risk-averse” about migrating to the cloud. But the previous on-premise arrangement was one of the hurdles to business agility, so the mindset had to change.  

Turfey says staff were initially both reluctant and resistant to use more “modern-day cloud technologies”, but the organisation’s infrastructure no longer supported what it needed going forward.

“From a technology perspective, the infrastructure was reaching the end of its useable economic life, which gave us the opportunity to look at investing in modern-day architectures.”

Enhancing delivery methods

Before getting the buy-in for cloud, Turfrey had to demonstrate that the security aspects such as advanced threat analytics and encryption would exceed what could be delivered on-premise. 

“When I first came, there was a huge reluctance about cloud, but within two months, we were able to prove the technology was solid,” he says. 

The BMA has now embraced infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS). There are also plans to relocate the datacentre from BMA House to a different site in 2017, but the modernisation agenda does not mean there will be any abrupt changes.

“Cloud is about giving us the agility and ability to free up people’s time to do some of the newer things”
Ian Turfrey, The British Medical Association

“I’m a firm believer in hybrid IT. Not everything goes to the cloud. Where it makes sense, we will have a hybrid infrastructure, also to take away the burden of having to patch and maintain things that have been commoditised, but the change does have to be carried out and managed correctly,” says Turfrey. 

“Cloud is about giving us the agility and ability to free up people’s time to do some of the newer things. Now staff have unlimited access, they can collaborate and share information anywhere. 

“However, using modern tools and technology does come with a price. It is not always cheaper, but if we’re looking for the quality and what’s in our staff’s best interest, that also helps our members.”

Also within the cloud realm, the association has introduced Microsoft Office 365 to all of its staff, as well as an intranet, over the past 12 months. This has been considered instrumental to improving collaboration and sharing tools for office-based staff and its 150 home workers.

Modernising member offerings 

Another key pillar of the Mast programme is to build systems and capability to support a digital offering to members, with the delivery of more personalised content. 

One of the IT initiatives geared at enhancing the BMA’s member services was the introduction of Microsoft Azure, where platforms and service engines are now built. 

“We have committees that do government lobbying in topics such as sugary drinks. We’ve now built an online engine that’s been hooked up with single sign-on access, which has helped run an online election among members, for example,” says Turfrey. 

“Where we’ve previously taken quite a lot of time and manual processing, these things now get done in minutes. If we want to have millions of different committees to do the elections, again, this can happen, and will run and integrate seamlessly behind the scenes for our members.” 

Similarly, the BMA has also started to make use of business intelligence (BI), with the introduction of PowerBI, to get deeper insight on the products and services needed by members and target them more effectively. 

“Not only have we now built cloud-based engines and capabilities, we’ve embraced BI to become more data driven as an organisation,” says Turfrey. 

Future innovation plans 

The past 12 months have been mooted a “year of hygiene”, introducing the basics needed to provide a rich digital experience and focus more on services based on customised, high-quality content to members.

“We have many different doctors with varied requirements during their working life. It could be a junior doctor aged 25, for example, or a general practitioner over the age of 33. Their needs change over time,” he says. 

“It’s really about tailoring their experience. For instance, mobility can play a key role in making our library services more accessible and easier to use.” 

In addition, Turfrey plans on further building the BMA’s BI capabilities with new datasets, as well as predictive analytics. 

“I’ll also start investing and experimenting around machine learning with some of the data,” he says. “We need to enhance areas such as member retention, which is really important to us.” 

With Office 365 now in place, the BMA is looking at improving conferencing tools for staff and clients, so the introduction of Skype for Business is also on the cards.

The team is also looking at hardware devices for the future, with a plan to roll out Surface Pro 4s for employees with more complex mobility and collaboration requirements. 

An enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation is also coming up, and the association wants not only to replace an in-house setup with new functionality for business areas such as finance and sales, but also the ability to handle novelties such as online shops with BI integration.  

A key component of the BMA’s application architecture going forward, the procurement process for the future ERP package will take place in January 2017.

Overcoming leadership challenges  

In terms of the leadership journey so far, Turfrey has adopted a motto: Think big, start small, act now.

“Over the course of the past year, we have started small, using cloud as the area to innovate securely,” he says. “We made sure those important ‘hygiene’ factors were all there.

“In the past, we have had a lot of the right tools for what we needed to do. But a bit like Morecambe and Wise, we didn’t necessarily have the right notes in the right order, so we have been reorganising priorities.

“Some of our processes within IT needed to be improved, and this was done,” says Turfrey. “This now enables us to lift the chains. We have designs for everything. We are now working in a far more modern way to how we did in the past.” 

There was a need to ensure the right set of suppliers were in place to execute this model, which meant adding to in-house IT expertise. But above all, setting a plan with priorities and presenting it coherently to the board was key.

“Communicating the strategy to staff and speaking to them about it is not an exercise in criticising what happened in the past, but painting a vision for the future,” says Turfrey. 

“Change is always difficult, and people are worried about their roles and their jobs, especially when you start changing technologies.”

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The deliverables of the past year have gained IT more credibility in the business, as well as with the board. Now the foundations have been laid, the next year will be one of further improvement of the IT-based systems that are directly related to improving member service. 

“In a year’s time, we will have built a collection of engines that support what our members want and need. There are many channels of engagement for that, and I think we will have to become a lot more omnichannel,” he says.

“We’ll also have far greater data and information, allowing us to personalise the content and information, and helping us decide how we best support our members. All our staff will be able to collaborate seamlessly any time, any place, anywhere.

“We now have a modern IT estate,” says Turfrey. “All the infrastructure is running and the right platforms are in place. There may be other opportunities we have not thought about yet that we can leverage for the future. The differentials in my business are what I remain focused on.”

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills