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CIO interview: David Ivell, CIO, The Prince’s Trust

Youth charity is turning to digital means to engage with young people outside its usual reach

Youth charity The Prince’s Trust is driving a digital strategy to support its goal of significantly expanding the organisation’s reach within three years.

Since its foundation in 1976, the trust has already helped 875,000 young people aged 13 to 30 through employability programmes and other initiatives.

Leading the efforts is chief information officer David Ivell – previously CIO at Kew Gardens and the British Film Institute, as well as a senior IT executive at firms such as IBM and Credit Suisse – who says his current employer is “the most ambitious organisation” he has worked for.

“I have used technology to achieve many different things in my career, but our challenge here is to use technology to do something truly extraordinary,” says Ivell. “After all, this is why we got excited by technology in the first place.”

He adds: “The trust creates, probably for the first time for many of our young people, a trusted relationship with someone other than their family – and for many, they don’t even have that.

“This relationship is one that inspires and motivates and gives that injection of energy into life, that first push on the swing that gets them going on their own. Rape, abuse, gangs, drugs and knives are all normal everyday words for us.”

Ivell says his team is creating that trusted relationship, which can only be between two people, but delivered through technology.

“It’s actually a mix of technology and amazing people who want to make a difference by providing the skills and confidence that gets young people who need help into a job, gets them back into education or helps them start a business – all practical outcomes,” says the CIO.

Bridging gaps with technology

Despite The Prince’s Trust’s success over 40 years, demand significantly exceeds what it can possibly accommodate for its face-to-face programmes.

“That unmet demand is huge – thousands of young people who need help right now,” says Ivell.

Technology is key to the charity tackling its challenges, which are vast. For example, there are groups of young people across the UK who cannot be reached in areas where it is not economically feasible to run a programme.

David Ivell, Prince's Trust

“IT strategy is not about technology. It is about people and the change you can make with their ideas and energy”

David Ivell, The Prince’s Trust

Also, there will be those who want to attend the charity’s programmes but have other time pressures, such as single parents or young offenders. Some young people are socially removed, with mental health issues that might prevent them from attending in-person programmes.

“Even in the time between identifying the right programme for those placed and that programme starting, we lose too many,” says Ivell.

“Four weeks in a chaotic life, maybe in a frightening place waiting for something to start, is just too long. This is where innovation, ambition and our digital strategy come in.”

Using technology, the trust’s ambition is to be able to reach out to an additional 50,000 young people online in significantly reduced timescales.

Core to this will be the creation of a trusted relationship with an online mentor, which motivates the young people until the trust secures them a job or helps them start their own business.

Some 15,000 e-mentors will provide chunks of time to support young people until that practical outcome is achieved, take them through the trust’s online programmes and provide pastoral care.

“This isn’t about measuring how many people have accessed our content; this is about measuring success by a life-changing moment,” says Ivell.

“IT strategy is not about technology, it is about people and the change you can make with their ideas and energy.” 

Delivering at speed

To deliver the trust’s digital plans, Ivell’s team is using a Rapid prototyping development methodology, dubbed Prince’s Trust Online, to build its strategy and deliver at scale and pace.

According to the CIO, the methodology allows the charity to use a test-learn-adapt approach in which the content, experience, platform and online mentoring are all being tested at scale and refined in real time.

This approach also enables the team to quickly identify how the business will need to adapt because of the change process, as well as where the bottlenecks are and what technology is needed to bypass them.

“We took technology components off the shelf and put them in our business, and rather than evaluate, we asked the business to tell us how it would make them work,” says Ivell.

“We have worked with organisations around the world that are seen as leaders in the e-mentoring space and have learnt from others.”

Towards the end of last year, The Prince’s Trust was piloting various components of its online platform, including the technology, the mobile app and the business processes required to find and recruit thousands more people to work as online mentors.

At the start of 2017, end-to-end processes were tested, as well as learning, refining, adapting and piloting in Northern Ireland, Scotland and London. The final product was launched at London Tech Week in June.

“We launched one year to the day after kicking off our digital strategy with a keynote address, and by July we met our month target within four days,” says Ivell, adding that the charity had to drastically scale back its marketing efforts because of “off-the-scale demand” prompted by the app. 

External partners

To support the small team of fewer than 25 people, a diverse ecosystem of external partners works with the trust. As well as ARM, which provides technical architecture resources, key IT partners are Oracle and HPE, along with Atos and Capgemini.

Other key partners include JP Morgan, which develops the trust’s programme assessment for young people; RBS, which develops its enterprise programme; Deloitte, responsible for developing the charity’s mentor and young people matching scheme; and Accenture, which helps develop the employability programme.

“Our strategy is also about how we maximise our strength through other technologists who believe in what we do,” says Ivell.

The trust’s IT is based on a mix of on-premise and cloud infrastructure, but software as a service will be a preferred route going forward wherever possible.

“The value we add is not in the technology itself, but in its application for business growth,” says Ivell. “We know what we are good at.

“As technologists, we never got into technology to help fix someone’s printer. The support we get from others in our industry is to change lives – and our business partners believe that, too.”

Future innovations

Prince’s Trust Online has been the priority for Ivell and his team in 2017, but various other projects need to be delivered over the next few months, such as the implementation of new human resources, customer relationship management and unified communications systems.

The charity also plans to hold a series of hackathons, supported by Dell EMC and Coutts, to look at gamification in recruiting young people to its programmes.

“A large proportion of our young people may not have great CVs, experience or qualifications, but they have huge potential,” says Ivell. “Gamification can show a young person and an employer that potential while telling the young person they have value and are actually good at something.”

With so many projects on the CIO’s agenda being related to innovation in one way or another, how is it possible to ensure that the digital transformation is current and effective, considering the constant advances in corporate and consumer technology?

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Ivell says throwing “continuous improvement” out of the window is a good start. “No matter how much continuous improvement was made to the candle, you would only have ever got a smarter candle and you need a leap for the light bulb,” he says.

“For true innovation, you need to have the confidence to stop what you are doing, even if it is currently successful, and work out the desired outcome before changing your existing processes for how you are getting there.”

According to Ivell, digital transformation is all about using technology to fundamentally change how an organisation operates – and it is impossible to grasp the impact of such initiatives without experiencing them.

“No matter how good the up-front planning may be, you won’t understand how the business or industry needs to adapt without exploring, and prototyping those pressure points,” he says.

“Horizon-scanning is probably the sharpest tool we have available to us. How do you know the art of the possible, how do you steal time, without understanding how technology or social mobility is changing?

“Skip IT conferences and attend consumer electronics conferences. Track people who are effectively horizon-scanning and who have larger budgets to do that than you.”

Rapid pace of change

Helping the charity see that rapid pace of change as the new normal will be the main challenge for Ivell as The Prince’s Trust progresses with its digital ambitions.

“There will be technical, organisational and design challenges for issues we haven’t even discovered yet, but I’m not worried about those as we have a creative team that will engineer our way through,” he says, pointing out that the trickiest part of the job is dealing with perceptions.

“The challenge will be a social one, a challenge to confidence – that this or that will never be as good as our traditional delivery, even though the truth will be the opposite,” he adds. “It’s fear of the unknown – and when change arrives quickly, the fear is greater.

“We have to bring those who we can with us, engage and listen and inform, and then, for those who can’t hang on for the ride, to let them go.”

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