okolaa - Fotolia

CIO interview: Karl Hoods, CIO, Save the Children UK

The charity’s CIO is looking at the potential of blockchain technologies and establishing an internal digital academy to drive its digital transformation strategy

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Chancellor earmarks £500m for UK technology growth

Save the Children UK is driving a digital transformation strategy and innovation initiatives to get closer to its supporters and bringing operational efficiencies to the charity. 

This year’s IT agenda, led by chief information officer Karl Hoods, covers around 25 projects, including larger initiatives such as the roll-out of upgrades to human resources (HR) platform Oracle HCM and Adobe’s Campaign Manager. Other large projects include a new expenses module under Agresso’s finance system Unit4 and implementing Windows 10. 

On the data analytics front, the charity complies with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which involves reporting to the Department for International Development, so further work has been done to produce a transparency report. Save the Children is also making a set of upgrades to its sector-specific, core customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Care.

According to Hoods, this could either be refreshed or the charity may adopt a new system.

“As we get more into analytics and when we understand more about what’s going to happen with sector regulations, we might need to look at different tools and different wrappers around that. So that will be on the cards for the future to look at,” Hoods tells Computer Weekly. 

Following an Office 365 implementation, which sought to stabilise email availability and was one of the main IT issues for the charity in the UK in the past, the CIO's mission upon joining in 2013 was to evaluate the strategy and establish what other services the technology function could provide and deliver.

“The idea is to move from what had been seen as a traditional IT desktop services-type operation to a department that adds more value to the business. So it’s really about building on those particular projects and using Office 365 as a launchpad to offering additional services,” says Hoods, describing the current moment for IT at the charity.

Read more CIO interviews

  • Youth charity The Prince’s Trust is turning to digital means to engage with young people outside its usual reach.  
  • Payday loan company Wonga is continuing the evolution of its technology platform and helping IT to create business value.

Increased use of cloud services such as those provided by Microsoft means the team has evolved in terms of digital technology skills, so the team of 57 professionals is “much more into the application development and configuration space, rather than just the whole infrastructure piece”. 

“If we think of Office 365 and most of the cloud-based tools, there’s little point in us managing all the infrastructure ourselves when there are perfectly good services out there that we can consume,” he says. “So it’s about using the right tools for the right job and whether that’s on premise or on cloud, we’ll make that decision.”

“But predominantly, it’s about freeing up the team that we’ve got – because while 57 sounds like a large number, we’ve got 25 projects on the go this year. So how do we become more efficient in what we’re doing? That will be a combination of using cloud-based services and other technologies as and when we see fit.” 

A platform-based strategy

Save the Children UK has developed a platform-based strategy, which in practice means splitting the team into core capability areas. There are four main clusters within the team: data and development, service delivery, technical operations and solution delivery. 

The data and development cluster within the IT team is working on enhancing the charity’s data virtualisation approach and its business intelligence platforms. The approach to data at the charity is different from the outset. 

“Lots of people tend to build data warehouses, go through ETL processes and move data around not one big pot. We’ve decided that our approach is to leave the data where it naturally sits and we use a virtualisation layer to build a common business model over the top,” says Hoods. 

“So when we talk about the supporter, we know we can take that data from three different systems. We don’t actually have to physically move it into one, as our virtualisation layer pushes those queries down to the source system and bring the data back in a virtual form,” he adds.

But the biggest project this team is working on is the digital transformation programme. Here, the charity is rolling out Adobe AEM Analytics and Target. This, according to Hoods, will enhance the charity’s digital connection with its supporters and enhancing the way in which it conveys its message to donors. 

Alongside those projects, the charity is looking at Power BI and analytics visualisation tools in order to start harnessing data in areas ranging from internal performance indicators and dashboards as well as more advanced ways to bring data and insight into program design and delivery.

Building business-specific applications

Another project within data and development is looking at a dynamic CRM platform, building business-specific applications such as Cost of Diet and Household Economy Approach, which look at the impact of economic crisis or price rises in household goods on families in the field and on the ground. 

In data and development, the team “works like a business,” says Hoods, with a scrum-based, agile approach. A project might consist of staff from digital marketing, data analytics side and the professionals from IT team working together, in a co-located fashion. 

The charity just rolled out a ServiceNow product for the core technology service desk and is now looking at how to implement it across HR and finance to standardise the toolset. 

Within technical operations, one of the main projects  is investigating how additional IT services can be moved to the cloud as part of the charity’s intentions to have more of an on-demand, consumption-based model for IT. 

Also within that team, Windows 10 and other productivity tools for areas such as mobile device management are being rolled out. 

Lastly, the solution delivery cluster is composed of roles such as project managers and business analysts. As a practice area, Hoods says, this team is moving away from the previous PMI approach to agile ways of working. 

“They’re looking at our governance processes and enterprise business architecture approaches and how we make them much more agile and fluid. Also, how do we get our prioritisation in place, so that we know we’re working on the most impactful things first,” he says. 

Innovating with blockchain

In addition to the several projects the IT team is working on, Hoods is looking into how emerging technologies such as blockchain can help transform the space in which Save the Children operates. 

“We’re hoping to start on a blockchain pilot soon. There are lots of different opportunities for us in terms of the use of blockchain technology across the whole business,” says Hoods. 

“Crowdfunding in the fundraising team, or smart contracts to work with our corporate partners to get payments are examples of what is possible,” he adds. “There’s cash transfers, identity pieces, lots of different use cases we’ve identified.”

“There are lots of different opportunities for us in terms of the use of blockchain technology across the whole business”

Karl Hoods, Save the Children UK

However, the blockchain-related project that has advanced the most so far is around a “humanitarian passport”. This data set could be used in an emergency situation, where the charity needs to call on external people to be deployed on the field. 

“If you think of doctors in a particular conflict zone, or an education specialist in an emergency situation, you are faced with two choices: if you don’t know anything about those people is either accept and trust them – and you’re potentially putting children at danger by not having those checks done – or go through a checking process, which could take several weeks for a disclosure and barring (DBS) check to come back,” says Hoods.

“Thinking of this situation, we developed this notion of a humanitarian passport. So we’ll have an approved register of people that we’ve pre-vetted and we’ll know they’re a doctor or a teacher and they’ve got their DBS checks or what their equivalent might be,” he adds.

Adapting to different requirements

The reason for looking at blockchain in that scenario, is due to the fact that Save the Children is a distributed organisation, so there will be different requirements in the various locations and countries where it operates. 

“Because we’re all separate legal entities, I view it as a semi-untrusted environment. So having it based on the blockchain, we’ve then effectively got those trust mechanisms built in, in terms of nobody being able to alter the data,” he says. 

The charity is now trying to get seed funding and looking at how it might backfill some resource internally to deliver the trial. Save the Children is working with different external partners, such as King’s College and University College London (UCL), in the humanitarian blockchain space, and also keeping its ear on the ground to see what other sectors are doing that might be applicable in the third sector. 

“When I have spoken at blockchain events, people have asked what’s the biggest thing that’s going to disrupt the charity sector is,” he says. “I’m not really thinking in too much detail about what the next big fundraising idea might be, as there are fundraising experts who do that.”  

“But from a technology perspective, I am interested in what’s disrupting other sectors that we can learn from and how do we apply that to the work we’re doing, rather than just worrying about what’s happening in the charity sector. What I want to do is almost create that disruption internally by looking at what other people are doing and then manage that disruption quite carefully.” 

Enhancing business intelligence

While the digital transformation model at Save the Children has been predominantly executed by a third-party, Sapientrazorfish, an internal team delivers on that framework. In addition, other suppliers such as FDM and Sparta Global provide specific resource around project management, business analysis, development and testing as required.

At the heart of the digital transformation is the Adobe AEM platform, with its content management and analytics tools, so the charity knows who’s visiting its website and what they’re doing when browsing it. With Target, the personalisation engine, a number of user journeys can be provided. Now, the charity wants to look at how that content related to those particular user journeys might be segmented.

“Take me as an example. I liked running around the London Marathon, so I might have an interest in doing that as well as an interest in education in conflict zones,” says Hoods. “How do I start to, when I look at the site, push content, which is relevant to me as an individual, rather than just on maths?”

“In the background, there’s some more work on what we do to get that data out in the web-based systems and back into our core CRM systems. So from a supporter perspective, we’ve got that view,” he adds.

According to the CIO, there is also a case to be made for using data to improve ways of working. “One of the things I’ve proposed under that programme is about establishing a digital academy internally, to drive some more awareness across the entire organisation, maybe put some training in place, really using what colleagues of mine in government are doing with their digital academy work,” he says.

“We want to look at how we can apply that to the work that we do, so that we are becoming more digital by default, rather than that being a bit of an afterthought. So we’re really split between the technology and the cultural change that we need to make.”

Working together 

Another development at Save the Children as a global organisation is its close work with IT-led change and efficiency by using common tools and processes. This is already happening to some extent as all the international instances of the charity use Agresso tools and are all moving to Oracle HR, for example, while the digital side with Adobe is procured jointly by the US and the UK, under an arrangement where the charity provides DevOps expertise and infrastructure for the staging environments. 

There’s much more collaboration going on as a result of this approach as well as cost efficiencies to be had, says Hoods. But Save the Children effectively consumes IT services from suppliers for free or significantly reduced fees – so rather than having a conversation about reduced cost, Hoods is thinking of how to maximise value with the resources the charity already has. 

“There’s a charity shared services agenda, but I don’t think that’s of a significant volume. For the smaller charities that seems to work, but because we are on the larger side, I think it becomes more difficult: NSPCC and Barnardo’s have got slightly different uses for technology to us,” he says.

“While they are running children’s service centres and working quite closely with social workers, we don’t have that business model. And we’re international, so where we might have 1300- 1500 staff in the UK, we can put those people on the ground in Africa and all over the world. So we have different requirements for our staff to work than those seen at a predominantly UK-based charity.”

Managing limited resources

Another challenge is, like most leaders within the third sector would say, having an extremely busy agenda with very limited resources. According to Hoods, they way to respond is juggling and managing those resources effectively. 

“We’re looking more at shared services and how do we use more common platforms and tools. We’re also trying to shift our culture and look at our operating model as a core IT team and what that actually means,” he says.

Over the coming year, Hoods expects the charity will have been able to engage and interact with its supporters and donors and getting value from its digital platform and also advance its trials around blockchain and other technologies such as artificial intelligence.

“We don’t really want to be investing in a  cycle where we work quite hard to get things up and running and then we leave it, and then three years later, we say that’s not working,” he says. “It’s all about that continuous improvement, like in a DevOps-type approach, there’s a continuous delivery that we really want to achieve in terms of all the technology platforms that we’ve got.” 

“We’re not really having any big, lengthy projects to implement new ones. It’s really a combination of those core technologies that we have, but almost about embedding as much of that DevOps across the entire organisation as we can. It’s going to be quite difficult in terms of mindset and approach, but we might as well try.”

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

Data Center
Data Management