Richard Cross, WS Atkins, CIO 100 2017

As far as Richard Cross is concerned, an IT leader who doesn’t takes the lead in driving digital through the whole organisation will end up with an IT department that just gets left behind. His strategic mantra is that projects are an outdated concept, and by shifting the Atkins IS function from projects to products he has allowed business product owners to work directly with IS product management teams – to the advantage of both.

Job title

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
I have been in IT for 30 years and a CIO for 20 years, and this is the most exciting time I have ever experienced in the industry. Never before has there been such a massive opportunity for IT to move out of the back office and be at the heart of the future of the whole organisation. Corporate IT is going mainstream into the business: no longer viewed as an overhead, but seen instead as a driver of innovation, digital, revenue and profit, and directly impacting products, customer experience and services.

The purpose of my role as chief digital officer and head of the IS organisation in Atkins is to drive digital disruption to enable Atkins to become a more digital organisation and to sell digital products and services to our customers.

Atkins employs more than 18,500 people around the world, so my role has global reach and spans each of our sectors, covering a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary and diverse audience. I have deliberately taken a bold approach to make sure that the IS organisation takes the lead in driving digital through the whole organisation. I firmly believe that IT leaders who don’t step into this role will end up with IT departments that just get left behind.

This repositioning of IT has required what I describe as a revolution in our IS organisation to fundamentally shift its purpose from being a function to being a business – with strong commercial and business skills as well as technical skills. This journey is laid out in our IS 2020 strategy, which has resulted in new functions, services and roles that directly influence the products, customer experience and services offered by Atkins:

  • A client technology team works with each business to integrate digital into our account teams, providing expertise to shape products, services and commercial models that address real client challenges and improve outcomes.
  • Digital services use lean and agile approaches to develop new products and services. Following through on my strategic mantra that projects are an outdated concept, our focus is now on products and three-month chunks of work. This shift from projects to products means that business product owners work directly with IS product management teams to make sure that the end customer experience drives the prioritisation, development and deployment of new products. This approach has been very successful and I am seeing it embraced across Atkins and our clients.
  • A global product team drives and shapes the products and services that our clients need in Atkins’ key focus areas of intelligent mobility, digital asset management and digital engineering. Our global product commercial framework is used to prioritise investment in those products and services that are scalable, global and commercially disruptive.
  • A digital incubator rapidly identifies and incubates new ventures and propositions, generating ideas, new products, services and business models, using lean startup tools and techniques. The incubator is used to develop organisational learning, introducing new ways of working, using experiments, failing fast, pivoting, and user-centred design. Market-facing innovation is also driven through the incubator, with new commercial business models that have already helped the organisation and our clients to develop a new perspective of B2B2C. The incubator is where we work with innovators and startups who will be the disruptive forces in our industry, turning big data into new revenue streams and commercial models.

2016 has seen a shift from IS pushing digital thinking into the business. We are now seeing a clear pull from the business as the tangible outcomes of new capabilities, business models and technology become visible to our clients. The IS team is leading the business in creating new tech products and services with different business models, commercial approaches and go to market strategies.

A visible and important demonstration of IS influencing product, customer experience and services is that the IS organisation now works directly with external clients, helping them to shape their technology and digital strategies, incubating and co-creating new products and services and, together, delivering value to clients and to Atkins.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
This year, the new IS digital teams have enabled delivery of millions of pounds in client revenue, moving the needle at a corporate level and demonstrating IS as a real business. Bringing in wins from clients is the most visible demonstration of our success in directly impacting Atkins’ performance.

Atkins has achieved improved margins through cost savings created by a global service model that has delivered, for example:

  • staff able to work anywhere, any time, using cloud-based technologies
  • 24x7x365 support services, reducing time wasted waiting for support
  • more services at no additional cost or resources
  • the introduction of My IT, giving the businesses full visibility of their IT service cost and use, enabling them to decide what to spend or save.

Growing digital revenues has been achieved by focusing on changing the culture, driven from the top with the CEOs of each of our businesses sponsoring digital challenges. The CEO challenge teams adopted an agile and lean startup approach of build/measure/learn to understand and address client challenges and rapidly develop new market propositions that have resulted in:

  • increased revenue and improved margins
  • a shift in clients’ perception that recognises the investment Atkins is making in innovation
  • co-creation with clients of products, services and new commercial models
  • a shift in mindset from talking to doing, with a mantra of “start by starting” – believing that failing fast and pivoting is the best way to learn fast and deliver value to our clients
  • turning our ambitious plans into reality by actually starting to incubate businesses with sweat equity from the IS group, the business and startups.

Global collaboration has been one of our aims this year, and this has been enabled through the introduction of Office 365, Yammer, self-service, and smartphone apps. They all help us gain competitive advantage through leveraging the collective knowledge and experience of the whole organisation. Our internal social network using Yammer saw over 75% of our global staff joining in the first 12 months. This network allows us to share innovation ideas, connect into the vast network of Atkins’ expertise, and enable colleagues to collaborate and quickly create benefit for our clients.

Taking a lead within our industry on digital disruption means that we have been able to turn potential threats into new revenue and margin opportunities, including:

  • flipping existing relationships with our suppliers from customer to partnering, resulting in new channels to market
  • building this into our corporate strategy, which is seen as a differentiator by our investors
  • embracing automation to drive efficiency and create value through developing new commercial models.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
My role as CDO includes responsibility for leading on innovation for the whole of Atkins. In 2016, I set out an innovation manifesto and framework that has resulted in the following:

  • The Atkins Digital Store is the place to go to find out about new tools, products, solutions and commercial models.
  • The digital playbook, where innovation tools and approaches like crowdsourcing, persona development, use cases, business model canvas, etc, are captured. The playbook is now widely used across the IS organisation and the business. Examples include our work with Heathrow, where we used a rapid-start process to develop innovative approaches to improving the arrivals experience; and helping our customers use drones and virtual reality technology for rich 3D mapping.
  • Our global digital disrupter and innovator networks promote use of the digital playbook through our internal social media channels, and many of the tools, eg crowdsourcing ideas to bring innovation to clients, are becoming the norm. Our global design centre in India has led the crowdsourcing of over 140 ideas in digital engineering, and we have implemented many of these to automate and add customer value.

Here’s a few examples of innovation delivered in 2016:

Product innovation

  • Assist: An intelligent digital solution, designed to increase the speed, quality and efficiency of site inspections through the use of an automated mobile app and smart work assignment functionality. Harnessing the data with Atkins’ know-how is helping clients improve the overall outcomes.
  • Envision: An offering that combines open data sources to view leading indicators, coupled with domain expertise, allows more informed decisions to be made earlier in the project lifecycle to improve predictability of project delivery.
  • Dynamic objects: A rule-based, 3D engineering tool that significantly shortens the project lifecycle in the outline design phase, freeing up time to iterate a number of designs and allowing clients to optimise against their business outcomes.
  • Automated data collection: Atkins geomatics teams utilise the latest digital survey and mapping technologies, from laser scanning to aerial imagery to UAVs (drones), to capture reality in high definition in order to bring the site to the client’s desktop in startling detail, and to survey grade accuracy.
  • Design co-ordination toolkit: Enables improved clash detection management particularly in distributed design environments.
  • VR/AR design visualisation: Leveraging VR/AR technologies like HoloLens, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to provide enhanced design visualisation for clients and project teams.

Business model innovation

  • Mobility as a service: First round of experiments completed to validate a new business model for delivering mobility as a service.
  • Dynamic design as a service: Successful testing of a new business model with the introduction of a monthly service fee for digitally enabled design services
  • Partnering/alliances with tech companies: We have developed a digital alliance plan that has identified niche tech companies to partner with to take new services and business models to market.
  • Partnering with startups: We are now partnering with startups to enhance our core capabilities in key markets.
  • B2B2C: We are pioneering a new B2B2C approach that fully aligns us with our clients by delivering outcomes that our clients’ customers value and that can be directly monetised.

Technology innovation

  • Digital engineering vision: A video that captures what digital engineering might be like in 2020. Many of the technologies included in the vision have been prototyped or are being developed in Atkins.
  • Big data transport modelling: Reducing time to process 140 million major road network data points from four days to 29 seconds.
  • Tech Expo 2016: An event at the Atkins Technical Fellows conference that showcased Atkins technologies from around the world, including augmented and virtual reality, biometric facial recognition scanning, automated site inspections, detection clash management.
  • Big data: Intelligent indexing and search of very large document collections to improve information management internally and enable teams to leverage learning from previous projects and initiatives. Using AI techniques to mine text to automatically extract key data elements for insertion into databases and other storage solutions, eg digital asset management solutions. Advanced traffic and transportation modelling using big data platform and analytic techniques. Incubating an internet of things (IoT) solution for retrospective sensoring and asset monitoring of legacy buildings.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
In 2014, I sponsored development of the One Atkins 2020 vision and the IS 2020 strategy that describes the systems, processes and enabling culture and behavioural changes needed to achieve our digital ambition. In 2016, we’ve made some good progress.

We’ve created digital leadership skills through the design of new digital modules that are integrated into our leadership development programmes.

We’ve introduced lean startup thinking and agile approaches to the organisation, which is impacting the culture as the organisation has started to embrace experimentation, failing fast, doing rather than talking, and delivering benefits rapidly and iteratively.

Innovation is becoming the norm as we encourage a growing number of digital disrupters to challenge the status quo, using social media to reach all of our people to get them engaged.

A real cultural shift that has already taken place in our IS organisation and is now beginning to be visible in our businesses is the move from projects to products. We are capturing use cases that demonstrate the value of this approach for the whole organisation, building the case for change.

The ease with which everybody in Atkins can now collaborate around the world is delivering a cultural shift as the organisation can really harness the collective knowledge and experience of the whole organisation. Global digital leadership teams have emerged, cutting across traditional business boundaries.

Despite having an uncomfortable revolution in the Atkins IS group, we have the highest engagement scores amongst the IS staff I have ever seen. While this is in part due to us having brought in some new talent, 30% of our current staff have been with Atkins for over 10 years. Creating a culture in IS where change is now understood to be the new BaU has been an important step in our digital journey, together with reinforcing and demonstrating our values of being bold, experimental, proactive and trusted.

Digital is now a company-wide conversation and dialogue, with digital engineering at the heart of the organisation.

How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
Engagement with senior stakeholders, including the group and sector CEOs, has been a particular focus in 2016. This has taken many forms.

We drive our digital strategy at board level, making sure that digital in its broadest sense is well understood (it’s about more than technology) and that the case for developing new ways of working, business models and products and services informs our business strategy.

We work with the group SLT (senior leadership team) and OLT (operational leadership team) to explore what digital means for Atkins. Getting senior buy-in and engagement to develop and co-create an aligned view about Atkins’ digital ambition has been essential. It has matured such that we were able to present our digital vision to industry analysts at the Atkins capital markets day. Our presentation explained our three growth themes of digital asset management, digital engineering and intelligent mobility, as well as providing real client examples of success.

We design and integrate digital development modules into leadership and management development core curriculum.

We have encouraged the appointment of digital directors in each of our sectors, facilitating collaborative working to further develop our internal digital capabilities and our go to market products and services.

How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
I am really passionate about bringing more outside-in thinking to our organisation, and we’ve reached out to other public and private sector clients, as well as academia, to share their insights on innovation and creating a digital world. This has already led to some of the developments I talked about earlier.

We have a digital alliances programme that has identified the partnering relationships we want to build. This has helped us to deliver on our strategy to develop more strategic relationships with key vendors, eg Microsoft and Autodesk, as we have strategic alignment around Microsoft’s Office 365 and Hololens, and Autodesk’s Forge platform. What’s been really encouraging in 2016 is the good progress we have made in flipping some of our key relationships from that of customer to partner, co-creating new business models, revenues and joint go to market propositions.

Working with our innovation partner, we have engaged with startups to tap into their disruptive innovations, and we are working with a number of niche companies to rapidly develop our new products and services. We have learned a lot about the effort needed to make these sorts of alliances work well. Building partnering behaviours as a core competence for the organisation is an area we will continue to develop in 2017.

We are following a ‘challenging the software incumbent’ mindset. One example of this is the global rollout of the PDF software delivered by FoxIT Phantom, which generated multimillion-pound savings for the company.

Atkins renegotiated some our largest global network contracts in order to align our cloud-first strategy, our network technology strategy and our business objectives. Verizon and Atkins were able to share common strategy and objectives, and agree on a new long-term partnership.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
In 2016, the IS organisation has become even more global, and we continue to value the cultural diversity that a global service organisation brings. Our extended leadership team around the world has grown, and we are seeing an increase in secondments from one region to another to share cultural strengths, knowledge and experience. I continue to build a diverse and talented senior leadership team, which now boasts a 50:50 gender balance with new leadership appointments being recruited in India and America. Our talent pool in India continues to grow with our global design centre at the heart of digital engineering innovation across Atkins and key IS senior roles being recruited in the region.

At other levels of the organisation, the senior women on my senior leadership team coach and mentor other women across the organisation, providing career development support for women in a largely male-dominated engineering industry. Many women in the IS organisation have become STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassadors and support the Atkins Women’s professional networks across the world.

In 2016, we have introduced a graduate development programme, apprentice and intern recruitment scheme in the IS organisation. Bringing in new talent from diverse sources, including expanding our search from the more traditional university programmes to attracting, for example, digital natives and creatives from startups to help us shape some of our emerging IS roles, will, inevitably, increase our diversity.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
Our IS 2020 strategy is a direct response to the company’s One Atkins 2020 strategy. Everything we do is driven by our vision, purpose and business strategy.

The global IS organisation is now structured in a way that makes visible to the business that we have two important roles to play in the organisation:

  • to enable Atkins to become digital – making sure that we create client and business value from digital engineering, automation, new technologies and new business models
  • to enable Atkins to sell new digital services and products, adopting innovative commercial models that benefit our clients and Atkins.

The IS teams directly map onto the Atkins process owner model, with teams allocated to win work, deliver work, and run people and business operations, all underpinned by innovation, knowledge and collaboration. An internal investment team made up of the process owners makes investment decisions based on a three-month cycle, with prioritisation decisions made on the basis of business value, with clear line of sight to the business strategy. Here, the shift from projects to products has had the most profound impact, enabling us to move to a more agile and rapid delivery of delivering benefits to the business, with greater transparency about where we are spending money and what we get in return.

A lighter touch governance is in place to fund experiments and incubators, based on two-week sprints designed to validate hypotheses around technical feasibility, business viability and customer desirability. With failing fast as an underpinning principle, rapid decisions are made to ensure that teams can progress at pace, pivoting where needed to build out the products and services that will add most value.

In terms of business operations, our global services teams deliver a 24x7x365 service to all of our sectors around the world, with more automation, self-service and cloud technologies to deliver a faster service to our customers and to enable our people to work any time, anywhere. Regional resources have been freed up to support business priorities, eg major project mobilisation, contributing to winning bids and meeting with clients, as well as creating the headroom to offer new value-add services like our tech bars where people learn how to get the best out of our IS services and products.

We are now a truly global, virtual team – pathfinders for the organisation we are now facilitating on its digital journey.

What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
We have signed a new partnership with Microsoft, with a global E5 agreement paving the way for global Office 365 adoption, supporting our vision for staff mobility, cross-regional mobility, cloud first and paperless. Microsoft continues to be a strategic technology partner for Atkins as we implement the full Office 365 suite.

We renegotiated some our largest global network contracts in order to align our cloud first strategy, our network technology strategy and our business objectives. Verizon and Atkins were able to share common strategy and objectives and agree on a new long-term partnership.

The internet is fast, cheap and abundantly available. Competition among service providers ensures it will get faster and cheaper on a cost-per-megabit basis, along with the ever increasing need for faster WANs to access centralised computing sources at private and public clouds. Atkins has signed a global agreement with Riverbed to source software defined network (SD-WAN) technologies allowing the intelligent redirection of traffic to use the most appropriate type circuit based on a set of application-level rules. This optimises performance to an application-specific level while retaining the element of local resiliency and security. SD-WAN is seen as key enabler of the Atkins drive to being digital and moving towards utilising cloud-based services. This ultimately means that an increasing percentage of our systems will be accessed directly via the internet and not from our datacentres via our existing MPLS circuits.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?
My key strategic aims for 2017 include:

  • IS 2020: We will focus in 2017 on cloud, automation and strengthening our global services organisation by getting the right people in the right place with the right skills. We will also make further progress on our digital by default measures.
  • Atkins digital: We will deliver meaningful revenue and profit improvements. We will incubate new businesses and profitable revenue streams with new commercial models.
  • Culture: We will further embed the digital playbook and digital engineering into all of our sectors around the world. We will do even more doing, less talking. We will promote start by starting. And we will promote partnering behaviours with our digital alliance network.
  • Cost: We will continue to reduce the cost of IS operations while increasing the value provided by Atkins digital.
  • People: We will develop an agile and flexible employee proposition and environment that encourages the very best digital talent to join Atkins. And we will influence the development of progressive reward and recognition that will motivate, excite and inspire digital leaders of the future.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
We’ve seen very little impact from the EU referendum result as things stand, though clearly we’ll continue to monitor developments closely.

When did you start your current role?
Feb 2014

What is your reporting line?
I report to the corporate development and strategy director, who reports to the group CEO.

Are you a member of the executive leadership?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
My role combines digital and innovation with the traditional CIO role.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
I am a member of the group senior leadership team and meet with our group CEO regularly.

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?

IT budget

What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
Commercially sensitive information.

What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
Commercially sensitive information.

Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. Media
  2. Consultants
  3. CIO peers
  4. Analyst houses
  5. Industry bodies

IT security

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?

Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?


Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?

How many employees are there in your IT team?

Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • IoT
  • security
  • AR/VR
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • 3D printing.

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • IoT
  • security
  • AR/VR
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • 3D printing.

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
AI, machine learning, augmented reality, IoT, predictive analytics.

The EU

Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?

Does your department include technology staff from the EU?

Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?


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