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Transformation preparation: How Wellcome is weathering lockdown disruption

Wellcome Trust Wellcome Trust
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When Eileen Jennings-Brown embarked on her transformation programme for Wellcome Trust, little did she know the technology investments then would so vital so soon.

The future of work is once again a business-critical question. COVID-19 has been a pivotal event in reshaping not just where we work, how we work or who we work with, but what works. No team has had a larger hand in this rapid shift than the technology team. Technology leaders therefore now have the responsibility of protecting their businesses and nurturing a different company altogether through the crisis. Their priorities pre-COVID19 were to maintain a productive workforce, a secure system and an agile culture. Have those changed in the weeks since? To understand how these technology leaders are leading in a time of crisis we committed to asking them. This interview is part of The Future of Work, in partnership with Okta.

Wellcome Trust is a world-renowned institution, charity and research organization, on the forefront of a wide range of drugs and therapies, not least of all a vaccine for Covid-19. Supporting its global community of scientists are frontline workers for its museums and headquarters in London, as well as its members involved in overseas programmes and major investments. It therefore has a vast technology ecosystem. And yet it was largely ready for such an event like sudden lockdown and prepared for en-masse remote working.

Eileen Jennings-Brown is Wellcome Trust’s Head of Technology and is responsible for all the whole IT estate. That includes its applications, support, infrastructure, platforms, devices, transformation and 100-strong digital team.

But perhaps most importantly, as Jennings-Brown asserts, responsible “…for where we are right now in Wellcome being able to work remotely.”

Over two years ago Wellcome embarked on a digital transformation. Its mission was to move to a new operating system so the entire workforce could work agiley and more independently.

“We wanted our team to work more effectively. That’s underpinned by a philosophy to empower people to make their own decisions”, said Jennings-Brown.

Its actions were incredibly prescient: infrastructure was moved to the Cloud; and a new CISO hire built a security team for Jennings-Brown’s digital team to work alongside. A clear example of an early success, she recounts, is device security patches. In the past Wellcome would own that activity in-house, but their combined objective was for staff to hold responsibility to ensure security.

“That means our role is to create the secure environment they plug into and focus on compliance.”

This evolution of the relationship between digital, IT teams and the rest of the business is exactly what Jennings-Brown was aiming for with her transformation. She goes into further detail about the change affected to the organization before ending on a wry note.

“My advice for transformation? It doesn’t finish. What’s more, define what it is you want and work towards it – something we didn’t do!” said Jennings-Brown, before adding, “Once you’ve reached the point you believed you wanted, new technology, new systems have been invented to allow you to keep evolving.”

Most integral to Wellcome’s current success story under lockdown is its experiences with its cultural transformation. Something initially underestimated.

“I personally underestimated the challenge of changing the mindsets of people. We have some fantastic people across the organization but they work in traditional ways and they needed to be updated if they were to fit within our vision for the future.”

As it happens that future came rushing forward far quicker than anyone could have anticipated. In the UK especially, many businesses had less than a month to manage, securely, an almost entirely remote workforce. Not only does that require a change of location for staff, but it also opens up new ways of working Wellcome was keen to capitalise on at the beginning of its transformation: flexibility and empowerment.

And that is down to your leadership, Wellcome’s technology lead reminds us.

“Engineer the day-to-day out of your role and into your team. I hope to empower the group to make their own decisions leaving me to steer the ship.”

As it happens, Jennings-Brown leads her previously London-based team hundreds of miles away in Scotland – and she’s enjoying it, she adds. It is too soon to say whether this is the future, however.

At one point in the interview she does offer a point of reflection on our definition of remote working. We as an industry, she believes, are too quick to point at a group accessing systems online, disparately, naming it remote working. Compromises have been made for us to work from home right now – childcare, mental health, productivity, privacy – so for many organizations fielding those compromises, the term doesn’t do the work done justice.

Wellcome has seemingly weathered what still is the greatest disruption to modern life in living memory by acting on trends predicted for years away. At the time, expense made those preparations almost illogical, if not reactive. With the benefit of hindsight, it now registers as proactive, something at the forefront of many business leaders’ minds today.

To watch the full interview and listen to Eileen Jennings-Brown insights and experiences in full, click here.