February/March 2019

Informed Solutions – defining digital transformation from Altrincham to Australia

Headquartered at the Old Bank Building in Altrincham’s Stamford Quarter, Informed Solutions has been steadily growing a huge reputation as an International tech business both in the UK and across the globe in Australia. As well as being based in Altrincham, the firm currently has offices in London, Edinburgh, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and has an impressive set of clients across many areas of Government and the public and private sectors.

Five years ago GM Business Connect caught up with CEO Elizabeth Vega – one of the UK’s most insightful thought leaders on both the SME and Tech sector – who showed us around Informed Solutions’ impressively refurbished headquarters and shared with us her insights into running a highly successful SME. We were delighted to be invited back for an in-depth interview. As a Cabinet Office consultant Elizabeth has emerged as an expert on the rapidly changing face of business, and it was a pleasure to go into more depth on a range of topical business subjects and issues, plus find out how Informed Solutions had developed since we last visited.

Charting the highly successful growth of Informed Solutions, please can you give an overview of your company history, and a brief summary of what you do as a business?

Elizabeth Vega, Group CEO, Informed Solutions

“We were founded in 1992 following my exit from big corporate life. My early career was with the corporates which offered a great learning opportunity for me, including how to run a business. I developed a sense of commercial pragmatism and an understanding of operating models, but also I felt that I wanted to develop a company that had serious business aspirations and quite a different workplace environment, a business that attracted really motivated, good people. It was tough work, but making sure the business grew in a positive and supportive environment right from the start turned out to be great source of pride and pleasure.

“My background is in computer science and economics, so it’s all about transformational change and allowing technology to be an enabler for that transformation or change. Of course, this was not the language in those days. It used to be called ‘IT enabled business change’, and although the narrative changes, the key principles stay the same and you use the best tools for the job.

“We started off with corporates – our clients included companies like Oracle. We worked in government and in oil, gas and utilities. Our approach developed over time, translating skills learned in familiar sectors to new sectors. Each sector has its own economic cycle. You take the learning from the ebbs and flows of some sectors and you simplify and make it relevant to new sectors. For example, Government. We developed a really good client base across many areas of Government that resulted in many approaches and methodologies becoming more genericised. We created a reputation that helped us gain business in mission and safety critical areas such as policing and the emergency services, also intelligence led services and the nuclear industry. It’s this organic growth that I feel marks us as a successful business, and the ability to apply multiple approaches to many different briefs and requirements. I feel that this approach culminated last year in winning a Queen’s Award for Innovation – something the entire company has taken pride in.

“It’s down to the capability of my colleagues. Smart people with dedication to problem solving.”

The application of new technology is an important part of your remit. Please can you share what your role is in applying new technology across the NHS for example – which I believe is a sector you are currently helping?

“We are technologically agnostic. Rather like architects, we are minded to use certain tools but first and foremost we aim to understand what the client’s problems are. We also need to understand from the client’s perspective what an ideal solution looks like for them. We scan the marketplace to look for the most appropriate technologies. It is also about organisational readiness – where some organisations can move and adopt change more readily than others, or, they have an ‘appetite’ for change and technology. Some don’t, and so we have to calibrate.

“It’s easy to be a prima donna and a purist and say ‘this is the right tool’, but if it’s not going to integrate well into a client’s business environment and existing infrastructure, then it is the wrong solution – even if technically it ticks every box. We need to respect the investment the client already has. We offer a current assessment on what needs to be kept and upgraded perhaps, what needs to be phased out and what is actually working perfectly well. The ability to listen and co-design together providing tailored solutions can be the most effective tool we have. The key ingredients are integrity and trust. Our reputation is based on genuinely having our client’s best interests as our goal – not being driven by revenue. When we advise or put options in front of a client, they know we have done due diligence and are acting in their best interests, we are transparent (talking through pros and cons) and also keen that the journey is made together through valued and consistent communication.

“Specifically looking at the work for the NHS – they are truly conscientious and committed to patient safety, so everything we do together reflects this. We sat down with them to look at what they had in place and it was a lot of data from a lot of different sources. For example, surgeries, dental clinics, A&E departments, and so on. The question was ‘how do you bring that together, analyse it holistically and build powerful insights and learnings, that drive a better patient experience and improved confidence and safety?’.

“So we looked at what their data assets were and looked at their operating model (which is very complex, distributed and federated) and we came up with a strategic, platform architecture that we co-designed with NHS’s design authority people. Next stage involved looking at the right tools for the job and building and deploying those in an evolutionary, agile way – using cloud computing techniques, data integration methods, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). At each step, we managed the key risks of the platform evolution and worked collaboratively to test it very rigorously.

“NHS Improvement’s Patient Safety project is now in a great place, in Private Beta and just about to receive real data for the first time, but it is a big beast and there are a lot of stakeholders, experts and moving parts involved. A key success factor has been the willingness of many, many people with diverse roles and viewpoints to collaborate, so part of that transformational change is about winning hearts and minds – not just plugging in technology and data. We are also involved in co-designing training and helping make change sustainable, because people move around and new people join. To do proper sustainable transformational change, it’s a matter of looking at the whole picture.”

As a champion of diversity in not just the SME sector but in all areas of business, please can you share your thoughts on what the corporate sector should be doing to encourage this?
“It’s really interesting when people talk about diversity as it’s a very personal experience. It could be based on gender, ethnicity, disability, religion for example, but the reality is that ‘diversity’ is important in everything – whether it’s about the mix of people in the workplace or the practical mix of skills (innovation projects need 360 degree opinion to spark creativity). It’s also needed in the marketplace – you need suppliers and start-ups to have initial funding but also ambition to grow and to scale up.

“The UK is a great place to grow a business, not just start a business. 98% of start-ups don’t survive so it’s about being comfortable with an ambition for growth and success in developing their business through as broad a mix of skillsets as possible. This is why I advocate for diversity in the marketplace. It also goes to board level. We need diversity among decision makers and leaders. If everyone has been to the same school, university or golf club then we will get the same thinking. This is not going to help your organisation or culture.”

How far do you think the UK has come in promoting diversity across our business landscape?

Elizabeth Vega, Group CEO, Informed Solutions

“I think there is a lot being talked about at the moment and ‘awareness’ is the second step. First step is recognising it’s an issue and the second step is awareness and acknowledgement of that issue – this is where we are on the maturity curve.

“I then think it’s actually the action – the following through of this that matters. There is a lot of variability here. Some organisations are already curating their boards and the selection process is a conscious action. Some others are just talking about it. Where there is consistency is in the acknowledgement that something needs to be done. Formulating plans that work for each organisation is a very tailored and subjective task, keeping the positive influence of applying diversity without causing issues is a cautious but necessary big step.

“Diversity is disruption. It is challenge. It can be a problem in two areas. First area is where everyone is comfortable with the status quo, and it is frustrating for those to have to accommodate diversity. Second issue is where emotional intelligence is just not valued – people instead talk in functional transactional language and don’t acknowledge the value that emotional intelligence can bring to all levels of an organisation. At Informed Solutions we design and engineer processes where people are encouraged to contribute rather than it just being a brain storming session where the most vocally confident are heard. We ensure that a space is created for everyone to be included, regardless of personality types.”

We are all aware of the massive need for investment and training in the tech sector. What are your views on this and how does your ‘InformedACADEMY’ fit into this National need to fill the digital skills gap?
“We have always had investment in training and skills development and that isn’t necessarily prescriptive. Initially there are core modules and the concept of foundations. Everyone that joins the company is given foundation level training so that they are aware of and respect the work of others regardless of specialisms. This way people have a common understanding and way of working.

“After the foundation training – which is a journey of exploring what a colleague is good (and bad) at – there is specialist training available so that they can play to their individual strengths. For example, user research is suggested as a role for those who are analytical, with good engagement with others. However, if they are much more technical and detail oriented, then service design may be more applicable. A learning journey could be doing architecture, data sciences, cyber security – we encourage all individuals to embrace a variety of specialisms to enrich and expand their thinking. As a business we had invested in a lot of external training and development. We were finding that cohesion was a problem in terms of skills development – people were being taught in different ways using a different language. Because we are working in innovation and restricted to time and budget constraint, we wanted to harmonise this and make the training cohesive – to create sustainable development so that each generation of graduates, as they moved along, would demonstrate cohesion.

“Also, when they came back in to the workplace they could be coached and mentored by others who had had similar learning experiences. This is where the original Informed Talent development framework assembled a combination of internal masterclasses and external training. We have redesigned all of this, customising external training where appropriate, to give us the harmonising we seek. For those wishing to advance further in deep specialisms, we are currently sponsoring their progress through masters’ degrees.”

As a business working successfully for many areas of Government, what do you think of the current method of procurement across public sector contracts?
“I’m on the Cabinet Office SME panel and have been for many years. It is an advisory panel that advocates and supports government working better with the SME marketplace – not just in the tech sector but across all sectors covering the whole of the UK. Tendering across Government is a massive enterprise and not harmonised. For example, working with the MoD is very different from working with local authorities. You need to look at the cultural differences and the varying requirements – and also that they have different budgets and procurement processes.

“There has been a huge amount of progress – we have policy in place, structural and business process reforms that were needed. It’s a three-way relationship between the procurer (professional procurement function), the buyer (the end customer/client) and of course the supplier. You need to look at how to make those relationships work for everybody and it’s partly about training and cultural change. We have all the instruments and what we now need to do is feel confident using those instruments. There is a lot more outreach now to let people know that they can approach the government to bid for work. We also need to recognise the legacy that historically there was only ever rhetoric and that SMEs had lost faith in the process. Drawing a line under this shows that the government is being authentic about wanting to follow through and make sure that SMEs are welcome. I would encourage SMEs to take things at face value and explore again the huge possibilities offered through the tendering process for not just Government but many other areas of the public sector.”

Informed Solutions have gone from strength to strength, surviving recessions to become what could be described as an International SME. Please can you explain your business culture in more detail and share with us the secrets behind not just running but growing such a successful business?
“I think the culture is at the core – we do serious work, we are not hobbyists and our clients have to trust us with serious problems. We need to also enjoy working with our clients and for our clients to enjoy working with our people. ‘Take your job seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously’. We are all experts, we all have an opinion, so let’s collaborate exercising respect. That’s the key principle and the other side of it is ‘excellence’. No-one at Informed Solutions (and it starts with me as the founder) has any ambition to be ‘mediocre’. There are lots of companies that do a good job by being average, and that’s fine but that’s not us. Whatever resources we have at our control are used creatively and efficiently. We work smart. You can’t always work harder, but you can work smarter.

“Regarding how we have grown the company, part of that is internal investment on the corporate infrastructure. We now have a global corporate backbone that allows us to collaborate together. We have also matured our model in partnerships – we are working with collaborative business partnerships rather than a traditional supply chain. We treat our subcontractors and suppliers as an alliance and partner with them. We reinvented ourselves 10 years ago in the last recession. We developed a model that is ‘elastic’ – meaning that if we have good opportunities or the market is buoyant we can grow – but when large contracts come to a conclusion for example we can contract back without having to lose staff.

“That massive amount of investment in training would be senseless if we were to be laying people off, so we have multiple tiers: a core team of highly capable leaders (a few hundred of such people); we then have associates who are long term, deep subject experts (nuclear physicists, property specialists, academics for example) and then of course we have contractors (typically at the technical level joining for particular assignments) and finally a trusted tier of sub-contractors (both overseas and here in the UK). For a medium-sized company it is a sophisticated model.”

As a leading Technology-based business what is your view on the recent description of a new era of business currently transforming companies and organisations across all sectors? Business 4.0 seems to be a buzzword for many different business methodologies – what is your take on this? Is this something you embrace?
“I think that for anything that is perceived as new you need to adapt it to who you are and be authentic. You can’t ignore your legacy and what has made you successful – if you are using something useful, why change or lose it?

“In terms of ‘Business 4.0’ I think every business needs to be a digital business. Firstly, we do what we preach to our clients – we leverage capability off digital. Secondly, that gives you reach, efficiency and consistency. Allows you to onboard and offboard your contractors and subcontractors and retain that knowledge as you develop. I also think if you want to be a model business you need to acknowledge the mobility of workforce and retain corporate knowledge. I think consumers are sick of being marketed to – you need to be able to walk the talk. If you say you stand for tech for good, then you have to be able to prove it. People at the top need to be accountable for the authenticity of what the company stands for. Businesses need to be both agile and responsive. They need to have a mobile workforce with a big investment. I think Business 4.0 is still at the first step of change, there is recognition of need but not yet the acknowledgement and strategising of the ‘so what?’”

In order for a business or organisation to thrive many industry leaders talk about the need for being ‘disruptive’ across their sectors. What is your view on the role of disruptive technology to improve an organisation’s rate of growth and development? Is this something that can enjoy a clear definition when looking at business development?

Elizabeth Vega, Group CEO, Informed Solutions

“I think that disruptive technology is actually only ever an accelerated evolution – where others can’t keep up with it. For example, online shopping. It’s been happening and visible for a long time but it’s growing rapidly because customers are naturally evolving into online shoppers and it’s the traditional businesses who are in denial. They are still stuck in the ‘recognising and observing’ phase and not responding to the apparent ‘disruption’. I think disruption is important as you need to stay relevant to changing markets and opportunities, and organisations need to adopt and respond meaningfully at a rate that they can absorb. It’s a bit like a building project at home – you can start with a bit of DIY, but then there is a level at which you think you need a professional in and then, there is the bullet-biting decision of actually getting the extension built.

“Each of the steps is painful and more expensive – and it’s true of disruption. An organisation needs to assess and decide if they want to do a bit of DIY or do they grit their teeth and find the budget for the big extension? For us growth is based on continual investment and it’s clearly prioritising where that investment needs to go – skills, infrastructure, opening up marketing opportunities, repurposing experience, educating clients and bringing your own people along for the journey.

“This is the big challenge for scale-ups – you can do this when you’re small and perfectly formed but protecting your culture as you are growing is difficult. As you recruit new people, you have to harmonise with them too – as they have been trained to work elsewhere in a different way which they will bring with them. They need to feel welcome, respected and also open to being part of their new team. With new clients too, there can often be a tension until they get to know you – and trust you. So you have to earn that respect. When you are accelerating all of this as part of a scale-up strategy it’s quite stressful for everyone if it’s not done well.”

How do you gain new business?

“The type of work we do requires clients to trust us and sometimes we have to tell them things they don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear. We always have to put in high quality submissions. If we are invited to bid for a piece of work and we fundamentally don’t agree with the client’s approach, we will gauge whether a non-compliant bid will get us anywhere; it won’t get us the job but will it get us an opportunity to talk afterwards? We are prepared to offer innovative solutions in ways that weren’t prescribed, with the integrity of best interests over winning the contract. Sometimes by representing challenge and authenticity we get the opportunity to be heard.”

What is your viewpoint on Brexit in terms of running a business? Are there any measures you are implementing as a business in light of the current uncertainty?
“I stopped trying to predict. I think it’s incredibly damaging to business confidence and willingness to invest. We have a very stable and mature board and so we believe in each other and we know there are ups and downs. However, if I was in a typical company where people don’t have this level of trust and there is concern that the current atmosphere of uncertainty may have a negative effect on business sentiment, I would be very nervous as a director. It puts a lot of people in a very difficult situation. For us we know we have each other’s backs and there is a lot of loyalty. I put great value on loyalty.

“I also think that clients are committing to smaller projects with smaller budgets because they just don’t know the regulatory environment, investment environment nor how strong the pound is going to be or who the trading partners are going to be, whether there are chances to export or not and so on. Everyone is just waiting. We are just getting on with it, making the best choices we think, working within the current environment. Otherwise, it’s paralysis by over-analysis.”

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