National Trust CIO Sarah Flannigan is leading its biggest ever transformation

Sarah Flannigan has a somewhat unorthodoxCV. She has a career spanning industries such as stock market trading and financial services, manufacturing and telecoms, in leadership and transformation roles from sales and marketing director to VP global customer service.

Now she’s CIO of the National Trust, the charity organisation tasked with the privilege of preserving places of historic interest and natural beauty across the UK for future generations to enjoy. Although it seems a world away from your average commercial organisation, the common thread for Flannigan has always been about delivering cultural change.

‘For me, it almost doesn’t matter as a leader whether it’s a charity or telco or manufacturer, or national or global,’ she says. ‘The challenge is always how you identify what your organisational goals are and how you mobilise organisations to achieve them in the most efficient, high-value, low-cost way that you can.

You can put in the best technology in the world, but if you don’t actually land the change right and properly engage with staff and volunteers then you might as well not have bothered.’

When Flannigan joined the Trust six years ago, she saw that its IT was in crisis, and so her first three years were spent getting the foundations of a major transformation in place.

‘What attracted me straight away was that when looking to appoint a CIO they had real problems that needed to be fixed – and I like fixing problems.’

A CRM solution supporting the Trust’s 4.5 million members that regularly failed, an IT department in disarray and a network that wasn’t fit for purpose were the first pain points on the agenda.

Soon the CRM system got moved to a new supplier, teams were restructured with a new senior management team brought in, and £15 million was invested in fibre optic upgrades to address the slow, unreliable network serving many of the Trust’s 350 properties.

With the basics done and dusted, Flannigan set her sights on the big picture: a hugely ambitious £40 million ‘systems simplification programme’ (SSP) that would transform the entire organisation, promising £100 million worth of benefits that could be ploughed back into the Trust’s core purpose of keeping Britain’s most beautiful places ‘forever, for everyone’.

> See also: How the charity sector can get started on its digital transformation journey

A completely new point of sale solution was introduced for every point of sale in every property and holiday cottage, whether at a visitor reception or at a shop or cafe?, aimed at pulling all customer records into one place for the first time, so that the behaviour and preferences of everyone interacting with the Trust could be could be understood and catered for.

‘Historically, the way we have processed our 20 million visitors a year has been through pen and paper,’ says Flannigan. ‘Automation now means we are starting to save a huge amount of time with better-quality information going straight from the point of sale till to managers’ dashboards.’

On top of this, powerful marketing tools allow customers to be communicated to on an individual basis, driving loyalty and engagement with the Trust’s charitable cause.

‘We also completely transformed our digital presence,’ says Flannigan, ‘with a much more content-rich, image- heavy website, lots of really beautiful content that inspires our visitors to engage with the Trust in all sorts of ways and, crucially, mobile friendly apps and website. 50% of our website visitors are via mobile devices, yet they were getting an ugly user experience when attempting to join up and become a member, often dropping out at that stage – now we have seen memberships rocket.’

Underlying all this was a whole new suite of ERP back-office solutions relating to retail supply chain and logistics and warehousing, designed to eliminate manual processes, standardise ways of working and simplify finance regimes.

But the really clever thing, says Flannigan, is how all of it ties together, instead of being pursued within silos.

‘Some organisations might not dare take on all these things at once, but we knew that we had to,’ she says, ‘partly because we knew that if we didn’t then we would never catch up, but also because they’re all linked.

‘For example, if you want to deliver a really good customer loyalty experience, you can only really do that if you understand when people visit and where they like to engage with us. And to do that, you need the same till at every property, with the ability to scan a membership card and know that someone has visited.

‘A great way to help supporters to engage with our charitable cause is then to send them a lovely email saying: thanks for visiting – your help keeps us going.’

It would be easy to characterise the SSP as a technology project, and without doubt a large component of it is the tech. But that’s the easy bit, says Flannigan – engaging people with the organisational change is the real challenge.

Spreading the word

The National Trust under Flannigan’s IT leadership has done all sorts of things to engage its 10,000 staff and 60,000 volunteers in what the SSP is and what it means for them. This has ranged from things like having regional champions and running a series of roadshows and surgeries to investing in training, product videos and video diaries.

‘There is a particular tone to how we communicate with people that has been the hallmark of the SSP and become part of its brand,’ says Flannigan, ‘and that’s ruthless, relentless honesty. Whether via a weekly video update or an in-depth monthly leadership update email, we’ve said: here’s what has gone well in the life of the SSP, here’s what has gone badly and here’s what we are doing about it.’

‘This has really helped build internal confidence that we are not an ivory tower, and that we’re prepared to say where things have gone wrong, not just blindly deploying things to the organisation that nobody has properly thought through.’

The programme is now 75% of the way through, with a single customer view and marketing tools in place, plus a new website and apps and a finance and procurement system done.

Tills are still to go live at many more properties, and processes that used to take five hours now take only five minutes. But like any major transformation, the £40 million programme has not been without its problems.

We’ve overcome difficult supplier delivery problems, tech glitches, people coming and going – life happens,’ says Flannigan. ‘But another part of that honesty has been saying from the start: things will go wrong when you embark on something as ambitious as this; we don’t know what yet but something will go wrong. When that happens let’s collectively, as an organisation, hold our nerve and remember that high-order goal of £100 million in benefit, and if something hasn’t worked first time we will sort it.

‘That message has gone out everywhere, and everybody knows that there will be highs and lows, but it has genuinely helped people to hold their nerve.’

Overall response to this approach has been excellent, says Flannigan, Talking to people in the organisation, they tell her exactly what the SSP is, what’s working and what isn’t, ‘with a calm confidence and excitement about what’s coming, even the bits that may be tricky.’

‘This is something that’s been really powerful,’ she says. ‘We think this underpins the success of our delivery.’

As well as getting the wider £15m organisation on board with IT strategy, Flannigan strongly believes it works both ways and having an IT team that is aligned with the overall organisation is a crucial component.

An IT strategy will flounder without great people to deliver it, and great people for me are all about attitude,’ she says.

‘That’s why I now make everyone in my department spend a minimum of five days every year out and about at properties, rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into whatever the day-to-day business of the property is – from serving customers and clearing tables to building dry-stone walls.’

> See also: Digital transformation in 2016: how far have we come and how far have we got left to go?

The National Trust has a crucial role to play, not only in preserving historic sites such as stately homes, castles, pubs, industrial sites and villages, but in supporting local communities and addressing the decline in British wildlife by protecting green spaces, glens, parks and large stretches of the British coastline, as well as iconic natural tourist spots like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Getting the IT team out in the fresh air and seeing the work being done is vital, Flannigan believes.

‘Getting them to do those five days a year means that they really connect with our cause and what we want to achieve, and stop seeing our colleagues as irritating users but instead as passionate and committed people who are part of the same team as the IT department,’ she enthuses.

‘It can be the most reluctant developer or tester or monosyllabic architect. They need to throw off their headphones and get out into the real business and properly connect – and we’ve really seen the results of that in our annual staff survey.’

The IT team now score themselves higher than the rest of the organisation on questions like ‘are you committed to the Trust’s cause?’ and ‘do you recommend the National Trust as a place to work?’

‘Usually, IT scores the lowest in any organisation in those sorts of questions,’ says Flannigan, ‘so for us to be amongst the highest is amazing, and it shows the strength of our team.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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