Why people, culture, data, and every penny counts in the nonprofit sector, with Stephen Thorlby-Coy
48 min Stephen Thorlby-Coy
"Tech and change have always been my passion", declares Hospice UK's digital supremo Stephen Thorlby-Coy. In this podcast he talks to A Digital's Andrew Armitage about why he loves using all the skills and experience he's gained over 20 years in the public, and private and third sectors to help transform people’s lives.
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People outside of charities don't realise how commercially minded charities are and how they need to be – always thinking of new ways to generate income or different ways of helping the cause, about services we can provide, about efficiencies we can make to make the money go further and have a bigger impact. So charities can be really innovative, really, really creative.Stephen Thorlby-Coy Tweet
Andrew: Hello and thank you for joining me on another episode of The Clientside Podcast. It's great to have you with us for today's episode. I'm your host, Andrew Armitage, and I'm the founder of a digital agency called A Digital who are the supporters of the podcast.
Andrew: We're now well into our fourth year of The Clientside Podcast, which means we're approaching 50 conversations with guests, all of which can be found on our website at adigital.agency/podcast. And I suppose that means we ought to have some sort of celebration in the pipeline for that Big Five-O. More on that soon.
Andrew: Now, I'm really looking forward to speaking with my guest on today's show. We're continuing our theme of speaking to senior decision-makers and digital leaders. And today, I'm joined by Stephen Thorlby-Coy, who is the director of IT and digital services at Hospice UK. Now, he says he has a long-held passion for tech and change. And throughout his career, Stephen has built up a huge amount of experience in digital roles and applied that across organisations in both the public and private sectors.
Andrew: He started his role at Hospice UK only recently, actually, having decided a number of years ago that his true vocation was using his experiences to support organisations that had a strong social value at their core. He's worked in a number of charities, growing teams and delivering valuable change. So we talk about some of the challenges they face around funding compared to other not for profit organisations and what that means for their investment in digital. We also talk about driving cultural change and how he's prioritising a raft of exciting plans. He's focused on delivering for Hospice UK, so they're able to act on behalf of their members, lobbying government and supporting the valuable and sensitive work they do for families across the country. So, welcome to the podcast, Stephen, and thank you for joining me today.
Stephen: Oh, hi, Andrew. It's nice to meet you and thanks for having me on. It's nice to be here.
Andrew: So Stephen, just introduce yourself to our listeners. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your role and a little bit about Hospice UK.
Stephen: So as I said, I'm Director of IT and Digital Services for Hospice UK – Hospice UK is the national charity for hospice and end-of-life care to ensure that everyone affected by death, dying and bereavement gets the care and support they need when they need it. I've been working with Hospice UK for about three months now, so I'm relatively new to that job. I've moved around different sectors, which I think has been brilliant. It's meant that I could take ideas that can work in one sector and repurpose them and reuse them in another.
Andrew: It'd be great to just hear a little bit of background in terms of that journey, really. What led you to Hospice UK? Because, of course, that's a nonprofit, isn't it? And you've had a bit of experience in different sectors, but equally across different nonprofits.
Stephen: Yes, I started my career in manufacturing – I was on a graduate programme which was probably taking me down a sort of a commercial route really into sales or something like that. The company at the time was putting in some new systems in response to Year 2000 challenges – so that gives you a bit of an idea of how old I am [laughs].
Stephen: So they needed somebody to look after all the computers. I'd been building PCs as a bit of a summer job, just doing assembly type work. So I asked if I could give it a try, and I think basically I was the only person who'd seen a computer before, so I was in and that's how I got into it. Did various different kinds of IT type roles really. I suppose I was the only person for a while doing IT stuff. I ended up managing it across multiple sites.
Stephen: As that company grew through acquisition, I left manufacturing after about ten years, went to work in secondary schools in Sheffield, where I sort of transformed the IT function there, contributed to some wider improvements within that group of schools in that particular area of Sheffield. And then I was lured away back to the private sector to work for a small software startup. And we had a group of software developers, I was managing projects and kind of overseeing most of the operational delivery side of things, which was good.
Stephen: I couldn't get very technically hands on because I'm not a developer at all and a really small business. So that was that was challenging, really tough being in small business. Every penny counts. Everyone needs to be delivering and everybody needs to be selling. And I think it was at that point really that I kind of realised what I'd been missing a little bit.
Stephen: So I missed that sense of having done a kind of a 'good thing' for other people. So nothing wrong with making money – I'm quite happy to do that sometimes – but I found that what motivated me more was that kind of social good, really. So an opportunity came along and I started working for charities. I was with Relate for five years – Relate are a national counselling organisation.
Stephen: Initially, I was a project manager on tech and digital projects and then moved up into kind of a senior management role, really overseeing national contact centre and digital services, including counselling via live chat and webcam, email and telephone. We won some awards which I was really pleased about, so that's always nice to see, isn't it? We won some awards for innovation and for partnership working, with some work that we did with BT and in an organisation which was part of Coventry University called the Serious Games Institute. So that was some really good, fun times. They're really interesting, really innovative digital services in that sort of space.
Stephen: I then moved to Family Fund as Director of IT again, with kind of a remit to update and transform the IT function. I really love what Family Fund does and the team there are absolutely fantastic. For me personally at the time I had a long commute. I had a young family, I recently moved house, I was doing my MBA. So it's fair to say I had a lot on – so I left Family Fund a little bit sooner than originally intended.
Stephen: And I try really hard to sort of keep in touch with what they're doing, and they're doing some fantastic things for families raising disabled and severely ill children. So a really powerful purpose.
Stephen: So from there I took a bit of a deliberate side step away from it, really, into a more focused change and improvement role with St Leger Homes, a social housing organisation based in Doncaster, and I had the fantastic job title of Head of Business Excellence – so there's only one way you can go from there, isn't there? [laughs].
Stephen: I led on corporate planning, learning OD, business transformation, some IT programs, even had internal comms and external comms for a little while. Lots and lots of work around organisational culture, which is a bit of a passion of mine. It's very formal, quite a hierarchical sort of organisation, really, really closely linked with the local council. So it could be quite slow to make decisions, a strong sort of status quo bias, little room for experimentation. And I think that's probably a feature of that kind of nonprofit, I guess.
Stephen: I moved to Yorkshire Housing where I had nearly three years as Head of IT. Before I moved to Yorkshire Housing I always said I wouldn't do another IT role, below director level anyway, but the opportunity to work with the incoming chief exec, there, was a real draw. So he was someone who I'd noticed in the social housing sector, really spoke my language, I think, around innovation and change and tech and particularly how that sort of influenced ways of working and culture.
Stephen: So I kind of rebuilt the IT team there, grew it massively, adding skills, capacity where we got gaps, also took on data. We had two people in data when I joined, and about 12 when I left. So that tells you a bit about how that sector is kind of going in terms of data. And also I did kind of business change and a large Microsoft Dynamics project when the transformation director left. So a great challenge, loads of variety, lots going on, which I quite like to do. And when those pieces of work were kind of coming to an end, we had a bit of a restructure and it looked to me like there was going to be more of the same kinds of projects to come in the future.
Stephen: So I decided it was probably time for me to look for another exec role, perhaps with a smaller organisation and ideally a charity – and Hospice UK cropped up there. So I've been there about three months and quite a different proposition to my last role. So quite a different challenge, which is an exciting thing. I've got a really tiny team around me now, just a couple of people – I had nearly 70, I think, at Yorkshire Housing at one point – and I think just in terms of me, I think I've always enjoyed the kind of management side more than the technical side, always enjoyed that kind of transformational change and innovation.
Stephen: And I think I've been fortunate in my career that a lot of the roles I've had have been quite new. Nobody's been in the job before, and that's meant that I could shape those roles, make them what I wanted them to be to some extent. So I've always enjoyed that sort of sense of autonomy. That challenge to transform is really where I prefer to be spending my time and, yeah, less excited about the day to day operations. But I know it's a big and important part of any IT function.
Andrew: Well, I mean, huge depth and breadth of experience in that. And, of course, you know, it's an industry that never changes. And you talk about small businesses where every penny counts and of course not for profit organisations, equally, you're perhaps very much facing that 'every penny counts', but there's perhaps an even stronger need or urgency to to be innovative and to look for new solutions and new approaches to things.
Andrew: And, of course, that whole transformational piece is very much a cultural thing. You know, the way people act and behave sometimes, particularly around digital, it can be a bit of a challenge. So how have you seen that difference between some of those organisations, and particularly over time, do you feel that those not for profit organisations are facing those challenges in a similar way? Or is there quite a bit of sort of variance in terms of how they're approaching them?
Stephen: I think there's quite a bit of variance. So I've worked in a few different types of nonprofits really. So I guess public sector is kind of in that vein. Charities – sometimes they bundle or they call it 'third sector', so public-sector charities and social housing. And social housing is probably somewhere between public sector and sort of independent charity, I guess.
Stephen: When I worked in schools – so I was based at a secondary school in Sheffield – public-sector education, really, really inspiring leadership, really dedicated staff on the teaching and the support side. Everyone really cared. Everyone wants to do a high-quality job to get the best possible outcomes for each and every young person. So that was a major difference to me moving out of private sector really.
Stephen: So I think the way in which nonprofits are funded is different and it definitely has an impact in how organisations function and their priorities. So social housing organisations have got an almost guaranteed income stream really from from renting properties out. Yes, there's some turnover of tenancies, but probably something like 90% of the income is secure each year. It's a regulated sector so they can increase rents within certain parameters every single year if they want to, and most of them do choose to do that.
Stephen: So they own property as well, which means they've got assets they can borrow against if needed. And that funding position is quite strong. Most charities are in a much less secure position really, so particularly the smaller ones, and that financial security affects a number of things. So longer-term investment, strategic planning, risk appetite, recruitment, retention and all of that then becomes about, 'well, what's your appetite for investing in digital and tech'?
Stephen: I think, as I mentioned before, I worked in two types of social housing organisations. So one owned by the local authority, officially called an ALMO, an arm's length management organisation. So that term in itself just sounds like a kind of stereotypical council type term, doesn't it? So yeah, it's like where the Housing Department of the Council are most of the time, which is where it kind of was born from years and years before.
Stephen: So the other was a housing association, much more independent, both regulated but stark differences in terms of how they're owned really. So yeah, that kind of the stereotypical council culture, which I think is a bit unfair at times, to be honest. But I remember early on someone did say to me, 'Oh, you'll never change things here'. And I thought, 'Ah right, okay, it's going to be like that, is it?'
Andrew: It's almost like a red rag to a bull, I suppose. Is it?
Stephen: Yeah, it is a bit, yeah. But also it was kind of, that was laying down a marker and saying things are stable, they have to be done in a certain way. And I can understand why they'd say that, because there was a really strong status quo bias, really risk averse colleagues, really cared about what they were doing. And there were a lot of colleagues that had started working for the council sort of straight from school, and they'd built these kind of 30 year careers and retired early with decent pensions, all the rest, which I think people get a bit of a hard time for sometimes in public sector, because the pay is not great, but so there has to be some benefits somewhere else.
Stephen: But yeah, change can be really, really slow. You need to produce a business case and it needs to be a kind of a nailed-on certainty – very very little risk in there, reports to multiple committees. Approvals can take a bit of time. So I guess the positive in that was that I tried to be optimistic about it. So the positive is about scrutiny. So a really high level of scrutiny and you really needed to know what you were talking about. You couldn't just try and blag it because, you know, it had to go through multiple different loops and lots of different people talking about it from different perspectives.
Stephen: I think my experience in a housing association was quite different. The leadership we had at Yorkshire Housing, it definitely helped, but there's quite a lot of money sloshing around that sector, so getting resources was relatively simple actually. Housing associations don't really compete with each other. So there's lots of sharing and collaboration. It's a brilliant sector for that. And colleagues had a real desire for change and improvement. So a bit different from that sort of stereotypical council sector sort of attitude, I guess. So if I was thinking about doing something, anything really, I could just kind of reach out to all the housing associations. They'd be very open with me. There's quite a lot of keeping up with the Joneses in that sector.
Stephen: So everyone had a transformation project. Everyone's replacing their systems. They're all refurbishing their office. They've all got these stories to tell about how they're doing things and particular ways. Everyone's about cultural improvement. And I think sometimes when you see the huge amounts of money being spent on things like consultancy in particular, it does make you sort of wonder about some of those social aspects – how they really improve the lives of the most vulnerable people, those people that are really struggling to afford somewhere to live, how are they really being helped?
Stephen: And it's easy to kind of divert focus to the more commercial ventures which housing associations get involved in, with their house building, their market sales, their rents, because they fill the coffers and you can get distracted a bit from that. So the idea is that they kind of reinvest all those profits from those things into the social rent and the social good. Yes, sometimes they get a bad rap in that sector. So there was a few years ago the housing regulator forced a kind of 1% cuts in rents. And on the surface, that sounds really great for tenants, but that reduced income squeezed the profits which are used to invest in new homes and repairs. And so that kind of crisis, though, it did prompt a bit of creativity and innovation and a lot of that was into digital and tech.
Stephen: So housing associations are investing millions, actively pushing digital first because it's good for efficiencies. It's what customers expect these days. And I absolutely agree with that. I think there are barriers for some customers, but housing organisations are doing a lot to try and support people. They sometimes give out devices, they sometimes give people internet connectivity, those sorts of things to keep people able to to use digital tools.
Stephen: But there's a strong push in some areas as well where they kind of actively turn people away from phone and in-person services. So very much like utility companies are trying to move people, shift channels. Some people are doing that. Not all of them are doing that, but a lot of them are – massive investment in automation, so chat-bots and those sorts of things and data I mentioned before as well. That's a massive challenge for that sector and lots of data islands created by different systems, lots of duplication and sometimes that kind of desire to put in a new bit of tech creates another data island.
Andrew: Yes exactly.
Stephen: The back end data integration can be quite complicated. So quite an interesting sector to work in, social housing – really, really good from lots of different perspectives. They can probably take more risks and experiments if you want to do that. And I've been fortunate in all the organisations I've worked for, where digital and tech has been seen as a bit of a solution to many problems and that's probably a sign of the times. That's the change I guess over the last 20 years, that people needed a bit more convincing 20 years ago about the benefits.
Stephen: I remember in manufacturing, I had a very senior manager who said to me, 'I'm not sure this Internet thing's going to catch on,' and I was like, 'Okay, well, we're already behind the curve, so that's what we're all at.' But now, of course, particularly the last five, ten years, we've all got tech, we've got apps, we've got digital services in our pockets. So we don't need as much convincing about the benefits that can can deliver. And that's really encouraging.
Stephen: I think the three national charities I've worked for have been different in many ways and similar in others. All have got kind of complex stakeholder relationships to manage customers and funders and donors, and local government and central government, and the sort of devolved national government. So if you work across the whole of the UK, you've got to deal with four different government bodies if you're dealing at a national level.
Stephen: I think in social housing we're dealing with all the local authorities and there's dozens and dozens of those to get involved with, too. So there's regulation and all sorts of things. It's a complex mix. It's a real challenge and probably harder for some of those smaller charities given their relative lack of resources. But I think, as you said, really people outside of charities don't realise how commercially minded charities are and how they need to be – always thinking of new ways to generate income or different ways of helping the cause, about services we can provide, about efficiencies we can make to make the money go further and have a bigger impact. So charities can be really innovative, really, really creative.
And I think the smaller ones like Hospice UK can be responsive to opportunities that present themselves. So for example, we were able to, as a result of COVID, channel some government funding to the hospices because that would have been really complicated for the government to do. But we were able to do that and respond really, really quickly because we'd already got that network of hospices. But I mean all organisations are different so we can stereotypically call the public sector this or charities that, but they're all different, have their own challenges. But there are some common things.
Andrew: Quite a lot of common areas. Yeah. And obviously you've always worked on both sides of the fence. You're saying you're not techie, but you've led that transformation and change. And it's interesting you talk of these organisations that don't really have the challenge of embracing sort of the new world that we live in and the expectations and requirements that come out of digital. How does that translate as it moves down through the organisation culturally? Does that become more of a challenge because it's not a given that things at the top are going to get signed off. But inevitably as that transitions down the organisation, do you find that's ultimately where the challenge is in terms of getting people on board? Because a lot of these additional digital initiatives, you know, the idea of improving efficiency, it's change and it becomes change management. So is that really where the challenge is? Is it almost not convincing the top table anymore but convincing people lower down?
Stephen: It depends on who's at the top table, I think, so for me, the most recent organisations have recognised that they need to be better in those sort of areas or you've got ... at Yorkshire Housing we had a really kind of forward-thinking chief exec who had a bit of a reputation for digital and didn't necessarily have all the answers but understood where we needed to go. So he was a big kind of pull towards it and that helps because everybody else is trying to get alongside his way of thinking.
Stephen: And so that driving adoption really helps. So we talk about all change initiatives being needed to be led from the top, don't we? If you've got a senior team who are able to walk the walk a little bit, that really, really helps. So I've got some colleagues at the moment who are a bit worried about some of the changes because we need to modernise at Hospice UK a bit. They kind of go, 'Ooh, you know, I've not had any training recently,' and I kind of go, 'ok, that's fine', but if their mindsets are in the right place, we'll be okay.
And as long as you've got the top kind of on board in terms of the principles, and willing to experiment a little bit themselves and put themselves out of their comfort zone, then it helps to get everybody else on board with that. And I think then the challenge is, the adoption, but you know you can go 'this is what the senior management asked for, this is what they're expecting to happen now'.
Stephen: So we need to drive it. And actually I found that provided people get on board with why you're doing things and the benefits it's going to give to them – they're all, 'what's in it for me?' – you need to give them that bit, then they're pretty supportive. So I found that in my last few organisations selling that kind of concept to where we wanted to go at the top level was really, really important. That was sort of day one stuff we had to get on board and do.
Stephen: Once we got them on board, everybody else kind of came with it anyway. People, like I say, particularly in the last five or ten years, they know a lot more about what's possible with technology. And if you're not providing them with the tools to do the job, they're using them anyway.
Andrew: Yes exactly.
Stephen: They'll do it around the outside of your IT team, you know, they'll be using WhatsApp and all these other things. So if you turn it off or not, and a good example of that is, we didn't we don't have a lot in terms of messaging systems at Hospice UK, so there's a couple of people who've sort of said to me early on, 'we've started using Slack, and this kind of free version of this, this or that piece of software'. And again, it's like they were confessing, you know, I was like, 'Well, that's okay. You're doing that because you need to,' and actually it ticks a big box for me because they've gone and found a digital solution.
Andrew: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Stephen: Yes. They're not writing things on bits of paper and putting them in pigeon holes and things like that, which happens still in schools a lot. But, you know, they're trying to use the digital tools. So I go, 'Well, here's a groundswell of people that are going to be my early adopters, really. So give them the right tools and they'll they'll run with it because they've been doing it behind our back to some extent.'
Andrew: Exactly. And of course, that's been accelerated over the last couple of years anyway, where we've been forced into that situation. And I imagine that these types of organisations typically haven't had a remote working culture. Is that something that you've seen change fairly recently through the pandemic?
Stephen: Well again, everybody's in a different place. So one of the things that I was fortunate about with Yorkshire Housing was, we'd already talked about getting everybody to work from anywhere, do the most, the most effective work at the best place you should do it, depending on customers and all that sort of thing. So pre-COVID we'd equipped everybody with devices, we'd got licences and things in place so that everybody could work from anywhere. We just had to convince them and give them the push.
So we didn't start the pandemic, but it did help us to kind of move along and we sort of capitalised on that. So we accelerated our plans probably much more than we would. It would have took us maybe 18 months to cover the ground that we covered in a few months, really. But we were a bit lucky because we'd already issued laptops and things out there. We'd already started talking about how we wanted to work. So it was like, 'right, now we really mean it. We'll get working that way'.
Hospice UK – slightly behind, kind of very reactive, which I think a lot of organisations were at the time. They were still, sort of two years ago, expecting people to be in the office most of the time because that's where the work was done, that's where the equipment was, but now in quite a different place and our policies and things are catching up with us a little bit. So we're sort of refreshing a lot of that now, but actually people have been comfortable working in this sort of way remotely for a long time now. We just need to give them the right tools to do it.
And that's probably been the differences, where organisations that have got funding and can afford it in a fairly stable income stream haven't necessarily been affected by COVID. We're able to just kind of plough ahead with that investment if they needed it and recruiting from wherever, whereas organisations that were struggling or their funding was reliant on a building or an event which a lot of our funding is at Hospice UK, then those events weren't happening.
Stephen: Yeah. So if you cut off your income stream, crikey, how do you invest with that? And that's a real challenge. So it always comes back to the money, doesn't it?
Andrew: Yes. [laughs]
Stephen: It's horrendous. We should talk about the digital stuff. But yeah, COVID kind of accelerated a lot of plans. People are very comfortable, I think, working remotely now. One of the big kind of advantages I think that I'm finding is probably around recruitment. So doing some recruitment at the moment and able to attract people from further afield. You know, the job I've taken is in London, I'm based in South Yorkshire, so I don't intend to travel into London every single day. I couldn't do that for lots of different reasons. But that's the kind of way we work now. My job can be done mostly from anywhere. So as long as I've got an Internet connection, I'm kind of fine.
Andrew: Yeah. And you talk about the tools and I suppose that cultural element as well that we've also spoken about, it's about providing support with those tools, isn't it? So people don't feel necessarily out of their depth or sort of struggling to find a way. It's that structure that gives them that level of support with the tools that ultimately allows everybody to move forwards and feel that they're all in the same situation, to a certain extent.
Stephen: Yeah, indeed. So it's one of those things that that particular aspect of any change project, particularly tech ones, is one that personally I have to be really, really mindful about because I think when you've been around tech quite a lot, you're used to kind of picking up a new tool, new piece of hardware and software and just playing with it a bit. So even though I've said I'm not particularly techie, I feel that I can just get in and start using stuff and you know, you don't use it 100%. Of course you don't.
But I think that can breed a bit of a complacency that you expect that everybody can work in that way, and of course they can't. So I'm always mindful I need to make sure people have got guidance and somebody else they can go to who's their tech buddy or something like that. And so we're just going through exactly that at the moment with Hospice UK, we're going through various changes we're going to do over the next year or two, and I'm actively making sure I've got some time in my diary to plan how that's going to work out. And I used to say digital tools are really badly designed. If you need any training on it, you don't get training on Twitter and you don't get training on LinkedIn and all that sort of stuff. But of course you do Google stuff, don't you? So you kind of go, 'Oh, how does this work exactly?'
Andrew: Yes. Youtube's a good friend for those sorts of things.
Stephen: Absolutely. So people do get training, but they get it from this kind of shadow source.
Andrew: That's right. And sometimes the context isn't necessarily right there, is it? You know, you take some of these collaborative work environments – we use one called Teamwork, for example, there's others like Basecamp and Monday.com, which seems to be advertising everywhere. They can be used in so many different ways that it presents a fantastic blank canvas for an organisation to work out how to use it. But actually you've got to have some common ground in terms of how that is then fed through across teams and through the organisation, because otherwise that canvas is almost too broad for people to find their own way with it. It needs to have a little bit of structure.
Stephen: It does. And that's, I think, where you get some of that kind of IT department of know. So because people want to go off and use and experiment and all the rest of it, which I'm a really big fan of. You then go, 'Well, hang on a minute, where's the data going? And who's controlling that? And how do we log in and who's got passwords and all those kind of things and who's paying for it?' That comes across from time to time as well. So you still do need that kind of governance layer somewhere in that even if it's a fairly loose thing, just so that you know what's going on. But yeah, it's great that we've got all these tools available to us, but picking the right one is really tricky, isn't it?
Andrew: Yeah. And I suppose that's also a risk, you know, when you talk about, you know, if you're not doing it, people are doing it in their own time. You know, they're finding these technologies, using these tools in their own time. It's when they introduce them into an organisation and you don't have that governance, you don't necessarily know where that data goes. That clearly becomes a bit more of a problem and a challenge for you. Um, interesting.
Andrew: Speaking of data, how important is data in not for profit organisations and thinking particularly in your role now, you know you've talked about the organisation being slightly behind and that could be in one of any sort of area within IT. It could be on the hardware, the software, it could be culturally. But where does data come into that because you're, you're an independent organisation, if I understand this rightly, but you're acting as an umbrella organisation at the same time for lots of different hospices across the country, you're collecting that information.
Andrew: You're in that position of being able to provide representation, perhaps influence, maybe even lobbying to certain level. So how important is data? I mean, how do you communicate with those hospices? Is there some sort of formal structure around that? Is there a feedback process that they provide that word on the street, as it were? So you've got an understanding of what's happening actually out there, or are you using more more elaborate techniques with digital to capture that sort of information?
Stephen: So at the moment, this is one of those things that I think we're a bit behind as a sector, really. So Hospice UK is like an umbrella body or a membership organisation. So we're not kind of above or below or anything like that. The hospices do all the good work of actually looking after people and we try and support them and raise standards and bring the whole sector together. And as you say, a bit of campaigning and lobbying on their behalf. Part of the quid pro quo, I guess, for some of the stuff that we do is that they need to provide us with data to be able to show the need or what's happening actually on the on the front line, if you like.
Stephen: And I guess that's one of the challenges that we've seen, particularly with COVID. So there was an investment that was brought through central government for us to distribute. But of course, there's an expectation of why we need some numbers. We need some returns. We need to know what you've been doing with that. And I guess if you're going to approach an organisation and say, 'here's some money, but we need some information from you,' that's a much easier conversation to have because we're given this money than it is to say, 'Can you just give us lots of information?' Because what I'm finding – and I'm fairly new to this, so it's not an area that I'm an expert at by any means – but everybody's got a different system.
Stephen: All the hospices use a different tool. They've got some kind of NHS link to very similar NHS organisations. They also do it in a slightly different way. And so reporting is not standardised and if it was, that'd be fantastic. So if they could all just go, 'I'm going to press that button and send this report and it'll go off to Hospice UK and they can do what they want with it'. It takes no effort at all. That's my kind of utopia that we want to aim towards.
Stephen: And that would be things like tracking how many beds they've got, how many people they're seeing, what sort of conditions those people have got as they're coming through. So that data is really vital to show your picture of what's going on in the sector, and that helps to then lobby government or your local authorities to make sure they're investing in the right way or to show where improvements can be made from a process perspective. So we link really closely, hospices link really closely to NHS organisations, so your local hospitals and GP surgeries and all that sort of thing, they will then hand patients through that journey and some of them end up in a hospice environment. So you want that flow of data to come really neatly from your NHS-type organisation into a hospice environment. And of course it's all clunky because everybody's using a different systems.
Andrew: So joining those dots is is quite a challenge then?
Stephen: Yeah. And of course all of that we've seen in the papers about healthcare IT systems and the billions of pounds that costs and the waste and all the rest of it. But the scale of them is huge. And of course it can't be all things to all people. So lost in all of that is the data about the individuals, and that's the real nuggets of things that we want to try and capture. So one of my challenges really for the future is making sure that we have those conversations about who's got what and who, what are they using it for, and then how do we make sure that that data is clean and accessible and useful as it can possibly be, as well as stored securely and shared properly and appropriately and legally.
Stephen: So I think the challenges are great in our sector because we are behind, but I don't think they're any different, particularly from other sectors. But I guess the big advantage is that we've got lots of different hospital organisations across the country that we can compare and contrast against. So there's some really good pockets of work that are going on that we can go, 'here's somebody to showcase' and we have a national conference and things like that that we can do that we can say, 'here's something to look at,' and other people will hopefully go, 'oh, that's great. We'll adopt that.' And I think where I'd like to get to as well is to start influencing as a sector some of those system providers to create more sort of standards or defaults for some of those data pieces. Because it'd be great if we could all work in the same way and just easily share things.
Andrew: I mean, the world has without question moved on in this area with things like APIs, and you can connect bits and pieces to other systems and services and so on. But, really that's just providing the scaffolding. And I suppose, you know, maybe that's the best that we can expect given the depth and breadth of how these systems are built, how they're used, how they're deployed, and so on. But I think ultimately what you're saying is that there has to be that degree of collaboration, you know, up and down the food chain, as it were. And you've got to try and find that common ground, because ultimately it's the collection and the presentation of that data, which, as you say, it can determine funding allocation and how resources are provided which ultimately provides the care that people need.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, it is happening, which is good. It's really encouraging. So we have lots of conversations at sort of national level with NHS England and other organisations, NHS organisations and of course the same conversations have then happening locally as well, and the NHS seems to sort of change its structures every few years. So you go from being kind of regional to very local and vice versa. So we have to kind of constantly be sort of flexing to meet that sort of changing environment that we're with. And some of that feels like it's continually moving. But at the heart of it, there are people that are trying to really collaborate and get together and have those right conversations about how we share information and the systems obviously underpin all of that.
Andrew: Yeah, and you've got to remember what that focus is. It's all about people. At the end of the day, we're talking data, but that data relates to people, their situation, their circumstances and at some point their outcomes, which of course, is ultimately what so much is measured by.
Andrew: We're coming up on time, but just tell me a little bit about what your approach is to prioritising some of of these projects, because it sounds like there's a lot in front of you. You're fairly new into this role. There's lots of different directions that you could go. What sort of considerations are you having to make as you're thinking, 'well, I've got this long list, but I can't do it all.' Inevitably, you know, how are you making those decisions around which projects to prioritise and how do you measure the success of those projects? Because some of those inevitably are going to be fairly long term.
Stephen: Yeah. So I think the short term is probably what I've looked at first. And it's fairly straightforward. I think when we look at where Hospice UK is as an organisation, we need to modernise. I think that's how I badged our improvement plan really. And that's a relatively straightforward plan which is updating all of our infrastructure side of things. So the laptops and devices that people have got in their hands and Microsoft 365 and servers and network and all that sort of thing, stuff to do with building and we have some things elsewhere. So all of that needs to be kind of modernised and people understand that so they can work better, and facility or hybrid working that we're doing now, really. So all of that needs to happen first. Well, first, I need to recruit some people to help me to do that. That's probably first.
Andrew: That is a challenge! [laughs]
Stephen: Oh crikey. So first six months is kind of doing that, 6 to 9 months get that started and underway and then we'll be moving to our kind of back-office applications. So we have a CRM, finance, HR, those sorts of things which again are functioning, they're stable, but they're kind of older versions of those products. So we're getting to the point now where they're starting to creak around the edges a bit. So I'm concerned, I guess, around security and data and stability will definitely crop up in the next year or so.
Stephen: So those are the next ones that probably takes it to about kind of 18 months-ish. And all the while I think, in the background, what I'll be doing is having conversations then across the sector about where everybody's at. So that's probably a bit of a temperature check, I guess, you know, what you're doing, how you work in putting people in touch with each other and doing that networking piece around. So that's my priority list, I guess, for the next couple of years and the data links and things like that with NHS. So we have got a website project underway. There's a couple of stages to that. One is about how we make it fit so it suits all of our different audiences.
Stephen: So we've got the public and professionals and hospital CEOs and trustees and things like that, people who take part in events, corporate sponsorships, all these different audiences that you've got to try and sort of work with. And the website is a big channel for a lot of that, but we've got to think a bit more about digital transformation in kind of all its forms. I think we're slightly behind the curve when it comes to using those digital tools for operational service delivery. And I think there's some great examples where I'd like to kind of just raise an awareness, I guess, about what's happening around patient care.
Stephen: So some people are using mobile devices in patient care and others are using bits of paper and clipboards and things. Some hospices I've seen just recently are using VR headsets to give patients an experience that they wouldn't otherwise have been able to have. So that's really great stuff. But they're not common. They're not widespread. But if we show if we can showcase them as as a sort of membership body, then we can get everybody to get to that same level. So that's part of the challenge really I guess in my new role.
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. A lot to take on there. And I think ultimately it does come down to looking at those creative ways of using digital for good, you know. Yes, it provides the nuts and bolts of lots of organisations, lots of different communications channels. But actually that example there of giving people an experience that they wouldn't otherwise get. It's those creative ways of using digital that again, it's got to come back to the quality and the level of patient care, hasn't it? Because it's all about people.
Andrew: We talk about digital, we talk about machines, we talk about office 365 servers and what have you. But it's people that are using those and it's ultimately for the benefit of people that we got to use those. And I think sometimes that can get lost because IT projects by their nature can get technical – things don't always go right first time, you know, there can be lots of operational reasons why things don't work. There can be technical hardware reasons, particularly supply chain challenges. We've had difficulty getting monitors, for example, for some of our team. But ultimately, you've got to have that focus on the delivery for patients. And I suppose that ultimately is what brings people together and gets them on board with some of these projects.
Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. That's what we're trying to trying to achieve overall, I think.
Andrew: Fantastic. Well it's been fascinating hearing about some of those challenges, some of those projects. We do have a few quick questions that we ask our guests before we close out. So we've got a few questions that I know you've seen, but we'll just run through those quickly. So starting off with, what is the one app, website or piece of software, personally or professionally, that you feel you couldn't live without.
Stephen: Really boring this one, but absolutely functional. So simple. I run my life with reminders absolutely all the time. So I basically outsourced my entire memory to reminders. And I always thought I always thought I had a bad memory. But actually, I think what I've learned is, I just get really absorbed with tasks and things. I get really involved with things and sometimes I need those reminders because otherwise I'd not put the bins out and not pick the kids up and those kind of things. So I guess that's probably my biggest one. And probably similarly at work I use my calendar and my to-do list and those sorts of things are really boring but functional I'm afraid.
Andrew: No, that's good. I'm a big list fan myself. I like working to lists. I think it gives you something to measure your progress through the week as well as making sure you don't forget things. So that's good. Tell me, what excites you in digital at the moment? We've talked of loads of different types of digital projects. Is there any one thing? We've got lots of talk of things like the Metaverse and NFTs and crypto. Is there anything in particular that's exciting you in digital at the moment?
Stephen: Yeah. So I think we've touched on it a bit actually already. So I think that the pandemic forced us to think about human interactions in a new way. And so for me, people on Zoom calls all the day feels a bit lacking sometimes. And I think that's why so many people are keen to get back to the office or back together in person, at least, not necessarily in the office. But I'm enjoying meeting in real life too.
Stephen: But I think there's some very practical barriers and challenges. So I had a meeting last week, for example, with a supplier where we'd all travelled around for hours each to get to one of their offices. And I was like, 'what, they've travelled as well as me?' So that seemed really inefficient and not to mention the environmental impact and all that sort of thing. So I'm kind of excited to see how we can do that kind of meeting and collaboration in a more human way with some of the tools. I've experimented a bit with virtual-reality tools, so maybe they're based on VR or kind of augmented reality based interactive tools that become a bit more mainstream. I think that that'd be exciting.
Stephen: So I'm quite keen to experiment with some VR stuff. Covid brought around some of these changes for me and some experimentation, and I remember my very first VR meeting that I had with colleagues where I spent most of that time sat on a virtual floor and didn't understand why. I was like, 'Why am I down here and you're all up there? It's crazy.' They were laughing at me, which is fair enough, isn't it? But you've got to be a bit humble when it comes to tech, sometimes.
Andrew: Yeah. And all of this experimentation sort of ultimately refines the way these things work and helps them to go mainstream, I suppose, doesn't it? Yeah. You're working at home. You talked about that. You said you're working in South Yorkshire. Hospice UK are down in London. So how have your working patterns changed since the pandemic? Maybe they haven't that much. You've talked about being in remote roles for a while, but have your patterns changed? Are there any particular routines that help keep you sane while you're working at home?
Stephen: There are definitely routines that keep me sane – so I like to kind of get up early and exercise in the morning. That helps me to sort of clear my brain out a bit. But I think like many parents during the pandemic, my wife and I were home-schooling in between sort of Teams meetings and Zoom meetings and things. So we were both kind of 'on' for most of the day. We'd both start working again in the evenings after we put the kids to bed and all that kind of stuff. So that's changed now, which is good.
Stephen: So yeah, like I say, I get up early, work out before the kids, get ready for school, then I work a kind of typical 9 to 5-ish, really. I'm trying really hard to resist logging on later than that now and trying really hard not to work at the weekends. So that's kind of my pattern, I guess. I saw a piece of Microsoft research recently that showed that there's three peaks of productivity in the working day now. So one in the morning, one in the afternoon, which I think we were all expecting. But now there's a smaller new one around 9:00 at night, and that was definitely me.
Stephen: So I think that kind of working on-off all day and then back to work in the evenings is not sustainable in the long term. And I think that road leads to burnout, which probably a lot of people have felt or probably still are feeling now, and it's kind of post-pandemic. So yeah, Hospice UK is based in London. I have a flexible approach, so I do about a day a week in London. At the moment it's 140 miles away, so it's quite a long way. It's a super-commute. Couldn't do it every day necessarily, but not far from the East Coast main line. I work on the train on the way there. I've got my privacy screen and all that sort of thing. Connectivity is not brilliant, but it's not bad. It's good enough for what I need to do.
Stephen: I work offline a lot and that's great. And I've been a massive advocate for flexible working for a long time. You know, work is something you do and not somewhere you go. I've kind of been banging that drum for quite a long time, really. When I worked for that small software company, we didn't have an office, so we all worked remotely, and this is ten-plus years ago. So that was my first in-at-the-deep-end moment into remote working and it was nice when we got an office, but we all kind of crept away from it from time to time to get some work done. So it's been really interesting the last couple of years to see that everybody else has had to experience that as well.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. I think it's been known for a while. Offices can be quite unproductive spaces and for me home became quite productive at times, unproductive at times as well, particularly with kids at home. But equally I found it very productive. Of course, we still had notifications that would pop up and an email is never that far away, of course. But I find a balance works for me now.
Andrew: So what is the most important personal attribute that you bring to your job as a leader, you know, overseeing IT and digital change?
Stephen: So I had a good think about this and what I came to was I'm a natural introvert, which might not come across when I'm talking to people, but I used to think that was a bit of a challenge that held me back. But actually I've come to believe it's a bit of a superpower. So, actually it's probably a mixture of different superpowers, actually. But I feel like I'm a really, really good listener and I'm very reflective. So I think quite deeply about things. And that sometimes means that I can spot patterns or connections that other people don't. And I've developed confidence, I guess, over time to ask for things that are going to help me to be at my best. So this is why you sent me the tips and questions and things in advance, because that can be really well prepared. So yeah, I think that that's probably my most important personal attribute.
Andrew: And final question, what advice would you give to someone at the start of their career in digital?
Stephen: Yeah. Really simple one. Keep learning. I think things change. They evolve so quickly. You get rusty if you keep trying to stay still. Actually, there's loads of different tools. We've talked about dozens and dozens of them all to do the same kinds of things, loads of tools, loads of platforms, things are constantly changing. So keep learning, read, read proper articles as well as kind of social media. That's important. Watch videos, take a course, you know, lots of free stuff available. If you can get some paid things out of your employer, fantastic. But don't depend on it. It's your career. You need to make the most of it yourself.
Stephen: Join networks, engage with others, talk to people, listen to people around you, listen to podcasts, that sort of thing. You don't have to be taking a course to be learning. And one of the things that I did a few years ago and I've lapsed a bit recently, and I'm going to start that again, is to keep a learning log, just to kind of remind you. So just a very simple list of 'these are the things I've learned', and you might do that once a week or maybe even every day if you can. Just a little note to yourself that you kind of look back in those dark moments where you feel like you're not progressing very well? You can look back and go, 'Oh, actually I've learned about this and I've learned about that and I've learned about that. And I listened to this podcast and I read that article and so actually I am still developing.' So yeah, if you're starting your career in digital at the moment, keep learning because there's loads more change to come.
Andrew: Really good advice – I don't know that I have the discipline to keep a learning log. There's so many different touch-points for these types of learning. You could be watching a video on a bus, you could be doing a course while you're on a train or sat in front of the TV. Sometimes you just jump into it and you jump out of it and you almost forget that you've had that engagement or the learning that's come out of it. So yeah. Good advice. Really good to get to know a little bit more about you and obviously hear about your role and your challenges that you're embracing at Hospice UK. So if our listeners wanted to reach out and get in touch with you, where's the best place for them to find you online?
Stephen: Linkedin and Twitter for my personal socials, if you like. I've started doing a bit of a blog on there as well, which is a new thing for me for this year, I guess. If you want to find out a bit more about Hospice UK, we've got the Hospice UK website, which is hospice.uk and we've got some excellent materials there. If you want to know a bit more about death and dying, which is something I talk a lot about these days. So we have our Dying Matters campaign, Dying Matters Awareness Week and a podcast that goes with that as well.
Andrew: Fantastic. Well, thank you, Stephen. Really appreciate your time today to talk to me about all things digital. Great to meet you. Thank you very much.
Stephen: Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew: So thank you, Stephen, for sharing your insight and your plans in your new role at Hospice UK. You can find links to Stephen's online profiles on our website, along with a full transcript of the episode. Just head across to adigital.agency/podcast. Please do share the episode with your friends and colleagues. We'd love to spread the word about some of our recent episodes as well. So if you've got any comments you wish to make, do reach out to me either on LinkedIn or over on Twitter. You'll find me at @aarmitage over on Twitter, or just Google me if you want to find me on LinkedIn. I'd love to hear from you and continue the conversation.
You can also get in touch by email. Just drop me a line to hello@theclientsideshow. Now if you can, I'd love it if you could leave a rating and a review in your favourite podcast app, but for now, thank you for tuning in. I do hope you'll be able to join me next time when actually we're speaking with another charity. I'll be speaking to not one, but two guests from the Wildlife Trust about their own digital transformation journey. So I hope you can join me for that in a couple of weeks' time. I'll see you then.