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Clive Fenton: “Improve decision making”

Improve decision making — digital transformation provides an opportunity to use real-time data and analytics to change how your business operates and to support better decision-making. By digitizing their logistics from end to end, our medical supplies client now understands which products they need to stock and when to stock them to meet customer demand. This ensures […]

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Improve decision making — digital transformation provides an opportunity to use real-time data and analytics to change how your business operates and to support better decision-making. By digitizing their logistics from end to end, our medical supplies client now understands which products they need to stock and when to stock them to meet customer demand. This ensures that the right products are on the (digital) shelf at the right time, maximizing the company’s investment in stock.


As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Clive Fenton.

Clive combines 30 years’ experience of technical design and delivery with an astute commercial awareness and an in-depth understanding of how to achieve and deliver successful results. He has held senior positions in private and public sector organizations — from BT to the Inland Revenue.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started out as an IT Engineer — I used to develop mainframe operating systems for a major European IT company. I played a role in the ISO 7 layer communications model for the UK Government, worked on designing and building some of the biggest data networks in Europe and then naturally moved into IT project management. Step5 is built on the belief that it’s about ‘doing’ and not ‘consulting’; we’re not consultants, we’re delivery partners.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I’m not sure it’s a funny mistake but it’s one that has really stuck in my mind. Quite early on in my career I wasn’t paying attention in a meeting and walked away with the action of placing the chipset on the PCB (printed circuit board). Of course, I got it wrong and several components on the PCB failed, but I quickly corrected my mistake. The project team then took a week trying to diagnose the issue until I owned up, which upset several people and cost me in beer for the project team for a week. The massive learning for me was, if you make a mistake put your hand up because there are enough things to fix without fixing things that don’t exist!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are many people who helped me along the way by sharing their knowledge, taking time to explain and ensuring I moved on and grew as a person. Three people in particular had a significant influence on me.

I worked with John McCarthy for a few years at the start of my career and he instilled in me the importance of ownership. You own the issue and the responsibility to find the solution. Even if you aren’t the person who finally fixes it, in the eyes of the customer you own it.

Steve Matterson was an amazing motivator of people; he knew everybody in the organization and what they did and made it his job to know what they had just delivered. He always talked about the strength of teams and said that the balance must be worked on so that no one person was ever bigger than the team itself.

Bill Woodward, an outstanding Director of Engineering, used to say to me, “Clive, concentrate on the things you can influence, otherwise, you’ll have a heart attack young by winding yourself up about the things you can’t influence.”

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Shaw Shank Redemption really struck a chord with me. It’s a film about hope and never giving up, even in the most challenging circumstances. Step5 is often called in to recover complex projects that are failing, and when I’m faced with a problem that seems insurmountable, remembering Andy Dufresne’s resilience motivates me to keep on going.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision was, and still is, to deliver dreams — to help organizations make their business ambitions come true and keep them at the cutting edge. I didn’t want to be a consultancy that only talked strategy and theory. I made it our mission to do things differently — to realize business change strategies by rolling up our sleeves, getting the job done and delivering.

We’re not afraid to challenge the status quo if it leads to better outcomes, which often means having uncomfortable conversations with our clients. At Step5 we have a saying: “If you don’t like the answer, don’t ask the question”. We tell it the way it is and we’re not afraid to challenge each other. We’ve created the kind of environment in which people can speak out without fear, where we’re open to new ideas. Above all, we enjoy what we do and think it’s important that people have fun!

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

We’re working on several exciting and challenging projects, including the next generation of back-office systems — integrating and automating large scale HR, payroll, invoicing, payments, and more. Imagine being able to access essential information about your salary or pension contributions on demand, simply by asking a question or typing your query into a portal. How much have I paid in tax this month? How much overtime will I get paid? How much can I contribute to my pension? It’s like Google and Alexa rolled into one for maximum convenience and efficiency.

We’re also working with a pharma company to deliver a fully automated, digitized view from sales through to shipping, using machine learning techniques throughout the process. So, if stock of a certain drug is running low, it will be reordered automatically or shipped straight out of the supplier’s warehouse. The company used to reorder product based on what they thought they needed. Now, restocking will be based on actual need, informed by real-time data. This will result in improved service to the customer, much improved product availability, and better use of cash (as the company is investing in the right products).

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

That’s a good question. The IT consulting industry has a habit of renaming things every 5 to 10 years just to confuse everyone — or maybe just as everyone starts to understand the terminology! Digital Transformation is what we used to call change programs. The aims are the same and so are the challenges. When change programs used to fail it was because organizations hadn’t properly engaged the business or communicated with the people who the change was affecting. Today is no different. Many make the assumption that digital transformation is simply about applying technology or a graphical interface, but it means running your business differently — redesigning your processes and your customer interactions, retraining your people, automating your systems and using technology as an enabler.

On a practical level, Digital Transformation requires real engagement with everyone involved in the scope of the digitization. It’s about ensuring technology is driven and not driving, staying focused on delivering the business benefits, adding value through the adoption of technology and challenging the norm.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Every company can benefit in some way, but not all are taking full advantage. In the UK, local and central government are dragging their heels the most. They’ll typically focus on digitizing a service so that it’s easier for them to process your payments, but not more intuitive for you to use. So, it’s now quite easy to tax your car or pay your income tax, but much more difficult to contact and get social services support or register with a doctor.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

I’m particularly proud of the work we did to migrate a large IT services company to a self-service technical support model. We’ve provided its service desk users with the same 24/7 convenience they enjoy in their personal lives. So, rather than having to pick up the phone every time they have an IT issue, they can use a multitude of additional digital channels, such as live chat, a web portal and a digital voice assistant. At the same time, the organization achieved more than £1.2 million in cost savings in the first year of the Transformation alone as a result of greater efficiencies. But most importantly, we managed to reskill a large number of the Service team so that they now define, design and script the next generation of automation across the desk.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

Absolutely! Sometimes our first engagement with our clients is recovering a transformation programme that is either failing or not delivering, so the challenges are what keep us busy.

Organizations often struggle if they get too hung up on the digital part and approach digital transformation as an IT project rather than a business project. Or if they fail to communicate the change to their customers or their own people, or don’t involve the right people. We recently helped a large organization automate its call centre. Initially, the people making the decisions about the change weren’t the people involved in its day-to-day running, so it just wasn’t working. The call centre staff are the only people who can advise on how to automate their job as they’re the only ones who truly understand how to do it. So, we set up a team within the call centre to help automate their processes and script them. They became self-sufficient, automating their more repetitive business processes, which freed up their time to focus on more complex enquiries. How do we resolve issues? We ask difficult questions to get to the root of the problem, we have uncomfortable conversations and tell clients what needs to be done — and then we get on and do it.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To the Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Improve the user experience — this is crucial. In order to drive adoption of a new interface or ways of working, Digital Transformation must provide a better experience for the consumer of the service (so that it’s easier to use, faster, more efficient). If it doesn’t deliver a better experience, it won’t be adopted — simple. The key is to stand in the shoes of your end-user. A simple exercise is to consider our own experiences of Digital Transformation and why it’s so successful because we’ve all been consumers of it. For example, online retail has changed beyond recognition over the past 5 years. If you think about it, our homes have become the equivalent of the department store changing rooms. E-tailers have achieved this because every aspect of the experience has improved — the sales interface, delivery and, more importantly, simple and easy returns.

Reinvent business models — Digital Transformation helps to keep companies relevant and gives them a competitive edge. Netflix is a great example which we can all relate to. This video streaming subscription service, which started out as a DVD-by-mail rental firm, has used technology to transform the way we watch movies and consume entertainment. My children don’t watch traditional TV anymore!

Increase employee productivity — digitizing repetitive tasks frees up your people to provide value-add. So, if I digitize a process, I need to think about how I retrain my people to do a different role. When we automated a customer call centre, the call centre staff initially became scriptwriters and advisers responsible for digitizing their key tasks. With the transformation complete, they now have more time to deal with more complex customer issues. The key is to embrace the challenge of reskilling the workforce.

Deliver better (frontline) services — for example, the UK’s National Health Service is using digital transformation to save lives. Machine learning and AI enable them to spot patterns in cancer screenings to support better diagnosis and improve outcomes for millions of patients.

Improve decision making — digital transformation provides an opportunity to use real-time data and analytics to change how your business operates and to support better decision-making. By digitizing their logistics from end to end, our medical supplies client now understands which products they need to stock and when to stock them to meet customer demand. This ensures that the right products are on the (digital) shelf at the right time, maximising the company’s investment in stock.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

It’s interesting to see the extent to which the pandemic has accelerated innovation. The need for businesses to adapt in order to survive has stripped away the long-drawn-out decision-making that often stands in the way of true innovation. Organizations have realized that imperfect now is better than perfection that’s too late.

In order to preserve this culture of innovation, companies have got to be willing to experiment and try new things. They need to trust their people and be prepared to fail — and support their people failing. In agile project management it’s called “fail fast”, which is the idea of trying something and moving on quickly if it doesn’t work.

We talk to some customers about the concept of ‘building a Lab’ and encouraging people to try out different things in a ‘safe environment’. If successful, it can also be used to ‘show and tell’.

Finally, if an organization is really serious about innovation, it needs to commit the right resources to it. It’s not a sideline, it’s a full-time job.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

At the beginning of my career, I was in a meeting when a senior executive stood up and said, “the only thing I want from the IT department is to promise what you can deliver and only deliver what you’ve promised.” I’ve never forgotten that.

All too often, IT overpromises and underdelivers, which is one of the things Step5 wants to change. At the start of a project or programme meeting I always make the point that in my meetings, you’re not taking an action — you’re making a promise to everyone in the room to deliver something. Promise is such a powerful word and it makes a massive difference.

How can our readers further follow your work?

We regularly post news and opinion pieces on our website — https://www.step5group.com/

We’re also very active on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/step5group-resourcing-ltd and Twitter — @Step5Ltd

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