Technology, transformation and working together for better

Published : Thu 2nd Jun Author : Sarah Flannigan, Chief Information Officer

‘You can put the best technology in the world in place, 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.’ Sarah Flannigan, our CIO, shares the National Trust’s journey of IT transformation that she’s been leading over the last six years – and explains what’s next.


You’ve previously worked on trading floors, in telecommunication and in manufacturing, in roles as diverse as global VP of Customer Service and Sales and Marketing Director. What was it that attracted you to the National Trust as Chief Information Officer?

What attracted me straight away was that the National Trust had real problems – and I like fixing problems. IT here was in a bit of a crisis. Our CRM system was regularly failing, our network wasn’t fit for purpose and lots of technology was in disarray. We were literally recording visitor numbers and £100s of millions of annual takings at our properties largely on pen and paper. There was a huge IT transformation that needed to be delivered but before any of this could be done, we had to get the basics right. That’s exactly what I did for the first three years in my role.

Where did you start on the transformation journey?

Firstly, I tackled the problems around how we were servicing our members. We moved our CRM system to a new supplier and fixed the process problems that had been causing us and our customers pain. We then moved on to essential infrastructure. Most of the special places we look after are very rural and few were served by a decent network of any description, let alone fibre optic. Where BT could install fibre optic at a sensible cost, we paid them to do so and where it wasn’t possible, we turned to microwave or satellite solutions or put in network optimisers to make things work more quickly. This, together with upgrading computers and weeding out apps that were slowing the system, has created an effective network across the Trust. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a painstaking process but an incredibly worthwhile one.

It’s a lot of change. How did you make sure everyone was on board with it and confident using new systems?

That was crucial. You can put in the best technology in the world, but if you don’t land the change right and properly engage with staff and volunteers, you might as well have not bothered. Establishing a strong relationship with IT across the organisation was fundamental. I have deliberately set a tone of honest, open communication across the business. We’re not just IT, up in an ivory tower blindly deploying things to the organisation that haven’t been properly thought through. There aren’t many rules in my department but one of the non-negotiables is that everyone in IT spends five days a year out and about at properties, rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into whatever the day-to-day roles are – from serving customers and clearing tables to building dry stone walls. It really brings people together and gets them connected with our cause and what we want to achieve. I’m really proud of the fact that this year we won the IT Employer of The Year award at the 2016 Real IT awards. The award was testimony to how far our IT department has come – we were perceived as the team that liked to say no but now we’re the go to team who can enable the delivery of the National Trust’s strategy.

So having fixed the basics, what was the next big phase?

In 2013 we launched the Systems Simplification Programme (the SSP) which is now approaching its last few months. Covering four areas (tills, finance, loyalty and digital), the programme is on track to deliver £100m of benefits. It’s a huge change that is transforming how we all work across the Trust. We’ve dramatically updated our tills, added state-of-the-art data warehousing, marketing analytics and campaign tools, implemented a complete new Finance and procurement system and delivered a hugely successful new mobile-responsive website and suite of apps. We are now equipped to understand our customers’ behaviours and preferences, which means we can now better cater to people’s needs. And whereas before it could take days to draw information from tills to managers’ dashboards, it’s now done automatically.

What’s next?

Lots! Now the foundations are all firmly in place, the juicy stuff can begin. It’s about really looking at every area of our IT and making sure it’s all working in the best possible way. We’ve had a DNA change in IT, so we’ve brought in people who are as brilliant at communicating as they are at technology. My team are a joy to work with and we’re looking to add in some senior hires to lead and drive forward our Operational Support, MI and Enterprise Data and Technology and Enterprise Architecture areas. If you’re passionate, great with technology and fantastic with people, have a look at these new roles. There really has never been a more exciting time to shape the future of IT at the National Trust.

Sarah Flannigan, CIO, National Trust.