Dr Claire Barber is a prime example of how to prepare for careers that are not yet part of contemporary lexicon. The chief digital officer at Spark New Zealand did not follow the career path of a typical digital and technology executive.
Barber had a stint in the academe, completing a doctorate at the University of Northumbria in the United Kingdom, and becoming a lecturer and assistant dean at the University of Auckland.
She has worked across the globe in international technology and telecommunications firms – holding sales and management roles at IBM, and working with customers in China, India and the Asia Pacific region.
The chief digital officer was not part of the C-suite when she was working on her PhD. But her interest at that time, how data was starting to shape competition, proved prescient in its importance to enterprise, 20 years later.
“In the early 1980s, we saw the advent of the first computer reservations system,” she explains. “This was where the chance of a customer booking from the first three lines was better, so you buried the best flight at the back.”
For Barber, this presents the very first inkling of the way the future looked like from the data that was used to change the way companies compete. “That took me down the path of research,” she says. “Funny enough, the topic is still very, very relevant today.”
The future is teams have distributed authority and are able to be creative and innovative without asking permission and can bring their whole selves to work against a common purpose, within a set of parameters.
Barber became Spark’s first chief digital officer in July 2016. She is a member of the executive team, reporting directly to managing director Simon Moutter.
As well as holding one of the handful of strategic CDO roles in New Zealand, she also manages one of the largest technology and digital functions. She has 1277 staff, with nine direct reports.
She is on top of Spark’s move to implement new ways of working, as head of the organisation-wide agreement to move the entire organisation to an Agile@scale operating model.
“The combination of things we are doing, and supported by the Agile@scale transformation, provide our organisation with the most fundamental advantage for the future which is sustainable innovation through distributed authority and a culture of empowerment,” she says.
She believes this give Spark a fundamental advantage for the future as the organisation goes through a massive evolution.
“We are going through a major decision to take the whole company into a purpose-driven organisation, to move away from role-based hierarchy and then into much more of an agile organisation with a real focus on customer value and agility.”
It is all part of the massive business transformation programme as Spark transitions into a traditional telecommunications company into a customer-centric digital services provider.
She notes how the company has evolved from the New Zealand Post, to become Telecom NZ and into its current persona.
Some of our staff have been with us since the days of the post office, she says. Barber recently went to a dinner to celebrate with some employees who have been with the company for 40 years.
“They are people who are incredibly change resilient, incredibly adaptive, or they would not have continued to stay with the company.”
On the other hand, she says, there are some ‘communities’ at Spark whose jobs are relatively task-oriented or completed manually.
“If we bring automation, ‘how do we deal with reskilling of these types of people?’”
She says one way to approach this is to consider this: “What is your personal purpose and use that to guide your skills development? Think of yourself in terms of really two things,” she says, drawing on a diagram representing the capital letter ‘T’.
“The top of the T represents a good understanding of the area, your ability to bring context to the table, to collaborate, to connect with people and to share ideas and to work with the team. This is the broad set of skills.”
Pointing to the vertical line below, she says, “This is your specialisation. You may start as an order entry person and your specialist skill may be keyboard skills. You may be good at communicating with the customer and coordinating activities.
“So we talk to staff about, ‘what is your specialism? Is your specialism likely to be diminishing?’ So how are you changing your specialism? Is it possible for you to develop more than one specialism? How are you broadening yourself out?” she asks.
“This is how we are talking to people about skills and career,” she says.
“This means connecting people with purpose and helping people to develop autonomous plans, their own plans as individuals for their own career development in a supportive way. Our job is to support people and enable to help create a framework of coaching that helps people to take charge of their own careers.”
Barber heads Spark’s Diversity and Inclusion programme and is executive sponsor of the company’s LGBTQI community. For Barber, diversity covers the full spectrum of culture, thought, experience and ethnicity.
She proudly points out Spark has received the Rainbow Tick accreditation, which is awarded to firms that complete a diversity and inclusion certification process.
“It is incredibly important that we share a common purpose, and that we collaborate with people from a variety of backgrounds. I believe it is terribly important that people should be able to bring themselves to work.”
Inclusion is the active word, whether it will be the LGBTQI community finding a voice or people of different technical background in our tech team feeling that they can have the support for career progression
She acknowledges the technology industry itself is challenged, in particular, by a lack of diversity.
When there are not many people of different ethnic backgrounds in the leadership positions, you know these are heavily skewed, that “patriarchy is at play.”
She wants Spark to be different in this respect.
“I am making sure that we create opportunities for people to develop their craft and that we are inclusive,” she says.
“Inclusion is the active word, whether it will be the LGBTQI community finding a voice or people of different technical background in our tech team feeling that they can have the support for career progression,” she says.
Her views on diversity were aided by the years she worked overseas.
“I have a huge amount of respect for the talent that comes from all sorts of different backgrounds in our industry but I don't see that yet reflected [in the leadership teams],” she says.
She says she has attended a number of ICT events where white men outnumber everyone else and there’s no representation of ethnic diversity.
“Our industry is full of ethnic diversity and yet many of our events are not inclusive. I don’t see the representation [in these events] of the kind of places I work with and that says something. When we take a table at industry events, we make sure that Spark attendees are representative of the different people in the organisation.”
Spark’s managing director Simon Moutter takes the same stance. When asked to speak at an event where the panel is almost entirely made up of white middle-aged men, he will ask the organiser to address the imbalance before the event goes ahead.
He has encouraged all Spark employees to do the same. This guidance also covers an all-female line up of speakers. For instance, at a recent women’s leadership symposium, Spark put forward a male speaker to ensure the diversity in gender was fair.
Barber also finds opportunities for her team members to speak in events and develop their profiles. She believes in new ways of working, bringing cross-functional teams together to create opportunities for diversity in their own right.
Her advocacy goes beyond gender and cultural diversity.
“I am proud of our leadership commitment that we will achieve pay parity.
“I believe that is an important foundational principle,” she says. “If organisations take an honest look at where they really sit on pay parity, they will find they do not have it.”
You learn by doing... The biggest failure is not to try
Precursor to transformation
She says the agile transformation programme at Spark started with her ‘platforms’ team.
“We formed cross functional teams and called them ‘car washes’ for customer issues.
“It was an experiment and it was basically around new ways of working, giving people autonomy around a purpose in wanting to be able resolve problem for the customer,” she says.
The focus was to work on programmes to avoid customer friction.
“We took frontline staff, developers, architects, people with different skill sets and we said to them, ‘Define which customer problem you would like to solve.’ The team members were chosen because they take real calls from customers every day.”
Team members then work on low risk prototyping and out of that come out programmes of work. One of the early works of the group was related to the customer experience with broadband services.
“They chose to say, ‘how could we help a customer who is having a bad day with broadband? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we knew about that before the customer did?’”
They did low risk prototyping and out of that comes a functionality that now sits in the Spark app.
“In the first six weeks of working together, we took people from the front lines, from our technology teams and some new people outside Spark. One of the team members was a taxi driver. We trained everyone on how to do customer testing,” she says.
I said, “Have fun and come back with your solutions for the future.”
The team discovered some things that were truly extraordinary, she says. One discovery was that they thought customers love it when they are contacted proactively about their problem.
“The customers did not believe it was us,” she says. “It is an example of how you learn by doing.”
Issues were resolved by texting the customer first and then allowing the customer to go through verification. This feature was built into the app.
“We ended up with an ‘in-app’ experience because customers trust the app,” she says.
“They know it is Spark and when we need to speak to them, we engage in a process to speaking to them through that channel.”
The lesson from this is instead of building an entire tech solution or designing an elaborate marketing campaign, it makes more sense to experiment in small groups to find answers to customer problems.
She says that for the team to engage in these programmes, they first of all had to re-engineer IT. One of their first tasks was to create a lab for customer experience design inside the Spark building.
She says they did a number of these ‘car washes’ or ‘small experiments’ in different teams which resulted in some interesting outcomes.
She says based on these experiences, the leadership team at Spark was able to say, “are we brave enough to explore the full potential of this?”
Barber believes role-based hierarchy is not the thing of the future.
“The future is teams have distributed authority and are able to be creative and innovative without asking permission and can bring their whole selves to work against a common purpose, within a set of parameters. I believe passionately that the future of work is tied to this concept of individual skill development model, T-based concept of people development,” she says.
“It is not about progressing to upper role-based hierarchy, you eliminate the role-based hierarchy. Your career progresses based upon your mastery, your ability to contribute and do,” he says.
“This is a very exciting future and we are greatly committed to this,” says Barber, who explained this concept in the 2o18 CIO100 report where she was one of the top ranked leaders.
It is about taking blinkers off … traditional organisations that fail to change will be like the Kodaks of the future
A distinctive role
Barber has a multifaceted role, very distinct from her peers in the business technology community in New Zealand.
“I am privileged to work with developers and to be responsible for customer operations 24x7," she says. "I am working with talented technical people from around the business and accountable for platforms across the company. That does not make me a traditional CIO."
Barber says she is also responsible for customer experience design, and data. She says Spark is investing actively in a new set of capabilities using big data and artificial intelligence.
“We are in the frontier of some of these cutting-edge areas but we are not experimenting timidly, we are experimenting with bravery and that bravery is what creates opportunities for people.
“This is what allows people to maintain the currency of their skill sets,” she says. “The ability to play while still at work as part of creating value for our customers is critical to how you create a new future.”
She says one of the basic skills in this environment is having an absolute passion for customers.
“Always start with customers. Without customers, there is no business. They should have an empathy focused on delivering value for customers whether they are in 24x7 operations roles, working in night shifts, doing whatever they are doing.
“The characteristic that helps you most in staying in future focus is curiosity,” she says, of her personal experience.
“If you are interested in things and if you are interested to ask the next question, you have an opportunity to learn,” she says.
But that curiosity, she points out, needs to be coupled with a healthy appetite for risk.
“You learn by doing, but you also must have curiosity and are not too afraid to do things. The biggest failure is not to try,” she says.
Above all, work on delivering things that matter to customers, she says.
The exponential curves of change we are on are so great that it is almost overwhelming and in the next three years, we will see 30 times the level of change that has occurred in the last three years, she says.
“In this environment, the constraining factor is not the technology, it is the capacity of humans to absorb change.”
Readying our organisations, our people and ourselves to participate in that world is important and it’s a message that resonates with CIOs, she says.
“It is not about the technology anymore. It is about how we engage with it, how we learn what kind of ethical frameworks we need to put in place in the world of machine learning, big data and AI,” she says.
“Experiences of the customers are our products; this is different from a telco where broadband is the product.”
She cites Uber as an example of customer experience being right at the centre of the product that is being offered.
“I don’t like their ethics but the experience of ordering the drive and the payment of it is the service they provide. What you pay for is the ride home, so experience is the product. That is the thing in which revenues are attached.”
She believes the concept of job titles will also change. “In the future we may carry a portfolio responsibility,” she says.
She sees organisations with autonomous teams of people, with cross functional people working collaboratively with some strategies around common architectures.
“We won’t see this kind of heritage multi-layered organisations as we have in the past. It is about taking blinkers off … traditional organisations that fail to change will be like the Kodaks of the future,” she says.
Today’s CIOs are in good stead as she says they understand extremely well how things connect, but the challenge is how they will create a voice on the table that is broader than technology.
“No-one is interested in technology. People are interested in what it can do.”