When the Institute of the Motor Industry began its digital transformation journey, it’s fair to say it had some distance to run. Dave Baldwin, Digital Solutions Architect and Ric Sheldon, Fractional CTO, point out the twists, turns and bumps in the road of transformation to Johanna Hamilton MBCS.

A century ago, the rise of the motor car, mass production and the transport revolution that followed, was as dramatic as the changes that are now affecting the motor industry in 2022. The slow phasing out of the combustion engine and fossil fuels has begun and a new golden age of engineering with a need for sustainability is gathering pace.

‘We are in a position where within the automotive sector you've got autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, hydrogen and other emerging technologies really knocking at the door,’ begins Baldwin. ‘The Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) fulfils a purpose of educating the existing motor technicians with the latest technology as well as setting a standard for national qualifications and then delivering them in a programme of CPD, long term for our members.’

Building an industry that’s fit for the future

The IMI was founded in 1920 when society – as now – was experiencing rapid technology-driven change. It was created to establish new skills and knowledge benchmarks for the emerging automotive industry.

The automotive sector remains crucial to the UK economy, and it employs 700,000+ people and has a collective turnover of some £200bn. But the industry also faces a number of critical challenges: attracting and retaining talent, skills gaps at senior and entry level, regulatory change, and overall public confidence.

IMI specialists bring up-to-date, relevant evidence and technical expertise to these debates, and have a track record of setting the agenda around automotive skills. The IMI believes passionately that the automotive industry is a driver of innovation, employment and economic growth.

The IMI believes the people working in the industry need the most relevant, up-to-date skills and qualifications to progress – especially during times of intense change.

The IMI’s purpose is to provide and continuously evolve the means by which people working in the automotive sector can attain relevant professional competence and appropriate recognition.

Young, bright, fully trained technicians

The IMI is preparing for a future of sleek electric vehicles, driverless cars, and immersive technologies for training technicians on systems of the future – as well as making the industry attractive to bright, motivated young people. It’s keen to ensure that the motor industry presents a favourable image.

In short, they want to help professionalise the industry and attract new talent to reduce skills gaps.

A career in the motor industry may be quite different to perceptions – as Baldwin explains: ‘Some of the centres that we run our qualifications through incorporate augmented reality and virtual reality into their training. You can take 3d models apart and you can look at the working parts. It takes training to another level – almost gamification of the training. The technology is so exciting to see and from the assessment point of view – it can be incorporated without the cost of setting up physical rigs to do exactly the same training.’

Sheldon followed this up with ‘Put it in the context of the pandemic as well, with the hybrid working become more widespread, it has also allowed the IMI to introduce remote assessment tech. We’re in a rather beautiful pivot moment, embracing cutting-edge technology. And that’s not dissimilar to what we see in other industries, for example, with doctors undertaking remote operations. IT is helping make that pivot happen.

Revenue has made transformation essential

This isn’t the only pivot the IMI has had to make in its 100 year history. As an organisation, they have moved away from being funded by the UK government to being self-sustaining.

Baldwin continues: ‘We are now completely self-funded through the initiatives that we run, the qualifications that we set and the membership offer that we have. Another challenge is to join up our initiatives to make sure that we've got the right continuity between qualifications, education and membership. Our job is to promote the individuals within the sector and to give them the benefits and tools that they need to continue to do their job well.

‘As well as a time of rapid change, we also need to manage skills gaps and attract new talent to the industry to make sure there is a sufficient number of qualified professionals. Our aim is to bring them in, get them into membership, show them the benefits and continue to professionalise the sector.’

Making the IMI offering relevant for the 21st century

While the offering sounds straightforward, this is being delivered by a very small (single-digit) team of IT professionals, in an organisation of only 110 people, all servicing the needs of some half a million people in the motor industry. With such a comparatively small team and such a large pool of members, the IMI knew it was essential to embrace digital transformation to keep offering great service at scale. In short, they had to do far more, by doing far less to keep the wheels turning.

Baldwin continues: ‘Six or seven years ago, the IMI were two separate parts – the awarding side and the membership body. It has taken a while but now we’re one organisation. Our membership has also grown from 12,000 members up to 85,000. IT initiatives have played a significant part in supporting this as the two organisations joined up to facilitate those numbers.

The cyber risks associated with change

So did the massive change involve lots of new systems? New technologies? Or was it just a case of having a new way of thinking? Sheldon laughs: ‘I would have happily used whatever technology was reasonable and if I thought it could be done with Sellotape and string I would have. Joking aside though, I’m not interested in tech for tech’s sake and we all know that in a not-for-profit environment, you have to maximise every penny you spend. The biggest pivot for me (and we are still pivoting) is moving the IMI away from having a conversation about what tech they're using to what's the business problem we're trying to solve? Then we can tell you how to do it with the minimum amount of appropriate, secure, safe, and affordable technology.

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Sheldon continues: ‘The IMI is a small big business. And many of its functions are clerical and administrative, so you can actually do an awful lot by taking advantage of what Microsoft has to offer – Modern Workplace, Azure and Dynamics etc. Simply tapping into that ecosystem, whenever the opportunity arises, has made significant inroads into helping the IMI improve its IT. But then there’s the complexity of having two complementary but quite different domains in the organisation: membership and awarding. So, once you have sorted everyone with a computer and a mobile phone, a laptop and wi-fi and Microsoft Office, you've then got to deploy and maintain an entire portfolio of learning and testing systems and make sure they meet customer expectations and are secure.

‘So, the biggest challenge for the IMI is basically how to get absolutely maximum bang for your buck across the IT estate, paradoxically by aiming for minimum viable IT at every point.’

Using tech capability to realise the business potential

Scaling up the capability of IT was essential for the IMI to move forward in their aspirations. Now, instead of taking days to onboard new partners, it can take just a few minutes. So, just how do you connect new people with IMI processes and keep the whole IT supply chain safe? Baldwin admits: ‘We’re acutely aware of how rapidly the whole cyber security context has changed and continues to change, and the need for constant vigilance.

We pen-test anything external facing and take advantage of using SaaS systems wherever we can, to essentially outsource some of our cyber security and let the vendors take the strain.

‘For example, in terms of hooking into other systems, like the DVLA and DVSA we have a secure API that we publish data into and pull back results from. In the last six months, we have published our own public-facing APIs and are offering our courses and e-learning through third parties.

‘We have Informatica as a front-end system that interacts our API with our partners and then we protect back-end links into our other core systems with security checks that come through to mitigate any issues there. We’re completely changing the way that we're looking at our data security, our cyber awareness and it's been a great thing for the IMI to appreciate the complexities and meet the challenges of this head-on. And that’s in no small part due to the backing of our senior management team, who really get what we’re trying to do and why.’

Summing up the transformation journey

Sheldon sums up the move: ‘The IMI’s strategy is to consolidate, connect, enhance and protect its IT, and ensure that everything we do delivers tangible business value. Consolidate and connect systems with the API and warehousing work, using the Informatica toolset. Enhance IT because obviously, business needs never stay still, and IT needs to support that. And protect – by relentlessly focusing on cyber security.