Rich Corbridge FBCS, CIO of Boots (and previously a long career in change leadership) talks to Johanna Hamilton AMBCS about customers in the public and private sector, the importance of learning and how coronavirus has advanced digital empowerment.

‘The pandemic has changed our reaction, the country's reaction and the world's reaction to how to deliver the things that customers need,’ begins Rich Corbridge. ‘But the patients’ need is what's been the principal catalyst for change here at Boots, being able to support the NHS to deliver health, care and wellness to patients across the country has been a driver for us as a digital transformation team in 2020 and 2021.

‘We're no longer moving at the pace we were moving at, we're moving much more quickly. We are no longer applying red tape-based governance - we’re moving forward every day. That decision-making process has changed. I think that the expectation of great instead of good has also changed, so let's get the minimum viable product built, done, delivered, over the line. 'Then let’s iterate the results to make that better, rather than wait six months for ‘perfect’ to arrive. We want to see how digital products change the Customer Value Proposition and then move forward with those that make a difference at a new pace.

How did digital technology keep Boots working?

‘We had already deployed Teams in Boots. We had the infrastructure, but in truth, we barely used it. In the last 18 months it's now become the most important tool for everything we do. Since COVID, Teams has also had various iterations, changes to where buttons are, what the buttons do, how it works. 18 months ago, any changes would have seen people downing tools and stopping use if they weren’t told a button was moving beforehand. I think that COVID has ushered in a new time of fast change, resilience and an acceptance of change.’

Has change offered greater inclusivity and accessibility?

‘It’s interesting to see how big corporates have managed D, E & I in the last 18 months - some because of Black Lives Matter some because of ‘me too’. There’s also been a general acceptance that we do need a more diverse equity driven set of organisations. Here we are, day in day out expecting every type of disability, every type of person, every type of interest to just manage with what’s available - to just ‘fit in’. As we prepare for the future of hybrid working we must pause and try to do that better rather than just falling into a blind acceptance of what we have always done.’

How has WFH changed your own team and dynamics?

‘We tried to be really open and to roll out kit so people could continue to work wherever they were. Handing over power and ownership for people to own their own working space and routines was a major, powerful step forward. The main issue hasn’t been work, but how to keep an enthusiastic, team-generated workforce moving forward, when we’ve only been able to meet in disembodied ways for the last 14 months.

‘Creating new routines was especially important - I made sure my team took an hour out for themselves during work-time every day. During the winter months it was important that people weren’t just getting up, eating breakfast, working, eating tea and going to bed - and repeating for five days. That’s just not healthy. So, we've tried really hard to shake up that routine and what we have seen is that by giving people this control we are seeing a new level of innovation and capability in teams that is based on this ownership’

‘Every Friday, we meet for half an hour with no agenda, just for a chat as if you were stood at the water cooler. It can feel a little bit forced, a little bit difficult at times, but interestingly out of 130 people, 45 said they have found it an intrinsic part of their working week. Another 45 people join the call and say little, but observe and hear their colleagues talking about something that isn’t part of a prescribed agenda. It’s fascinating, to see the social dynamic of a large group coming together in a virtual space.’

How has your role changed at the higher level?

‘At 5.30pm, every single day, the Boots exec team come together to review the day and plan for the next day. Once a week the IT leadership team comes together, talks about the one thing they must deliver that week, then have a catch up meeting on Friday to discuss how it went. There were two key reasons for that.

'One is ‘what's in the way?’ and ‘how can we collaborate together to make it successful?’ And two, when you get to Friday you celebrate that team achievement. I think we've become a lot more aware of the social stroking that people need when they're on their own sat at home to know that they are doing a good job. Feedback has increased in important.’

How do you handle training / CPD?

‘The vast majority of people want to lead their own training. To show ‘I am qualified to do the job that I do’. When you're sat at home in your bedroom working, how do you have the confidence to know that you're capable of doing it when there isn't anybody walking past saying ‘that was a great job’.

‘We have created the Walgreens Boots Alliance IT Academy which is a collaboration between Pluralsight and BCS. Pluralsight for the hard technical skills, and BCS for the ‘how do I evolve as a leader? As a member of a team? As a colleague?’ So really opening learning up as widely as we possibly can to as many people as we can across the entire colleague base.

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‘I think as we continue our journey with BCS it's exciting now to see 140 people really enthused by the idea of professionalisation. People of all levels, in different roles, all on a journey forward to better qualifications, skills and experiences. What I found really interesting is that when we put the academy in place, we had the HR partner, the finance partner, the communications partner and the PMO team all coming forward to learn more about digital and IT - the BCS training isn’t just for the IT department, it’s training across the board.

‘We definitely have pushed that ability to network more and more in a wider sense as IT professionals. Working with healthcare, looking at the NHS, offering our help into NHS 111 and NHSX and other areas to see how a big corporate like us can try and help in that space. But then probably most interesting is that professionalisation of IT. So, we've seen people really grab onto the fact that they want their career to be noticed in the same way as a HR professional or a finance professional or a clinician would be. I think that's massively powerful.’

How do you raise standards and find those rising CIO stars of the future?

‘I personally have always pushed really hard to find those rising stars and help them understand what can be next and give them a push forward - often further than they really wanted to go - but with support around them. I believe in that hugely. I do that because I want to see who the next CIOs are. I think in the NHS a bunch of CIOs have spent a long time looking over our shoulder to work out who's next on the ladder with the digital academy etc.

‘In Boots I think it's important to give everybody the width of opportunity as well so that you can look at Pluralsight, look at BCS, look at the different ways of doing that, taking on temporary leadership roles and things like that as well to give people exposure to different parts of the business has been important.’

Do you mentor?

‘Definitely. Both people that I mentor in Boots are going through MBAs at the moment which is exciting to hear about. I am still a mentor for people that worked for me in the NHS and work with me in Boots, as well as coaching, I find reverse mentoring extremely useful. It gives you a flavour, at a grassroots level of the business. ‘What is IT not doing?’ ‘What are you not doing?’ And relatively speaking, it's a more learning experience because you're looking for the gaps. ‘What are the things that we're doing that we should be doing differently?’ Rather than ‘can you advise me on how to move forward and do the next piece?’

Is networking important?

‘Definitely. There's a really good WhatsApp group that's been in existence for a number of years with ex and current CIOs from across the NHS. It’s probably the place, I go to, to lean on colleagues and ex colleagues to get advice and guidance, help, direction, share a joke, find out something that's happened. It's unbelievably important.

'I think in days gone by conferences and being in London and meeting for a drink with 10 of them and that sort of thing would have been how you did that. But the last 18 months has changed all that. I think almost without any detractors people are so excited for the moment when we actually get sat in a pub again or at a conference again and can actually have a real face-to-face conversation.’

What does a good CIO look like in healthcare and is that different to being in Boots?

‘I think it is different because your reason for being here is different. As a CIO in healthcare and in Boots, I'm here for both the patient and the clinician. In healthcare, it’s complex to define who the actual customer is and how that relationship actually works - I think that's been a challenge for the CIO in healthcare for some time.

'Boots had 2,500 stores and the customer comes in for a variety of reasons - to get their prescription or buy their beauty product or pick up a meal deal. I often thought that the NHS had a hard time trying to define the customer, but actually as soon as you're not in there you realise we're all in a similar boat, we just have it easier in some ways because the leadership in Boots would understand better probably who its customers are than a board in a big NHS trust.’

How do you plan for the future, with COVID?

‘We work in three year planning cycles. We’re currently working through ‘what does recovery look like?’ How do you move from that to a place where you're actually thriving again as an organisation? The changes in our area as a business, is the fact that the high street is unrecognisable compared to 18 months ago.

'Many would say it was already heading in that direction but the pandemic has definitely sped up that shift from on street, to online. Planning for the future now has to have digital at the core of retail and of healthcare. These two verticals have been successfully turned on, so why would a customer or a patient want to turn it off now?’