‘Every Local authority is going to have to digitally transform’- An interview with Les Phillimore, Owner of The Director-e

An afficionado on digital development, Les Phillimore joined family-owned Greenall Whitley Ltd in 1983 as they started out on a major expansion and stock market floatation programme. He grew with the group as it positioned itself as the leading £1.1bn FTSE 100 Plc leisure and hospitality operator and as a Group Executive Manager for the then Greenalls Group Plc, Les relished the responsibility of a substantial multi-disciplined national workforce and multi-million-pound revenue and cost budgets. His passion for business excellence saw him introduce numerous initiatives to leave a trail of bench-setting and first-to-market innovations across multiple disciplines setting far-reaching new standards of performance with iconic corporate clients such as Whitbread, Mitchells and Butler, Scottish and Newcastle, Allied Domecq, Bass, Enterprise Inns, and DeVere Hotels to name a few.

Now a Co-Director of a boutique Business Consultancy, Managing Director of The Director-e Ltd and Elected District Councillor, Les’ recent projects have seen him working on numerous regional; international; start-up and innovation projects which have served to further cement the economic and business need for The Director-e to be a leading light in 21st Century Executive recruitment and placement.

‘What would you say are the biggest myths surrounding Digital Transformation and in what circumstances can those be harmful?’

Whilst I wouldn’t call myself a Digital Transformation expert, I do get around a bit! I’ve worked with technology all my life and I’d like to think I can offer some seasoned insight.

There are a number of myths relating to Digital Transformation, or on a wider basis, IT or what is termed the Digital evolution. I think the most common myth is people losing their jobs to robotics or technology – there has always been that belief, or rather the threat that once robotics or new technology comes in, we’d all lose our jobs. Simultaneously, there has always been the view, or expression that technology and the introduction of robotics on a wider basis would give people more leisure time, more free time to themselves.

‘Let’s take the United Kingdom. We are currently at statistical full employment and desperately short of digital skills so it is more about job roles evolving and changing rather than people losing their jobs per se, but that is not new, that has always been the case.

The fallacy – no, I’ll rephrase that – the historic aspiration of more leisure time has become a fallacy, inherently, we do not have more leisure time, so, overall, I think the best place to start is the broader myths of technology on society. By that, I mean the impact on the economic community and on society – that is the starting point.

‘For my business, one very key aspect of The Director-e is that we are an internet based business that specializes in the senior, executive, technical and professionals who happen to be over forty-five or fifty years of age and therefore are considered by recruiters and hiring managers to be “past it.” This is hugely damaging and ill-conceived on multiple levels.

My pet peeve is the weird belief that anyone over the age of forty-five or fifty does not understand technology. We need to move past this bizarre misunderstanding and the even more bizarre belief that this generation fear or are too old to change – many of us are in reality highly seasoned, highly trained and highly successful change agents. It’s an important issue because the over 50s, who are highly experienced executives and qualified, intelligent technical professionals are being displaced from the workplace as a result of a general misunderstanding and misconception about them and then business simultaneously cries out that there is a national shortage of senior leadership and management skills.

I’d say, the biggest myths are on a human level, humans have an inbuilt tendency to resist change and some simply don’t always want to accept the changes to occur as the world naturally evolves. We all have to change and indeed we do by default, but not everyone recognises that people have changed or believe that they can change. When considering the digital world, it is probably more to do with the pace of change that might scare people more, not change in itself.

We’ve always had technical experts developing technologies and people specialised in using those technologies, nothing has really changed, it is just people’s perception’ and it is illogical to suggest that those who started the digital revolution, do not understand the digital world, we do. Google is 20 years old this year and the internet is 29 years old… which generation do people think introduced these technologies. I was working with digital music, virtual reality and global data streams in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s and sat on my companies “Y2K” Millennium Bug working group – as we all now know, no doomsday prophecy arose at midnight on the 31st December 1999.

‘Which aspect of Digital Transformation has the possibility to cause the biggest technological or economic disruption and why?’

For me, this is a bit of a trick question, because I think this has already happened. Having a background in the gaming and leisure industry, I’ve lived with technology since I was a teenager and my original training as an apprentice engineer means I have always understood technology and mechanics and to a lesser extent, I understand programming. Robotics is primarily just a set of software coding instructions, a series of algorithms instructing a robot to perform specific actions.

I was a mature student when I went to university in the year 2000 and having lived and worked in a technological, forward-facing environment all my life. I remember on the first day, being taken down to the I.T. laboratories and being introduced to Google! It is important to remember that as integral as Google is nowadays to day-to-day life, Google itself is only twenty years old. Before 1998, it just did not exist and I recall very well indeed picking up my first Blackberry phone in January 2000 – mobile email and documents on the fly, whatever next?

On that topic, my eldest son is twenty-nine and there is an important aspect about his age. He was born in May 1989 and that means that he is fifty-three days younger than the Internet and two years older than HTML and the “WWW” precursor! I think that it is crucial to remember that only after this date did we ALL get to live in a post-internet; real-time connected world. Everything else that happened before 1989 was pre-internet as we broadly know it today.

For this reason, I think the biggest disruption has already happened, it was the birth of the internet. The birth of the Internet allowed us to communicate, connect and share digital information in real time – virtually anywhere.

I think the best way to qualify this is another analogy. A few years ago I sat next to a Civil Engineer who was in his early 30s and he said one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard: ‘The problem now is that information travels faster than mankind can manage it.’ You can see this on a day-to-day basis – some say that Governments used to be able to quash unsatisfactory or negative news stories with one phone call. Nowadays, you only need one person to release something that they think the world should know about and it can be global within seconds and nobody can stop it once it is out there. It’s the same with work processes – go back a few years and screen-sharing, you couldn’t even do that.

For me, all subsequent developments stem from that first embryonic use of the first public domain digital communications platform, the internet. Everyone can now manage, share, communicate and preserve information through the birth of the internet. Everything else that has happened subsequently is just an evolution based upon that original digital platform.

‘How much of a positive impact do you think Robotics, AI and RPA can have on businesses looking to implement Digital Transformation?’

I think there is one important thing to remember with robotics and automation. It is something that is systemized and repetitive. It can have and learn variables and that is where machine learning comes in, but it really is at its core, just a series of ‘ifs and buts’, all driven by un-variable algorithms and I think people tend to forget this.

Then you have analytics and big data, which has existed for over two decades to my knowledge. I used to work in an industry that retrieved and analysed player data from a global footprint, we’ve been doing it for years. The use of data to make decisions, now affectionally known as “data-driven decision making” isn’t anything particularly new, it is just more and more people are embracing the opportunities; are using the data to make decisions and use the data in new and more efficient, more beneficial ways.

For me, I’m more used to AI and machine learning as my background is in the gaming and leisure sector which has always been at the forefront of technology. In its most unpalatable form, the industry is inherently driven by money. The principle name of the game is to get the £1 coin in your pocket into their pocket in the shortest possible timeframe but simultaneously giving the player the maximum reward or engagement experience and value. Of course, this is quite a restrictive view, but it is the most relevant in the context of this discussion about the use and impact of technology – in the background we use digital information to analyze a whole raft of player, demographic and geographic behavior and use that data, to inform the future developments “data-driven decision making”.

Using that sort of solution, or using AI to deliver processes or features or games or any other form of human interaction, the challenge is the endless amount of variables that mankind experiences almost instantaneously in every-day life. For machine learning, it is a case of teaching them how to learn, helping them learn and understand the new responses and this is where the challenge emerges as the AI is not yet clever enough, it cannot currently deliver all the outputs that are required. Of course, every sector is unique and in the case of machine learning and AI, you can already see improvements in chatbots. They are getting better and better, but you still always know you are talking to a robot.

A good analogy I think for AI and machine learning is this, is the Brexit vote. Even to this day, people don’t know which way I voted, not even my wife or family, but principally, I saw it like this. By voting to remain, people were voting for an uncertain certainty. By this, I mean it was certain we would stay in the European Union, but the uncertainty arises around the future of the EU community – the uncertainty-certainty. Whereas if you voted for Brexit, by leaving the European Union, it is certain that the future, at least in the short term will be uncertain, the certain-uncertainty – nobody and no technology, no matter how advanced the AI can predict the outcomes or the future when there is an absolute “uncertainty”.

So, how does this fit into the content of robotics? Well, if we are looking at robotics in say the automotive, retail, manufacturing industry- the technology is being employed to deliver something specific a certainty that the customer wants, nobody makes a bad car anymore and that is inherently down to robotics and digital design capabilities and they are now effectively being built to order.

The different layers of digital evolution are allowing for rapid progression in some sectors like bio-pharma and science. Thanks to digital modelling, electron microscopes and data analysis, we are seeing real benefits and exponential advances, like robotic surgery and targeted medical treatments, treatments that are at the cellular or genetic level.

In the automotive world, we are at level two out of five in the development of fully autonomous vehicles and that will still require a huge leap of faith for anybody who is used to being in control of their car should we ever get to level five.

‘Specifically, how impactful can robotics and AI be in the Local Government sector?’

This is a really interesting question for me. I don’t know how much you know about my job roles, but I am also a District Councillor locally, so this is a very important topic for me. I think it is an excellent question, and to be honest, it is complicated. Local Government is always on a spectrum, it is sensitive and customer facing, working to satisfy the needs of a diverse, broad society, so there is an endless multitude of uniqueness.

Local Government is and must remain entirely inclusive and that can and will create challenges within any digital transformation programme in local Government. Whether we like it or not, whether it is acceptable or not, there are elements of society that are digitally excluded and no matter what digital transformation takes place, those elements of society who are digitally excluded cannot and must not be excluded by that digital transformation. Some of this will revolve around inter-generational issues or a willingness or reluctance to embrace digital technologies, it matters not, Local Government must be and must remain, fully inclusive.

Breaking this down a bit further, a new resident in their 20 or younger moving into the area are digital natives and will automatically do most things “online”. They’ve grown up in and around technology and they intuitively understand it and they are comfortable using it. This may not be the same for an eighty-five-year-old, so you have to proceed with caution, certainly at the moment.  

‘In the long term, however, I think it is a different story. To be honest, every Local authority is going to have to digitally transform because it is becoming more and more relevant and integral to the day-to-day operations on multiple layers. In the future, everything will evolve into a digital solution or service and eventually we will evolve into a generation that is solely digital, but I should stress, there may be a number of generations to go through and hurdles to jump first, BUT, as the internet is only 29 years old and technology is advancing at exponential rates, who knows what technologies we will be working with and adopting or declining in another 29 years?

‘What advice would you offer to a Local Authority that is considering investing in Digital Transformation?’

The first thing I’d say is that it is always about investment, affordability and application potential. There are limited budgets in local government and these budgets have to be split across a number of different priorities, not just digital transformation. 

In principle, many people believe robotics is all about creating a management storage system. This isn’t always the case, in my local authority we have a widespread digital transition strategy, known as Channel Shift and eventually, this will ultimately to lead to everything being digitalised.

As a result, I think my main piece of advice would be to be very clear about what you are trying to achieve. The nature of a digital transformation is thus – that no matter where you start, as you learn more, you’ll probably want more developments and start to see more opportunities within your organisation. Sit down with your in-house team and indeed your IT providers and take as many curveball and off-the-wall ideas as possible before you start the journey.

You also need to be clear about the key steps and goals that you wish to take and set those as the milestones. The initial project scope is absolutely critical, this is where many digital transformations fall foul, compromise delivery dates, generate additional funding demands and/or do not deliver what was intended – I cannot stress strongly enough – the initial project scoping underpins all subsequent digital transformation.  

Once you have those, you have to be open-minded about where that will lead you and your project. I would say that it is inevitable that once you start the transformation journey, new unexpected and opportunistic opportunities will open up. Never be afraid to be deep-think where you want to get to and indeed, where you could get to but never, ever forget about the impact on your people and your customers – these are the people that you are running the service for and will be required to administer it. 

To summarise, establish clearly where are the wins and where the losses are. Once you’ve done that, you can work out how to maximise the wins and minimise your losses. Of course, you also need the right people or company to deliver your ambition and you need to be tight on that critical first project scope to make sure you can actually achieve it.’ That initial scope will be the platform that everything else will evolve from – a bit like the internet coming into our lives 29 years ago!