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Guide Dogs leads with data and flexible working

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth January 17, 2023
The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association CIO describes how the right approach to flexible working has helped the UK charity respond to the pandemic and the Vaccine Economy

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(Image by JackieLou DL from Pixabay )

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association provides mobility. With a guide dog, the blind or partially sighted have new horizons and a level of flexibility that is life-changing. Over the last three years, the UK charity has undergone a transformation that has provided itself with greater mobility and flexibility, which in turn has benefited the organization and those it serves. 

CIO for Guide Dogs, Gerard McGovern, had begun moving the charity towards a more flexible approach to working when he joined in August 2019, initially as an interim CIO. When the UK COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were brought into place in late March 2020, Guide Dogs really began to see the benefits of this move, but it is in the Vaccine Economy where the flexibility of remote working is really delivering for the charity. 

Over 300,000 registered blind or partially sighted people across the UK receive services from Guide Dogs, a charity founded in 1931. The charity states that changing the way it works will enable it to become more diverse, embrace new technologies and be able to collaborate with other organizations. That ambition, as with so many other organizations, has been accelerated in the early years of the 2020s. On of how Guide Dogs has begun to change, McGovern says: 

You have to work across areas as a CIO, and with new working practices, it is about organizational design, so there is an element of trust. As an organization, we have given proper leadership and management training, and that is something I am really proud of.

Just as Guide Dogs doesn't just turn up and give a blind person a dog and leave them to get on with it, the coaching and guidance on how to move to a flexible working culture have ensured a new organizational design has taken root. McGovern adds: 

We have reacted to working very differently, and we have realized that we can continue. So let's come into the office when there's some value to be gained, and it has shown us that we can work really differently.

In terms of business processes, this has meant that McGovern's team have delivered applications that simplify business processes. These applications enable data to be captured via iPad when staff are with a service user; that data is then instantly available to everyone within the organization. He says: 

It has made us more efficient, people are happier, and it has saved money.

McGovern says the guiding principles of the new culture and organizational design are: does it work for the organization, for your team and for the individual? Having three clear questions of intent enables everyone in the organization to evaluate where and when to work remotely, in the office, or where service users need them most.

But not only has this approach simplified the culture, but it has also delivered savings to the bottom line, he says: 

It has saved us millions. As an organization, we had planned new buildings or expanding others to provide more capacity for dog training and operations. We don't need to do that, as we have freed up space.

That has also meant that for talent, we are not fixed by geography and our ability to access a wider and more diverse talent pool has increased. 

Data guided

If Guide Dogs were a manufacturer, it would be a vertically integrated enterprise, creating and delivering every stage of the development of its product. Guide Dogs breed and train the dogs that their service users then rely upon. With 360,000 service users and a waiting list, Guide Dogs realized it needed a data-oriented approach that could match that seen in retail. Enter DRM, dog relationship management, a derivative of the CRM that CIOs in almost every other vertical use. 

DRM is the result of a data strategy McGovern instigated, bringing in data expert and author Caroline Carruthers to move the data to a centralized position in the organization. 

Like many charities and organizations, Guide Dogs had data siloed in departments, which hampered the organization from being able to see the complete value of its information. Using its Salesforce platform, Guide Dogs developed DRM to be a central dog database which brought together digital data, as well as a wealth of information spread across the organization. 

Now a genomics database and dog behaviour monitoring enable Guide Dogs to know which dogs will become ideal sighted companions for their service users; McGovern says: 

We had data on Salesforce and on old legacy CRM systems, and we had data in a host of other places, including on paper and on whiteboards. But also, we wanted to ensure implicit data became explicit.

Back in the early 2000s, the term knowledge management (KM) was popular amongst information managers and content management technology providers. Capturing implicit knowledge from the minds of the workforce and codifying it into documents to help other team members, in particular, new joiners, was seen as key. The challenge has never gone away, and as organizations increasingly become hybrid, knowledge management and marshalling implicit to explicit data could be set for a renaissance.

Once again, technology is only part of this; capturing knowledge is a cultural challenge, McGovern says: 

We have tried very hard to emphasize the benefits and that it will make everyone's lives easier. It is still a human making a decision.

In addition, we want to create digital products, and our volunteers are a key part of that. So we need a digital platform, and we cannot do that without the right data. 

Amongst the initiatives has been a spreadsheet amnesty. As organizations contend with the skills shortage, it is likely that knowledge management and unified data policies will become ever more necessary. Despite the strong sense of purpose that Guide Dogs offers, McGovern is no different to any CIO peer who is facing a skills shortage. He adds: 

Salesforce developers are a challenge to find. It is a blessing and a curse that Salesforce is so popular and COVID has exacerbated the demand for Salesforce skills. Technology business partners and business analysts are also a challenge to find. That goes hand-in-hand with driving the business value.

The Vaccine Economy has created a scenario of digitization where every vertical market is competing for the same depleted resources. Partners are therefore getting closer to the organizations to deliver business outcomes. McGovern says: 

They (Salesforce) are as helpful as they can be, and they have worked with us on ad-hoc projects, such as tracking dog development.

But like all CIOs, McGovern and Guide Dogs are focused on creating the environment to attract and retain their own talent, he says: 

It comes back to how we work and the flexibility. So what are people looking for and what do they value which means it is about trust and autonomy. If people have that, they will work to deliver more.

Beyond COVID-19

Guide Dogs is more than a charity; it provides a lifeline to those that need a guide dog. As a result, the pandemic had a major impact on the development of guide dogs, McGovern explains: 

It became impossible to do much of what we do. You cannot train dogs in a city that is empty and social distancing was an issue. To partner people with a dog is a very hands-on process, so there were months when we couldn't partner. 

The breeding programme was also delayed. So for 2023, the focus is on how do we get the partnership numbers back to where they need to be, as there is a waiting list.

My take 

Meeting McGovern in central London and discussing flexible working and data unification was, in some ways, a trip down memory lane to the topic of knowledge management. But in an inflation-driven post-pandemic economy that will rely on distributed teams and digitization, it is clear that the reason organizations need to become 'data-centric' or 'data-oriented' and to develop a 'data-culture' is clear: without access to knowledge, the work stops. 

McGovern and Guide Dogs have led the way and were able to respond as best they could when the pandemic hit. Now, as it looks to rebound from the worst of the pandemic, it has the foundations in place. 

Whether it is a data culture or knowledge management, data is the information to operate and change the organization, whether from an office, dog training ground or in the homes of your customers and service users. 

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