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Wellcome CIO maps longer tenure and data-led change

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth February 5, 2024
Seven years and counting, Wellcome CIO James Thomas has used his time to redefine processes tech's position and is excited about opportunities from staying in role

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Over a quarter of digital leaders have been in the role for over five years. For CIO James Thomas, seven years at medical research funding organization Wellcome is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to delivering change. As he reveals, longer tenure provides greater opportunities for change than is often believed.

Typical CIO tenure averages three years and 10 months, according to executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson, and three years was the typical tenure reported in the Digital Leadership Report. But Thomas is as animated and excited about the role as he was back in March 2016 when he joined the medical research organization. Asked about his tenure: 

There are very different types of CIO. There are those who go in and want to stimulate significant change, repoint the organization, and then go on to the next challenge. From my perspective, that is a relatively easy thing to do, as long as you are a good salesperson and can sell a good proposition and get everyone behind it. 

The reality test for me is telling the organization, 'I think we should be here in five years' time, and I will be here answering the questions on why we haven't done that or what we should be doing next’.

After seven years, Thomas is in the latter camp as he maps the next stage of Wellcome's technology journey: 

I didn't expect to be sitting here for this length of time and thinking excitedly about what we are going to be doing.

Digital and Technology 

Initially, Thomas was CTO of Wellcome and arrived to find an organization with a series of scattered and siloed technology units that was beset with alignment issues. He says: 

It wasn't the organization I thought I was joining. The IT was incredibly retrospective, and it was the first time that technology would be on the executive board of Wellcome. Most worryingly, I knew more about Wellcome's mission than the people in technology, and that was sad.

The technology estate was also outdated, with two Wellcome-owned and operated data centers in their own buildings and one in Cambridge, as well as networking lines and very few laptop computers. 

Thomas set to work moving the organization to the cloud and out of its data centers. They consolidated a sprawling application landscape away from five different instances of Outlook and onto single versions of Office365, Salesforce, AWS, ServiceNow and Workday. Part of the challenge was not only outdated technology but also a wider organization that didn't realize its technology was not fit for purpose. 

To enable this change, Thomas brought the various siloes together as the Digital and Technology department. However, the web-focused teams and traditional IT did not have a heritage of working together, leading to Thomas having to change a number of roles and the culture of the new department. He says: 

We landed Digital and Technology during 2017, and then we wrote an operating model so that we had a set of standards.

To create the alignment to that operating model and, therefore, the culture, Thomas obtained training funds and used these to encourage the change. 

Because Wellcome hadn't embraced digital methods, it couldn't be a data-led organization either, which was next on the change agenda. Thomas explains: 

I created a data labs team as a skunk works to start the data journey. But we had done all the technology work by building data repositories in Azure, 365 and Workday. That means we could start surfacing that data to help run Wellcome. This led to carrying out some data science.

It is at this point that Thomas' team has moved from a service provider operating technology to a business unit finding and delivering process changes that benefit the organization. He adds: 

We looked at what research has influenced government policy to inform our funding. This challenged a series of assumptions, and that proved the case that we can generate insight from our data and use that in decision making.

Using Tableau technology, the data team built a catalogue of grants and data-finding tools to make data access easier for the entire organization, which is helping Wellcome identify if similar grants have been made in the past. The team has also developed data dashboards for the Wellcome Board of Governors and recently used Workday data to understand the ethnicity and gender of employees. Thomas says: 

This means we can understand a baseline, target a plan and track whether the organization is making progress. We are now producing impact assessments for the three strategic areas.

Wellcome has a strategy to tackle mental health, infectious disease and climate-related health issues. The skunk data team is now fully grown and working as a partner to groups tackling these major global health issues by creating health impact measures via Wellcome data. 

Thomas and his team have also completely digitized and re-engineered the grant process. Wellcome is one of the world's largest health research funding bodies, and according to its 2022 annual report, £1.366 billion was spent supporting medical research. Four weeks before our interview, a new grants pipeline was launched, which removed Wellcome's dependence on a legacy single-purpose application and used the organization's Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) platform to create a grants process that tied directly to the CRM. Thomas says: 

We picked apart our grant funding process and did some user-centric research, talking to grantees and universities. If you do CRM properly, then the universities should be in that CRM and not in a separate grants engine.

This has simplified processes and data at Wellcome and ensured that one technology platform is used to its maximum effect. The team is now adding Wellcome contracts to the Salesforce platform to simplify data and processes once again. The granting system led to 3 million documents being moved from legacy technology to the Salesforce environment, which will improve Wellcome's analytical ability. Thomas expects this to improve the grant application process and the diversity of organizations and research teams applying for grants. He says: 

In the old world, we would publish a grant, and applicants would have to register with the grant system, which was blind to us, and we often found that we only had applicants from the usual suspects.

Now we can see what level of engagement we have and if we have applicants from India or Africa or another region we are targeting, such as an institution we know does great work but has not applied for our grants in the past.

This data-led approach was especially helpful to Wellcome and health researchers in the UK following the decision to leave the European Union and the highly important Horizon programme for funding scientific research. 

Maps not plans

A rapidly moving technology landscape is changing how Thomas approaches technology strategy: 

We are creating a strategic roadmap, and in it will be a framework so that we revalidate the content of the roadmap every year. So it is a rolling roadmap of what we want to achieve but with the structure around it of how we do it, and how we are tracking.

The speed of revolution in technology is a challenge. The trend used to be a five to eight-year cycle that dropped to five years three years ago; now, with the generative AI spike it is down to 24 months.

Thomas likens the impact of generative AI to the arrival of Google, which swept away companies like Alta Vista, but also the existing way of using the internet. He says: 

This is the first time I have had that feeling since then. Generative AI is so applicable and such a step change.

Thomas admits Wellcome affords him the luxury of being able to work to roadmaps. The organization has fixed term tenures for its CEOs and publishes a 10-year organizational strategy. That doesn't mean the CIO doesn't have to do the traditional stakeholder management tasks of his peers, he says:

You still have to tailor the technology aims, and you still have the necessity to get the sponsorship and agreements.

Moving to roadmaps is also an iteration of the use of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) that Thomas and Wellcome adopted.  

Thomas changed his title from CTO to CIO along the way, which he says provoked organizational-wide debate about how technology and data impact every area of Wellcome. Thomas also stepped up into the operations leadership of Wellcome during the pandemic, where their headquarters would become a respite center for the overstretched NHS staff of UCLH, the hospital next door to Wellcome on London's Euston Road. In a historical connection, Thomas was CIO of UCLH from 2006 to 2014. 

Environmental sustainability

Wellcome has identified the climate emergency as one of the three key areas that medical research funding must focus on. Therefore, the organization has to do its utmost to reduce its own impact on the environment. Thomas says: 

We have done a lot of analysis in the last 12 months, and with the Information Security team, we set up information governance, which has looked at the Sharepoint sites and how easily these grow. This is then applied using a GDPR-like lens including asset ownership; then orphan sites are deleted. This has led to 90 sites being deleted and 2000 gigabytes of data released.

This is reusing capacity and Wellcome plans to publish carbon emissions statistics to site owners to help them make decisions. The website design team is already using accessibility and carbon emissions monitoring methods to engineer light sites that emit as little carbon as possible. 

My take

James Thomas is among a growing number of CIOs developing and adopting methods that lead to continuous change, and as he cites, the changing nature of technology means this is an essential change in leadership styles. 

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