Wellcome has a new trust in technology

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth November 25, 2020
Head of Technology at influential health funding body Wellcome Trust describes common platforms and leadership styles have seen a new digital approach thrive

An image of the Wellcome Collection building
(Image sourced via the Wellcome Collection)

Eileen Jennings-Brown has a diversity challenge. As Head of Technology for the Wellcome Trust, the independent global charitable foundation, she has a diverse set of internal and external customers, and each believes they have unique technology requirements. But the technology leader from Scotland and her team have developed a common operating model for the entire organisation, and also methods to meet specialist requirements.

Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health and wellbeing, and we're taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, global heating and infectious diseases.

Headquartered in central London, Wellcome owes its philanthropic heritage to an American, Sir Henry Welcome, who moved to the UK in 1880 to set up a pharmacy business, one which thrived and became one of the most important global makers of treatments and invented the pill. As well as building a pharmaceutical giant, Sir Henry Wellcome was passionate and curious about medicine. He travelled the world collecting artefacts and history about the treatment of illness and its cures, all of which is today housed in the Wellcome Collection in London, a museum that is just a stone's throw from the St Pancras Eurostar terminal.

Sir Henry Wellcome had no children to leave his impressive business and collections to, so created the Wellcome Trust, which with the sale of the Wellcome pharmaceutical business has become an investment vehicle that takes its dividends and invests them back into medical research and treatment.

In a world gripped by a pandemic, the Wellcome Trust is playing a key role, supporting global vaccine research and launching a COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as working with UNITAID to make sure that the response to the disease is global and affordable. Reacting to major diseases is, thankfully, a rare event for most, but for the Wellcome Trust it is daily life. Just a year ago Wellcome was involved in the development for an Ebola disease vaccine, which in that case contained the disease.  

Wellcome operates an investment portfolio valued at £26.8 billion. An in-house team of investment professionals run the portfolio to ensure Wellcome has the resources to continue its charitable activities. In the last decade, the investment portfolio has grown at an annual rate of 12%, which they say has doubled the amount Wellcome can spend in health research. Investments are made up of stocks and shares, private equity, venture capital, property and hedge funds.

Away from the portfolio, Wellcome is heavily involved in influencing global health policy, understanding health and diseases, and then in engaging the public, improving scientific education; and publishing material. The museum and library house the archives and collections of the organisation's founder.

We have Marie Curie's diary and Charles Darwin's walking stick and then an investment division. So we are a complex organisation and our technology spans all areas and therefore we have a mantra of ‘good for one is good for all'.

Since joining the organisation in November 2017, Jennings-Brown has been at the forefront of putting a core operating platform in place to reduce duplication and create a set of standard technology practices across Wellcome. At the heart of this is the Microsoft Office 365 suite for email, comms and productivity, and a service design that is the ethos of how technology operates across the organisation.  

We then adjust the service design to meet certain needs, but the core principles of the service design are: fit for purpose, simplify everything, data and inspiring products. We apply this to everything, whether for an exhibition or an investment. This means there is a baseline for everyone, and then we can spin off variances.

With the baseline in place, Jennings-Brown and Wellcome Trust, is then able to craft the distinctions in technology that a property investor or curator needs.  

We are building teams of specialists to service the requirements of the niche areas of the organisation. Initially, we were on the back foot, and it was tough driving a cloud culture change, and we had a few growing pains.

This has had to be done with full respect for the culture of the Wellcome Trust, whilst also trying to modernise the methods to benefit from the new technologies in the baseline offering. Jennings-Brown says subtle change really works for the trust, but admits it means change takes longer to take place. The new technology strategy introduced when Jennings-Brown joined the trust exemplifies this.  

There were 17 iterations of the strategy, it was a long slog, but it was worth it, as it helped the leadership understand the value of it and to see its benefits. On the flip side, signing it off at the end was really just a tick box exercise.

The new strategy quickly became the way Wellcome operated, and members of the organisation began telling the Head of Technology about how things were done! But, she says with a laugh, that is a sign of success.  

Disease accelerator

The Wellcome Trust typically advances the change in medical behaviour or research into a new method of care. But it was the onset of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic that has accelerated the change in how Wellcome uses technology - a diagnosis business technology leaders in a wide variety of sectors and geographies report.  

Eight months ago we were in the building, and we had some very old fashioned processes. It was not that long ago that only about 150 people in the organisation could work remotely, now all staff can work remotely.

The team has done an outstanding job to put new technology in place, and we have made a big education effort into digital awareness, and now we can work from anywhere. Working remotely has been a defining moment, and there is a lot of love for the service desk and the technology division now.

Wellcome has a high length of service within its culture, including in the technology team, so Jennings-Brown had to ensure both technologists and those across the organisation were comfortable with the changes taking place.  

I have seen my team come under extreme pressure, as we have had to develop new processes and drive forwards the business, for example we changed domain during the lockdown.

One thing I realised about remote working was that I didn't really know how they were feeling, so I am using a tool called 15 Five that means team members spend 15 minutes putting in details of the challenges they face, and it takes me five minutes to read and learn from.  

I am now able to do a temperature test on how people are feeling and explore where there are challenges, as it is my role to remove the blockers and to protect them with air cover. Mental health is something that Wellcome is taking very seriously. Showing that you genuinely care for your people is the responsible thing to do as a leader. The reality is that if I don't make our people feel heard then we don't stand a chance.

As a result, Jennings-Brown says productivity has increased. She places a high value on ensuring that all voices in the team are heard, which she says stems from a career that started out as a legal secretary with no formal technology education. A passion and curiosity for how technology works led to becoming the go-to person with tech problems in the days of Word Perfect, and then roles on the local support team in Scotland. Positions in networks, project management and delivery led to joining CTO James Thomas at the Wellcome Trust and she continues to support the BCS as a keynote speaker.  

Some of the experiences I have had have shaped me as a leader, so it is important to ensure people feel like they are being heard and that they are included.