Marc Dowd
Marc Dowd (Principal, European Client Advisory)

In this, the fifth in our series talking to IT Leaders coping with specific industry challenges from COVID-19, we look at the world of transport, and specifically the management and training of drivers. The pandemic restrictions in the UK saw the use of cars drop dramatically as the immediate impacts of the lockdown were felt. However, motoring organisations reported a shocking increase in the number of speeding offences as drivers found themselves on unusually quiet roads. As a provider of Speed Awareness courses, where motorists who are found to have broken the speed limit can, in some cases, be offered a training course instead of being prosecuted, this has a particular impact on the subject of this interview.

Who are you, what organisation do you work for and what’s your role?

Ian Dudley, I am the IT Director for Drivetech, who are a subsidiary of The AA. We provide driver risk management and training solutions to the fleet market, and also provide referral training on behalf of many police forces, the most known of which is the speed awareness courses for those caught going over the speed limit.

Since you joined, what do you think the biggest change has been in terms of how the organisation views technology (up until the pandemic) What improvements are you most proud of from your time in that role?

To be honest it’s a journey we are still on. In time-honoured manner, I inherited a very old legacy estate, along with team and governance structures that weren’t really fit for purpose. As a result, IT was where ‘good ideas go to die’ and in a very real sense, our systems were a millstone around our neck for growth. We have a great product that people really like, but the day to day admin in our tools isn’t great, which is sometimes a cause for user frustration.

I’m a fair way down the road of changing this, and my stated strategic goals for IT include the following statements.

1. There will be no IT-driven barriers to growth. By which I mean if the company wants to do something, be it new products, new customers or just market expansion, then within reason, I can give them a sensible time and cost estimate to do it, and the decision to grow is a commercial one. Rather than the as-is, where very often we are blocked from growth because we lack the systems capability. People often think this is a bit of a bland statement, but when you really think it through, it has very profound impacts on how you design and build systems, so they have the flexibility and scalability to make it real.

2. Our IT systems will be a commercial advantage and USP in the market. This is more straightforward, we will be better than our competition, sell more, make more profit and be more successful, as a result of our systems. Again, from a position where the best you can say about our systems is that the competition is just as bad, turning IT into a direct commercial advantage will be a paradigm shift for both us and the wider business.

In terms of being proud, it’s putting in place the foundations for the above and starting to see it work. Seeing a previously cynical user, customer or IT team member be happily surprised. Watching them reappraise what we can do and start to view us positively, that’s a great feeling.

What do you find surprises people about your organisation and how it uses tech?

For people joining our business that it is as poor as it is and we still make money! Especially in the MI space, which like many companies with legacy systems we really struggle with.

When you look at the Speed Awareness courses that we run on behalf of the Police, the biggest surprise is the volume. We process around half a million drivers a year, and we only have a third of the market. It’s one of those things people tend to keep quiet about, but I very frequently find myself talking to people who sheepishly admit they have been a customer of ours.

The other surprising thing there is that we were able to transfer the entire police business from being 100% in the classroom into a fully online solution within a week of the Covid lockdown starting, and within a couple of weeks we had our capacity up to the same levels as when we were doing it in a real world setting. I knew the tech was available, but it took a lot of very focussed effort, and support from partners like Microsoft, to get it spun up so quickly. Doing a video conference meeting is easy, but doing hundreds a day, seven days a week, for tens of thousands of members of the public is a large logistical challenge. Our competitors were weeks behind us, especially at scale. Many still haven’t managed to provide a solution and we’ve ended up running courses on behalf of some of them who just don’t have the capability.

In many ways this is a great early example of those strategic goals I stated, as our ability to quickly flex and scale has led to what was looking like a business ending crisis turning into a commercial opportunity, and we have actually grown our market share. That makes it sound like we were profiting off of the crisis, which isn’t the case. Our objective was just to get our business back up and running as quickly as possible, and to keep providing a service to the public rather than seeing people get prosecuted. But by being so much faster than others, the work naturally flowed to us and has allowed us to support the whole market in getting back to business as usual.

How have you responded to the remote working challenge of the pandemic?

Thankfully we were already a fair way down the road of moving systems to the cloud and generally decoupling from on prem solutions. I also saw what was coming and got my team collecting and building as many laptops and desktops as they could a week or two before lockdown started. As a result we had pretty much our entire staff working from home within a fortnight. It wasn’t without its hiccups, but overall the disruption was manageable.

Of course the biggest impact was on our product, which primarily consists of face to face training sessions with people. All that came to a shuddering halt. But a week later we had the speed courses up and running as an online solution, and actually both the trainers and the delegates are largely happier with the result. We had a pretty good NPS rating to start with, but it has gone up 10 points for the online courses. It will be interesting to see how the market changes as a result of all this. The regulator thinks everything should go back to the classroom once the lockdown ends, but there is a distinct feeling of the genie having been let out of the bottle for the online solution.

Have you furloughed many IT staff – how did you manage that and how are you keeping those staff engaged?

Not in IT. The infrastructure guys have been up to their eyes in getting remote working up and running, and the developers often work from home anyway. In fact, the reduction in normal business change requests has given them an opportunity to get stuck into the project work that always tends to slide to the bottom of the list.

Will the effect of the pandemic change your priorities as an IT organisation?

It is going to accelerate many of the things we were doing anyway. I was already a fair way down the road of 100% cloud-delivered, non-localised systems, but to some extent, it was my brainchild and the rest of the business just took me for my word that it was a good idea. Having now seen the advantages it has given us in this crisis, and even the commercial opportunities it has led to, the rest of the management team is much more on board with it as a principle, which can only make my life, and business adoption, easier.