Simon List, Director of Information Technology, Pension Protection Fund
Simon List, IT Director (CITO) of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), looks back with satisfaction on the progress made by his team over the past two years. In his last conversation with Computer Weekly in May 2020, List was using his organization’s commitment to the cloud to overcome the challenges of a rapid shift to remote working.
The PPF protects the financial future of almost 10 million people who belong to more than 5,200 defined benefit pension schemes in the UK. One of List’s key roles since taking on the role of CITO with the organization towards the end of 2018 has been to provide a three-year strategic plan to support this work, including a migration to the cloud, the disaggregation of the PPF support model and a stronger stance on cyber security.
Now that most of this work has been completed, the PPF is entering a new three-year strategic plan. List says his organization is using the strong foundation it has already built to help prepare for a new wave of digital-first services.
“We’ve come a long way from where we were,” he says. “We were transforming and changing, but we were doing it while the plane was still in the air. But it’s been really good. I think everyone has embraced the change.
According to List, while the last three years have been focused on transforming the perception of IT in business, including how it is used by the organization and how it could benefit its members, the new plan aims to take digital transformation to the next level.
“There was always a transition opportunity for the next three years,” he says. “Our job now is to interconnect. And technology and digital are one of the company’s strategic pillars in the future.
Adopt the cloud
When List last spoke with Computer Weekly, he explained how he had brought IT management in-house. It had disaggregated the support model to spread supply across a range of vendors, reducing the level of potential risk from over-reliance on one vendor.
List also highlighted its desire for a cloud-first approach to IT implementation, using technologies and vendors such as Microsoft 365, Azure, Teams, Zoom and VMware. He says the pace of moving to the cloud has accelerated dramatically over the past two years.
“We’re about 90% there now – and it’s not just testing and development, it includes production,” he says. “We have live critical enterprise resource planning systems sitting in the cloud.”
Many PPF cloud services are based on Microsoft applications. According to List, using the Microsoft stack, including its Power BI data analysis tool, gives his company on-demand access to reliable tools that support the ongoing digital transformation.
“There’s no point in reinventing the wheel when you have high-performing services and solutions,” he says.
“Technology is now about enabling business to be more than just a side-table conversation. It is at the forefront of discussions about the future of business across all of our services.”
Simon List, Pension Protection Fund
“Our objective is the relevance of the services. Everything is always a question of value. The digital platform we’re building is a huge investment for the business, but we also believe the ROI will come back quite quickly. »
List says the perception of the technology has been heightened over the past two years. Although responding to the coronavirus pandemic has been a significant challenge, he says the leadership team has seen firsthand how a combination of cloud-based services and the tactical use of data can deliver great benefits for the PPF, its workers and its members.
“Technology has come into its own during Covid-19 supporting the organization,” he says. “Fortunately, our employees were able to work from home, collaborate well with internal stakeholders and the quality of service for our members was maintained.
Choose good partners
While the PPF is a heavy user of Microsoft products, List is keen to ensure that its organization is not locked into an overreliance on a single vendor. Having previously overseen the move to a disaggregated hybrid model managed by the company’s in-house technology team, List says any potential new vendor must meet certain key criteria.
“It’s all about commitment,” he says. “Any supplier we work with must adhere to our values. After all, it’s not just about what you do, it’s also about how you do it. So we are constantly reviewing who we work with. We always challenge our partners and make sure they understand that this is a partnership.
The PPF recently onboarded three strategic partners in network security and design. One of the main requirements of this job was about values and ethics. List claims that sustainability is at the heart of its business principles. All partners must also have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I).
“We are very selective about who we work with and make sure they reflect our values around what we offer internally within the organization. We also operate a vendor assurance program, where we verify our partners. If you say you respect D&I, show us that commitment,” he says.
“What is your current plan for sustainability? How will you meet our security requirements? We know what we believe. We’re not perfect, but we expect the partners we work with to drive the same agenda. Companies have a responsibility to hold their partners to account and make sure they do what they say they will do.
Strengthen cyber defenses
List has also spent the past two years helping to strengthen the PPF’s cyber defenses. One of the key elements was meeting the requirements associated with Cyber Essentials Plus, the expanded version of the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) certification program, which includes a hands-on technical audit.
“Last time we spoke, we were looking to mature our security profile,” he says. “The NCSC changed the requirements last year and so we renewed our certification. All of our efforts here are aimed at supporting and securing internal and external collaboration. Access to data is made easier, safer and more transparent .
Simon List, Pension Protection Fund
As part of PPF’s efforts to get the most out of data, the organization continues to rationalize internal hardware and storage. According to List, moving to the cloud and reducing the commitment to traditional in-house IT is also helping the organization achieve its sustainability goals.
“We’ve streamlined and we’re really reducing the footprint. We’ve moved away from the traditional way of looking at data centers and disaster recovery. Because we’re moving so much to the cloud, we’re getting rid of one of our data centers. And that ties into our sustainability commitments,” he says.
“We’ve focused on bringing your own device and providing options for portability and accessibility, but in a safe way. So the technology is now about enabling the business to be more than just a conversation on one side of the table. He is at the forefront of discussions about the future of the business across our departments.”
Provide digital services
While the progress the PPF has made in many areas over the past two years is impressive, List acknowledges that progress has been slower in others. In 2020, he spoke of long-term plans for digitizing services and creating multi-channel options. Two years later and List says there’s still a lot of work to do here.
“If I’m being honest, we’re not where we wanted to be, because I wanted to introduce automation and artificial intelligence (AI) – so things like web chat and chatbots – to lead and guide members much more,” he said. said.
According to List, the challenge of realizing the scale of change projects related to cloud services, as well as issues around managing Covid-19, means that some of these multi-channel capabilities will be delivered over the next 12 months.
“We’re not that far behind where we need to be, but there was a lot of legacy code and technical debt that we had to resolve. We’ve streamlined – so now, if you’re a member, it’s easier to engage with us and contact us through digital forms. There is now a lot more to do in terms of workflow and automation,” he says.
“But we’re really going to push AI and chatbots. And that’s the goal for the next 12 months and beyond. We want a chatbot that can help our members get their questions answered automatically. So, the integration of AI-based intelligence in our back-end will be the next step of the services we provide to our members. »
Generate enthusiasm for IT
List says the goal for the next three years is to change the IT operating model and improve the digital capability that sits outside of the technology department.
PPF’s new strategic plan aims to change the way the organization uses data. While the IT team will focus on developing the right platforms to support this approach, there will also be a large amount of work to ensure that people in the business are comfortable with the new ways of working.
“Like anything, change is a personal thing, so some people are much more adaptive, and others take a little longer to adapt. But from a value creation perspective, I think it there will be efficiencies and time savings, and there will be excitement,” he says.
“We held town halls with people outside of IT to get them excited. What we’re seeing is that they want to use more technology because they know it’s going to make their working lives easier and more productive.
As people across the company become more familiar with digital and data, List hopes business units will begin to make some of their own IT decisions, with support from a central technology unit. List’s vision is therefore to put data at the heart of how the PPF works – without causing complex challenges.
“We don’t just talk about technology as a separate conversation,” he says. “By the end of this three-year plan, hopefully we will see that there will be technical functions outside of technology. Governance controls are still centrally managed, but you will see that data and digital usage will have increased across the enterprise itself. »