The Transformer

Director of Defence Digitalisation, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 4 mins
For a variety of reasons, digital transformation continues to be a step too far for many organisations. Here, Sandy Boxall says that it can be done, citing the success of the Royal Navy’s NELSON programme to illustrate his point
The Transformer My home office may be festooned with pictures of naval ships but I’m the first to admit that a military career was never on my radar. But that doesn’t mean I’ve not harboured an intense and indeed lifelong interest in the armed forces – as my décor tastes attest.
Luckily for me, my role heading up digital transformation in Defence for BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, not to mention my close involvement with the Navy’s NELSON programme, has given me the opportunity to help support how the UK military is adjusting to digital changes which continue to ricochet in all directions – pandemic or no pandemic. 
The sheer speed and scale of such advances present all manner of challenges. Which technologies to deploy? What training is needed? How to scale? How to re-tune the military mindset from hardware to software? 
Whilst such questions continue to resonate, adversaries have not hesitated to embrace this era of rapid technical change – dramatically raising the stakes in the perennial push for advantage. It’s a bit like consumer electronics where there is a new update every 18 months. For the military, though, it means reduced influence and effectiveness on the battlefield. The stakes, clearly, are far higher. 
This all means that digital transformation is not voluntary. It’s essential. 

Key parts of the solution

So what do I mean by “digital transformation”? In essence, I’m talking about a culture and process shift that enables a technology transformation – and critically the ability to continuously evolve capabilities thereafter. By no means should it be seen as a one off.
Agile delivery methodologies are, quite rightly, a core delivery tool for digital transformations and that’s because they offer a range of benefits. For example, capability is delivered faster, and user feedback comes back much quicker, ensuring that capability meets users’ needs far more effectively. And it was fascinating to read Major General Tom Copinger-Symes’ thoughts on the links between Agile and military manoeuvres – the Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command told us about what he sees as the clear parallels between the methodology and the section battle drills he learned about as a teenage military cadet.
The private sector, too, is another key element in digital transformations. Although there is no flawless track record to call upon, successes can and do exist. Industry collaboration within NELSON, for example, has been a crucial component in its success. The “One-NELSON” approach has also enabled colleagues from the Navy and private sector contractors, each endowed with bespoke skills and experience, to come together as one, ensuring that we all work for the programme, rather than specific commercial goals.

Compass setting

It’s important to remember, though, that transitioning to a new way of operating is challenging – no one actor owns the whole solution, rather it needs the whole enterprise to pull together. And unfortunately, some key blockers can prove difficult to shift.
Take procurement in Defence, for example. Digital transformation is not something that the traditional procurement process can deliver. Tendering, negotiating, contracting – all this takes time and means that monthly upgrades simply aren’t possible.  And if a procurement takes years to complete – as it often does in Defence – then, by definition, the outputs will almost certainly be obsolete.
Then there’s the need for appropriate audit and oversight. Unfortunately, the sheer speed of technology advances has rendered the current scrutiny process out of date. And at the same time, competitive contracting often comes down to being the lowest cost compliant and becomes highly transactional. Quality is often sacrificed in order to win, and a collaborative climate is not fostered.
But to build a culture of partnership industry needs to adapt too. This involves moving to a more dynamic business environment, one made up of shorter contracts. This means commercial frameworks need to support and encourage such partnerships to take firmer root.

The NELSON way

NELSON, or rather, the “award winning” NELSON, has made great headway in its quest to rapidly accelerate the exploitation of advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence in the Royal Navy. 
Although huge challenges still remain – not least rolling out a common big data platform to the whole fleet – NELSON’s success so far has been underpinned by a combination of key elements. The project has had great senior sponsorship, vision and leadership – all of which has helped enable willingness to take risks and adapt based on feedback. It has also had a commercial model suitable for the task, and there has been intelligent use of tested commercially available products, with the necessary audit trails.
NELSON isn’t perfect. But then what would perfect look like? What it is, is a programme that is continually learning and improving and, as a consequence, is set to rapidly move naval capability forward. It isn’t a one size fits all but stands as a good example, with lessons learnt (both do’s and do nots) that can be utilised in other projects.
It is also a sign that digital transformation – for so long talked about under different guises – is now finally morphing into something real, something different to what’s gone before. There is real change being seen now and an opportunity for all sides to be involved in major transformations – on both the ocean wave and ashore.

About the author

Sandy Boxall is Director of Defence Digitalisation at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence

Further reading

•    Sea change: Driving digital disruption in the Royal Navy. Colonel Dan Cheesman is a man on a mission – a digital mission. He tells Mivy James about life as the first Chief Technology Officer in the history of the Royal Navy
•    Making waves: Steering the Royal Navy into a digital future. Military service may run in the family but Jim Briscoe is not your average naval commander. He tells Sandy Boxall about life at the helm of NELSON, the Royal Navy’s flagship digital transformation programme
•    A life on the ocean waveCaptain Jules Lowe’s 30-year naval career has been packed full of maritime missions large and small. He tells Sandy Boxall about his experiences and why creating the navy of the future takes far more than just horizon scanning – it’s also about doing things differently at every level
•    Creating the Navy of the future. The Royal Navy is in the midst of a concerted effort to exploit and deploy advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Hannah Green explains why it’s full speed ahead
•    Digital transformation is about culture, innit. Mivy James explains why digital transformation isn’t really about the technology at all, it’s about culture and ways of working
•    The appliance of science in Defence. Dr Paul Kealey’s has been a life spent pushing boundaries. He tells Mike Stratford about exploiting cutting edge science and technology to strengthen the UK’s defences.
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Sandy Boxall Director of Defence Digitalisation, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 22 September 2020