Defence’s Digital Disruptor

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Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE may lack a digital background but his has been a career steeped in military achievements, professional development and ongoing drive and curiousity. So how did this “knuckle-dragging infantryman” find himself spearheading the British military’s embrace of all things digital? Mivy James investigates…
Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBEScanning through Major General Tom Copinger-Symes’ CV I can’t help but notice something of a glaring omission.
 
Sure, it’s packed full of accomplishments both on and off the battlefield. But spend a few moments in his company and you soon realise that self-deprecation – while absent from his résumé – is nonetheless one of his abiding trademarks. Of course, as Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command he gives his fair share of orders, but the habit of lacing a detailed piece of perceptive insight with a quip about his lack of expertise is revealing.
 
It tells a story of a leader cut from military cloth – “I’m the brother of, son of and nephew of infantrymen” – but also one who is forward-facing and modest, as well as determined to blend the traditional fighting qualities of the British soldier with the power and potential of the digital frontier. He also has a crystal clear understanding of the current terrain and where he wants to get to, so much so that at times he has to be asked to slow down by his colleagues. “I can't see a problem without wanting to slap a solution onto it,” he admits, somewhat ruefully.
 
“The thing I hope I’m learning from some of my ‘digital ninjas’ (also known as ‘The Defence Digital Service’), who have mainly come from outside Defence, is the importance of patience. They often have to hold me back and say 'General, we haven’t worked out what the problem is yet'. The thing is, soldiers aren’t always inclined towards academic discussion – we like to get on and do things – but, in a complex world, you need to understand what the problem is from multiple different perspectives otherwise you risk attacking the wrong trench from the wrong angle. We wouldn’t want to lose our ‘bias for action’, but there has got to be a sweet spot.”
 
And that sweet spot is exactly what he is intent on finding out.
 
 

Delving into digital transformation


Delivering Digital TransformationCopinger-Symes has been in post since August 2019, the latest stopping-off point in a career which began when he was commissioned into The Royal Green Jackets in 1992, and one that has encompassed a wide variety of staff appointments and operational experience, including commanding an Army Division of 30,000 soldiers, setting up the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade and commanding a battle-group in Afghanistan.
 
So why swap combat fatigues and the pressure of command in military theatre for a desk job? While it’s certainly not your average career path, Copinger-Symes says the opportunity to work alongside Defence CIO Charlie Forte, to actively shape digitalisation and transformation across the armed services was simply too good to turn down.
 
“This is a new role and I was originally hired to focus on military digitalisation,” he explains. “It was in part created in acknowledgement that Charlie's senior leadership team is otherwise all civilian – a mix of traditional civil servants from IT, finance and commercial backgrounds, as well as those with industry and wider public sector experience who provide the data and digital skills.”
 
The Major General, as the sole two star on the senior leadership team, was appointed to help provide a much-needed military injection into their discussions and activities.
 
“Whilst in many ways we are just the same as any government department, or indeed any large organisation, in terms of delivering digital and data services, we are also different,” he points out. “Of course, every business is different and every government department is different, but we use digital and data for probably the most extreme thing government does, which is wield lethal force in certain circumstances.”
 
In a way, then, Copinger-Symes is something of an interpreter between the military world he is immersed in and the digital colleagues who are now his new comrades-in-arms. But it’s not only about bringing internal camps together. He has also been working externally through appearances at conferences and events, as well as displaying a nifty flair for social media.
 
All this activity, though, is aimed at connecting up ideas, people and processes right the way across Defence as it moves towards data-led multi-domain integration – which helps explain why he was also asked to take on the role of director of strategy. “This is about shaping the ends we are asked to deliver for Defence and Strategic Command,” he says. “It’s about ensuring we get the right means and resources to deliver those ends, and be able to explain the ways we might use them to translate those resources into the outcomes Defence needs.”
 
 

Advancing through Agile


Agile iconOne way that the Major General and his team are seeking to turn digital blueprints into battlefield reality is through the effective deployment of Agile methodologies, something that he views as a vital channel through which to effect rapid but sustainable change, particularly when it comes to something as sweeping as digital transformation.
 
At this point, he is also at pains to stress that digital-inspired disruption is by no means the only type of disruption Defence is contending with – its horizon also encompasses the risks and opportunities in climate change and Covid-19, to name but two. Digital, though, throws up its own challenges, not least the importance of understanding the difference between ‘digitalisation’ and ‘digitisation’.
 
“Beneath the bumper sticker of 'digital transformation' I would describe several different steps,” he says. “We know what the mission and task is but we can use digital processes and technology to operate and fight better – I think this is what most people call 'digitisation'.
 
“The 'digitalisation' part is about reimagining how we deliver the same outputs, which for us is about reimagining how to operate and fight, once you understand what digital can do. And finally, there is an element of looking at emerging technologies that need significant R&D into how you might integrate and use them. So there are three steps: doing things better, doing better things and then blue-skies technological research.” So, where does Agile fit in?
We know what the mission and task is but we can use digital processes and technology to operate and fight better – I think this is what most people call 'digitisation'.

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command

Interestingly, Copinger-Symes – while stressing that he “doesn’t know my Kanban from my Scrum from my Lean Start-Up” – draws some strong and pertinent parallels between Agile and the military operations he learned about as a teenager. “I'm just a knuckle-dragging infantryman, I'm not from a tech background at all, but the section battle drills that I was taught as a cadet aged 14 are inherently agile,” he points out.
 
“We practice something called 'Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB)' to start to understand how in any given mission the terrain and enemy are going to need to be engaged with. I would say that this IPB is exactly the same thing as the business analysis that Agile folk would start off with, using spreadsheets, existing data and so on, to understand the rough shape of a problem.
 
“They then go into a Discovery phase but for me this is merely reconnaissance – which is what is drummed into us from day one as a soldier. We are trained from a very early stage that in an uncertain environment such as conflict, you're never going to know enough and it’s constantly changing. But the first thing you can do is inform yourself about the problem – ‘if in doubt, push a recce out!’ So I see the parallel between Discovery and reconnaissance very acutely – looking at the situation from various angles, and trying to understand problems from the perspective of different users and stakeholders.
 
“And where I really love the comparison is when Agile proponents go into Alpha, Beta and then Live, which mirrors the phrases we have in the military - 'no plan survives first contact with the enemy' or 'it's not about the plan, it's all about the planning'. With the Agile stages, you're deliberately iterating towards solutions, you're not jumping to a final solution too early – you’re poking and prodding to see what the best route through is. And again, this is just how a battle group sends reconnaissance scouts down different routes, finding where the blockages are and where the going is good, reporting back and testing their way through to a solution, and always ready to rip up the plan and move to another one if there is a better way through.”
 
 

Engineering empowerment


Engineer iconThese links somewhat beg the question as to why Agile hasn’t been adapted more widely in Defence, especially when many government leaders hold their military counterparts up on a pedestal due to their apparent speed of command and ability to quickly pivot to address new and unfamiliar challenges whenever required.
 
Copinger-Symes admits that it’s been a slower process than he would like but argues that this is not about the benefits of Agile, but rather a reflection of the long-standing challenge about how to ensure that quick decisions made in pressurised circumstances on the battlefield can also take place back in barracks.
 
“The normal model on operations is as much freedom as possible is delegated - so people can make quick judgements and seize fleeting opportunities, but we have to work out how to operationalise decision-making when we’re not on operations,” he reflects. “I think it is fair to say that we could do with capturing the vibrancy and risk-taking we get on operations or in a framework like Agile, to speed up the way we deliver, even though the irony of Agile is that to speed up you go slow to start with. It’s all about learning how to take risks, which is the only way you get to seize opportunity.”
 
It’s also important to take into account the natural challenges of changing large organisations of any stripe. Defence may possess its own unique characteristics, but its very size and complexity means that its evolution will not be ever be quick or straightforward.
Defence is one of the UK's national treasures – people care deeply about it and that means they can be stuck with a particular vision about how we should fight and operate. This means it takes a long time to shift their thinking, and an even longer time to change their behaviour.

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command

“I’d describe us as a Grade One listed building, not a greenfield – or even a brownfield – site,” says the Major General. “Defence is one of the UK's national treasures – people care deeply about it and that means they can be stuck with a particular vision about how we should fight and operate. This means it takes a long time to shift their thinking, and an even longer time to change their behaviour. It’s important to listen to the business about why it's moving slowly as once you understand that you can find ways to speed it up – me yelling from the sidelines about going faster isn’t going to help.”
 
That said, he remains confident that the pace of change is accelerating, not least from his own personal experiences. “You cannot move in a senior meeting in Defence now without very senior officers and civil servants talking about data,” he points out. “Although some of these discussions may be rudimentary, the very fact our most senior people are talking this language every day gives me immense hope that we're cresting the wave.”
 
 

Moving into a digital future


Future iconSo what’s next? How does he foresee the next steps taking shape? Skills, he pinpoints, is one area that will be vital, adding that the private sector has a role to play here too.
 
“This is an area of partnership with industry – such as having skills frameworks we both understand and using the same lexicon and terms. This includes our commercial, legal and financial teams. All of these cross-Government Functions, as they transform, will help make Defence move much faster. Doing this in plain view of, and with, industry will be very important.” He goes on to say, however, that much will hinge on the cultural shift that the transition to digital and data demands.
 
“Pretty deep in the psyches of servicemen and women is a sense that capabilities are big platforms that are defined by requirements, many written 10 or 20 years ago, that are rooted in hardware – such as the thickness of armour or how big a plane’s engine is. But we're starting to realise that the 21st century is going to be more about the software. This will be a massive cultural change and will be hard going for some people.”
 
His focus, then, will be on bringing data to life and demonstrating how new software can deliver competitive advantage, with the key target audience being Defence’s most senior leaders. “This is really hard leadership because, fundamentally, it is about leading behavioural change,” he points out. “They're all up for this though – you won’t read many interviews with them when they're not talking about these things.”
Pretty deep in the psyches of servicemen and women is a sense that capabilities are big platforms that are defined by requirements that are rooted in hardware. But we're starting to realise that the 21st century is going to be more about the software. This will be a massive cultural change.

Major General Tom Copinger-Symes CBE, Director of Military Digitisation in the UK’s Strategic Command

If they are in need of further persuasion, though, perhaps he might consider drawing on his own personal history, not only of his time in this post but also in theatre.
 
“Coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, I had the sense that while we were doing very well tactically, sometimes our activity wasn’t necessarily resulting in the kind of exponential benefits we might have hoped for,” he recalls. “Some of this was realising that the data we had could be used to much better effect – both in terms of understanding people and our wider audiences and the effect you want to have on them, but also how you needed to dominate the electromagnetic spectrum, or indeed use cyber space as a manoeuvre area.”
 
Such experiences have clearly played a pivotal role in shaping his approach to what he describes as his ongoing “adventure with data and digital”. Integrating these advances into the armed services’ way of operating and fighting will no doubt have its ups and downs along the way, but the prize of 21st century strategic advantage will surely fuel the adventure which still lies ahead.
 
 

About the author
Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
mivy.james@baesystems.com
 
 

Further Reading:

  • 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
  • Delivering digital change in Defence. Continuing our examination of Agile working, Kevin McLeod spotlights the technological whirlwind reshaping the UK’s Defence sector. But with change comes challenges...
  • Making the Ministry of Defence more Agile. Agile working is by no means limited to the private sector. Continuing our series examining transformation, Mivy James sits down with the MoD’s Adrian Bailey to talk process, product and pace
  • 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
  • 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
  • Stepping up on Cyber Defence. Christine Maxwell is a woman on a mission – a cyber mission. She tells Mivy James about overseeing the ever evolving challenge of Cyber Defence and Risk at the UK’s Ministry of Defence