“I went straight to Sandhurst which was a surprise to me, and many other people.”
The comment captures Brigadier Stefan Crossfield to a tee. Self-deprecating, yes, but also revealing – you don’t get into a world-renowned military training academy like Sandhurst by fluke.
His Twitter profile is also highly illuminating. Sure, his official job title – Head of Information Exploitation and Chief Data Officer – features prominently, but after that he also lists “Leader, Incessant Tinkerer, Vocational Army Officer. A family man, Husband & Dad of four”.
Talk about maximising Twitter character limits. In just a few words, he’s managed to speak to a life well lived, one that has combined a variety of military roles with his lifelong passion for engineering – “I still love breaking down engines in my garage and rebuilding them” – and a hugely busy family life.
And yet for all these demands on his schedule, Crossfield remains, at heart, a soldier. It’s what he’s always wanted to do – “at school I was obsessed with joining the army and no one really knew why” – and it’s a career, a calling, which shows no sign of slowing down. Quite the opposite in fact.
Getting his hands dirty
The Brigadier is speaking to me from his offices at the British Army’s headquarters in Andover. It no doubt has become a familiar scene for him, but his first military role post Sandhurst, was with the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME), which proved a perfect fit.
“I’d studied towards becoming an engineer and I really enjoyed it,” he explains. “I’m rubbish at maths but I’m quite practical and I like doing stuff rather than focusing on the theory. And so to join REME was just my dream as it enabled me to be a professional engineer and it’s meant that I’ve spent 95% of my career at regimental duty figuring out stuff.”
Other than a brief period working with helicopters – “terribly dangerous things so I didn’t want to get involved” – which has meant he has focused on ‘heavy metal’, which in military parlance refers to heavy armour such as tanks and other armoured vehicles. “This included a tour in the Balkans as platoon commander, as a company commander I served in Afghanistan, and then battalion command in Afghanistan on one of the last full scale deployments for the British Army there, which also involved redeploying and recovering all the equipment.”
The latter experience, when he commanded 6 Close Support Battalion REME on Operation Herrick 18, was particularly satisfying, he reveals. “Some of my most exciting engineering challenges came from there as a commanding officer,” he recalls. “New equipment was coming in, along with legacy equipment which we were trying to put back into some form of good order and then redeploy to other parts of the world or back to the UK. It was great – a real professional tour de force for myself and the team.”
Back to the books
A running thread of Crossfield’s career has been his willingness to step back and take time out from the day-to-day. The first example of this determination to do things a little differently can be seen in his decision to study for a Master’s Degree in Information Systems from Cranfield University before attending Staff College.
“This was a bit unusual and there were lots of raised eyebrows,” he recalls. “Everyone else on the course was from the Royal Signals and then there was me, an interloper, a mechanical engineer hoofing around trying to design information systems. But even though I say so myself, I did pretty well and I developed a passion for the fusion of machine and emergent technology. At that point we were only just getting our head around the fact that computers were not something that just sat on your desk, and for me this was the start of the idea that data would become central to everything we do.”
He wasn’t able to immediately put his degree to use, however. “Although I wasn’t working on information systems straight away I enjoyed it immensely, but it was only after I had been promoted to colonel that I got asked ‘so, what’s your plan for the second half of your career, Stef?’”
“We as an organisation can be far too insular,” he concedes. “I realised that a lot I had learned outside had huge applicability in the military but we were just not bringing it into our space.” Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, The British Army
After professing that he didn’t actually know, Crossfield’s first role as a colonel was focused on maximising personnel talent planning, an experience from which he drew on several key lessons. “Firstly, we as an organisation can be far too insular,” he concedes. “I realised that a lot I had learned outside had huge applicability in the military but we were just not bringing it into our space. A lot was about digital and software and the use of computers to help manage people’s careers, training, deployments and skills a bit more sensibly.”
“The second thing was the power of personnel data and the sheer volumes that the army owns. In the personal administration system there are many, many terabytes against hundreds of thousands of fields of data for every single member of the military. And we probably used, accessed and exploited a microcosmic number of them. This just didn’t seem right. I was writing a narrative around why people should join the army and what we could offer them. Increasingly, I was thinking there was loads of stuff we could be doing better if we used that data.”
On the back of these experiences, Crossfield opted to return to academia, this time to study for an MBA at the University of Exeter. This would, in turn, enable him to return to do a range of jobs, including his current position.
Driving data and information – army style
Crossfield sums up his role as “pretty diverse” which, if anything, is an understatement. He has responsibility for the army’s digital services branch which, at any one time, could be about 200-person strong and includes a data analytics capability that also does work on behalf of the Navy and Air Force, as well as Strategic Command.
He also runs the interoperability branch, working with key partners in the United States, Germany, France, Denmark and others on interoperability at the data and information level. “Once all the lockdown restrictions are lifted we’ll be able to get together a bit more which will be great and will help with the language barrier,” he says.
Then there’s the knowledge and information management team, including data and data analytics, as well as the Digital Discovery branch, which acts as the digital gateway for the army. And finally there’s the digitalisation branch which is overseeing THEIA (pronounced “THAY-A”), the army’s digital transformation programme, which is all about making use of digitised information and digital technologies to improve operational and business decision making.
Given this scope of responsibilities, it seems pertinent to ask how it all fits together. All these areas help shape the army’s information, innovation and use of data, but is there not a risk that some silos could emerge which could put the brakes on?
“We need digital and data to become culturally part of our normal business. We can’t keep thinking that the use of data and analytics is a specialist business that only the signallers deal with. What we need to realise is actually, this is as important to everyone.” Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, The British Army
Crossfield agrees that coherence is a key challenge and priority, but he soon pivots to extol the opportunities which now adorn the digital landscape before him. “We need digital and data to become culturally part of our normal business,” he says. “We can’t keep thinking that the use of data and analytics is a specialist business that only the signallers deal with. What we need to realise is actually, this is as important to everyone.”
He goes on to say that currently a large proportion of the digitalisation work – about 80% – is the preserve of General Tom Copinger-Symes in Strategic Command, and Charlie Forte, the Ministry of Defence CIO in Defence Digital, but soon the balance will shift and the frontline commands will have more and more to do.
“I think in terms of transformation, for the moment what the army is focused on is a relationship with Defence Digital that holds them to account for that 80% of work,” says Crossfield. “The important thing is it’s not a one way street and that this holding to account is back and forth, much like any supplier-customer relationship is. It needs to have a natural cadence that we all sign up to, and then it needs to be open and transparent so we get that common technical architecture to connect in a multi-dimensional sense across all three services.”
The conversation then turns to THEIA, which is clearly featuring prominently in both his and the army’s immediate future. The initiative, which is overseen by a quarterly meeting of the army’s executive committee and operates across all army functions, is rooted in the need to adapt to new ways of warfare and ensuring that the British military is connected and interoperable with allies and data driven. Oh, and it’s supposed to deliver results in months, not years, which certainly raises the stakes for Crossfield and his team.
THEIA aims to deliver a more coordinated and aligned data architecture, including a single design authority, security and common data standards. It is also taking aim at silos by promoting new digital ways of working, and is on the hunt for new efficiencies that can be made through the deployment of digital initiatives.
It’s an awful lot to take on, but Crossfield – as befits a soldier – is calm, not apprehensive, excited, not hesitant. He does inject one note of caution, however.
“We do need to be careful just to differentiate in our thinking between programmes of change and business as usual and the way we operate,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we’re attending to both those areas when we do our digital transformation. It would be very easy just to do one or do them in isolation, but what we have to do is work out how our stuff which is already running can get to the same standard as the new programmes coming in.”
“This is all about delivering change now so it can be seen and people can become comfortable with it. Once someone has seen the opportunities then it becomes self-sustaining and the transformation begins to build its own head of steam.” Brigadier Stefan Crossfield, The British Army
He is also keen to stress that THEIA really all comes down to helping British soldiers in theatre. “It’s about taking digital transformation right to the frontlines and for us, that is a young man or woman sat on the battlefield at the end of a really tenuous VHF data link, isolated a lot of the time, desperately trying to access the information and data they need to beat an adversary in whatever context they find themselves in.”
It’s a powerful image, and to turn this noble objective into reality, Crossfield cites several techniques likely familiar to those who have worked on similar digital transformations in the public and private sectors alike. For example, making visible progress quickly.
“This is all about delivering change now so it can be seen and people can become comfortable with it,” he says. “Once someone has seen the opportunities then it becomes self-sustaining and the transformation begins to build its own head of steam. And this then allows us to use catalysts like the technologies we have identified as having the most potential – such as quantum computing.”
And underpinning all this is the need for a profound cultural shift. “Really, this is about changing the way we think about warfighting in the information age and this will require a fundamental cultural change,” he says. “But whatever we do we need to be open, transparent and compliant – if we don’t remain compliant then we won’t get this multi domain interoperability that we’re hunting for.”
Polite to a fault, Crossfield insists on staying on our video call longer than originally planned – despite evident demands on his time. Far from flustered, he simply asks for one of his team to push back his next meeting by a few minutes. It strikes me that his approach – collegial, unflappable, helpful – will stand him in good stead as he seeks to marshal the myriad of teams and priorities which now fall under his command.
Certainly, he’s quick to stress that the army’s digital transformation will only succeed if it’s a team effort. “We’re not stupid enough to think we know all the answers,” he says. “Collaborating with partners and stakeholders is a massive part of this, including SMEs, as we want to work with people and see how they can help us.”
Interestingly, he concludes by saying that he’s learned from past experience that becoming frustrated is the worst thing you can do when you’re trying to deliver an outcome.
“It’s better to relax and accept that as long as you’re doing your best then that’s all you can do,” he says. “If you’d met me ten years ago I was just that little bit more edgy than I am now. I wish I’d been more relaxed earlier but to do that you need self-assurance and confidence which comes with age and maturity anyway. But just relax and don’t get frustrated – just do you best and what will be will be.”
It’s good advice. And given his own ongoing career ascent, it’s advice that all of us would do well to heed.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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