As the video call comes into focus, I can’t help but note that Commander Jim Briscoe looks a little different to the last time I saw him.
“I’d get the razor out if it was a meeting with a two star,” he concedes. “But right now I’ve got three weeks of beard growth – much to the annoyance of my wife and children who have just bought me a beard trimmer.”
Just like the rest of us, Briscoe has been getting used to new ways of doing things, not least the opportunity to ditch the daily joust with the razor. But other aspects of the lockdown have also found favour with this 19 year Royal Navy veteran.
“Everyone is more flexible under the current Covid conditions,” he reflects. “We recognised early on that we were at slightly higher risk than other naval teams. This is because we have a large proportion of people coming into a small office via public transport from across the south east, and so we switched to remote working about 10 days before the rest of the Navy.
“We’re planning how we can retain positive elements of COVID working – proactively shaping our new normal as opposed to passively returning to old habits when the lockdown does eventually relax. We can do that either through adopting technology already available but not yet fully being exploited, or allowing more flexible working.”
It’s no surprise that Briscoe is relishing the opportunity to try something new. The need and desire to do things a little differently, to question long-accustomed rules, runs deep. This is probably why he has proven so suited to his role helping oversee NELSON, an innovation programme rapidly accelerating the exploitation of advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence in the Royal Navy.
Sure, his technical background and naval experience – on land and sea – has been vital but so, too, has his mindset; the determination to turn the page; the aversion to the status quo and willingness to challenge legacy processes. Briscoe has all this in spades – but such traits have not always been deployed while in uniform.
A civilian starting point
So, how did Briscoe end up in the Navy? A military calling may have seemed inevitable given the exploits of his father – a navigator in the Royal Navy – but, at least to start with, he opted against following in his footsteps. After studying engineering at the University of Liverpool, he worked in the private sector for about four years.
Although it was an experience he enjoyed, the siren call of the armed forces slowly grew stronger. “I dipped my toe into the commercial world but ultimately it was a desire and a growing fire in my belly for the excitement of operations,” he admits. “This has driven my career ever since – even though it has been a fairly unconventional path.”
Although he considered the army, the connection made with naval officers proved pivotal to his decision to opt for life at sea. “I still maintain it comes down to the people around you,” he says. “This is something I’ve aimed for at NELSON – cultivating an environment where leaders can grow and thrive.”
His first naval role saw him serving as a Deputy Weapon Engineer Officer on board HMS Iron Duke – “a great introduction to the reality of intimate engineering support on-board, problem solving, the pressures of being at sea and working in close confines with other people”. The broad opportunities were a significant factor for him joining the military and, with a fire burning in him for more adventure, he volunteered for a Joint Forces Unit, where he came through a demanding selection process and surprised himself to be the first naval graduate officer to pass. A high degree of focus appears a theme in his career.
The time with the Joint Unit had a strong influence on him, it transpires. “The experience definitely shaped me, opening my mind to the power of small, autonomous, teams, and gave me more confidence to take risks and challenge norms,” he recalls. “It really opened my mind and cultivated an attitude that considered opportunity in almost every situation. All of which has definitely helped me at NELSON, as well as having the ability to absorb new skills and crafts quickly – a ‘learning agility’, if you like – which has proven to be important in this era of exponential change.”
He goes on to say that this attitude is something he would like to impart on his team at NELSON. “The more traditional command and control leadership styles are not enough on their own when working with digital teams,” he says. An approach adopting a laser focus on unblocking impediments for delivery teams, he adds, would greatly help the organisational agility we need to accelerate delivery of technology to the front line.
"We need to create more of a mindset around giving things a go, taking sensible risks and collaborating, if we are going to achieve the transformation we all aspire to deliver”
Commander Jim Briscoe, Royal Navy
“There is a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit aligned to all of this – we need to create more of a mindset around giving things a go, taking sensible risks and collaborating, if we are going to achieve the transformation we all aspire to deliver,” he says. “It’s about recognising the need for detailed planning to be informed by doing. Hopefully we can bring others with us. I recognised early on in NELSON that we had to create a sense of urgency in order to help transformation, there aren’t the commercial pressures to survive here so we needed another way to motivate others.”
There then followed a variety of roles, including serving as Senior Weapon Engineer on the fleet flagship, HMS Ocean, as well as a stint in information warfare, before the opportunity to join NELSON arose, although at the time it was known as the somewhat less catchy ‘SO2 Data’.
“The thing that stuck in my mind was that it promised to be a team effort,” he says. “It embraced a lot of the small team ethos, I so enjoyed in the early stages of my career and this really resonated. So even though there was a more traditional role elsewhere available, it chimed nicely with my desire to take on more interesting and autonomous roles.”
NELSON is rooted in the Navy’s need to accelerate its adoption of cutting-edge technology. But as different suppliers are involved with different systems, data standards can be plagued by inconsistency and silos, and Royal Navy vessels, too, have struggled to reap the digital dividends now on offer. NELSON aims to change all that.
Its main priority has been to construct a “Navy Mind” – a common big data platform – to be used on warships and at naval headquarters, and in a world first, the BETA data platform is successfully undergoing sea trials on a Type 45 Destroyer. Once fully operational, it will transform the analytical capability of a ship’s systems by making all appropriate data available in one environment – delivering better analytics and reducing the costs of integration as technology continues to move forward.
Rewind to when it first began in 2017, though, and the immediate priority for Briscoe was building up the team, finding a place to work and promoting the vision and aims. “It was much like the role of the founder of any start-up, where you have to sell the vision to as many people as possible, and convince them that this was the right direction to go in,” he says.
“We also had initial challenges like finding a place to co-locate our team, which was starting to spread across two or three different sites across Portsmouth. There was also the challenges of how to attract top tech talent, how to be a user centred organisation close to our users, and recognising that we were amidst a new era of the Navy, one which would be carrier-enabled.”
Up and running
Now, the team operate out of a bespoke digital lab in Portsmouth’s Semaphore Tower – which in itself is evidence of Briscoe’s willingness to try something different. Rather than go with traditional dockyard development, he sourced his own project managers and an industry leading contractor specialising in digital fit-outs. Funding from the Defence Innovation Unit was also secured on the basis that this was a new digital capability for the Navy and key to digital transformation efforts.
“Whilst we didn’t adopt Agile processes to deliver it, we did encourage the dockyard and civil servants to have an Agile mindset in terms of challenging processes and doing things differently in order to deliver at pace. From finalising the vision to moving in took about 15 months and while this pace almost took our seniors by surprise, it was crucial in showing them something modern and unlike anything else in the military.”
Here, he is keen to pay tribute to his senior colleagues for empowering him to get on with the job. “This was hugely liberating and unusual – normally in the Navy you’re reporting up and seeking approval all the time but I think this was a key lesson in terms of getting real agility in the organisation,” he reflects.
“We’re now seeing more innovation teams wanting to be co-located. It’s great there is a centre of gravity being built around NELSON but there is more work to do around creating a really healthy eco-system that brings in local tech talent from the south coast, providing opportunities to local universities and tech colleges, as well as local tech start-ups. If we’re able to do this then this will really help the navy become a digital navy, stay at the cutting edge of technology for the long term and support the regional economic growth in the form of a Maritime Technology Hub on the south coast.”
From setting up to scaling up
From the moment the digital lab opened to much fanfare, Briscoe and his colleagues were dealing with a bow wave of interest from people wanting to understand what the programme is all about. Within seven months they were engaged in every business area of the Navy but here he injects a note of caution – their “One-NELSON” ethos very much extends beyond the programme’s borders.
“We’ve developed a strong brand and we’re at a tipping point with it and need to be careful it remains a positive factor in our growth,” he says. “The US Navy’s Office of Naval Research has its global headquarters in London and on his first, of what has been many visits to us, their head said you should ‘ferociously protect the way you work’. Although slightly American in language and tone, I’ve certainly taken this advice to heart – NELSON can’t be swallowed by the larger hierarchical organisation as it is highly likely to kill it.”
Interestingly, he says that in scaling up of NELSON – the team has risen to about 90 people – has meant that to remain Agile it has needed to emphasise its principles and establish it as a values-led organisation, as opposed to being process-led.
“Establishing some values for us a team was really important, but more important was establishing values that the whole team understood and bought into”
Commander Jim Briscoe, Royal Navy
“Establishing some values for us a team was really important, but more important was establishing values that the whole team understood and bought into,” he says. “As you scale there is a risk the values get diluted so I was keen to make sure the values were owned by the team and for people who join – they need to understand what they are joining – this is even more challenging given we’re all working remotely.”
Thankfully, Briscoe can lean on the strong relationships he has forged with colleagues across the NELSON project – not least his partnership with its director, David Tagg-Oram. “I feel genuinely lucky to have had the opportunity to work on NELSON and to bring me in contact with the people from different backgrounds in our team,” he says. “Working with young, knowledgeable and motivated people like Hannah Green, and particularly David, is a daily pleasure and has proved pivotal to NELSON’s success so far.”
Wind at their backs
So, what’s next? There is certainly no shortage of priorities piling up in Briscoe’s home office in-tray. He says that the lockdown has been an opportunity to build some greater resilience. “We have been cross-training team members, addressing some of our technical debt, conducting organisational design and documenting the NELSON operating model so this can be less personality driven and, critically, we accelerate delivery.”
A longer term ambition is, of course, to have the NELSON platform being operational on more major surface combatants – “over the next two and a half years we’re aiming for a larger proportion of the fleet than the carrier strike group” – but he also wants to expand efforts in all services of the Royal Navy, Marines, Fleet Air Arm and the crucial underwater battlespace.
“Managing the weight of opportunities in that particular domain will be a challenge,” he predicts. Marrying demand with capacity is clearly something on his mind, it transpires. “I’d like us to have a buffer above us to help refine and prioritise any backlog of tasks that builds up and package opportunities for us to deliver” he adds. “The newly formed Digital and Data Board is starting to provide that and its fantastic to have the Second Sea Lord engaged so closely in the prioritisation of digital spend.”
“In a global world in which the UK is more independent from Europe, then the Information element to maritime influence is ever more important… Greater automation is clearly the journey NELSON is on”
Commander Jim Briscoe, Royal Navy
The escalating demand is clearly a sign of NELSON’s success but Briscoe is also keen to look further afield. “If we were to jump forward 20 years, all the major platforms are in acquisition at the moment so we can see what the fleet will look like,” he says. “In a global world in which the UK is more independent from Europe, then the Information element to maritime influence is ever more important. They need to be leaner-manned, so we don’t need to place as many people up threat. Greater automation is clearly the journey NELSON is on.”
And by no means does he think it will be job done when the NELSON platform is operational on all warships. “I hope that the appetite for more services and applications will then accelerate,” he says.
“Ideally, what I’d like to see is us having uniformed personnel who are part of development teams, learning code and inputting their domain expertise, before they utilise this knowledge while out on deployment and helping to support and iterate applications in near real time, that level of agility in capability upgrades is something we should aspire to. Bringing more people into the development cycle early on powers transformations and this is the model I’d like us to get to eventually – at scale.”
Only time will tell if this vision becomes reality – but such has been the pace of progress so far, few would bet against it.
About the author
Sandy Boxall is Director – Defence Digital Transformation at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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