CIO Column

All aboard for a seachange in working

The RSS Sir David Attenborough is a flagship for rethinking how to work. CIOs and CTOs have an opportunity to be at the helm of great change.

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“I was asked to get a series of scientists and engineers together and come up with a list of things that we would want on a new ship,” Dr Robert Larter says of his role in the creation of the Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough. The SDA, as the ship is dubbed by its crew and scientists, is more than a ship, it is an example of how to build a completely new working environment.

As organisations look towards their future in a post-pandemic economy, they can take lessons from the SDA and benefit the business and its employees. We can, of course, ignore the last two years and try to return to 2019 and old fashioned working methods, or use the last two years to sail on a new course that will see the buildings from which we operate organisations literally become flagships for change, just as the SDA is a corvette for sustainability.

“The SDA is an amazing platform for doing science,” Dr Larter, Deputy Science Leader of Palaeo Environments at the British Antarctic Survey, says on the radio show Costing the Earth. Scientists and engineers describe the 129-metre vessel as a floating village, a term that really defines what the requirements gathering process and subsequent building of the SDA has delivered. As a village, the SDA has something for everyone that will use the vessel. It will collect evidence from a wide variety of environmental elements. Its infrastructure improves the collection of the scientific data and the working day and, perhaps most importantly; it brings the analysis of the data closer to the collection point. In most walks of life, bringing analysis closer to data collection points improves insight. 

Dr Larter says that in 2013 when he was tasked with collating the requirements for a new research ship; he considered the project nothing more than a dream. “At the time, the UK was at the height of austerity,” he says of the £200 million project. Research vessels are not off-the-shelf projects. But if an organisation is given the opportunity to rethink how it achieves its purpose, then, like the British Atlantic Survey, it is vital to take the opportunity to use every creative possibility available. Seizing those chances allows organisations to create what the SDA is: “a more multi-disciplinary way of working”.

Interestingly, it cannot be ignored that in an age of Agile methodologies and iterative deployment, shipbuilding is pretty much a Waterfall method of delivering large projects. However, as every business technology leader knows, it is always a case of the right methodology for the right part of the project, and I expect the SDA used elements of Agile and Waterfall. 

Initial reports from the science community are that the SDA has delivered on its remit. The outcome is not only a large red ship but a step forward in delivering scientific research into climate change. Research that prior to the SDA setting sail required land-based labs can now be done at sea, and the scale of the SDA is leading to greater engagement, which in turn is leading to larger scientific projects taking place, tackling bigger issues. The levels of collaboration are also increasing, which will accelerate research leading to outcomes. All of which proves that the SDA is a platform for change.

The SDA was conceived during the global banking crisis. Developed and built during the age of austerity, and it set sail on its maiden voyage in the winter of 2021 as yet another wave of the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe. This is a vessel, and a project, built during an age of adversity to cope with the adversity of the high seas and polar regions. Today’s economy is buffeted by tidal waves of change and chill winds of inflation and nationalism. Therefore business technology leaders need to be at the tiller of major change to the physical platforms of their firms and ensure that the built environment of an organisation is a platform for collaboration, big ideas and a floating village that brings the ecosystem an organisation operates within together.