Ringside: Insider interview with James Willans

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James Willans Ringside

We’ve expanded the Ringside series to draw insights from business leaders beyond our walls. In partnering with others to help create the future of work, we’re curious to uncover a broader perspective on business communications.

This episode welcomes James Willans, a technology leader.

James started as a developer growing into the technology leadership space. Around eight years ago, James joined HSBC, working in a number of leadership roles to help the business realise its digital transformation ambition. James more recently worked as CTO for Lhasa, transforming the company’s approach to technology. From August 2020 James will be joining the DMW group.

James, how do you view the role of the CTO, and technology, in the workplace?

Over the past decade or so the role of CTO has evolved from being a technologist to one that is more closely supporting the business and working with the business stakeholders to enable broader success through technology. This can be both top-down and bottom-up. From a top-down perspective, technology needs to enable business ambition. Bottom-up, the business needs to be made aware of the opportunities that technology is creating and guided on a journey that is using technology as a competitive differentiator.

I think the key point we’re going to learn from the coronavirus pandemic is that technology has to add value to a business. You can’t adopt a tool or technology because it feels like the right thing to do. Our way of thinking about technology is shifting to one where it needs to be selected for its specific value to the business. I think this will be a key shift in the way businesses in general, and CTOs in particular, operate.

Some companies are now seeing they’ve invested heavily in technologies they thought would support them in difficult times, and in some shape or form they’ve been let down. They now need to think differently about the way technology is adopted.

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How do you see the pandemic affecting the workplace?

It’s been a testing ground for organisations to understand how they can operate in the future. Some organisations have been unprepared for remote working, taking a more traditional view of office work, and they’ve been caught out by this phase. They haven’t adopted the working practices, the culture and the technology that support remote working.

Some companies that have embraced remote working to a degree have understood the shortcomings of where they are in terms of their business culture. From this situation, companies and individuals across the board are understanding what they want from remote working.

Complete remote working is not for some people; it’s all about getting that balance. Where companies find that balance is something they’re now beginning to understand. 

How will the workplace adapt to meet employees’ needs and expectations?

It’s a challenge. There are many levels of engagement that are taken for granted, the micro-moments of coincidental communication we experience in the office. There’s an evolving understanding that these are intrinsically important to our working relationships. How you compensate for those moments when people are working remotely is something that people are thinking about. For example, some companies have almost daily social chats in a bid to replicate those spontaneous moments. One thing’s for certain: that person-to-person engagement needs to be compensated for somehow.

Building that hybrid mix of many different approaches for engagement is key. Businesses are beginning to use technology to engage employees more and to understand how opportunistic conversations can be facilitated through technology in authentic ways. It’s important to make sure there’s a balance between person-to-person engagement alongside the role technology is playing in collaboration.

What’s the next stage for a long-term strategic approach?

While there’s much to be said about strategic planning, sometimes it can be a valid approach to simply implement a technology or solution and see how it goes. Analysis paralysis is a pitfall to always avoid!

Often you can more easily understand the appropriateness of a technology or otherwise by introducing it and then looking at the shortcomings as they surface. For businesses that have had to flip overnight during COVID-19, I would suggest that, as the smoke clears and technology leaders gain more bandwidth, to conduct an analysis and get feedback from users. Look at the ambition of your company, particularly around working practises in light of the pandemic, and drive an agenda around that.

Your current solution might not be the best to take you into the future – it may get you six months down the road and need replacing – or perhaps you have indeed chosen a solution that can take you far into the future. Start your evaluations to make sure you’re on the right track.

Restructuring a nation through technology: How UK businesses are facing a post-pandemic future

Originally published Jul 24, 2020, updated Jan 16, 2023

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