Russell Haworth

JOURNEYING TOWARDS A NEW DIGITAL DESTINATION

JOURNEYING TOWARDS A NEW DIGITAL DESTINATION

Russell Haworth’s career has long been centred around using software, information and data analytics to drive positive business change. And now, as the new chief executive of Newcastle-based NBS, he’s marrying his vast experience with the leading technology platform’s services to drive watershed digital transformation across the construction sector. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to Russell to find out more.

www.thenbs.com

@theNBS

Russell Haworth’s passport was once crammed with stamps from travels that helped put businesses on growth journeys.

Whether as a technology and finance consultant, or as a senior figure expanding media conglomerate Thomson Reuters’ presence in the Americas, Asia and the Middle East, he was central to guiding organisations through gateways to next generation change.

And today, as recently-installed chief executive at international leading technology platform NBS, he’s central to another voyage – that of the construction sector towards digital transformation.

Integral to his work is Newcastle-based NBS’ flagship software as a service (SaaS) provision.

Built in the North East, and using advanced cloud technologies, its platform brings together construction specifiers, manufacturers and contractors to improve the quality of project decision-making, drive appropriate product use and provide critical insights.

It is led by Chorus, a software app that enables thousands of architects, engineers and designers to rapidly create detailed project specifications, and the data platform Source, wherein more than 1000 manufacturers list tens of thousands of products.

And in a world where the environmental impact of construction work is becoming increasingly more scrutinised, Russell says NBS’ offer is game-changing.

He says: “In the EU alone, construction accounts for nine per cent of GDP.

“But it is one of the least digitised industries on the planet and generates around 40 per cent of energy- related CO2 emissions globally.

“There are lots of bricks in the wall in terms of tackling that, and one of the ways we are trying to deliver positive change is by making sure architects are able to select products that are more environmentally sustainable.

“And we do that through our relationship with manufacturers – we speak to them and use that data to inform our content and technology.

“Ultimately, if we are able to give architects, engineers and designers greater knowledge around sustainable materials and what has better insulation parameters, for example, then that means buildings are safer and more sustainable.”

Russell continues: “It is the raison d’etre of NBS.

“We are an organisation at the foothills of digital transformation, and with the massive amount of venture capital and private equity going into construction technology to rapidly digitise operations, we are providing a leading service.”

As well as its pioneering technology, though, Russell says the experience of NBS’ physical workforce also delivers a significant marketplace USP.

And as the construction sector continues to evolve during the pandemic, with working practices becoming ever more fluid, Russell says NBS – which last year joined Swedish-based data and software provider Byggfakta Group – is at the “sweet spot” of change.

He says: “We are an early player in an emerging industry, a 50-year-old business that has gone from being paper-based, into the CD-ROM era and now, in the last two years, into SaaS.

“As a business, we reincarnated ourselves amid the digital transformation, with (former NBS executive chairman and now UK chairman of Byggfakta Group) Colin Smith doing a fantastic job in taking things forward.

“The two intersected at a perfect time,” adds Russell, who, prior to joining NBS was chief executive at UK internet domain registry and cybersecurity company Nominet.

He adds: “Nowadays, you’d expect most businesses to be going through a digital transformation, but the fact we did it two years ago means we’ve got so much ability to serve clients anywhere in the world.

“The pandemic has shown we all need to become a lot more fleet of foot; people are not physically in the office like they were, so the ability to collaborate through digital tools has magnified.

“Our SaaS-based platform enables users to easily access information via the cloud, and we know it is having a major impact because the number of hours clients spend on Chorus, for example, runs into the thousands every month.”

Praising NBS’ team, Russell continues: “But our uniqueness is not just in the technology; it comes too from the combined 1000 years’ experience we have in our technical content team.

“That team includes quantity and electrical surveyors, as well as architects, who are deep domain specialists. “They are able to curate content based on technical standards while drawing from their experience to provide impartial analysis of very technical areas.

“Nobody in the region, and I dare say the world, has the same level of depth of expertise and content in one place.”

And Russell, who began his career as a computer programmer with Xerox, says NBS is committed to strengthening its workforce further, to maintain both its momentum and that of change across the construction sector.

Having recruited 70 people over the last year, and, as a wider group, acquired Construction Information Service and building and planning data provider Glenigan, he says its technology is catching the eyes of increasing numbers of people.

He says: “We perhaps used to position ourselves as a construction company that sold data, but we’re now very much a content and technology company focused on the construction sector.

“That pivot is helping us attract more staff, especially those from a particular technology and product development background who want to join a forward- looking business.

“The fact we focus on sustainability and safety means our proposition is becoming increasingly more convincing for millennials and others in the jobs market.”

And these extra numbers, says Russell, will be important as NBS – which employs around 200 staff – continues to expand globally.

With bases in Australia and Canada already established, and its presence in the Nordics region boosted by its position within Byggfakta, he says the business sees great potential across North America, including the US.

Highlighting how the process of specification writing is still, in the main, completed on Microsoft Word documents, Russell says NBS’ suite of technology would make a huge difference on the other side of the Atlantic.

He adds: “North America is not very digitised, and our content and technology would dramatically improve architects’ workflow.

“The US is a very significant market on its own, and the forecasted growth for construction output across North America to 2030 is 32 per cent, so there is a lot of potential.

 

“Ultimately, we are a business that punches above its weight internationally, and we will continue doing that in 2022 and beyond.”

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Culture, purpose and pay will stem The Great Resignation

Culture, purpose and pay will stem The Great Resignation

Leaders might feel superhuman powers are needed to retain their employees in 2022, as The Great Resignation rages on. However, my view is that stemming the tide of talent defections is within relatively easy reach for us mere mortal CEOs, so long as our organisations’ values, HR policies and management styles are calibrated in the right ways. 

Time and again research shows workplaces need a strong, inclusive culture at their heart, so that people feel part of a community that genuinely cares for them, their family, the local area and the planet. There needs to be a sense of real purpose and meaning in people’s daily work, with teams working towards a shared goal that ideally achieves something worthwhile and positive in the great scheme of things. Combine this with attractive salaries and workplace flexibility that meets your employees’ needs and expectations, and you’ll very likely maintain ‘employer of choice’ status and weather the storm, without any call for shapeshifting or X-ray vision whatsoever. 

In a world where, post-COVID, many employees have begun to reimagine the world of work, what’s the best way to make tangible progress, and tackle the root causes of disaffection within an organisation?

Resignations are set to continue

Firstly, let’s recap on the problem. Last spring Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index revealed that 41% of the workforce were considering leaving their employer. Meanwhile the US Labor Department recorded that 4 million people left their jobs in April 2021, and Jobsite found that 73% of US workers are considering quitting their jobs in 2022. In the UK, vacancies last autumn hit record highs with three in four saying they would look for new work in 2022. No wonder businesses are scratching their heads for ways to retain their talent. 

Commit fully to your culture 

Clearly the pandemic has awakened a hunger for meaning and purpose, and this must be addressed today in company culture. Recent research from McKinsey found the top two reasons employees cited for leaving were that they didn’t feel their work was valued by the organisation (54%) or that they lacked a sense of belonging at work (51%).

In the current market, skilled individuals have the luxury of being able to choose where to work, and it’s clear they gravitate to organisations with a strong purpose, beyond making money. I know we’ve seen candidates choose us over another technology company, because they understood our aim of helping the construction industry modernise, adapt and become more sustainable.

In the job market, the rush to facilitate remote working has exacerbated the problem of feeling under-valued in the last 18 months, I believe. Nurturing a sense of belonging and adhering to shared goals is hugely challenging when teams are working far apart from each other. Undoubtedly, the silo mentality has been unavoidable in many workplaces. While continued lockdowns have stalled our plans for fun social events and collaborative working, which is frustrating. We know that returning to our wonderful office space in Newcastle in the north of England will help people reconnect and understand the true culture of the place. With a third of people having joined during lockdown times, so many individuals have yet to fully live their best NBS life.  

Keeping in touch 

Hybrid working is here to stay. When dealing with a ‘dispersed workforce’, even in a reduced form, leaders need a view on what’s working, and what isn’t for their teams. Regular ‘pulse’ surveys give management a valuable temperature check of employee attitudes, and over time you can gather both quantitative and qualitative feedback. Because these are anonymous, they are revealingly truthful and therefore very useful. 

Focused team meetings and one-to-one also give leaders the chance to see first-hand how employees are coping with workloads, to check whether individuals are enjoying tasks, utilising technology correctly and where the stress points are being felt. Senior leaders must be excellent listeners, with the nous to separate the ‘noise’ from the real issues. They must also be able to read situations beyond spoken or written words – so recognising body language and sensing fraught relationships and brewing toxic situations before damage is done. 

I’d remind leaders to be conscious that feedback is futile unless demonstrable actions come out of it. Make sure the desired changes are made and everyone hears about them – whether that’s better-quality coffee being introduced, or top-level strategy being more efficiently communicated across teams.

Hybrid working should be handled with care 

Technology is enabling a great deal of remote, autonomous working, but the dark side of autonomy is that you’re not fully engaging with others across the business. Leaders need to be wary of this. At NBS we’re conscious that mentoring, collaboration and teamwork should not be allowed to disappear no matter how the workplace evolves. Creativity, learning and shared experiences are hard to simulate via a screen.  

That said, lockdowns allowed us all to take up new leisure activities from running to singing to campervan weekends, and we’ve adapted our lives accordingly. Few would want to give them up now, so if we can ‘stretch the day’ and still be productive, this is to be welcomed and employers should trust that work will be completed within the hybrid model. Certainly, sensible discussions taking place now about parental responsibilities were long overdue in the workplace. Openness to flexibility around childcare is thankfully becoming the norm. 

Play and pay fair

The coming years will see incredibly tough competition for top talent and skimping on salaries and incentives should not be an option if you want people with the right skills, experience and attitude. 

And I’d warn against hiring people who don’t have the right personality and values to fit your organisation. Psychometric testing can help, but the whole recruitment and retention process should be geared to attracting, selecting and nurturing people who care about the same things the company cares about.  

Wellbeing is a hot topic, but by now it’s a hygiene factor and shouldn’t be seen as a differentiator in the job market. Organisations have to make their wellbeing programmes more than a tick box exercise. So, for instance, offering real value that will impact people’s mental and physical health. For example we have talks and initiatives around nutrition and sleep for example, as well as access to fitness services, including onsite Peletons. 

Build their skills and your talent pipeline

People expect us to help them build transferable skills so they can further their careers. This is where the Employer Value Proposition (EVP) is absolutely essential – employers must do all the legwork to make themselves stand out, to attract the most sought-after employees. This will pay off if the right people are hired, and retention rates stay high. 

Finally, don’t neglect your talent pipeline. That means getting more people into the business and giving them great jobs and real skills that will benefit them for life. Once they’re with you, don’t blow it by failing to listen or care. It doesn’t take a superhuman ability to see how important these things can be.

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My Talk With Technology Magazine

My Talk with Technology Magazine

As the CEO of NBS, I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Technology Magazine and express my thoughts and opinions of the digital revolution and how technology can benefit businesses. 

 

Russell is CEO of NBS, believes the digital revolution in construction is now finally happening, and he tips this as the sector to watch in the next three years.

NBS is a construction technology platform which has been actively demonstrating the benefits of digital for decades. Its remit is to ensure the UK’s construction sector has the tools and knowledge required to create a built environment that is aesthetically pleasing, safe and well-constructed.

They champion digital technology and effective use of data with two key products Chorus, a specification tool aimed at architects and engineers, along with Source, a construction products search engine.

 

Construction industry traditionally behind the curve

Russell Haworth, a tech leader with two-decades experience, said: “We’ll see the built environment increasingly created and managed by industry professionals making use of 3D digital modelling software, connected platforms, big data, AI, blockchain, 3D printing, automated materials production and drones,” he says. “Construction, long a sleeping giant when it comes to shaking things up, is now providing the next frontier, with a rapid swell of new tech companies waking the sector up to the advantages of digital transformation. Currently the industry is one of the least digitised with decades of stagnant productivity growth, but change has been expedited by the Covid pandemic.”

 

Technology has made continued working possible, but it is also being developed today in response to increased awareness around cost, efficiency, and health and safety benefits.

Key ongoing issues facing the sector include building safety, construction quality, productivity and the climate crisis. On top of these, the pandemic brought a fresh set of challenges.

Haworth, himself a recent entrant to the sector, explains just why now is an incredibly exciting time for innovation in construction. 

 

“The past 18 months have forced the use of digital tools. What was optional has now become compulsory with big jumps in productivity, profitability and building quality.  In construction before the pandemic, senior leaders would have headed to building-sites or waited for the weekly report to find out what was going on. During the lockdowns, they realised that digital updates could provide them with real time information and vastly improved access to data.  This has led to a focus on improving business choices, with Decision Intelligence (DI) a hot topic. This is the discipline which aims to improve an organisation’s decision-making by applying machine learning at scale.

 

The construction sector is facing new building safety regulations, and as one of the most carbon intensive industries, is also looking at ways to lighten its footprint on the planet. 

Digital Construction Survey – upping the adoption curve 

Each year, NBS surveys the construction industry to find out how digital adoption is going. The organisation has been doing this for more than a decade, and the Digital Construction Report 2021 reveals how Coronavirus has caused a significant gear change in construction, as it has in so many sectors. 

 

The benefits of digital are now widespread with seven out of ten construction professionals saying the pandemic had accelerated their digital journey. There’s still work to be done though, with a third of respondents saying they’d either not started on their digital transformation yet, or were at the early stages, while about half consider themselves to be ‘on their way’. One in five were ‘well on their way’, and only 2% felt they’d ‘arrived’. 

 

Building information modelling (BIM) is becoming more embedded for some, while for others, the jury is still out, the NBS survey shows. Architects and construction engineers use BIM to create 3D models of a complete and furnished building, using software. It’s a process that enables the creation of a shared data model, which can be made available in real-time for all concerned; from the designers of the building to the construction company, and finally the property owners and managers.

 

One in three architects using immersive tech such as VR or AR

NBS has revealed there’s pretty widespread adoption of some advanced technologies. For example, around one in three architects are currently using immersive tech such as VR or AR. These make it much easier to understand what a design entails in comparison to traditional, paper-based 2D plans. Construction product manufacturers are also benefiting, as they’re using VR and AR for marketing, technical support and also robotics for training.

 

With tighter regulation on the horizon, more rigorous record-keeping and sign off procedures will be the order of the day with digital fingerprints required on all major decisions, to provide accountability at every stage of a build journey. There are also major changes underway in construction’s culture as it moves from being cost-focused to quality-driven. Product stewardship and collaboration will lie at the heart of this new approach, so that all stakeholders work in coordinated ways on shared platforms to ensure the best decisions are made on design and construction projects. Those working in the sector, including materials suppliers, architects, specifiers, project managers and contractors will therefore see unprecedented change in the way they work, and the tools required to meet this new agenda. 

 

Digital tools can reduce mistakes at every stage and improve record keeping. It’s possible to drive up safety, while controlling costs and keeping builds on schedule. Rework in construction – the act of redoing or correcting work that was not done correctly the first time – typically costs about 5% of the overall contract value, so reducing this margin of error with technology is a productivity and cost-saving win everyone in the sector aspires to.  Naturally, tapping into reliable digital resources – often on a user-friendly digital device- saves time and instils confidence that vital product information is accurate, and well-structured.

 

Focus on employees of the future

There’s another reason why we’re heading into a golden age of technology in construction. As with the majority of other business sectors, younger employees are going to propel digital workforce transformation, expecting to work in connected, collaborative, mobile-enabled ways. Haworth’s view is that Millennials and Gen Z workers coming into jobs designing, building and managing the built environment will consider an organisation’s commitment to technology and innovation as an important factor when choosing an employer.

 

This will be of paramount importance in UK construction, as by 2025 the industry will need to recruit an additional 217,000 new workers to keep pace with demand, according to the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). 

 

“With so many construction jobs to fill in the next few years, from technical engineers, to office-based support staff, young recruits have never been so desperately needed,” says Haworth. “There is no point in firms proceeding without investment in the systems and digital tools to support this incoming generation of experts who will be responsible for delivering homes, public spaces and infrastructure truly fit for our future.”

My Talk with Technology Magazine Read More »

Technology Trends in 2022

Technology Trends in 2022

I recently took part in an interview with The Digital Bulletin about all of the upcoming trends on the rise in 2022 below is my contribution. 

 

Decision Intelligence, Gartner is predicting that this is a buzzword that’s going to be big in 2022. 

 

But what is it?

 

Simply put, it’s all about business choices. Decision Intelligence (DI) is the discipline which aims to improve an organisation’s decision-making by applying machine learning at scale. Today, DI unlocks value in an organisation’s data, putting Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the hands of commercial decision makers for the first time. This allows organisations to go beyond human limitations to analyse huge amounts of data, quickly use it for insight that will inform decisions, and be able to monitor the impact. The use of AI allows decision making to be faster, more consistent and higher quality, as machines don’t need to rest or have off days.

 

There are exciting case studies of businesses using DI to help manage their inventory, demand planning and some forecasting tasks.

 

You may already have seen an element of technology informing behaviour, if you’ve made a film choice using Netflix’s suggestions or chosen a book based on Amazon’s steer. These recommendation engines are powered by huge amounts of data and use analytics to make suggestions. This is truly DI in action as people are being helped to make better decisions.

 

You can imagine how frontline employees are keen to have appropriate information to help them do their jobs better. There’s a raft of new approaches to information design 

being created to help people synthesise complex information quickly and reach an informed decision. It goes beyond internal data and done well includes customer sentiment i.e. social listening to incorporate into near real-time analysis of data on which to optimise decisions.

 

There are some potential pitfalls to be mindful of. We’re talking about data, so as ever the quality of data that gets fed into the AI system is paramount. You get out what you put in, so you’re probably going to have to spend some time getting the data in shape. There’s a real move to remove bias from datasets and to ensure that you’re being as equitable as possible in your AI endeavours. This is obviously the morally correct thing to do. It’s also going to lead to competitive advantage if you’re analysing data that others aren’t!

 

As ever with a new technology coming into being, it can be an anxiety provoking time for employees. However, the general consensus is that AI will lead to more, and better-quality jobs, as humans and machines work together and the AI picks up the boring, repetitive work that people aren’t very good at (in comparison to machines).

While you’re probably going to see a lot more articles written about DI, practical adoption of the technology is likely to be a case of phased evolution rather than a paradigm shift in the next year.

 

You can read what the other experts had to say here 

Technology Trends in 2022 Read More »

Construction Tech Giant Appoints New CEO

Construction Tech Giant Appoints New CEO

NBS, the construction technology platform business, has appointed a new Chief Executive Officer, Russell Haworth, who is tasked with furthering NBS’ already-impressive growth – which has been at double-digit levels for the past two years consecutively.

Haworth is a technology-focused CEO, with a successful track record of growing businesses across multiple sectors – ranging from FinTech to Cyber Security by leveraging software, information and data analytics. He was previously CEO of Nominet, the UK internet domain registry and cyber security company. Prior to this, Haworth spent 14 years at Thomson Reuters working in multiple continents including North America, Asia and the Middle East. In addition to his extensive operational experience he has a strong background in M&A.

Colin Smith, previously Executive Chairman of NBS, will now become UK Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Byggfakta Group, with responsibility for NBS, its Australian and Canadian subsidiaries and Glenigan, the construction and planning data provider. Colin Smith, Chairman, NBS, says, “Russell brings a wealth of experience and new energy. Not only has he spent the past two decades in the data, information and technology arena, his strong track record includes scaling commercial operations internationally with a combination of organic growth and acquisitions. His leadership style is engaging, inclusive and people-centric and his intelligence and diligence shone through. That’s why we consider him the perfect person to take NBS through the next phase.”

Russell Haworth, CEO, NBS, says, “I’m excited to join a business that has achieved so much already, but equally well positioned to grow further in the construction data and information market. NBS has a rich history and some unique products that add tremendous value to the construction industry. With further product innovation and international expansion opportunities as well as the Byggfakta Group behind it we have a great opportunity to continue NBS’s growth.”

For over 50 years, Newcastle based NBS has provided information and tools to the construction industry, and in recent years transformed into a leading Software as a Service (SaaS) provider. The NBS platform brings construction specifiers, manufacturers, and contractors together to improve project decision-making quality, drive product specification, and provide critical insights.

The company has grown significantly in the past two years, both organically and via acquisitions, resulting in increased international revenues, with permanent bases now established in Canada and Australia, alongside the recent acquisition of SCL Schumann and Ezyspec in Australia. In 2020 Byggfakta Group acquired NBS from RIBA and LDC. Byggfakta Group is a leading software and information company within the construction industry, with a proprietary cloud-based service and a fully integrated data and software platform.

 

Search firm BlairWest worked with NBS to deliver the appointment of the new CEO.

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cyber-security

Cyber Security – the Increased Need for Government and Industry Collaboration

With nine months into 2021 it may be a little too early for 2022 predictions,  but I think it’s fair to assume that both the volume and severity of cyber-attacks will continue to stack up as cyber criminals take advantage of the spate of vulnerabilities that exist  – as businesses, governments and everyday people struggle to adapt with the rate of digital transformation that today’s economy requires.    Cybersecurity Venture’s Official Annual Cybercrime Report notes that damages from cybercrime are expected to hit $6 trillion this year (up from $3 trillion in 2015), with ransomware playing a major role across the attack surface.  

The rise of nation state ransomware

During 2021 we’ve seen too many attacks and data breaches to mention – but a recurring theme is ransomware attacks on critical national infrastructure. Ransomware is the invisible threat that’s impacting companies and governments alike.  Hackers have been using methods as simple as phishing emails to steal data, locking computer systems and demanding a ransom. It’s often paired with a threat of releasing the data online if an agency or individual doesn’t comply.

For example, the attack on Colonial Pipeline between 6th May to 12th May shook the United States as hackers attacked an oil pipeline of critical importance. This was a ransomware attack that heavily impacted the computerized equipment managing the pipeline and led to a significant data breach.  The attack was so severe a state of emergency was declared by the State governor. Although this has now been resolved, it cost the company $5 million to gain back access to its systems. 

Another ransomware attack happened this past June on U.S. meat processor JBS, who was forced to halt all U.S. operations while it scrambled to restore functionality. The attack, like other recent hacks, is believed to have originated in Russia.  Not only did the attack disrupt the operations in the U.S., it impacted  supply chains as far away as Australia.  

UK councils, U.S. state and local governments are generally easy targets, given their outdated, underfunded IT infrastructures.  They’ve seen a huge upswing in attacks leading U.S. President Joe Biden to call in big tech.

U.S. President Biden calls for action

All of this had led to U.S. President Biden gathering the top brass from the tech, finance, gas, water and insurance industries in the last few weeks to tackle the challenges of cyber-attacks.

“The reality is most of our critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector, and the federal government can’t meet this challenge alone,” Biden said. “You have the power, capacity and responsibility, I believe, to raise the bar on cybersecurity.”

Some the key goals for the meeting, according to a senior administration official:

  • Getting commitments from tech companies to bake more cybersecurity into tech products so consumers don’t have to install an endless string of updates to keep from being hacked.
  • Persuading firms in critical sectors such as energy, transportation and manufacturing to upgrade cyber protections so they aren’t hit with economy-shaking ransomware attacks.
  • Encouraging a surge in cyber education and training to help fill roughly 500,000 vacant cybersecurity jobs across the nation.

Industry reacts

According to The Washington Post, what came out of the summit was a range of initiatives – primarily aimed at boosting the scarce cybersecurity workforce:

  • Microsoft will make $150 million available to government agencies to boost their cyber defenses.
  • IBM will train 150,000 people in cyber skills and work with historically Black colleges and universities to create cybersecurity centers.
  • Google will train 100,000 Americans in fields such as IT and data analytics.
  • Amazon will make employees’ cybersecurity training public and offer some cloud customers free authentication devices.
  • TIAA announced a partnership with New York University (NYU) to allow employees to get free cyber master’s degrees.

Microsoft also announced a plan to invest $20 billion over five years to strengthen cybersecurity. Google will spend $10 billion over the same period.  

Microsoft is also encouraging adoption of common security protocols like DMARC.  DMARC is an email authentication, policy, and reporting protocol. Implementing DMARC identifies spoofed phishing emails from cybercriminals by validating the sender’s identity. DMARC allows senders to show that their messages are protected and tells the recipient what to do if an authentication method fails.

Carrot before stick

Given the sensitivity and political fall-out of increasing nation state cyber activity, industry (some of whom are the very same companies who are often suppliers to the government) need to take action to avoid governments imposing security mandates and grant Congress more authority to act.  

One example where the US government has implemented more regulatory scrutiny is the military supply chain.  It developed a framework of certification called Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).  While it is early days in its implementation, the CMMC is intended to serve as a verification mechanism to ensure that Defence Industrial Base (DIB) companies implement appropriate cybersecurity practices and processes to protect Federal Contract Information (FCI) and Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) within their unclassified networks.

Nation State Defence 

Governments are investing heavily in defending their own infrastructure.  The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has its Active Cyber Defence (ACD) – a key part of which is its ‘Protective DNS’ (PDNS) solution.  

According to the NCSC, “The Domain Name System (DNS) is the address book of the internet. Your computer relies on DNS to find out exactly where ‘example.com’ (a domain) is located (or its IP address) so it can connect to it. Anyone can register a domain so that everyone else can find the IP address associated with it, to enable them to connect to it. Unfortunately, ‘anyone’ includes those who wish to cause harm. Attackers often use seemingly legitimate domains as part of malware and phishing attacks. PDNS exists to combat that malicious activity for public sector users. PDNS prevents the successful resolution of domains associated with malicious activity, while enabling the rest of the internet to remain accessible. 

In 2019, PDNS increased its estimated number of protected UK public sector employees by 57%, from 1.4 million to 2.2 million. In total, the service handled 142 billion queries over the 12-month period, more than double the 68.7 billion queries made in 2018, with a peak query rate of 43,726 queries per second at one point in October. Of the 142 billion queries handled in 2019, NCSC blocked 80 million queries to 175,000 unique domains. When we look closer at these numbers, we find that 25 million blocks were related to algorithmically generated domains (AGDs); 16 million blocks were related to botnet C2; 14,000 for indicators related to exploit kits; and 3,200 for ransomware.”  

In 2020, NCSC launched PDNS Digital Roaming to allow those affected by the pandemic to continue working remotely and enjoy PDNS protection outside of the office.  Providers to the government – like Nominet, the domain and cyber security company – are helping the UK government and its employees in the health and public sector keep their guard up.  The outcomes were clear.  PDNS not only protected users from malicious Covid-19 related domains; it identified those who required additional protection; and it is now being used by the majority of NHS organisations across the UK.  Plans are also underway to now offer PDNS to the public sector for the first time.

A team effort

As the African proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

With the shared interest of protecting national infrastructure, preventing mass data breaches and defending against opportunistic or catastrophic nation state threats – industry and governments truly should be working together to prevent future ransomware attacks. 

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The Great Resignation

40% of employees are looking to resign in the next 12 months

Coming out of the pandemic 40% of employees are looking to resign in the next 12 months

Positive economic growth and record highs on Wall Street are creating an increasingly optimistic sentiment in the job market. In the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the US economy added 850,000 jobs last month. Hidden by this encouraging figure is the hint of an unusual trend: people are beginning to quit their jobs in extraordinary numbers – 4 million resignations in April alone – the highest rate seen since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began to collect this data in 2000.

According to a recent report from Microsoft, 41% of the global workforce is considering leaving their jobs. This isn’t limited to blue collar roles – it’s across industries from technology to financial services. To put that in context, if you’re the CEO of a 500 employee business in the technology sector you’re at risk of losing 200 staff in the next 12 months.

Market buoyancy and low household debt (US household debt went down in 2020 – only the second time in 35 years) may increase the appetite to take a risk and change careers. The number of new businesses registered in the United Kingdom in the third quarter of 2020 rose 30 percent compared with 2019, showing the largest increase seen since 2012. The pandemic was certainly a time for many to reflect on what matters in life and re-evaluate the work-life balance. For some, the realisation that they can work effectively from home was the catalyst for a lifestyle change – budding entrepreneurs across the country were starting their own business, or just having a “side hustle” (Cambridge Dictionary describes it as: a piece of work or a job that you get paid for doing in addition to your main job – https://www.theukdomain.uk/best-places-to-start-a-side-hustle/).

Employers have had a lot to deal with during the pandemic – according to McKinsey’s Global Survey of executives – companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products has accelerated by seven years. 

That’s a lot of change done quickly, and the toll on employees has been exacting. This high productivity and output is masking an exhausted workforce. In the last quarter of 2020, the average number of hours worked in the US rose by over 10% percent. 

One of the consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. I know I’ve certainly felt that at times. But a more subtle trend in Microsoft’s report is that the workforce has become more siloed. 

In the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest co-workers.

“At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished,” the report says. “This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic.”

Employers are now adapting to these challenges, the Microsoft Work Trend Index: 2021 Annual Report says that two-thirds of leaders are redesigning offices space for hybrid work to increase opportunities for collaboration, and giving employees greater flexibility on when to come to the office. 

Employers should also be investing in their people. According to Personio – the HR software company – nearly half (45%) of HR decision makers saying they are worried that staff will leave once the job market improves. Yet, despite this, only a quarter (26%) of HR decision makers say that talent retention is a priority for their organisation over the next 12 months. Retaining staff by career development opportunities, addressing work-life challenges and supporting physical or mental wellbeing are all key areas to increase the chances of retaining good staff.

For employees who have an increasingly wide range of options, a strong employee value proposition which starts with a great sense of company culture – and collaboration is key. Retaining and attracting the best talent is a key element of any great company – a cornerstone of Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’ bestseller. With the increasing pace of change from digital transformation, now is the time to focus on investing in your people. With resignation rates set to increase, it’s never been as important.

The Great Resignation Read More »

coward

Anonymous Cowards – Online Abuse Needs to Stop

Like most of the country, last night I spent time with friends looking forward to the English team play Italy to win on home turf. The entire tournament lifted the spirits of multiple home nations – and I loved the sense of excitement across the country – much needed after 18 months of a pandemic.

Seeing England go out from penalties was devastating, but the racial abuse via social media cannot be the channel to vent that frustration. Football needs to rid itself of racism, sexism or any other forms of prejudice. We all have a role to play to ensure that happens, and quickly.

Social media and internet companies have a big role to play in this. Online “trolling” is too much of a cutesy word, the abuse that Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka suffered is hate speech, and those responsible should be prosecuted – to the full extent of the law. 

Unfortunately, that’s not happening. Case in point is Ian Wright, who expressed disappointment in February after an Irish teenager – who admitted racially abusing him – escaped a criminal conviction.  

Too often the abuse comes from faceless cowards expressing their hate from a keyboard. Social media and internet companies should ensure that anyone registering a twitter account, a domain name or any other online presence, go through robust authentication processes to ensure they can be traced. Online accountability and personal identification is one of the ways the cloak of anonymity can be removed. Online abuse is not free speech and people should be held accountable for their actions – online or not. Civil libertarians must recognise the line between points of view and online hate or harassment. 

I’m not suggesting handles on Twitter can’t be amusing – I’m sure XxXDirtyDanXxX is an upstanding member of society – but the identity of the individual should be traceable. For full disclosure, I was CEO of Nominet – the domain name company for the UK. We tried to implement tracking and authentication of individuals with limited success. I think the time is now for the industry to up its game – and for governments to strengthen legislation and enforcement to deal with this sort of abuse.

The power of the internet as a force for good should be encouraged, but we should all have the courage to stand up to prejudice and abuse online.  Let’s call it out when we see it…let’s remove their masks.  

Anonymous Cowards – Online Abuse Needs to Stop Read More »

The birth and growth of SaaS

Over the last few months I’ve been using a variety SaaS based applications, some for data analysis (www.sisense.com), some for connecting (www.LinkedIn.com) but others to simplify my working life (www.pyrus.com). By far one of my favourite SaaS platforms is x.ai (www.x.ai). It’s a calendar scheduling tool that automatically finds times to connect you and other parties, and avoids the constant back and forth of calendar negotiations. I think in the first month alone it saved me hours and they’ve integrated it with workflows to make it intuitive to use. 2021 has continued their prior year’s growth with a near-doubling of Monthly Recurring Revenue – perhaps not surprising then that it was bought by Bizzabo (www.bizzabo.com) – the SaaS platform for virtual events – in June this year. Regrettably, I wasn’t a shareholder!

A short history lesson…

While the ubiquity of SaaS based platforms is relatively new (last five years in particular), its origins can be traced back to the 1960 when IBM and other mainframe providers used centralized hosting of business applications and provided them as a service bureau business, often referred to as time-sharing or utility computing.

The expansion of the Internet during the 1990s brought about a new class of centralized computing, called application service providers (ASP). ASPs provided businesses with the service of hosting and managing specialized business applications, to reduce costs through central administration and the solution provider’s specialization in a particular business application. Software as a Service essentially extends the idea of the ASP model. 

Adoption of SaaS

When people think about the first software-as-a-service (SaaS) startup, typically Salesforce comes to mind. But while Salesforce began as a SaaS, other early SaaS software started on the floppy disks and CD-ROMs of the pre-internet time, but then several important changes to the software market and technology landscape have facilitated the acceptance and growth of SaaS solutions:

  • Slimming down: The growing use of web-based user interfaces continuously decreased the need for traditional client-server applications. Consequently, investment in software based on ‘fat clients’ was a disadvantage (support costs for one).
  • Web Dev: The standardization of web page technologies (HTMLJavaScriptCSS), the increasing popularity of web development as a practice, and the ubiquity of web application frameworks like Ruby on Rails reduced the cost of developing new SaaS solutions.
  • Internet everywhere: The increasing penetration of broadband Internet access enabled remote centrally hosted applications to offer speed comparable to on-premises software – which has only gotten cheaper.
  • Security: The standardization of the HTTPS protocol as part of the web stack provided universally available lightweight security that is sufficient for most everyday applications. Netscape Navigator, in October 1994, introduced the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol, enabling encrypted transmission of data over the internet so – for example, people could shop online without fear of losing their data. That opened up the world of ecommerce. 
  • Integration protocols: The introduction and wide acceptance of lightweight integration protocols such as REST enabled affordable integration between SaaS applications (in the cloud).  (source Wiki)

Rise in popularity of SaaS

In the 2000’s SaaS models were thought to be only for small businesses as they were slow or unreliable. As the internet became ubiquitous, faster and cheaper, it started to become increasingly viable for enterprises. The chart below shows what while growth is slowing, it’s now an industry worth over £120 billion. 

Benefits of SaaS

In the SaaS model, the provider gives customers access to a single copy of an application and the source code is the same for all users, and any additional features or updates are immediately deployed to all customers. Despite this, a user can still customise the application for their own needs (within the constraints of the code). 

The benefits of SaaS are that it removes the need for businesses to develop, install or run applications in their own datacentres, and in so doing can remove the associated staffing, hardware, provisioning, maintenance and security costs. They are often subscription-based pricing models, meaning you can pay for what you use and move to another provider when needed. SaaS-based applications can be used on multiple devices i.e., mobile phones, with a single login, anywhere in the world. As a result, adoption of SaaS is growing both in sectors covered – from retail to healthcare, and subscribers from small to multi-national organisations.

How it works

SaaS works through cloud delivery. As a software provider – say Salesforce – will either host the application and data using its own infrastructure (servers, databases, networking etc.) or outsource that to a cloud hosting provider, sometimes a combination of both – a so-called hybrid cloud model. As a user or subscriber to the SaaS software, you would access it via a web browser. The advantage is you can use the service without having to enter into a software purchase and have to maintain the ‘kit’ on your own premises. 

SaaS – integration

Often SaaS applications interface with other software and workflow tools within a client – for example, the open-sourced e-commerce platform Magento (www.magento.com) has modules that could be quickly implemented, but could then be customised with other software using application programming interfaces (API’s). 

SaaS Architecture

SaaS architecture is gaining popularity because it doesn’t require developing an app from scratch and then maintaining it. You may choose to develop a SaaS platform yourself, but we will come on to this in another blog post. 

Most SaaS platforms are what is termed as ‘multi-tenant’. This means that a single instance of a software application serves multiple customers.  While all customers will run on a single version of the software infrastructure platform, a customer can subscribe to different pricing and usage plans and data from different customers will be segregated.  This is achieved either through separate databases or one database that displays adequate information to particular users. It also infers a level of security as the infrastructure is shared. There are a number of flavours of multi-tenacy architectures ranging from isolated tenancy – where none of the layers in the platform are shared among the tenants to shared tenancy – where the infrastructure, databased and applications are shared, but each tenant in the database are separate. 

Security of SaaS

Any organisation looking to move to a SaaS based platform needs to think through the cybersecurity risks which differ from traditionally deployed software. Security covers access management, physical data centre security, passwords, data encryption, guardrails (automated mechanisms to enforce policy requirements. This will be covered in a separate blog – but needless to say, it’s important and expensive – especially if you get breached. 

In this series I’ll be covering:

  • How to integrate SaaS into your business – with a few case studies
  • How to move your product to a SaaS Platform if you’re not already there yet
  • The technology underpinning SaaS – cloud and beyond
  • How to manage the data integration challenge
  • Building in security – where and how
  • Key insights for scaling SaaS platforms

I’m always looking for good insights and case studies, so please feel free to get in touch.

The birth and growth of SaaS Read More »

Business Transformation Report in the Times

The Times Newspaper and Digital Leaders have teamed up to publish a special report on Business Transformation in this morning’s edition of the Times. Today, more than three quarters (77%) of UK CEOs plan to increase their investment in digital transformation over the next year – according to PwC’s 24th Annual Global CEO Survey report. 

This digital imperative to evolve has been accelerated by the pandemic as companies implement changes across supply chains and customer or employee engagement channels. Moving to the cloud, mining data for insights, adopting machine learning, investing in software development and keeping the organization secure are just some of the tasks to be accomplished.

The supplement includes an article by Digital Leaders Chair, Russell Haworth who considers whether in the turbulence of change, do you bunker down or build windmills?

Digital Leaders who are not already Times subscribers can download a free copy of the report below.

Business Transformation Report in the Times Read More »