Dynamo’s April 2020 Advisory Board meeting

Dynamo North East normally holds the Advisory Board meeting at a different member’s office every month. It’s a great way for us to build a deeper understanding of local organisations – to see how they contribute to the tech economy in north east England, and identify ways we can support each other. For April we had been looking forward to getting together at the NHS Business Services Authority head office in Newcastle.

In the six weeks since our previous meeting, COVID-19 has driven sharp changes to everyone’s personal and professional lives. Many of our Advisory Board members have been at the front line of leading their organisations’ responses, making rapid changes to their services and ways of working which would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.

Something we’ve discussed a number of times in the last couple of years about our Advisory Board is whether we could make it easier to connect remotely, especially for those of us who travel frequently for work. In the past we’d managed the odd dial-in but never really committed to it. Several people have said they value getting together as highly as the meeting content itself. But, as has happened to everyone else, regardless of these debates, our Advisory Board was forced onto video almost overnight.

It’s interesting that the natural choice of video service was Zoom, despite each of the tech giants having mature products that do the same thing. If you can build the right experience, it might not be as hard to displace the tech giants as some might think.

Zoom worked well for us, as you would hope from a group of technology people who had been forced to get used to this way of working in recent weeks (or for whom it has been normal for many years). Video can be fine for some things, like exchanging information, the primary purpose of our meeting. But I felt we missed out on the in-person side conversations that are so effective at the Dynamo meetings. Perhaps we will experiment with Zoom’s ‘breakout room’ discussions at the next meeting.

Clearly, technology needs to be a key part of the way we handle the current situation. Some companies, sadly, will go out of business, but many of our members are busier than ever, and the current situation is also creating opportunities.

In bigger organisations with more processes, a lot of what’s going on over video should be structured into systems, workflow etc. The exploration of automation that was going on pre-COVID-19 is coming into even sharper focus in many organisations now that clerical work needs to be automated (rather than done by a person in an office) more than ever. We’re seeing a lot of interest in this from our members, and there’s a real centre of expertise building up in our region.

Inevitably we mentioned Zoom security. Zoom has gone from 10m to 300m daily users during the pandemic, so it’s had significantly more scrutiny than before. The company responded pretty well to some of the concerns, for example around its default security settings, the way it installs, and sending data to Facebook. Less comfortable is Zoom’s claim to be end-to-end encrypted (it isn’t). The concerns are probably overplayed for meetings like ours, though it’s questionable whether Zoom should be used for Cabinet meetings.

More interesting are the general themes around working from home securely. Lots of jobs are being done from home that have traditionally been seen as office-only jobs. Several members referenced having to do lots of work around information governance, and in particular those working in the health arena highlighted that having access to patient data from home is very different from a secure office environment.

The health sector is going through a forced, accelerated adoption of technology and the sector has made 10 years of progress in a matter of weeks. Not all of this will stick once we do get back to some kind of normal, but primary care and outpatients will probably be changed fundamentally forever. As in other sectors, COVID-19 has accelerated many innovations that had been talked about or planned. We’re trying it, because we have to, but sometimes you really do need to be in the same room as the doctor.

It’s not just in health where our members are experimenting with modern solutions they might previously not have felt ready for. Several providers of large-scale services to citizens/customers have mentioned spinning up services with Amazon Connect far faster than could have been achieved using in-house contact centre infrastructure.

We also heard from Sage: a big impact on their business has been implementing changes to their payroll software so that their customers can use government support schemes.

Several members noted the sharp reduction in their travel and subsistence costs as a benefit. Many of us are used to being productive working occasional days from home – but after several weeks of it being enforced are we really as productive? A number of members raised the issues of loneliness and isolation, as well as the practicalities of setting up a suitable work environment given space, equipment, and childcare commitments.

Another sobering theme to come out of the Advisory Board meeting was around the potential loss of overseas students in higher education, at least in the short term. Their off-campus spend puts £256m into the north east economy, generating 2,000 jobs and leading to £500m export earnings.

Our Dynamo network is very digitally enabled, and even with several attendees connected via notorious Northumberland rural broadband, we still had very few glitches and no “can you hear me now?” moments. But not everyone is online, and in this environment where elderly and vulnerable people are being encouraged to do their food shopping online we’re very aware that what seems simple and obvious to us might not be as easy for them.

We’ll get even better at running our Advisory Board remotely with some practice, and I hope it means more Advisory Board members will be able to attend even more often. The group seems more relevant than ever.

Andrew Besford, Dynamo Vice Chair – 24th April 2020

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