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Business modernisation

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In association with Leidos UK, editor Kirsty Adams discusses technology and modernisation with Royal Air Force Air Vice Marshal and Director of Defence Support Transformation at the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD), Richard Hill.

KA: What challenges have you faced over the course of this pandemic?
RH: Like many people, our major challenge has been the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And as the immediate response to that starts to settle down, we’re thinking about what lessons we might learn from it, and how to avoid any false lessons.

As a defence organisation, we have ongoing operations and other business-as-usual activities that we have had to run alongside the pandemic response. We have also embarked on a ten-year programme to transform the way in which we do logistics and support across defence; I’ve been trying my best to keep that going while people are working from home, and while dealing with the very urgent pandemic response.

KA: How do you see the industry changing as a result of COVID-19?
RH: Across the industry there is a view that COVID-19, as well as being a tragic set of circumstances, has been something of an accelerator of innovation and change,specifically in connection with digital transformation.

Our challenge has been not to be moved off course. What the pandemic has done is reinforce that logistics and support is a key enabler of activity. The response to COVID-19
in the UK has undoubtedly been in large part, a question of logistics. And defence has realised this too—hopefully we’ll be able to gain the sponsorship and financial backing for all the work we need to do based on the understanding that we’re key enablers and not just back office “administrative drag”.

KA: Do you have any examples of specific projects?
RH: We have three interesting programmes underway. The first of these is a new defence support operating model. Our logistics and support arrangements have become fragmented, so we need to rearrange our operating model and configure it to deal with new challenges. The second big programme is “Business Modernisation for Support”, which is about making sure we have a set of standard logistics support processes used across the Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force, rather than the hundreds of separate, overlapping processes.

Once we’ve got those new processes embedded, we will introduce new digital tools, apps and cloud-based technology to make sure we have the new information services to support those business procedures. Elsewhere, we have a range of what we call “discovery projects”, which are all about bringing discreet parts of the organisation up to date with new ways of thinking, often with commercial partners. One of these is a fuel enterprise project to modernise our fuel operation; elsewhere we’re trying to get better at understanding provisioning, procurement, and how to turn stock levels into availability.

KA: Could you tell me how you’ve been working with artificial intelligence?
RH: I think we in defence are slightly late to the party, but we’re keen to catch up—and I think we’re quite well placed to do so. We recognise that the central feature of our business is data, and 20 or 30 years ago we were absolute masters at collecting—on sheets of paper—lots of data on the availability, repair and overhaul requirements of our large capital equipment assets.

Then we would employ lots of human beings with a great deal of experience to analyse that information and use it to predict when failures would happen, what the likely modes of failure would be, what repair work we would need to undertake and then what that meant in terms of tools, spares availability, servicing profiles and intervals between inspections.

But we’ve lost that in many ways over the last 20 or 25 years, as we have outsourced quite a lot of that maintenance and servicing activity to contractors, so we’ve lost the ability to be an intelligent customer. Now, given the desire not to spend any more money than necessary on human resources, we need to replace that intelligence—those armies of middle managers assessing and analysing data—with software. We want to have the computing power available to do that intellectual exercise of crunching the data at machine speed, ahead of time, with the ability to model in a digital twinning type of environment so that we can forecast and take action to prevent issues occurring. All of that space is where artificial intelligence can be brought to bear, and we will be taking forward a significant amount of pilot activity during the Business Modernisation for Support programme. 

KA: Is blockchain going to form part of that?
RH: We don’t use blockchain yet to any great extent, but we do recognise that there is real value in doing so. The security benefits of blockchain, and the resistance to change of records, and the ability to have a real clear audit trail is hugely useful for records of engineering activity and certification, particularly where there’s a safety aspect, such as air worthiness for aircraft and sea worthiness for ships.

KA: How quickly are you adopting this technology compared to the rest of the industry?
RH: From what I’ve seen, they seem to be embracing new technology far more quickly than we in the defence and the public sector are—that’s probably not surprising. Our approach is to learn from the experience of others—in some areas, such as our information services, we are leaping literally decades forward as a result.

We don’t need to be right at the bleeding edge of innovation, but we are improving our access to technology, and from our perspective it’s a huge leap forward. If we manage to do it in that four or five- or six-year period of BMFS, then that will feel quite quick to us.

KA: What other innovations are in your sightlines?
RH: We’re seeking to harness machine learning, the ability of machines to evolve their activity by learning from what they do. Then there’s robotics. That means both robots operating in the back office cleaning up the data, finding gaps in policy, and providing suggestions for new processes, but also robots in the more traditional sense.

We are very interested in last mile delivery, but in defence that interest is even more profound because the last mile in a tactical operational environment is often the one in which enemy action is most likely. If we’re able to use autonomous vehicles, for example, then that is of great interest to us, and there is experimentation ongoing in all those areas.

The other technology is additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing. We’ve finally discovered the problem it needs to fix—I have certainly felt for a long time it has been a solution looking for a problem. If, for example, we’re building a hospital in a deployed location, the plumber may print all their plastic pipes, t-pieces and taps rather than having a large supply chain behind them. I think there is a lot for us to exploit in the additive manufacturing space.

KA: What do you think logistics and support in defence will look like in ten years’ time?
RH: Significantly different. The organisation will have been refined. The merits of having a very senior officer at the board level in the centre of the department with responsibility for logistics and support will have proved its worth, because of the focus that can be brought to bear across the whole business on understanding the risk being carried in the logistics and support space, and to take investment decisions to mitigate those risks and prevent them becoming issues. In order to do that, balanced investment decisions will need to be taken, and therefore it’s important to have a voice on that board.

The people doing logistics and support I think will be differently skilled to the ones we have today: for instance, they will be experts in blockchain and all those new technologies. There will also be fewer of them, but they will be more highly valued by the organisation for the force multiplier they become in making sure that logistics and support is delivered properly for defence.

I think we will finally see the demise of green screen computers that have been running on the same IT hardware for 20 years, with people having to know different languages in order to access them. We will be operating in a much more tablet-based environment with people operating instinctively and intuitively through apps.

KA: What do the next few years hold for you?
RH: As I said, we’ve got a ten-year transformation programme going on. I’m probably going to do about five of those ten years, and that will probably see me out of my career in the military. And at the end of a career, being given the opportunity to spend five years making a difference and transforming the world in which I’ve operated for the last 35 years, and to fix some of the challenges I’ve seen develop over that period will be a good way to finish, and will be a professionally rewarding way to cap off a thoroughly enjoyable career.

The full podcast can be found here:

This is the third in a series of articles from science and technology logistics operator, Leidos UK. Read articles from the Leidos UK series - including an interview with Prof. Richard Wilding, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield School of Management, and non-executive director for Leidos UK’s logistics division - in our July/August issue and at Or, listen to Prof. Wilding’s expertise on The Logistics Podcast, episode: Building Supply Chain Resilience.


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