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Daljit Rehal, CDIO, HMRC, on Raspberry Pis, unstructured data, and leadership

"We moved from trying to do everything with appliances where we structure the data..."

If there is one learning to have come from the ongoing disruption that is challenging our economies, organisations, and people, it is this: crisis demands action. It demands decisiveness. It demands movement and choice. In moments of crisis, our pace of ideation and implementation is challenged.

We realise we were kidding ourselves as we implemented ‘perfectly’ designed operating models; the flaws of which we can no longer tolerate. Opportunities stare us in the face. We realise that our survival relies on seizing them, writes Christina Hammond-Aziz. In such moments all eyes turn to a different cohort of leaders.

They turn to those amongst us who have spent their entire careers in relentless pursuit of making our organisations better. Those constantly focused on identifying where we should act and why. Those brave enough to imagine what an organisation could be, while grounded enough to roll up their sleeves and make it possible for their teams and colleagues to get there. In this series I am focused on sharing their insights: the hard-won knowledge of the challengers, the agitators, the reformers. Or as I call them, the Changemakers.

Among them is Daljit Rehal, Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) at HMRC, a leader who truly understands what it takes to make brilliant change happen. A highly experienced technologist and Changemaker whose ideas and intellectual property have built companies, Daljit has brought a breadth of experience into government.

As he puts it: “I’m a combination of around about 20 different companies, which has exposed me to a wide range of clients, largely built up around sectors such as telecommunications and utilities.”

Daljit is a leader who truly understands what it takes to make brilliant change happen.

Here are some of his insights:

Unlock your teams

Some will know Daljit for the radical way he showed what is possible if we abandon the theory of how data management should be done. “I have never seen it work fully anywhere, in all the companies I have worked in, I have never seen anybody resolve all their data issues. This led me down the route of innovating and being an early adopter of big data platforms and NoSQL technology.”

What Daljit actually showed was what is possible when you unlock your teams.

Daljit took his team offsite, gave each member a Raspberry Pi and told them to play.

“Some amazing innovations resulted from this exercise. For example, one produced a household leak detector. Another built an electricity consumption detector, by attaching a loop around the cable, and then measuring that on an application to see how to keep tabs on the amount of electricity the appliances were using. However, around six of my graduates and apprentices joined their Raspberry Pi's into a cluster, and showed me the power of distributed computing and clustering which led to a completely different data strategy.

"As we moved from trying to do everything with appliances where we structure the data, into embracing the world of unstructured big data with NoSQL technology, we were led to an entire change in strategy. This in turn branched out to launching a separate line of business.”

Develop your people to become leaders, says Daljit Rehal

“By getting my team to manage themselves I believe I am developing the leaders of the future.

"People say they have a talent and skills gap in their organisation, but often they don’t. What they have is a leadership gap - a failure of leadership across all levels. In many places I've worked, people don't behave as a team and are very siloed. Typically, there's far too much debate and discussion which leads to inaction. I believe in the 80/20 rule. For some reason, you usually find it’s 20% of people in an organisation who rise up and are the ones that make things happen. Their energy and drive comes from standing out and being different. A lot of this is human psychology - it's about getting people to believe that things can be done, rather than finding reasons to say no. And once you break through, and gain acceptance, you can start believing that you can do this. Leaders take that belief and make it happen, whereas managers tend to say they need to be convinced and you need to prove it to them.”

Become obsessed with what technology is making possible

Daljit’s journey goes hand-in-hand with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and other higher-performance computing paradigms. For him, technology has the power of transform lives.

“I’ve seen the ‘hype cycle’ of AI come and go. But AI isn't suddenly going to be switched on at a certain date. It has crept into our lives already, and one day we will wake up and it will be everywhere. As businesses we need to embrace this. And we need to become comfortable with the idea that what is now possible, goes far beyond what we would imagine.

“In many spheres, there’s no longer a need to buy expensive software. It is easy to do things such as image processing by collaborating with the open source community. Libraries are available for just about anything you can imagine whether it’s statistical modelling, mathematical modelling, or AI libraries. However, we are limiting ourselves.

“Many organisations are not asking the question of what is truly needed. Instead, they are trying to retrofit technology into the processes and solutions they designed years ago. They look at something like automation and try to see how they can use it as part of something they are already doing. Instead, we should understand the outcomes that need to be achieved, and understand how a robot would approach it.

“This comes to play in a major way when you look at something as simple as websites. We are still seeing new websites with complex navigation and user journeys. It could all be made redundant through a conversational user interface, for example, which removes the need for multiple screens and screen flow. A website could be as simple as a search bar. All of that carefully considered human psychology would no longer need to be interpreted. It’s about user experience.

Imagine if all people saw is a bar asking, “How can I help you today?” and you had the ability to respond by simply clicking the microphone icon or typing in the space provided. The AI we have today is sufficient to take over that entire experience.”

“We're in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A lot of what we still tend to think about today is becoming redundant. It's not needed. The challenge for leaders is how to educate, nurture and bring more people on that AI journey.”

Take advantage of the fact that tech can be owned by everyone

Daljit has also recognised that we haven’t truly understood how accessible technology is becoming.

“Another area where I feel we're not seeing enough traction more widely is in the world of zero code, or low code technology. It' can allow anyone who wants to create sophisticated applications to do so without having to write a single line of code. Business teams are already set up to be independent of their IT counterparts, yet nobody is taking advantage of that.

The whole journey around IT and computer science has been about simplification. Back in the days of Alan Turing, the machines they built required a proper, hardened engineer or a physicist to be able to operate or code to write programmes. To understand them, one needed to be a strong mathematician or an engineer. Today, school kids are learning Python. As leaders, we should be educating our wider business stakeholders too.”

Be driven with purpose

It was this final point that solidified Daljit Rehal as a Changemaker.

A passionate drive to take everything he has learnt and experienced and use it to benefit the UK. “I've worked for 30-odd years trying to make private sector companies more and more profitable. I woke up to the realisation that I would get personal satisfaction in a government role. If I am able to help modernise HMRC, with my background and experience in the private sector, our whole country could benefit from it. This makes me proud of my career so far and excited about the opportunities ahead.”

See also: Resistance to change is yesterday’s logic