Tom Copinger-Symes UK Strategic Command Cloud Expo Europe
NAYOKA OWARE [00:00:12] Hello and welcome back to day two of the London Tech Show 2020 brought to you by CloserStill Media right here at Excel London. I’m Nayoka Oware hosting for Disruptive Live. And today I am joined by Tom Copinger-Symes who is the Director of Military Digitalisation, the UK Strategic Command. It’s quite a mouthful Tom I will say that. How are you doing?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:00:36] I’m good, thank you.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:00:37] Wonderful. How are you enjoying the event so far?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:00:39] It’s good. It’s good. I think numbers all all things considered numbers are pretty good.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:00:43] I’m glad to hear that. Tell us, what is defence digital?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:00:48] So defence digital is a fairly newly branded organisation within the Ministry of Defence that replaces something that was known previously as ISS. It’s really where we do our centralised design and procurement of digital IT. And it sits within something called UK Strategic Command, which is the bit of defence that is responsible for sort of integrating across the Army, Navy, Air Force and the other the other big lumps of defence.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:01:15] Tell us about your job role and what it entails.
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:01:18] Yeah. So I work for our CIO. I mean, I’m a soldier by background si I’m you know, that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. And I’m not a technical officer by by background. I’m an infantryman doing the fighty stuff. And in that sense. So I work for a CIO who’s a civilian. He’s spent 40 years in industry. And his whole senior leadership team is civilian. And that’s a mixture of sort of industry types and civil servants. So I guess for them, I’m their military conscience. I’m the one who reminds them that we dont do digital IT defence for the fun of it or just to run our H.R. department well. We do it to fight with and to deliver the defence purpose, which is, you know, protecting people, preventing conflict. But if required, being able to fight, so I am their military conscience. And then, of course, there’s a very there’s a large amount of senior military folk in defence who like me, who spend their lives doing the fighting stuff. And for them, I’m a sort of tech conscience, a digital conscience. And a lot of that is about trying to translate between languages, between the normal language of the military and, let’s say, digital language, which is quite different. And I suppose the third part of my job is what Charlie Forté our CIO would say, his connector in chief sort of joining up the dots on the horizontal. You know, we’re very vertical, siloed when we’re bad, a siloed organisation, you know, big lump. So the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and so on. And working on the horizontal to try and join up those dots is a really big part of my job.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:02:49] Thank you for that. Before you join the UK Strategic Command, what were you doing?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:02:54] So I was in the army. Bit of defence. And I was commanding a division that’s about 30000 soldiers, that’s regulars, reserves, civil servants, about 30000 soldiers across a whole range of quite specialised tasks. Our intelligence people are what we call signatures, all digital folk, some of our logisticians and a whole range of different capabilities that sit in that bit of the army. So in many ways very different. You know, a huge team. Right now, my team is like about 10 people. So that’s quite a big change from 30000 to 10. And there you are running operations, a couple of operations either in Africa helping the UN or people supporting in Iraq or previously in Afghanistan. So very much at the the fighting end, wearing a uniform the whole time and leading soldiers a lot of time abroad. So this is very different being in, broadly based in London, generally wearing a suit or at least a jacket, generally not wearing green pyjamas and having a tiny team and not commanding but trying to influence, as I say, on the horizontal.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:04:05] Would you say you’re more of a mentor now or you were back then?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:04:08] So that’s probably a bit grand. I mean, the people who know me would say the idea would be mentoring anybody digital would be mad because I’m not I’m not a ninja there. But I have spent 30 years trying to solve problems, be in difficult places, trying to work out how to, you know, get a group moving aligned on the same objective and overcome a whole bunch of difficulties. And so I guess I’m doing that. I’m just doing it in a very different environment. And they’re a very different bunch of well, some different things that are slowing us down.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:04:42] Which role would you say you preferred more, maybe you enjoyed them both equally.
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:04:46] Like, I love all my children equally. I mean, I I love being a soldier and it’s very, very natural to me. That’s some that’s what I do. I find this fascinating, too. I mean, every day they say every day is a school day, for me I’m still at primary school. You know, I’m literally learning new language, new skills, new technologies every day of the week. And that’s hugely revitalising, you know, I’m not as young as I was the last time I was at school, so it’s quite exhausting, but it’s also fascinating and I find that applying all the skills I have for the past 30 years of my career in this actually is quite natural. You know, I don’t find it that different. It’s just the clothes are a bit different and some of the language.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:05:31] Less comfortable maybe wearing a suit than wearing your green pyjamas?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:05:36] It’s fine.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:05:37] I mean, we never stop learning so it’s great to know that you are still learning in this role. What is the biggest challenge you face thus far?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:05:44] So I guess you’ll hear this from a lot of people. I’m not a technologist and digital is not about the tech. It’s about the people and it’s about culture. I mean, sorry. It is about the tech, of course but it’s so much about the people. And it’s so much about culture. And I think I’m mentioned we’re like any large, venerable organisation. We can be quite vertical and we can’t be quite siloed. And getting people to collaborate across those boundaries is a big challenge. You know, behaviours are not set in that way, getting people to take risk. And by that, I don’t mean risk. You know, like when we’re fighting, you know, that’s a certain sort of risk. But taking risk and maybe investing in a technology or a new way of working, that there is absolutely no certainty that it is going to work because it’s not about the tech, it’s about the adoption, getting people to take those risks, getting people to say yes to something where they only understood 30 or 40 percent of the briefing. That’s really tricky. Those are not comfortable things for some people. And so, you know that cultural peace is difficult. And I guess the last thing I’d say, I don’t know if it’s a really big problem, I think where we’re getting to it is just getting people to fall in love with their data, i know that’s a really hackneyed phrase. But, you know, for us, ammunition has always been really important. Oil has been really important. Getting us to understand that data is a strategic asset can help us protect the nation, prevent conflicts and if necessary, fight and win. You know, that’s a that’s a cultural change. And it’s going to take a while to to fully get there.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:07:21] So we’ve been talking about, well, not necessarily here today, but outside conversations. We’ve been talking about AI and how robots in some time to come, we’ll be replacing a lot of people in their jobs. Do you think it would be possible for a robot to replace you?
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:07:37] I guess one day, yeah. I mean, I think if you if you look at the problems I’ve just been talking about, those are intensely human problems still. There is much EQ is as IQ. So I think I think we all need to be on our edge. And that’s not not not a bad thing either. Competition can be really, really healthy thing. I think I think, you know, there are lots of battlefield applications. We’re experimenting, you know, whether it’s under the sea or on top of the sea or on the land or in the air. I mean, you know, there’s plenty of stuff out there on the net. People look at what we’re doing in terms of autonomous vehicles and autonomous platforms. And likewise, inside our computers, there’s a huge role for autonomy in what we do. And that’s whether we’re doing the fighty stuff, the soldiering, the sailing, the the fighting in the air or just running the business of defence. You know, we’re 40 billion pound a year business. And that’s a lot of H.R.. That’s a lot of finance. That’s a lot of commercial. And just like everybody, we could be quicker. We could be better. We could be faster by automating some of our dull and dangerous dirty processes. So I think there’s there’s huge scope for that. Whether that equates to putting me out of work and making me into a robot, I don’t know. Let’s see how we go.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:08:49] I highly doubt it. You have emotional intelligence and that’s something a robot will lack. So I think you’re safe. And hopefully I am safe too.
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:08:55] You are very safe.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:08:56] Thank you so much for joining me today Tom, it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you.
TOM COPINGER-SYMES [00:08:59] Thank you very much indeed. Thanks for having me.
NAYOKA OWARE [00:09:01] Remember that you can join the conversation by using the hashtag Disruptive Live and hashtag CEE 2020. We will be back shortly.