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10.07.2019 6 MIN Watch Video

Toby Heaton-Armstrong at Dexus: Innovation and transformation are about people, not technology


Toby Heaton-Armstrong is Head of Digital Technology at Dexus Property Group, a major Australian listed property investment trust. He has previously held senior IT positions with Origin Energy and Macquarie Group and has considerable experience introducing digital technology into large corporations.

He talks to Anthony Saba, ADAPT’s Senior Director, Advisory Services about innovation, leadership, about the people aspects of introducing Artificial Intelligence.

Anthony Saba:

Welcome back. Joining us again for our Digital Edge program, it’s great to have you, I’ll open with is asking you to tell us a bit about your role with Dexus. How long have you been with the organisation? I’ll hand over to you now.

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

Thanks for having me back. It’s nice to be here. So I’ve been at Dexus for three and a half years as the Head of Digital Technology. It’s actually quite a loose fitting role within the IT structure. We’re quite fluid in terms of who works on what projects, but I tend to look after the online landscape, customer systems mainly. And I also have inherited risk and cybersecurity.

Anthony Saba:

I remember you joined us for a cyber program. So that all makes sense. Now it ties together. I wanted to ask you a few questions around some of the key themes that we are exploring at the moment. The kind of delegates we bring together. This year, across a number of our particular Edge programs, innovation is an area of interest for us. The question I have for you is, every organisation has a different approach to fostering innovation. Some have a very structured approach, which can often help it become measurable, so to speak. Is there a structured approach to fostering and executing and innovation within Dexus?

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

It’s quite interesting how we approach innovation. Certainly, there’s a very much a macro level – what is the business doing? And how does the business perform? And that gets picked up by senior management who look at how that works. But at a more localised level, as we put in systems and platforms in our case, what is the customer experience? The way we’re viewing it as we roll out, say, CRM is very much around how you take continuous improvement cycles.

You put the base in, but then actually how does the business make use of that data and information? Not everything you try works, but how do you then either stop, or continue if it is working, or pivot and try something slightly different? So very much the patterns where we’re trying to put within it around sort of continuous improvement streams. But making sure we’ve got good foundations initially.

Anthony Saba:

Fantastic. And, you know, the beauty of these sessions is we start to look at more exciting technologies, emerging technologies, and how we apply them and see value from them. How are you incubating the use of Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, within Dexus, within your teams? And what do they mean for your customers?

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

I’ve spoken to quite a few people on this. We’ve brought in consultants at various points in time. One way of it being described that’s really stuck in my mind was that it’s much like a seven-year-old. You’re very good at doing something so you can go out to the boat, that’s fine. It’s not great at English language understanding yet.

It’s funny when taking that view about where are the areas you can get benefits. And how can you explore and play with it, because when you go to large organisations and listen to their AI, they’re off on moon shots, Doing these amazing things with drones? It’s fantastic, but they’re big deals. For organisations like ours, it’s the next stage in process improvement which is low hanging fruit. It’s very easy with cloud stacks to take a whole bunch of emails and do a lot of on sentiment analysis across the top of them all. And that’s been fascinating. I’ve done it myself at night at home with a spreadsheet, run it across four of the big players, I won’t name names. But the difference in the quality of response, you get back and looking at an email as positive or negative

It’s really quite startling. They all came out with slightly different answers. And one in particular that sticks in my mind were a very negative email, which had been phrased by our managing director’s assistant. It was about something that went wrong, what could they do about these things to make the situation better. One software provider got that right, said that this was a negative email, and no one came back and said it’s 93% positive, you’re wrong. If we were actually using that, and taking actions off the back of it, it would have been a complete miscall. The ability to try these things very cheaply, where the value is, and then look at how you embed it as a next step, that’s how we’re approaching it. And we’re building on these technology stacks that allow us to do that sort of thing cheaply and easily.

Anthony Saba:

Absolutely. So there’s an element of having the right skill sets internally, the people to play around with these tools and experiment with them. Does your team have those skill sets? Do you have to outsource that? Do you have to learn and upscale? How do you go about that?

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

We’re very much a partnership-driven model, bringing in expertise where it’s necessary. One of the discussions we have at an IT leadership level is how do we effectively train our staff to work well, with external providers providing direction, and what sort of thinking bursts capacity outside the box? We certainly need a core team that is building up over time with knowledge of the platforms. It’s understanding what works well in other industries or other organisations and being able to sort of try those approaches. That’s always worked very well for me.

Anthony Saba:

Over the last three years at this program, we’ve explored some really interesting topics. We’ve looked at platform strategies, we’ve looked at data sharing and ecosystem partnerships and a number of exciting things like AI and machine learning. For you personally, maybe away from Dexus, what are some of the more exciting technologies that get you and your team thinking? What are the possibilities ahead?

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

If I think about ADAPT over the last three years, and the Digital Edge events, I think the best part for me has been the thoughts it’s provoked around people – how important people are in all of this transformation. In sessions last year we talked about how to frame problems and solve problems, through listening today about kind of the problems we have in running large scale IT and how to transform.

As we move and we find things like AI and machine learning, there’s more and more IoT, how we take people on that journey. I think that’s what fascinates me.”

We’re social, social animals. So how do we get this technology? How do you get it over the line? How do you deal with the resistance to change?

Anthony Saba:

It’s funny, people are always the single point of absolute success and often failure. At the same time, finding that balance is important. Some high-level questions – and again, this would be interesting. But culture is a key part. You mentioned that there’s the people aspect. How do you go about adopting new mindsets and culture within a business? How do you bring people along on the journey?

Toby Heaton-Armstrong:

You’ve got to have top-down leadership. And at a leadership level, it’s about how you want your team and the organisation to perform.”

We’ve been very lucky in technology, we’ve got incredibly good staff because we’ve fostered a very caring, considerate culture within the team. We’ve got a good reputation within the business. It’s just being genuine with people you trust. It takes a long time to learn, but you can lose it very, very quickly. So if you can avoid finger pointing and negative behaviours and be a lot more supportive and try and help people out, it tends to work for you long term.

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Toby Heaton-Armstrong at Dexus: Innovation and transformation are about people, not technology
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