Meet a Bright Mind: Javed Iqbal

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Javed Iqbal is Global Head of Digital Performance and Governance at British Council and a long standing member of the ConnectMinds London Digital Strategy & Governance Group.


By Lau Hesselbæk Andreasen

Javed has continually impressed me. He has been instrumental as a guide and leader on the long and ongoing journey towards connecting the many outposts, people and knowledge that make up British Council; a multifaceted, multicultural, complex global organisation.

Javed has served the British Council for more than a quarter of a century in numerous locations around the globe. Before joining the organisation, he was a librarian in his native Pakistan. He started his tenure at British Council as Director of Information Services in 1993 and over the years, the titles have included Senior Internet Business Development Manager, Director of eStrategy and he is now Global Head of Digital Performance and Governance based in Manchester, UK.

This evolution of roles tells the story of the emergence, expansion and maturation of the role of online and digital in organisations everywhere. Perhaps not interesting in itself. But it also tells the story of a curious and skilled professional who saw the opportunities digital brought about, pursued them and helped his organisation navigate safely through the early years of the web. And it tells the story of someone continually finding ways of using these opportunities to strengthen and connect the organisation globally. Something pretty much all large organisations strive to do. But in my experience they rarely apply the rigour and focus combined with the clarity of direction set out by Javed and his team.

Strengthening and connecting a global organisation through applying digital wisely - and bringing the workforce along on the journey is not easy - as most if you will know all too well.  Javed has done so through combining a disciplined approach to information management (he is after all a librarian) and an equally disciplined approach to selecting, deploying and championing appropriate technologies and the opportunities introduced by the internet. (I repeat “disciplined” as this is not at all commonplace when looking at how organisations have handled their tech / online evolutions..!) 

It is not uncommon for people who have worked with managing the introduction and evolution of digital in large organisations to develop a certain level of scepticism - which sometimes even turns into cynicism: you witness large sums of money being invested in huge systems and solutions that come with great promises of making the organisation work smarter, better and be more connected and efficient. You see many people’s time being invested in making the systems do what was promised and often it turns out to be a real struggle to realise even some of those benefits. After a while, disappointed that the solution didn’t quite live up to expectations, the organisation decides to try out a new and apparently better solution now offered in the market - and the story repeats itself.

After many years in the game, Javed does indeed approach every new “technological advancement” or “opportunity” that comes along with a high degree of scepticism, but it hasn’t turned into cynicism. He has often brought new ideas to the sessions in the Digital Strategy & Governance Group along with a long list of investigative questions for the fellow members in the group: “We are considering doing X as I think it could help us do Y better than we do today, but I see the following red flags and warning signs; what do the rest of you think would be most sensible?” He will typically already have prepared a framework for measuring the impact and desired outcome of the idea. And if the idea was suggested to him by other stakeholders in the organisation, he will have challenged them to clearly express what they hope to get out of the investment required and how it will benefit the organisation. This is something many aspire to do consistently, but few actually manage to do well. Javed’s long tenure at the British Council undoubtedly means that he has an intimate knowledge of the way the organisation operates; of the culture and subcultures that dominate the thinking in different parts of the organisation and the way its people respond to “new things”, which metrics excite them etc. 

This knowledge means that he can shape solutions and evolve teams that really reflect and respond to the needs of the organisation at any given time. His team draws on talent identified in every corner of the organisation anywhere on the planet and brought in when the need arises. It is a truly global, multi-disciplined virtual team that constantly evolves under careful supervision.

Yet, despite all of the experience, acumen and astuteness, managing this constantly evolving area and meeting the expectations of a complex, global organisation is a huge challenge. When demands seem simply too great or when times are turbulent, Javed has an enviable ability to make the best of a difficult situation. And when common sense and experience are not enough to convince demanding stakeholders, he has got a few gorilla tactics and shock therapies up his sleeve: typically highlighting the potential risks of not following his recommendations.

These are often effective and persuasive and Javed has shared numerous examples with fellow members in the Digital Strategy & Governance group. They are always useful and much appreciated by the group. -And they are always served up with Javed’s trademark dry, underplayed and hugely entertaining sense of humour. I have experienced him use this to great effect in many situations. During one of the first sessions he attended in the Digital Strategy & Governance Group, he talked about how one of his big governance challenges had been to reduce the spiralling number of websites across British Council globally from 1500+ (!) to 250 and that for the duration, he had deliberately and openly assumed the role of “the killer of websites”, mercilessly challenging the existence of web properties with no clear purpose… I am sure this ability to see the funny side of even the most difficult situation has been another key component in making Javed the optimistic and effective digital leader he is.

I look forward to following the next skilful moves of this experienced master of many disciplines - his accounts are always insightful!

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