Emma O'Brien

Emma O’Brien is the Founder and CEO of fast-growing digital consultancy, Embridge Consulting. Driven by a quest for work-life balance, Emma established Embridge Consulting in 2009 after she was made redundant and unable to secure a part-time senior position within the corporate world.

With a clear want to work around family life and a vision to create a digital transformation business that put people first, Emma has successfully built her business into a boutique consultancy, renowned for its expertise across both public and private sectors.

Tell us a bit about your background and your motivation for starting your own company.

I come from a working-class background, and due to financial reasons, I didn’t attend university. I was probably somewhat bitter about this in past, but I think that really gave me a chance to learn everything from the ground up and encouraged me to develop a strong work ethic and drive from a young age.

One of my first jobs was working at Mcdonald’s at 16, and that really taught me how to deal with situations under pressure, working quickly and efficiently, and the importance of good customer experience.

In my early twenties, I got the opportunity to join the financial department of a larger organisation and become closely involved in replacing the existing finance system through a procurement project. This was my introduction to Unit4, and it was here I discovered my love of technology. During this time I took on so many digital transformation projects and climbed my way up the ladder to a senior position. It wasn’t until I’d been with that company for 12 years and given birth to my second child in 2009, that I was made redundant while on maternity leave.

I was at a crossroads – I loved the job, and I enjoyed working at that senior position – but I also loved being a mum. Financially, I couldn’t stop working, and there were simply no part-time jobs at the senior level in my chosen field, so that was really the impetus for creating Embridge. I wanted to provide for my family but also give myself a good work/life balance.

How has your own background impacted your experience of the corporate world?

People tend to make a lot of assumptions about me, but at this stage in my career, it no longer makes a difference. However, it certainly did impact me earlier on, particularly as a young woman from a working-class background, I was regularly faced with a lot of scepticism.

One particular instance from my early 20s really stuck with me. I was working at a large organisation, and my mentor at the time commented on my broad cockney accent. I remember him telling me “Emma, we need to address the way you talk if you’re going to progress in your career”. I respected his opinion, and for nearly two weeks after being told this, I tried to change the way I spoke. This ended up with me sounding ridiculously forced, until I finally gave up, and thought that if the way I spoke was going to limit my career, I’ll just accept that.

I’ve encountered a lot of similar instances throughout my career, but my approach has always been to demonstrate through experience and prove through my actions and behaviour that I can deliver. In that respect, my professionalism has always been the best defence against pushback or scepticism I’ve received.

What has been your approach to balancing being a business owner with motherhood, and how have you developed your own work/life balance?

One of my motivations is challenging those outdated corporate perceptions of working mums, and changing the conversation around motherhood in the working world. Although it’s gotten better, the corporate world is still an issue for working mums, and I’m fighting that. My youngest has significant disabilities, at times making things quite turbulent, and I think that really fuels me to demonstrate that people can excel despite personal challenges.

Having said that, it is hard to balance work and motherhood, especially with owning and growing a business. I made the decision in the very early stages of Embridge to set strict boundaries with myself, and to not compromise those boundaries. I’ve never missed any of my children’s important milestones, and that was part of the reason why I started the business, to begin with. Do you have to be agile and flexible? Yes, and I might put the kids to bed and work through the evening, but overall I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve throughout the years.

I think it’s important to set this example to my own team. I’m flexible to the challenges of others in my team, and willing to implement highly flexible working patterns around them. If you have the will and drive to do this, you can achieve it for yourself and for your team, and I remind myself daily never to compromise those core values.

How have you gone about making a positive impact through Embridge?

When I first started the business, I didn’t fully appreciate or even expect the power of being able to create an environment for good. Now, I’m so much more aware that it is something within my power and my gift to do that.
Simple things like embracing flexibility for employees, understanding the personal challenges of people and allowing them to reach their potential, and empowering often-marginalised groups in the workplace such as working mothers, are all important to me. I try to go the extra mile to create an environment that is nurturing, but also embraces innovation and grasps opportunities with both hands. I do my best to live these values myself, and I think they’ve delivered huge benefits for us as a team.

More widely speaking, I ask myself how we can contribute to society as a whole. I’ve implemented various initiatives such as paid volunteering days, charity and fundraising events, work experience placements, apprenticeships and skill-sharing across the community. These are important ways to not only bring the team together but to actively give back, and I think that’s how we’ve really embraced positive purpose as one of our core values.

What was your initial vision with Embridge Consulting?

I had spotted a clear gap in the market, even during my time with my previous company. Many of the consultancies we worked with were large organisations, and often lacked a personal, people-led touch. With my background, I’ve seen time and time again that the main missing ingredient for successful transformation was the people side of things. It’s not as simple as letting the client be wholly responsible for adopting the technology company-wide.

With Embridge, this was my goal – to develop a boutique consultancy that recognises this and brings our clients and their employees on the transformation journey. We specialise in the products and product suites that enable this, and I think that is what makes our projects more successful.

This is also reflected in our approach to who we work with. We truly want a two-way partnership with our clients, so chose only to work with organisations that are able to embrace the change and recognise the importance of their people.

Since growing Embridge, I’ve also come to realise the personal opportunities I have to make a real difference with my business, not only in how we conduct ourselves with our clients but in being a force for good within the community and society as a whole.

What is the biggest barrier that businesses face when it comes to the successful adoption of digital change?

Something I see time and time again is allowing a digital transformation project to become led by technology. Technology is the enabler, but if it’s going to be truly successful, you need to put equal time and investment into looking at your people and your processes.

Too many companies don’t even begin to consider digital change until there is a pressing concern that needs to be addressed, such as software approaching end-of-life. This enforces that tech-led approach, resulting in other priorities being neglected and jeopardising the success of the entire project. Without accounting for the cost of managing this change from a people perspective, so many businesses end up with poor adoption rates and a bad return on their investment.

Can you impart one key piece of advice to businesses looking to begin their own digital transformation journey?

Start early! If digital transformation is going to be successful, it requires addressing the entire culture of the business. Are you change ready? Are you clear on what you want to achieve with the project and why? These are the questions that should be addressed early on, and oftentimes, a company will need to work with an external provider with the correct expertise to really narrow in on these answers.

However the question of adopting a change-ready culture is approached, you want to be planning large-scale digital transformation projects years in advance, ideally. If external factors like end-of-life technologies are driving your decision for change, you’re already on the back foot, and this is what will force you into a technology-led transformation.

What changes have you seen in the digital transformation sector since creating Embridge?

I think we’re starting to see a change in how organisations like Embridge are supporting customers. The traditional approach to digital transformation has been a client coming to us with a project, then we come in, deliver that project and close it out. This made more sense with monolithic ERP systems that might take 2 or 3 years to implement but then last a decade or more, but this format is changing with the advent of the SaaS world.

There is now continuous change, and innovation is being pushed at a rate that is unprecedented. So, while there are no more costly upgrades, and customers are kept on the cutting edge of what these technologies can do, the issue arises from the fact that the customer doesn’t always know what to actually do with this constantly evolving technology. Continuous updates and improvements to systems can impose a risk, especially if those systems are used for business-critical functions, and the customer lacks the technical expertise to fully take advantage of them. On the people side, this can also impose a mindset of constant change on employees, adding more pressure to their day-to-day work life with processes that are always shifting and changing.

The goal for us at Embridge is to address these evolving issues and to do that in a flexible and agile way. We need to be able to respond to this growing need for business transformation as a service and start pre-empting the future challenges of our customer base when it comes to the need for ongoing support.

With the current popularity of AI platforms, how do you believe artificial intelligence and intelligent automation will make an impact, particularly in the public sector?

We’re seeing AI make leaps and bounds in the private sector already, and while the topic of automation is a significant opportunity, we have to remember we are still at the start of that journey. When it comes to the public sector in particular, we have to remember that many organisations are still at the very first stages of adopting technology – some are still on a journey towards technologies like the cloud.

If new technologies like AI and automation are going to make a difference in the public sector – and I certainly believe they can – you have to gauge where particular organisations already are when it comes to technology, and once again, it comes down to the people. It’s not as simple as switching from spreadsheets and paper receipts to implementing bots – it just won’t work. You must implement a people-oriented digital transformation, and part of that is figuring out just how much change they are able to absorb.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the public sector spans many different kinds of organisations, and they are all at different levels of adoption. We want to embrace the technology available to us, but make it meaningful to our customers. Baby steps are required here, you can’t implement a huge AI strategy and expect it to work, but you can look at specific manual processes and improve these bit by bit, improving efficiency and productivity, and slowly teaching people the benefits day-to-day of these technologies.

A lot of this feeds into how leadership teams can be educated to really understand the power of AI. Currently, there is a lot of fear, especially when it comes to job security, and our job is to educate people on how AI and automation can be most effectively applied. We already know it isn’t a silver bullet, we still need human intervention, but applying AI and automation correctly can alleviate very manual, very intensive work, as long as we are able to take the fear factor out of it.

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