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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Lessons from VAR - why transformation is about so much more than technology

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

It has been another weekend where the introduction of VAR into the Premier League has hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. For once, this time my team (Chelsea) were one of the main beneficiaries with Raheem Sterling apparently judged to be offside by the width of the ink on one of his tattoos.

Image Courtesy Fikri Rasyid, Unsplash

One of the primary issues that VAR is facing right now is the expectation that, with all this investment in shiny technology, the net result must be better decisions. The challenge of course is that, when many of the laws are subjective and those who are interpreting them human beings, it doesn’t really matter how much technology you throw at the issue. The final decision is subject to all kinds of biases and interpretation just as it was when it was one man in black (or pink or yellow or whatever they wear these days!) out in the middle. In that regard, whilst the technology may have changed, the end decision maker remains the same.

Nowhere was this brought into sharper focus than the recent decision at Anfield in the biggest game of the season. The team of officials were faced not only with the decision on whether to award Manchester City a penalty in front of the Kop (an intimidating decision that many an official has ducked over the years!) but also they would have also had to disallow a stunning Fabinho goal to do so. In the cold light of day, I’m sure even the PGMOL will look at Trent Alexander-Arnold’s handball and see that penalties have been given for far less. However, this ignores the context in which the decision was made.

We can isolate the officials away from the crowd at Stockley Park as much as we like but there is no doubt they realised that to disallow a goal and award a penalty to the the other team would have been possibly the most controversial decision in the entire history of the Premier League. Had the ball gone out of play and the decision been a simple penalty / no penalty call, I personally have no doubt the officials would have given a different decision.

So what does this have to do with the world of business? Putting to one side all the hyberbole being bandied around by football pundits, I do believe there are parallels to the ways in which many businesses have set about digital and particularly data transformation. Traditionally, a company invests a lot of money in technology and then often isolates a dedicated team away from the rest of the business to ensure it maximises the return on this investment. The light at the end of this transformation tunnel is the hope that finally ‘data will trump opinions’ and everything will finally be black and white.

This of course, is a fallacy. Whilst data enables businesses to make better decisions, the big calls will still need to be made by decision makers (i.e. people), informed by, rather than blindly following, data. As a plastic rugby fan (i.e. I started watching the World Cup at the knockout stage!), it struck me just how different the experience of the introduction of technology has been. Rather than the referees being faceless automotons shut away in Stockley Park, the man on the pitch in miked up; we can understand his/her logic and, whether it goes for/ against our team, it all seems so much more reasonable when you can hear someone like Nigel Owens explaining the rationale for his decision. To come back to the business world, this is the difference between a team which focuses on business partnering and building links to its key stakeholders vs. a central team sat in an ivory tower firing reports and dashboards out across the business.

Nigel Owens - 'Business Partnering' In Action

When the dust has settled on the first year of VAR and the inevitable changes are made next summer, I guarantee we won’t be talking about changing the technology itself. Instead we’ll be focusing on the softer aspects that surround its implementation such as communication and transparency. Therein I think lies the lessons for any of us who are trying to introduce new tools or data-sets into a business. The technology needs to work but most importantly, as a central function, there needs to be strong engagement with the rest of the business. Despite the tendency to focus on technical skills shortages, it is often softer skills such as business partnering, influencing and communication become even more important when going through a time of change.

1. ENGAGE – if it doubt, over communicate with the rest of the business and recognise that change is often as uncomfortable for your stakeholders as it is for you

2. PARTNER – resist the temptation to become back of house and ensure you are helping teams work with the new tools now available

3. INTERPRET – great decisions require great judgement as well as great data; don’t neglect these skills

Perhaps the simplest question to ask yourself – would you rather your team be seen as Nigel Owens or Mike Dean?....


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