by Rhys Lewis

RFU IT chief Rob Mackmurdie is running rugby

Jul 30, 200912 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

For a global sport with two million participants in over 100 countries, it’s incredible to think that Rugby Union was still amateur less than 15 year ago. Rather than today’s six-figure salaries, top players in the amateur era received nothing more than a slap on the back and a couple of pints in the clubhouse. With professional salaries came professional lifestyles, as three runouts a week gave way to full-time training, and the only full-on sessions were in the gym rather than down the pub. But the sport wasn’t just amateur on the pitch. Behind the scenes, clubs and governing bodies were often run by dedicated teams of volunteers who were more concerned with making sure their players weren’t betraying amateur ethics by receiving underhand payments than with running viable commercial concerns. Today, the sport’s English administration, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), operates as a fully professional body with a turnover of almost £100m in the year ending June 2008, and an operating profit of £18.9m in the same period, all of which goes back into the development of the sport at all levels throughout England. Alongside the commercial, marketing and sponsorship teams that have shot up at the Union’s Twickenham headquarters is an IT team that is fast becoming recognised as a vital part of the RFU’s set up. Led by head of IT Rob Mackmurdie, the 18-strong team has recently streamlined its operations further with the implementation of the Sostenuto service management solution from Sunrise. By eliminating much of the manual nature of logging, prioritising and allocating calls to the helpdesk, Sostenuto has eased the admin for IT staff, allowing them to fix problems more efficiently and ensure that calls do not fall to the bottom of the priority list. Customers are also kept up to date with the progress of their fixes by email or via a web interface, thus reducing the amount of time answering chase-up calls. Every tenth helpdesk call is backed up by a customer satisfaction survey, and in the first two months, Mackmurdie has had a positive response from his colleagues.

“People have seen the benefits. It’s a change of mindset – we’re not the most technological company from our users’ point of view, but giving them the ability to follow where their call is by pushing an email out to them has gone down really well,” he says. A particular challenge at the RFU is that its 500 employees are split almost equally between the head office in the shadow of Twickenham Stadium and the regional offices, where county rugby development officers and their admin staff administer the sport at a grassroots level. Again, Sostenuto has been a boon for the remote staff. “Having a web-based front-end has helped no end. The guys out in the field are more IT-savvy – they’ve had to be – and they’re happy having an online system to log their calls and follow up. It’s all supported from here, but we can perform all fixes remotely – providing the problem isn’t that they can’t get online!” With Sostenuto up and running, Mackmurdie’s team is refining the rules to make their helpdesk functions even more efficient, and he expects the system to have an impact on the setup of the team, possibly to the point of reallocating resources from front-line support onto other projects. Ultimately, the team is aiming at ITIL accreditation, what Mackmurdie calls a “key part of the service element”. The 82,000-capacity Twickenham Stadium is entirely managed by the RFU, with all the technology inside the arena coming under Mackmurdie’s remit. The ground has grown organically since being bought by the RFU in 1907, with its current towering incarnation starting in 1988 and ending with the opening of the South Stand to supporters in 2006. Unlike the other three quarters of the complex, however, reflecting the RFU’s transformation from sporting body to commercial company, the South Stand is more than just a place for watching rugby – the building includes a 156-room Marriott Hotel, 5000m2 of conference and exhibition space, a health club and a brand new rugby superstore. And by Christmas, the RFU’s disparate Twickenham employees will all be moving across the road into a single, open plan office. Fitting out an office into what Mackmurdie calls “a large chunk of concrete” presents its own challenges, and he’s glad that his predecessor insisted on being part of the design process from an early stage. “It’s about getting things right up front because once there structures are in place it’s damn near impossible just to run another cable through because you’d be drilling through thick, reinforced concrete. “There isn’t a lot of space. We struggled with the architects to even get a raised floor because a lot of the space is directly under the steps of the stand, so putting raised floors in can make it a bit snug. Thankfully we’re a long way through that and we’re now starting the fit-out.”

Once the South Stand is complete, Mackmurdie is looking at bringing the IT in the three older stands into line with the new section. And if you think rugby’s changed since 1990, just consider the developments in communications technology since the North Stand was constructed. The press systems in the East Stand are a case in point. “BT Openzone went into the press area some time ago and the size and bandwidth requirements have changed. We keep updating it but there comes a point when you have to think if it’s the right solution, and that’s one area we’re looking at,” says Mackmurdie. “What I want to do as IT chief is to make Twickenham the most modern stadium in the world. It’s easier to do that when you’re building one from scratch. It was a sensible approach to build one stand at a time, but from an IT point of view, upgrading means adding more infrastructure over the top – more cables and wires.” Part of the problem is that the IT infrastructure and cabling setup for most of the stadium is unmapped. “When we started on the South Stand I said I needed to see the plans for the other three stands, and they just weren’t in existence. Nobody really knows what cabling, what wiring, what phone lines are in there. “If we’re dealing with cabling and we don’t know why it’s there, it’s hard for us to tell what it does until match day. As the stadium has grown, cables have disappeared into the ground, and where they come up, nobody knows! I’m trying to get a full grip on that and create a map of the stadium. The standards we’ve set in the South Stand have gone down incredibly well and I want to roll that out to the other areas of the stadium. We might not need the extra facilities but I have to think where the stadium can go moving forward.” As well as hosting England internationals and elite cup finals, Twickenham still hosts rugby’s traditional big days out – the Varsity match, Army v Navy games and cup finals for village, school and university teams. This community spirit is all part of the RFU’s role as guardian of the sport in England, from Martin Johnson’s national squad right down to the youngest sections of the country’s 1800 rugby clubs. It was to organise this network of clubs and form an accurate picture of the state of rugby in England that Rob Mackmurdie was first brought into the RFU. When he arrived as project manager in 2001, the nature of player registration, membership and fixtures systems was largely left to the clubs themselves – some forward-thinking officials kept their records in spreadsheets and even data-bases, but most relied on what he calls “pieces of paper stuck on people’s desks”. The information was rarely updated centrally, and there was no communication between the various systems, so a player who was listed as a youth player could, at the age of 17, have also been registered as an adult. Similarly the rosters of referees and coaches couldn’t be relied upon – some might have retired or even died and yet they’d still be counted by the RFU as an active official.

“If we’d added all the systems together we’d have had 50 million people in Britain involved in rugby,” he says. “By bringing the coaches, players and refereeing systems together in late 2006, it gave us a lot more demographic information, and as a lot of the funding we get from the government is based on accurate reporting of our figures, it helped us financially too.” Mackmurdie arrived fresh from a spell as manager of customer-facing systems at Virgin Atlantic, and his experience drove him to see CRM with a web-based interface as the solution to the RFU’s problem. “At Virgin I had to get a single customer picture, exactly as we try to do with players and coaches here, to give us a view of the individual and how we can improve our service to them,” he says. He chose US CRM vendor FirstWave as a supplier, and the relationship has proved so successful that the firm’s UK arm has since spun off to form First Sports International, a global concern that develops solutions specifically for sports bodies. He admits that the system that became known as RugbyFirst has been his primary focus in his eight years at the RFU, and that due to its popularity among regional administrators who no longer have to fax player registration forms back and forth and who have access to the system’s free website creation tools, there are always requests for new modules from all levels of the game. The next step is to add medical information about England’s elite players, so that club coaches and international management alike can monitor their players’ fitness regardless of whether they’re on tour with England or training with Leicester, Bath or Gloucester. There’s also talk of adding RugbyFirst support for PDA and phones, so that officials can access the data from the touchline. It’s not ground-breaking stuff, but to England’s rugby community, it’s a vast improvement on anything that went before. “We’re not going to be in the first wave of take-up on any new technology, which makes my life easier from an IT perspective, but it’s nice to be at the front of the second wave, and as a fairly small organisation that’s where we’d like to position ourselves,” says Mackmurdie. The investment in RugbyFirst has reached the £1m mark, but the savings – “certainly in terms of heartache for the support guys who are now maintaining one system rather than 30” – and the accurate reporting of the health of the sport that it has brought with it, mean that the system is making a huge contribution towards the success of the RFU as a sporting body and a commercial organisation.

And there’s still work to be done on RugbyFirst. “I thought we might be nearing the end of it but I don’t think we ever will – the more we do, the more new ideas come up. Now we’ve got data in a position where we have proper use for it, the community game is coming up with a lot more ideas to increase participation. Every initiative requires support and system development. The more successful it’s become, the more development is required.” That may mean further additions to the IT team, although Mackmurdie admits that the recruitment process is sometimes muddied by the number of applicants who just want to be involved in the sport. “I don’t think we’ve got any huge rugby fans in the office, which was one of the major changes when we went professional. For the first time when we were recruiting we weren’t looking for someone who said they played rugby and supported a club. We were looking for someone to come in and say ‘I’m a CRM professional’. With IT, the knowledge of your market is secondary to your knowledge of your trade. “You do get CVs sent through where they know nothing of IT or even what the job title means, but they play for Rosslyn Park and therefore must be able to do the job. But that’s repeated throughout the organisation – we need business people, not necessarily rugby people.” As a former rugby player, Mackmurdie was delighted to be invited onto the RFU’s executive committee, a role which gives him a say in on-field affairs as well as more familiar corporate concerns. “I get a say in what’s going on in rugby, such as who’s going to be the next England coach. Not that if I disagreed I’d get much of a say, but it gives me a wider scope of interest,” says Mackmurdie, whose own interest in IT was sparked towards the end of his time as a flight lieutenant in the RAF. More importantly, having a seat on the board has helped him get IT involved in the work of all departments within the RFU at the earliest possible stages. “I want to be involved on every project at the outset, and I think the work we’ve done with the departments has got us to that stage. If there’s a project to re-seed the pitch, they’ll involve us: there may be cabling under it, so just to be involved at that point is far preferable to knowing about it when they’ve just cut through three cables the day before a match.

“The biggest goal is to get IT recognised as an enabler as you can add so much value that you can’t add down the line as it would be prohibitively expensive. Being on the exec gets IT on the agenda. “When I started we just administered email, so we put together a full support and development structure and set up IT as an integral part of the business. But that applied to the whole RFU – the game turning professional was a major step forward for the company as a whole. The infrastructure wasn’t in place to make the most of the brand, but we’ve become a good governing body and a good commercial organisation as well. That’s invaluable as the more money we can make, the better rugby as a sport will become.”