“Big Data is not a priority right now, our main strategy is undergoing a transformation and delivering an infrastructure that will enable us to innovate,” CIO of property services company Countrywide Oliver Skagerlind says.
“It’s not cutting edge stuff but it is hugely important,” he says. “And it’s innovation that will give us a competitive advantage.”
Countrywide is the UK’s largest property services organisation and is made up of nine different businesses; these include its front office retail business of estate agents and lettings, a small army of surveyors, a financial services and mortgage arm, auctions and most recently commercial property following the purchase of Lambert Smith Hampton consultancy in September 2013.
Countrywide, Skagerlind explains more succinctly, is a collection of acquired businesses. The company floated on the FTSE 250 in March this year, and previously was owned by specialist investors.
The senior management team at Countrywide went about its own transformation, taking it from what Skagerlind described as a bunch of slightly disparate businesses into a “consolidated offering, from the estate agency lettings business right through to selling mortgages, conveyancing, surveying and all the other bits and pieces around it”.
Skagerlind, in his first CIO job since February 2011 following operations roles at American Express, Centrica, Onetel, Carphone Warehouse and most recently RBS Insurance, explained how he was now part of the transformation that started 20 months ago when the company was still under private equity.
“It is essentially the consolidating of our technology function around the infrastructure,” he said.
“We formed a deal with CGI and it was a transformational outsourcing deal. We call it a ‘2+5’ deal – two years of transformation and five years of run and the strategy was simply around revitalising HQ and all of the branches, delivering standard technology to those locations; standardised desktops, a standardised way of distributing applications to those end-users, and consolidating all of our data.
“It’s not leading or cutting edge technology. The key strategy at the moment is wanting to build this revitalised infrastructure that gives us the capability to innovate and have a better level of intelligence that comes with that.
“What we’re doing is consolidating and putting in standard technologies across the group to help our vision.”
Skagerlind said the organisation will be moving from 1,700 servers, which will be “rationalised down” to around 250 virtualised servers.
“If you take an industry view, that’s a fairly standard position to be in terms of how your data centre is going to operate,” he said.
The integration challenges for Countrywide are apparent when Skagerlind describes their recent flurry of acquisitions; Countrywide has gobbled up over 100 different organisations in its lettings business, and in 2013 alone is on track to acquire 26. A further 26 are set to become part of the Countrywide estate in 2014.
“We’re always growing as a business and of course one thing we want to be able to deliver to our customer and to our end-user is the ability to take those new businesses, fold them in quickly and realise the benefits of that.
“If you haven’t got a standardised infrastructure, the cost and ownership of doing that is quite high.
“This isn’t cutting edge stuff, it’s tried and tested technology and the idea is to produce this ability to have a more stable and reliable infrastructure, and more importantly meet some of the demands and align the strategies of the business which is around growth and acquisitions – and also the ability to flex up and down as well.”
Thus Countrywide, Skagerlind said, is moving to a consumption-based model that enables them to grow, but if they decided to change their business model “for whatever reason” they will be able to take the cost out very quickly.
Owning your outsourcing
There are just under 50 retained staff that sit within Skagerlind’s technology services department, with a further 200 working on the CGI account for Countrywide whom Skagerlind considers his own team.
“My philosophy on outsourcing is, first of all, when you outsource it should become a partnership,” he said.
“They become your extended IT team and therefore I treat them as if they are my IT team; they are just slightly removed but they are still part of the group.
“So if anyone asks me how big our department is, I’ll say it’s around 250 people because that’s how many people and resources we have at any one given time on some form of payroll.”
Amid the calamitous deals going on in Whitehall, like the recent £40 million write-down on the Department for Work and Pensions ‘Universal Credit’ progamme, this is perhaps the kind of attitude and outlook towards outsourcing and suppliers that the government could learn from.
“Because what is outsourcing? Crudely, you’re essentially selling your IT department and leasing it back – that’s ultimately what it is.
“If you just do outsourcing on its own you just take what you’ve got and give it to somebody else to do.
“But what we are really doing is transforming our core technology from our end-users to our data centre and telephony systems, and how we manage services and procure, stock and distribute technology.
“I’ve done outsourcing at Countrywide and other places as well. It’s important that what you’re doing is transforming something you can get value out of and not something that will cost you more down the line.”
Moving beyond BlackBerry
Up until a 18 months ago, Countrywide has been “very much a BlackBerry shop”. The company still supports a large number of BlackBerry devices, but Skagerlind said that they were trialling smartphones across all divisions – supported by mobile device management tools – with the goal to be device agnostic.
Referring back to their transformation, Skagerlind said that it would be their back end which underpins this.
“We have to be able to make informed decisions, and it’s my job to give us that infrastructure that says we can do it,” he said.
“And then it becomes a commercial discussion around whether or not we want to have everyone on bring-your-own-device.
“Depending on the division of the business, we can deploy BYOD fairly rapidly. That’s the strategy, as long as the capability is there we can deploy to end-users.”
Part of the current transformation project involves moving to a standard operating system. At the moment, Skagerlind said, Countrywide use various platforms – including Linux and Red Hat – a legacy issue of the historical way the organisation has dealt with technology.
“Windows 2003 is running around there somewhere,” he said. “We’re dealing with 65 different varieties of end-user devices that aren’t necessarily compatible or interchangeable – it becomes not just a blocker to change but also quite expensive.
“We are a very large organisation and we want to have a competitive advantage and moving to a standard Windows platform takes us some way to giving us that.
“Although at best we’re a fast follower – but I doubt we’re even that anymore.”
Innovation and customer experience
Skagerlind emphasises that the current infrastructure overhaul is about building a platform for innovation, with their next piece of strategy focused on applications.
“It’s very much an infrastructure-led transformation, but from my eyes it’s the building blocks for a successful technology transformation. This will give us the capability to start really looking at consolidating our applications across different lines of business.
“Can we do something different and innovative and become smarter from that point of view?
“It’s definitely going to be interlinked with the customer experience because the days when an estate agent or letting agent goes into a flat with a load of paper is slowly going to disappear. Apart from the fact that it looks untidy, smart technology is going to be what they’re utilising, which in turn will let head office make more informed decision with the data, which is now all in one place.
“Your business intelligence will become much more productive and therefore decisions you can make around the market become much easier.”
With the current project at Countrywide, however, it will be making the transition from the organisation’s legacy systems as simple as possible and explaining its benefits to their current employees that will really make it a success, Skagerlind says.
“The biggest challenge isn’t the technology, which is actually pretty standard. The success of this transformation is around the business change component, and making people understand what it is that they’re getting and how they use it, because they can use it to their advantage but equally if they don’t understand it, the technology can become a hindrance.
“Understanding what tools you’re going to use becomes a communication issue.”
With a degree from the Open University in economics and business, Skagerlind said that his career so far has been very much on the business and operations side looking at opportunities in the market, but that communicating the fundamental message to the end-user was paramount.
“I quite enjoy leading the technology department with more of a commercial spin on things, and thinking about the customer, whether they be an end-user or consumer, and tying that back into the tech side.
“How is commercially viable, how does it underpin the business strategy? Making technology an enabler for those things.
“Sometimes in functions you see technology being too logical and too factual with the message being lost to the end-user of that business function.”