by Rob Price & Michèle Hyron

Olympic lessons for the CIO

Aug 25, 2009
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

The Olympic Gamesis a global sporting event that hundreds of millions of people watch and yet few consider just how fundamental information technology is to its success. In the same way IT is the enabler in every public or private-sector organisation, so it is true in the Olympic and Paralympic Games – perhaps even more so in the context of being condensed into a short operational period of six weeks with the world watching. Like any major IT project, organising the Olympics’ infrastructure brings with it valuable lessons that can be applied to future business projects. The scale of the Olympic Games is huge. With over 300 events, 14,000 athletes, 202 national Olympic committees and 20,000 journalists, the Games-time operational IT team of 3500 people run systems containing more than eight million lines of code. We often equate the challenge of the Games with that of setting up a FTSE 100 business, operating it for six weeks and then dismantling it, only to set it up again half a world away in two years’ time. At the Olympics, success of the IT operation should be invisible, but failure is visible to a global audience. So how do we pull off such a high-profile event, on time and on budget and without fail every two years? And how can CIOs extract that best-practice approach, or components thereof, to do the same in their business?

Lesson 1: Have extensive planning upfront with thorough testing Managing a project on this scale takes years of thorough planning. The technology at 2012, which will include 900 servers and 8000 desktops, will support over 200,000 members of the Olympic family, and will broadcast to over four billion viewers. For Atos Origin and the 2012 games, 2009 is the year of planning strategy, architecture and design as the team starts with an architecture gap analysis and grows slowly. This eventually builds up to 200,000 hours of testing of the final systems in 2010 and 2011 to cover every worst case scenario possible.

One aspect which is particularly thoroughly planned is the approach to new technology. Only tried and tested, robust tools are used during the Games – mid-way through the 100 metres final is not the time to find out your data network has a glitch in it. The lesson is to introduce new technology in a controlled manner, either on the periphery of the mission-critical processes or in an area in which bleeding edge is the only option – for example in parts of the -information security operation. This approach is also appropriate in organisations where there is a strong desire to adopt innovative technologies in a way which does not introduce unacceptable risk to business-critical operations. It is important to understand the maturing of new approaches to technology products or services, and to take lessons from their adoption from different industries, based upon the end-to-end operational impact of implementation. It is critical to consider this not in isolation, but as a critical moving cog in the wider enterprise ecosystem.

Lesson 2: Minimise risk on large -programmes by transferring knowledge An essential part of the Olympic Games ethos is to effectively transfer knowledge from Games to Games, thereby reducing cost and risk. The Beijing Games re-used a lot of the IT operational procedures from the Athens Olympics, and much will roll forward towards Vancouver’s Winter Games in 2010 and London 2012. Overall productivity delivered by the IT infrastructure increased significantly from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games to that in 2008 in Beijing. This was achieved by a continuous and systematic lessons-learned process embedded in our delivery. Businesses face similar challenges as they move operations around the globe in response to fast-changing trading and employment conditions, for example through the establishment of shared service centres. Sometimes these have been set up with only basic transactional processes captured, rather than the more subtle and experiential-based knowledge which is so important. As the strength of bond between corporate enterprise and individual employees diminishes in coming years, effective knowledge capture, classification, learning and dissemination will be critical to business continuity and survival. The processes and approach that we implement at the Olympics are directly transferrable, as in reality, 80 per cent of the operational team for each Games delivery- is new to the event.

Lesson 3: Look at security and risk as an end-to-end process Atos Origin provides both a managed IT security service and a security accreditation service for the Olympic Games. The latter ensures that the right people have access to the right travel, accommodation and venues during games time. The former ensures that the Games is an uninterrupted sporting spectacle. Our concept is effective and efficient end-to-end security. To do this we ask the basic questions “what are you trying to do?”, “what are the risks?”, and “what can be done to mitigate them?”. We then provide a framework in which to implement and automate the approach. This allows all decisions about security to flow from a single set of scenario-modelled assumptions. The decisions on priorities flow from risk, cost and operational burden. From this we work through the approach into policies and a set of requirements for technical vendors which work seamlessly together: an approach which is -directly relevant to CIOs in the public and private sectors.

Lesson 4: Manage real-time information as a resource and deliver to many stakeholders

At the Olympics, Atos Origin collects and collates real-time results from multiple sources and multiple locations, collating and aggregating these and distributing the results via routing rules to presentation formats in venues (the Commentator Information System, scoreboard and local TV graphics) and to the world via reports, news and internet feeds and video streaming. The information reaches 8000 rights holders in under 0.3 seconds. Exactly the same principles apply in business – for example, Atos Origin delivers to the UK Rail Industry train information from operators, timetables, train signals, schedule updates and train detectors and provides decision support and information to customer information screens, information points, staff systems and mobile devices. In this connected world, it is critical to understand the real-time operation status of the assets within a business, not only where they are and what they are doing, but being able to respond immediately with corrective actions to fix or optimise ongoing business performance.

Lesson 5: Collaborate to deliver The Olympics has an immense complexity of stakeholders involved as the games move from concept through construction to games time and legacy. On the public side there are central departments such as DCMS, committees such as LOCOG, and the local authorities who approve the design and execution plans. There are the private-sector companies who are involved in building the park: in the UK this is a consortium of three major construction firms and contractors building the individual major venues. As Games time approaches, the planning of the running of the Games takes over and the pressure becomes greater. Atos Origin co-ordinates and works with 10 sponsor organisations to deliver the systems needed. Many of these relationships depend on trust and any failure would have a devastating effect on the brand and reputation of the parties involved. Atos Origin has to lead the delivery of a network of suppliers, and at times competitors, with a joint goal of ensuring a final quality product is produced and delivered. This requires clear governance structures, unambiguous definitions of project activities, and common risk assessment. Atos Origin also adopts a very pragmatic approach to fast problem resolution in which, to quote Michèle Hyron, the chief integrator for the 2012 Games at Atos Origin, “If you don’t work as one team you will fail”. Problems are solved quickly and locally, avoiding the risks, delays and disputes of contractual escalation. This lesson is hugely applicable to the business world in which it is the magic combination of good working relationships, fast effective communication and a shared goal which really drives your wider team to be productive, have fun and achieve programme objectives. It is a vital lesson as IT programmes involve more stakeholders and increasingly cross the public/private sector divide. In the real world, things go wrong – they always do. Success is about anticipation and foresight. In future we need to adopt the same collaborative management principles to support operational survival in today’s business. In the Olympics, it is everybody’s responsibility to raise a flag as early as possible when a risk or issue is identified. The problem can then be solved collaboratively, calling on innovative approaches and behaviours from the tightly bound team. Acceleration of the programmes on which business survival depends relies on breaking down knowledge and trust bar-riers that we know, from experience, regularly crop up.

About the authors: Rob Price is head of IT leadership at Atos Origin, Worldwide IT Partner for the Olympic Games. Michèle Hyron is chief integrator for the London 2012 Olympic Games at the consultant