by Julian Goldsmith

CIO Profile: TfL’s Steve Townsend on shared services and internal balance

Nov 28, 20115 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

See also: CIO Profile: TfL’sSteve Townsend plans for the Olympics — and beyond

Transport for London CIO Steve Townsend is faced with integrating a complex range of business models and stakeholder demands, if the city’s transport network is to continue to support the many millions of journeys commuters make every day across it.

Townsend accepts that TfL isn’t a unique organisation and that there are certain processes within it that are exactly the same in organisations like the fire service or police force.

Shared service initiativesare a growing trend in the public sector and he thinks this could be explored and adopted, but only where applicable. Going it alone is not out of the question either.

“Although the organisation is undergoing significant change we have to make sure that spending is funded appropriately and so we are focusing on systems that are effective reliable and sustainable,” he explains.

In the end, the only real requirement is to satisfy paying customers and Townsend’s strategy is focused on drawing whichever IT solutions do that the best.

Gone are the days when TfL created one-size-fits-all systems, he says. The organisation has to be more selective and transparent in its ICT procurement.

“We are very interested in technology that can provide real-time information to customers, like making sure we have direct contact with the public through social media. We want to share our data but we had to make sure that it is secure it has to stay protected,” he says.

Corporate governance is high on the agenda for Townsend and he believes this extends to a responsibility to domestic sourcing when thinking about procurement, when TfL has one of the largest pocket-books around.

He knows he can procure technology from anywhere in the globe, but as a regional governmental organisation, TfL needs to be seen to be protecting UK suppliers too.

“We want to provide a world-class service but with a strong UK element to it,” says Townsend.

The corporate culture of the IT team is also changing under this new leadership. Townsend admits that the department lived in splendid isolation that was an inhibitor for the business.

The key to this change, he says, is providing the business with the IT it needs, not necessarily what it says it wants — some of the IT projects the organisation initiated in the past were IT for IT’s sake and consequently fell short of expectations in the rest of the business.

“We need transparency over how IT works within the organisation and for that reason I have become integrated more fully into the business planning,” he says.

“The new approach is based on three pillars: stabilise, consolidate and innovate.”

– Stabilisation is very much about understanding how the business works and how IT can help support it. – Consolidation is achieved by reorganisation of the IT teams and making sure the technology is not built in a siloed way. – Finally, innovation comes from joined-up thinking about how services can be improved.

Townsend notes that the rest of the organisation works with the IT team in a very fragmented way, so he is working on streamlining those channels of communication. This is imperative if the organisation is going to make better use of the enormous amounts of data that is generated about the movements of vehicles and passengers across networks.

“Because the organisation comes to us in an ad hoc way, we never managed to glue those different services together, so we’ve not had the chance to investigate the true value of analysing that data.”

Townsend explained that he has only just started to talk with the originators of this data to decide how compatible it all is, before it can be integrated.

He is also looking at the IT department’s reporting structure. It is currently divided into a number of task-based teams. The technology department looks at IT strategies and processes and builds the road maps of the technology, the change team implements these roadmaps and builds in new systems, and the shared services department supports the day-to-day running of those systems.

The regulatory compliance team makes sure regulations are met, and a business relationship management team is trying to align IT strategies with the direction of the business. All five are under review.

Local knowledge Townsend clearly has a mammoth task ahead of him, but his prior experience as a unit head in the IT team at TfL means he already has a great deal of domain knowledge to help him, coupled with strong contacts with key IT staff.

His experience in the telecoms sector will also have prepared him for managing large-scale projects. After 16 years in the Army Signal regiment, Townsend joined cable provider ntl. He spent four years there before moving on to OneTel, the communications network, where he was tasked with building up operations from scratch as the IT head. He was still there when the company was sold to Carphone Warehouse and rebranded as Talk Talk.

Nine months before he joined TfL in 2007, he moved to Dell on a consultancy basis to work with Unilever on a service management project when the consumer goods company was developing an alternative sourcing model.

Townsend admits he’s more of a tech CIO than a business CIO, but that hasn’t stopped him trying to acquire the skills he needs to become a partner to the business rather than an internal service provider.

“I think the role needs a bit of both,” he says. “I’ve found the skills I needed to acquire were around the understanding of business finances and boardroom etiquette. As a CIO you need to be part of the business drive and have a good head for analysis in business terms. But, you also have to have the considerations around the technology. You need to be able to walk between the two worlds.”