by Mark Chillingworth

BT’s Clive Selley’s future vision

May 02, 201110 mins

See a video of Clive Selley’s CIO Summit 2010 presentation here

Clive Selley ushers us into his off­ice. He appears full of energy, it’s Monday, and I expect he’s had a restful weekend. Not a bit of it: he’s had a total­ of five hours sleep all weekend as he was busy overseeing major technology upgrades at BT, the global British-based telecommunications and services provider he is CIO of.

A Dilbert card on his office windowsill jokes: “Clive began to realise he’d lost control of the meeting”, and depicts a prone IT worker asleep on the desk. Is this how we should be seeing Selley? Again, not a bit of it, especially as conversation turns to his particular passion — research and development (R&D).

At last year’s CIO Summit, Selley’s presentation on R&D gained a great deal of interest from his peers and it is clearly a subject dear to his heart. This CIO is devout in his belief that R&D is central to the future of business, technology and especially BT.

The corporation has its own R&D nursery at Adastral Park, just outside Ipswich in Suffolk. Selley and BT are proud of this innovation centre that should really be better known amongst the technology and wider business community.

“We do most of our networking and software development there and it really is the hub of our research,” Selley says. “They create a hi-tech buzz and you sense a vibrant feel to the place.”

“We’ve extended it to host partner com­panies and small innovators as well as some big suppliers, so it has an ecosystem feel.”

Selley travels up from BT’s central London HQ to Ipswich once a week and makes sure that he gives himself at least one hour for “just looking at stuff” that is being ­developed there.

“R&D is about casting 100 seeds and expecting three, four, five will grow. If they are significant it will pay for all the other seeds. I can plug the developers and ­researchers into the big sales teams,” he says of the CIO’s role in incubating these new technologies.

Apathy in the UK Selley’s view on R&D is wider than the BT sphere he works within, and it is the ­national scale of the subject — or rather the lack of it — that concerns him.

“My fear is that R&D is not as high on the conscience of us [in the UK] as it is in other nations. America has Silicon Valley, most Americans know about Silicon Valley. Although we have that corridor of innovation from Ipswich through to Cambridge it doesn’t have the profile in the UK, so then we can’t get people excited about it.”

Like R&D, BT is part and parcel of globalisation and Selley has his research feelers out in a wide variety of economies.

“We have a team of people to scan technology. One team in Silicon Valley looks at what technology is coming to fruition and how it could touch the business of BT. There are also teams in Israel and South Korea, the latter specialising in gaming. You find innovation of a particular type in each country.

“In gaming we have taken a little stake in a cloud gaming company and are working with them to see what we could bring to UK consumers, especially with the ­investment we’ve made in infrastructure in the UK,” he says.

“The teams are spotting companies through the lens of extending the business that we already have; cloud gaming is part of the 21st century network investment.”

Some companies shy away from R&D and persuade their CIOs it’s just not in their interests, but Selley is fortunate to have the support of an organisation that understands the value R&D delivers and will take the longer view of investments at times.

Selley explains that the beauty of R&D at BT is that it understands that some of the technologies developed may not —instantly take off or be a part of its network, but they are innovations that will reap a profit for BT. One such product that is currently ­being worked on that has invigorated Selley leverages BT’s extensive knowledge of fibre optics.

“We are looking at fibre that senses changes in signals along it. This could then be used for intrusion sensing, perhaps for use along a railway line. This technology may have a significant impact for real-world business. We’ve been running trials, but now need a real customer.”

As a commuter who has on occasion had to suffer delays and cancellations as a result of criminals thieving copper cable from the national rail network, any technology that protects the ­validity and safety of our rail infrastructure is a welcome development.

Selley promotes researchers not only to push the boundaries of technology at Ad­astral Park, but to also innovate on top of the BT business model, with the cloud gaming model being an example he cites.

Increasingly through its BT Vision triple-play TV, telecoms and internet service, BT is offering subscription models to customers­ for extra entertainment or connectivity services. These additional revenue streams are important as voice revenue falls away or is lost to rival services like Skype.

“There is a very strong link with technology innovation and commercial reality in Silicon Valley. The US sees Silicon Valley as not a load of boffins: it’s where money is made.”

That innovation of science technology translating into business models and then jobs and opportunities is a behavioural pattern Selley strives to promote across BT and especially at Adastral Park.

“A strategic priority of BT is value-added­ services over broadband. For consumers we must be a broadband telco offering selling services that leverage that broadband pipe. The broadband pipe is not the boundary of our services to you.”

That innovation can deliver both technology and business value reflects back to the management team of BT.

“The thing you have to appreciate about patents is you need to look at them over a long lifecycle. It might be 10 years before the piece of work and its patent create value. But once it begins you then have the prospect of creating value year-on-year. At BT we have that crop of patents from over time,” he explains.

Selley says that it is not uncommon for a company to approach BT to license a patent and then for BT to buy the product that the company has created using a BT patent because it can use the innovation to increase the value of a service or a technology it has on offer.

“We have a huge amount of interest from CIOs in what we do. For example a specialist logistics firm in Asia is working with us on how they can better track oil rig parts that they ship and all the myriad pieces. BT is using RFID to effectively track every part, especially in environments where stuff goes missing, so you can prevent mayhem occurring.

“With CIOs our R&D often cements a relationship we already have: they regard us as part of their research capability.” Selley sharpened the focus of the R&D operation last year with a new governance board that includes BT Group Head of Strategy Olivia Garfield.

“It was time to have a fresh look and time to make sure we were accountable. To do that you have to hook into the company strategy and the four lines of the business. We now have a governance team that has operational understanding and a strategic understanding of where we are going to and they direct the investments.”

Aware that hooking in those responsible for daily business can narrow the horizons of research funding, Selley ensured that the governance team also have responsibility to look at research funding over the short, medium and long term because he wanted to make sure that funding wasn’t overly focused on the short term.

This board also assesses and manages the expanding research relationships that BT has with universities and other technology suppliers.

“Formulate projects that you will do with a supplier or a university, and this way you get more research for your ­money,” Selley says of such partnerships.

“My span is the IT and the networks, their design and evolution and it’s fantastic. My concerns are across a business that is fairly varied, covering consumer entertainment and broadband at one end and Global Services at the other, selling to customers that are enormous and have very demanding needs,” he says of the role he has done for over a year.

BT is currently rolling out its nationwide fibre optic network which will take connectivity in the UK to the next level. Fibre networks are being connected to the green cabinets you see in streets and there is a further option to have the fibre travel the extra distance to your home or business premises.

Internet speeds will be 200 times faster than they are via copper cables at present. Selley explains that the ramifications of this project are far-reaching, as BT’s fleet of exchange buildings will be rationalised significantly, although not all will be decommissioned.

Fibre provider Back in October 2010 telecommunications regulator Ofcom ruled that BT must open its infrastructure of ducts and telegraph poles to other network providers in order to promote a faster roll-out and take-up of high-speed fibre services.

There are commentators who believe that this will do more for the national economy than building more roads or even the new High Speed 2 TGV-style railway network to Birmingham and Manchester.

The government wants all homes in the UK to have high-speed internet access by 2015.

“It’s a really pacy roll-out with four to five thousand customers enabled a week,” he says.

The new fibre network is another network Selley and BT have to manage.

The company has the world’s largest MPLS for the business community, but the challenge for Selley is that while the networks are the foundations of the BT operation, they are not the value offering.

“We have more networks than we need. We have acquired networks, we have built the 21st Century Network in the UK and global MPLS, and it is my responsibility to move people to the new networks because the old networks are complex to us and to our customers. The future investment of this movement is around £2.5bn over five years and I suspect we will go further than that.”

Cornwall was recently moved onto the new fibre network with the assistance of EU funding, allowing BT to rationalise its networks in the West Country.

If the strain of just five hours’ sleep over a weekend wasn’t showing on Selley when CIO met him, his love for West Ham United Football Club was.

At the time of the interview the team was firmly nailed to the rele­gation zone of the Premiership and embroiled in a public battle with Tottenham Hotspur to take over the Olympic Stadium as its next home.

Selley, a fan since early childhood when his grandmother knitted him a claret and blue scarf, wedding him to the team, felt the fans were going to lose out no matter what.

But football worries were quickly cast aside and Selley’s energy re-channelled into another meeting as we left.

Although some question BT’s ability to deliver a high-speed network for the UK, the CIO is certainly operating at full throttle.