Global Radio Director of Technology and Operations, David Henderson, told CIO UK he believes his team can deal with any problems the business throws in its direction when he described the media company’s technology and digital transformation initiatives.
Henderson, who joined the broadcaster behind brands Classic FM, Capital, LBC, Heart, Smooth and Radio X in November 2014, is part of the executive leadership team at Global. The former technology chief at Daily Mail & General Trust arrived at Global as the organisation was hoping to diversify its business and revenue streams.
“We are in the third year of this transformation which came out as a result of doing lots of acquisitions of local radio stations,” Henderson said. “At the same time we were launching a whole bunch of digital products for an audience that was getting used to streaming.”
While digital disruption was impacting its core business, Global was also moving into live events and festivals but needed a technology refresh to empower its staff to develop the company’s crown jewels – its brands and audiences.
“You’ve got these things going on at once and a fragmented and ageing IT infrastructure that needed replacement,” Henderson said. “The transformation was all around mobile first, cloud first – giving ‘Globalers’ the tools that they need and giving the brands that we have the best products.
“For that transformation we’ve refreshed our buildings and studios, replaced most of the applications so that now they’re all hosted in the cloud. Our broadcast studios are as good as any studios in the world.”
Henderson said that Global was using a third less applications than it was three years ago, and had also reduced its physical IT infrastructure by a third with the organisation able to drastically improve reliability and reduce dreaded broadcast outages.
“By reducing complexity and reducing fragmentation, it’s allowed us to focus on reliability,” he said. “The less ageing applications you’ve got, the less crippling infrastructure you’ve got, the less complexity you’ve got which helps improve reliability.”
Henderson said that his technology team at Global had been “at the heart of the change”. Staff had upskilled and skills sets had been broadened, with much of it self-led learning, Henderson said. The result is a confident technology and IT unit that is trusted by the rest of the organisation.
“In general the team are just a lot more capable; the execution is outstanding,” Henderson said. “This transformation has been pretty much on time, on budget. We’ve done everything we said we would and now our business trusts we can do that.”
Henderson said that the department’s reputation was of a “really good, organised, rigorous, disciplined delivery team”.
“That’s then given us permission to then be engaged in a whole bunch of other things like solving business problems, like automating business processes and innovating around new areas of work.
“They’ve got themselves organised. Some of it is organic; they’re best without any management interference. So you’ve got a tech team that has some swagger because they are not just keeping the lights on, but seeing themselves at the heart of the change.”
Henderson has been proactive in developing the diversity of the technology and IT sector at Global, and also in his previous roles at the Daily Mail and through working with external organisations. Indeed, at the 2016 CIO Summit he discussed moving beyond the why to the how of diversity and followed up with an article, 10 things CIOs can do to increase diversity in IT and the technology sector.
The 2017 CIO 100 high-flyer said that shifting the needle on diversity at Global had been a crucial step in broadening the capabilities of his department.
“In numbers terms we’ve gone from 6% to 18% in terms of gender diversity but that’s not really the key point,” Henderson said. “What we have is a much richer set of skills that can cope with shaping demand.
“Previously we were very good at reacting to broadcast demands and operations around that. What we’re able to do now much more is handle more abstract broad questions, run workshops, facilitate, solve problems and come up with more lateral options as a team. We’ve got a much broader set of change skills.
“We’ve improved our business analysis, programme management, data analytics, adtech. Crucially for me it means that now whatever problem the business throws at us we’ve got the ability to be able to deal with that, shape it, organise and prioritise around it and that’s something I think we would have struggled with previously with a narrower range of deep skills. What we now have is a very real depth but we have breadth as well.
“The nice thing now is there is nothing I’m worried about; I can get any phone call from anywhere in the business asking for help with a problem and we’ll be able to help them.”
The technology transformation and upskilling of the organisation has created a foundation upon which Global can develop new products, seek new opportunities and help the media company be far more than a radio broadcaster.
“There’s been a healthy combination of getting the infrastructure in place, getting the applications in place and also getting the people,” Henderson said. “All of a sudden, all of the opportunities that come up we can take them.
“It’s given us a really good platform to think about the future.”
One of the award-winning product innovations developed at Global is the Digital Audio Exchange platform, or DAX, which 180 different publishers and more than 300 advertisers are signed up for. The DAX platform enables third parties to insert targeted advertising into live audio streams, something becoming increasingly relevant to Global’s customers as more users access the media using digital channels rather than over the airwaves.
DAX is also a platform in the true sense that it is an industry tool – Global is now the provider to a number of organisation’s competitors serving ads on rival stations.
With changes in listener habits – online and digital channels with apps like My Capital where fans can view upcoming tracks, skip songs and control the music – Henderson said that people are listening longer and that Global is gathering more data about its audience. This represented one of the biggest opportunities for the media company.
“I guess the data is probably the most interesting one because it’s the first time we can now start to link all aspects of the business from the advertiser side to the listener side and actually start to understand the ecosystem a lot better,” Henderson said. “Once you’ve got the data you can start trialling things like machine learning.”
Henderson said that Global is an entrepreneurial business, with his team running bi-annual hackathons to experiment and share new technologies and ideas. The director of technology and operations highlights one example of a concept involving sub-second search within speech-to-text recognition which went from idea to finished product in six weeks and has saved hundreds of hours in compiling transcripts and audio reports for their partners.
While it might not be a profound tool in itself, Henderson said that it showed the team was thinking differently and taking ideas from hacks to solve business problems. All are encouraged and Henderson is keen to ensure no concept gets killed too quickly, and that any idea has time to grow, percolate and germinate new ideas, creating positivity even if it is not pursued eventually.
While staff are empowered to develop new products and innovations, recent high-profile cyber breaches mean information security is a constant concern for Global and Henderson, who shared the sentiments of so many of his CIO peers regarding the evolving threat landscape.
“The last few events have just really focused everyone’s minds; everyone’s at risk and you’ve got to just think holistically about everything you can do to prevent it from physical production to staff training,” Henderson said.
“It’s one of those things we’re not complacent about – we have to spend way more time thinking about how to embrace cyber security and that is now non-negotiable.”
Henderson suggested that having a relatively young, tech-savvy founder-President who cared deeply about the organisation’s image was a boon in helping keep Global safe.
“It’s a founder-led business that really cares about brands, so any potential damage to that is taken really seriously,” Henderson said. “There is no push-back in terms of cyber being an unnecessary cost.
“It’s considered absolutely part and parcel of the way that we do run the business. We’ve got to be comprehensive and put a plan in place in terms of cyber defence, risk management, contingency planning. It’s embraced and seen as an important part of the portfolio.”
Robust infrastructure is part of the solution, and Henderson said that in an organisation dominated by “young, creative types”, having staff trained up and tested with phishing scams was also a critical part of the strategy of ensuring security was everyone’s business.
“We’re certainly doing the basics and at the moment we feel like we’re getting it right,” Henderson said. “I think what we’re doing at the moment is being opportunistic in using the events of the previous months to almost reiterate the importance of security and make it a shared responsibility.
“Above all it’s important to make sure everyone who sits around the senior exec table knows that it’s not a technical job, it’s a shared responsibility.”
Recruitment and the future workforce
While Henderson is confident his team can deal with any problems the organisation has, that the individuals have space to develop and innovate, are on top of cyber threats, and they are broadening their diversity and skill sets, the CIO still believes recruitment is a challenge.
“Tech talent is still our biggest issue in terms of having vacancies we can’t fill,” he said. “There’s a real shortage of skills, especially in areas around adtech and analytics. It’s really hard to find those people.”
Global runs both technology graduate and summer intern programmes covering software engineering and data analytics.
As part of its commitment to developing industry skills, the company also sponsors and operates The Global Academy which started in September 2016 and was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge along with Prince Harry in April 2017. A University Technical College in west London, The Global Academy provides industry-specific training for those aged between 14 and 19.
Henderson said that while it was early days for the academy, in two years there will be people leaving that school who have been through a whole aspect of radio production and music production that will have the right skills and experience with a host of technologies.
With 60% of its current crop of 280 students being female, Henderson said he believed that the Global Academy UTC was potentially a hugely important source of pipeline talent and skills not just for Global but an entire sector.
Having spent longer than a decade in the media at organisations at the coalface of digital disruption, Henderson is keen to look outside of the sector for sources of CIO inspiration. This is especially prescient as Global’s festivals and events products continue to be a success and the organisations looks at e-commerce, CRM and building deeper relationships with its audiences before, during and after a transaction or live performance.
“The FinTech and InsurTech space is the one showing that with the right mindset there’s things you can challenge,” Henderson said. “If you look at how they’ve brought product innovation to what was typically a sector that was difficult to change, heavily regulated and risk-averse.
“I would not have thought media could learn from FinTech yet we use it as a way of demonstrating we can improve processes by changing the way we think about them.
“Certainly in my role I try and expose myself to lots of different sectors, not just try and focus on media only because I think there are transferable things you can learn from government and FinTech and retail.”
Outsourcing and vendors
Henderson said that the days of extended outsourcing deals with big IT vendors are long gone, and that deep partnerships with key strategic vendors beneficial to both organisations was the current mode for technology suppliers and their customers.
Global had deliberately partnered with a handful of smaller, innovative technology companies, Henderson added. Henderson held workshops to outline Global’s strategy, and together with its partners have run jointly-funded experiments.
“The whole supplier management thing is quite interesting because the days of the 10-year outsourcing deal are long gone,” he said. “We do very little outsourcing here; we’re trying to go much more deep into partnerships, risk-reward models where we share some of the gain.
“In a way you’ve got these shorter term, more ephemeral relationships that need to be deeper so there’s some real paradoxes in how you manage that because you’re not managing a five-year outsource deal anymore. Very few CIOs in the media space are signing those deals.”
As such, Henderson noted that the CIO role has changed significantly. It isn’t just extended outsourcing deals that are long gone but also the era of CIOs as managers of IT, as noble and tough a challenge as those responsibilities are for any IT professional.
“The key is judging where to invest time and where to avoid wasting time with technology vendors,” he said.
“The challenge for me is that allocation between time in the business, time looking at other sectors, time with vendors, time with the team. Getting that allocation right is a challenge.”