by Mike Altendorf

G4S Olympic security disaster should inform future C-levels

Jul 31, 20126 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

One of the most valuable lessons learnt during my time as a business leader was that a tan isn’t good. Best case scenario is you look like someone more interested in having a good time than in building a serious business. Worst case… well, I think a certain Mr Buckles of G4S may be able to elaborate further on the worst case.

I have to admit to having no sympathy whatsoever for Mr Buckles although you can just imagine the torture his PR team went through as the media and MPs went to town on him (assuming he had one of course – there wasn’t any communication strategy on view that I could see). It is bad enough that he had overseen a catastrophic failure in almost every system imaginable but he turns up to apologise looking like a banker stepping off a yacht in St Tropez.

What has this got to do with being a CIO you might ask? Quite a lot actually. This is a perfect example of what happens when the senior leadership don’t know what is going on inside the business. You would have to be sceptical about the claims that G4S only knew the extent of the problem a couple of weeks before the opening ceremony but at whatever point they did realise it was clearly too late. At the end of the day the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the CEO (ignorance is no defence) but in the modern business it is the CIO’s job to ensure the systems are in place to deliver that insight and ensure the management team is aware of any proverbial s**t before it hits the fan.

It’s at times like these that you realise just how important effective information intelligence is and what can happen without it. In a company like G4S that operates with high volume and low margins – an effective information strategy is a no brainer.

It’s not just a question of oversight but also having the right tools to manage the processes in the first place. And information intelligence is not just another buzz phrase – it’s about having the data management and workflow systems in place to enable you to understand and analyse data in real time (insight), work with people inside and outside the business (collaboration), tell you when something is wrong and help you understand why (alerting) and, perhaps most critical at least in dealing with the aftermath of such as public failure, understanding what people that matter think and developing an effective response (sentiment).

Information intelligenceis all the more critical in helping company’s make good use of today’s social media environment. Maybe I have just been in the IT business too long but if you are trying to recruit 10,000 people in less than a year I would have thought the internet and social media would have been the place to start. Twitter? Facebook? Hello?

And what about an online portal for recruits to sign up and get information about training. I am not saying that social media would have solved the problem – maybe there just aren’t that many people out there who want to be an Olympic security guard – but G4S would have reached a lot more people a lot faster and the onboarding process would also have been much quicker with an effective strategy for the social channel.

Clearly I don’t work for G4S, but I struggle to see how they could possibly have had anything resembling an information intelligence strategy of any kind if the management team were only aware of the scale of the problem so late in the day. They should have had access to real time information on how many recruits were going through the training, where they were in it, what the drop out rate was, which channels were most effective for recruitment etc etc. There should have been workflow processes and automation tools that flagged issues proactively when triggered – whether it’s a lower than expected number of recruits or training programmes running late.

But if we are talking about the failure to use communication tools and channels effectively it doesn’t stop with the workflow processes either. When it came to the crisis management after the story had broken things didn’t improve. Seems to me that shoving your sun burnished CEO in front of the cameras for a mea culpa is a little old fashioned. The company’s silence across the social channels spoke volumes. While thousands of conversations went across the twittersphere G4S were entirely absent. No attempt to engage and explain.

Going back to the insight element of information intelligence what amazed me – and I have to admit as a tax payer whose money is funding this programme – angered me was the total lack of information that Mr Buckles had to hand when he faced the cameras and the MPs at the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing. Where were the latest facts and figures? Where was the understanding of what was going on within the organisation right then? Instead we got promises that G4S would ‘deliver a significant number of staff’ (significant to whom?) and lots of ‘abouts’ and ‘at leasts’.

What was most telling however was the comment Nick Buckles made about ‘digging into the data day by day’. In this day and age you shouldn’t have to dig through data to get to the truth. The business intelligence, analytics and communications systems are all there to deliver ‘the truth’ to you in real time, as and when you need it. Mr Buckles should have been able to find out instantly how many people he had, where they were, when they would be ready etc etc.

If there is one good thing to come out of this whole sorry tale then it is the fact that CEOs up and down the land will be looking at this and wanting to make damn sure that they have the insight needed to avoid this kind of catastrophe. The G4S story shows the value of what a CIO can deliver and what can happen without it. That is little comfort to Mr Buckles mind you – or to the thousands of troops called off leave to confiscate bottles of Pepsi. On that note I would also like to point out that as someone lucky enough to get tickets for the opening ceremony, I didn’t see a single G4S security person the entire time I was there. Hardly surprising perhaps.