Arsenal IT director Hywel Sloman’s attention is not on footballing rivals Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United as the men’s football team embark on a new season in the men’s Premier League.
When Sloman meets with CIO UK at the Emirates Stadium at the start of the summer shortly after England’s men have been knocked out of the European Championships in France, the pitch is being replaced and you would be forgiven for thinking Arsenal’s home was preparing to host an Olympics dressage competition. Some of the most major changes are taking place away from the turf, however, as part of the commercial transformation that has been happening in North London.
Sloman has been at the club since February 2011 and has been part of a technological and business transformation which is focused towards driving success on and off the pitch. However, the IT director’s inspiration and tools to drive change on the Holloway Road are more likely to come from Asia and the West Coast of the US or organisations like Selfridges and the Royal Opera House than they are from footballing rivals, he says.
“We don’t look at other football clubs, we just don’t benchmark against them at all,” Sloman says of where the club look for inspiration and innovation.
“Technology development is more likely to be driven out of Silicon Valley and Bangalore, not out of Manchester United and Chelsea so it’s really important that we get out there and build that network accordingly.
“And if you look at the overlap between the Royal Opera House and Arsenal Football Club, it’s actually staggeringly similar. It’s about the growth of a global fan base for an event which by definition has a limited, constrained capacity to it. So how do you bring the power to your global fan base?”
The global outlook and customer-centric view is the current focus for Sloman and Arsenal with the IT director saying that the heavy lifting of the technology transformation is 75% complete.
Single view of the customer
While technological change has helped drive commercial growth of more than 60% in revenues since 2010, investment in CRM has led to the organisation being able to provide a better customer experience.
Indeed, Sloman said that he has tried to introduce a culture of excellence in everything at the club and within the IT function he has placed a major focus on improving customer satisfaction. However, with such a disparate and diverse fan base this is not without its challenges.
“The challenges we’ve got are a very passionate fan base who are very vocal in their opinions,” he said. “Some of them are resistant to change and some of whom are desperate for change.
“The biggest challenge for us as an organisation is how to invest and engage and monetise our global fan base. I think 1% of our fan base is in the UK. How do we communicate with a 15-year-old in Beijing. They are never going to buy a season ticket, they are not going to buy a shirt – or probably not one that will generate revenue for us.
“We now have a single view of the customer that captures every transaction a fan has had with us since 2006. This has transformed our account and relationship management with our fans and delivers a message that is relevant to you. If you are a 15-year-old fan in Bangalore, you no longer get an email from us with information that West Brom tickets go on sale next Tuesday.”
Sloman says that having executive buy-in and support from the CEO and board has been a key factor in driving improvements at the club.
“To work for an organisation where written in our values is transformation and driving things forward is a dream as a CIO,” Sloman says. “The thing that’s hard as a club is only being as good as your last game, but I have a good relationship with my CEO because we have delivered what we promised.
“We have managed our costs accordingly and our operation runs smoothly.” Sloman continues, adding that it was genuinely touching when the chairman mentioned during a board meeting that he was delighted that IT at Arsenal was really good.
Despite support from the most senior levels of the organisation and Sloman’s belief that technology and IT are way beyond being a support function, it’s perhaps not the place for IT to lead change.
“I passionately believe IT functions should be focused on facilitating commercial growth and customer satisfaction in partnership with the business, rather than being seen as a support function doing stuff that nobody understands or is interested in,” Sloman says.
“But it can’t be IT leading, because if we are saying you need to do this transformation it might not work because they will resent. It could fail, and they might say it failed because IT has done it.”
Leading digital strategy
One area where the IT director and CIO role does lead however is in digital strategy, which Sloman describes as as being embedded throughout the club’s goals.
“Digital strategy is not distinct in our club – it is embedded in every aspect of the club,” he says. “As technology is at the heart of digital, our technology strategy fully reflects the strategy of the club.
“As IT director, my role has been to translate our commercial and operational strategy into digital and technology deliverables that can drive this change.”
Working at Arsenal, Sloman describes a positive culture for a football club that also happens to be a global brand, which can affect its relationship with suppliers, internal collaboration and how the organisation is able to recruit in the market.
In the vendor market, the IT director explains despite the size of the organisation it is able to punch above its weight while remaining nimble.
“What we don’t have is the budget to really have influence with the big vendors,” he saidy. “A lot of my job is to find the most senior Arsenal fan I can in an organisation who will ensure the successful delivery of a project of change.
“But what we also offer, because we are small and agile with a small a and Agile with a big A, we can do lots of interesting and innovative things very quickly because we’ve got a board and a CEO that is very supporting.”
Sloman says that this internal capability means Arsenal are able to move quickly, and that it is able to go from having an idea to implementing it quicker than many other organisations.
An Arsenal fan since a boy, Sloman is proud to be part of an organisation with a collaborative culture trying to drive success on the pitch.
“We’re lucky because this is an organisation about which people are so happy to be involved with,” he said. “Also we are the right size in terms of decision-making – if it’s not my decision then it is being made by someone in this building. We get things done quickly and as easily as possible.
“Actually what’s driving the agenda the here is we all want success on the pitch and fundamentally that drives our business.”