by Martin Veitch

Former Morrison Facilities Services CIO Katherine Coombs doesn’t mince her words

Jan 05, 2011
CareersFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

To generalise wildly, Australians are not backward in coming forward and Canberra-born Katherine Coombs fits into that mould.

“I’m the last person in the world to be left unoccupied,” says the CIO of Morrison Facilities Services, the organisation that provides maintenance and repairs across 400,000 of the UK’s social housing properties, as well as private business offices and housing contracts.

A blogger, Tweeter, social networker and conference speaker, Coombs is a modern CIO, not shy of stating her own point of view and taking charge of her career.

“There are quite a few CIOs whose online profiles are quiet and a lot of people let their careers happen to them,” she says when we met on a hot July day at Morrison’s modern offices on London’s Euston Road.

“They plod. I’m not that kind: bad things will happen if you do that. The lowlights of my career have been where I’ve let the role happen to me and that left me feeling frustrated and quite flat, making no real difference. I’m high-octane. I speak quickly but my brain moves faster,” she says.

That can lead to some culture clash with the stereotypical Brits where “people are trying not to offend you … there’s a diplomatic dance sometimes. I do feel like a steamroller sometimes.”

Despite these words, Coombs in the flesh is anything but terrifying or even brusque. You just get the impression of a confident person who knows what she wants. So how did she get there?

After an economics and commerce degree, Coombs joined a startup, sparking an interest in a career in IT that has taken her through banking and consulting to her role at Morrisons Facilities, started in January 2010.

“When you work for a startup you do everything,” she says. “If the phone rings you answer it. I enjoyed it. Email was just coming along, the internet was big and exciting.”

Although Coombs says she could never be a programmer, she feels at home with systems engineering and the binary dynamic.

“It’s the same as with math. There’s a right and a wrong and with troubleshooting there’s always a root cause. When you get down to the cause there’s an empirical answer.”

She’s dead against CIOs that have no solid base in dealing with technology.

“I haven’t had my hands in the back of a server for several years but I keep abreast of technology and I’d rather take poor social skills and a techno-bot rather than someone who doesn’t understand technology,” she says.

That said, she is resistant to the concept of IT projects, citing the thoughts of a renowned peer: “[BA CIO] Paul Coby said there are no IT projects only business projects. Windows 7, cloud computing… so what? I understand the ‘so what’ and it’s my role to introduce the technology and communicate the ‘so what’ [to senior management].”

Thankfully, after a year at Morrison, Coombs feels she is made a difference.

“It’s quite a blue-collar workforce, but from the time the phone rings to invoice paid the actual labour is a few hours. The rest is driven by IT — everything from supply chain to workflow. The way data can transform into information is incredible. For example, there are major environmental implications for our carbon footprint if we put something there rather than there. It goes right down to the model of the cars we choose.”

Automation is critical to Morrison’s efficiency. PDAs enable operators — the men and women on the ground —to receive job information, addresses, schedule timings and materials information, and to address safety questions. Coombs says that her biggest challenge was usability, so she set aside time to put on work boots and hi-vis vest to spend time with operators because, if you ignore the frontline staff and don’t know how the operation works, it will catch up with you down the line in the form of remedial tasks.

“You can have all the [theoretical] governance on projects but if you don’t get it right, all you get is a series of change requests. I don’t want to design on change requests.”

Although Morrison might not seem an obvious example of a technology-centric workplace, Coombs believes that IT can tick all boxes across the company’s three pillars of performance, engagement and growth. She felt like she was on a mission to communicate the importance of IT and the edge it can deliver for Morrison.

“We’re at the tipping point of demonstrating that IT is more than the service catalogue. I’m trying to show what you really can do by having a finger in many pies. I’m keeping systems healthy and operating and making sure projects are delivered but I’m also spending an awful lot of time with the business to show [that where IT meets the business] is not just DR but also reading the Request For Proposal to spot opportunities, use census information and understand demographics.”

The office where we met is open plan and she says she has excellent access to the chief executive who is very IT savvy. Morrison doesn’t throw money at IT but Coombs thinks saying there’s not enough funds is a poor excuse and not one used there. Having worked in Lloyds Banking Group previously, she can see the contrast.

She says: “It’s not banking and we have to be clever with money and shrewd.”

Her initial six months at Morrison involved creating the right operating model, governance, processes and prioritising workload.

“The first priority was not installing a Linux service pack but getting the foundation right. Let’s do 10 things well rather than 100 badly,” she says, adding that one early win came by demanding impact assessments on change requests, rather than merely succumbing to non-prioritised requests.

Coombs was happy with the predominantly outsourced IT mix at Morrison with close to 20 internal people at the time, bolstered by ISC handling hosting, monitoring, service desk and licence control. “For me that’s a commodity, whereas the things that differentiate us and knowledge we keep close to our chest.”

Internally, she had a remit to spread that knowledge. The new Mint (for Morrison intranet) is an attempt to do just that. She says: “It’s about supporting the exposure of information and letting staff see at any point in time where people are, how to get in touch with them. It’s been very well received. The interface is engaging and we’ve made it a place people want to go, rather than asking them to pull information.”

As for the future, at the time when we met, Tesco has just appointed Philip Clarke as CEO, provoking an outbreak of optimism that a previous role running IT needn’t be a blocker to one day assuming the top job.

“Tesco is the most information-driven company there is so it doesn’t surprise me,” Coombs says, adding that “the CEO space is available” for CIOs. “If you really nail it and change the top and bottom line I don’t see why you can’t go from CIO to CEO.”

Change is important to her.

She says: “You don’t want to be stagnant so [the time consulting at Avanade] was fantastic for me, with a regular change of environment and challenge but I’d still want to reap the benefits and know that it’s completely bedded in.”

Coombs thanks her ongoing development to an internal learning academy at Morrisons Facilities and job shadowing, despite the occasional frustration with suppliers, software licensing models and practices.

“What continues to underwhelm me is the training, With Oracle and SAP you have these enormous pieces of software together with massive consulting workshops and I think ‘don’t you want me to use your software?'”

Understandably, she is shirty about the attitude of some men in what remains a male-dominated role.

“What bothers me is that at a conference it’s all men, grey faces and suits. I’m 20 years younger, female and I’m not going to get you a drink. I prefer a straight talker.”

She’s certainly a straight talker herself.