by Mike Altendorf

Magic wheels show real British leadership, innovation and spirit

Aug 14, 20125 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

The last month or so has been one to remember for all the right reasons. It’s not just about winning more medals than the Aussies (although that has been a big bonus), it’s also about seeing such a phenomenal array of young talent, from all parts of the UK and from all walks of life, coming together and achieving something special with charm, grace and without ego.

For me the highlight has to have been the cycling. Being a bit of a geek, cycling to me embodies the perfect coming together of man and machine and the UK team’s understanding of the importance of technology in delivering those few extra centimetres advantage on the track. It also helps that we got right up the noses of the French…

Actually the French might be right when they say the advantage is in the technology. I don’t know about magic wheels (unless of course we also have magic boats, magic horses and enchanted arms and legs) but the attitude of not leaving a single stone unturned and of investing as much in the technology as in the athletes sets us apart from the rest.

It has been fascinating to hear Dave Brailsford, Performance Director of British Cycling talk about all the different aspects to creating a winning cyclist (  The ethos from his management team was to break everything down to its smallest component and then look at how each one can be improved individually – from cyclists bringing their pillows from home to ensuring they wear an aerodynamic cover on their shoes. And this process could be applied to anything – even software development.

It’s all about understanding clearly what it is you want to achieve and then looking at every single factor that comes to play in getting to your objective. Business has long recognised that it can learn a lot from sport and, especially from a CIO’s perspective there is a lot to be said for getting the equipment right. And it’s not just about the equipment that you see – the bikes, the boats or the trainers – it’s also about the stuff you don’t. The data collection devices, analytics tools and the ability to collaborate with a virtual team play a critical role in the team’s success – providing access to insight and intelligence to gain the competitive edge. Cycling deployed F1 style sensors to capture performance data. Look closely at the scenes from the velodrome and you can see not one but two analysts hunched over their laptops crunching the data in real time, now that is turning information into competitive advantage!

It’s not just the cycling of course where the value of data plays a critical role. Grand Prix racing is also heavily reliant on an infrastructure that not only delivers data in real time from a car, a garage or a gym to a network of people spread out across the globe that can then cut, cross reference and analyse it in multiple different ways. When the driver is on the track this can all happen in seconds – allowing the teams to provide a relay of real time information to the driver.

In the business world it’s the CIO who is the gateway to this insight. He or she is the link between the data and the intelligence. It is also the role of the CIO to create the infrastructure than can enable people to collaborate across countries, and even continents.

Not only did the Olympics bring home the value of data and the important role the ‘data team’ behind the scenes plays in achieving that illusive gold – it also showed the importance of investing in innovation. One of the standout moments of the Olympics for me had nothing to do with gold medals. It was a shot of the Dutch cycling team sitting down with electric blankets over their knees. Like many of the teams they were desperate to try and find out what the UK team was doing that was giving them such an advantage. Watching them closely they had noticed they were wearing heated shorts. These specially created shorts contained heat pads so when the rider gets of their bikes they can keep their muscles warm and so better avoid injury. The Dutch immediately rushed out and bought electric blankets. Not that it helped their medal haul but they, like the French had realised that investing in innovation was helping the Brits stay ahead. The British approach however was about more than keeping your legs warm.

I appreciate that in these austere times companies cannot just throw money at technology but what the cycling team has shown is that it’s the little things that make the difference in the big race. To go back to an old and well worn argument of mine – businesses also need to be going out there to see what is around that could give them that little bit of something extra. These kinds of innovations aren’t usually found in the Oracles, Microsofts and SAPs of this world. They are found in the little among the little two man bands and the genius young developers. So Mr (or Mrs) CIO – where are you doing to find your heated shorts?