by Richard Sykes

It is at the user-end where the rubber hits the road

Oct 02, 20124 mins
IT StrategyMobileSmall and Medium Business

Proudly wearing a badge as ‘CIO Columnist’ I attended this year’sCIO Summit in London. Not as a speaker – I was there to network, and in particular to listen and learn.

I raised the issue of ‘listening and learning’ in my June column [ Users take the Driving Seat] and I took advantage of the Summit to test CIO experience on this front.

One speaker was William Payne, CIO of Veolia Environmental Services. If you think street cleaning and waste recycling is deadly dull commodity stuff, you would be wrong!

Veolia’s William Payne on sorting tasks and cutting out the rubbish

Anything but dull – how about the processing of street sweepings for the rare metals they contain (car exhausts spew them forth – catalytic converters at work). There is the equivalent of gold in them thar streets!

Commodity stuff – yes – but this is where the ICT magic is. This is an asset and people-intensive business, and William described how Veolia exploits ICT to drive up both margins and service quality in a most focused manner.

One example: the driving habits of each Veolia vehicle driver is continuously recorded (accelerating, idling, braking…) and a league table regularly published ranking each driver by their fuel conserving behaviours. Step by step the Veolia fuel bill (measured in many tens of £millions) is being driven down.

It is in such low margin but highly competitive businesses that the innovative exploitation of IT can pay dividends. Veolia draws on the products and services of a range of ICT vendors. Did they, I asked William, seek to learn from Veolia?  ‘No’ was the brisk answer.

The business culture of Veolia is to drive margin from every aspect of the waste material it handles, from the assets it exploits and from the work of its people. The business culture of its ICT suppliers is clearly to ignore the rich seam of practical learning in how their products and services are used to create business value. Bad news! Has anyone told their share holders?

The real issue is our industry’s strong marketing culture, which seeks to dominate the client relationship with the imperative to sell more. The industry’s software giants face a real challenge in transforming themselves from monolithic software vendors to responsive services partners.

The CIO of a Midlands manufacturer told me of a meeting with a product manager from a leading software vendor that was starting to focus on actual experience of the software in use. Then the marketing director arrived and made it amply clear that he did not approve of this ‘departure from message’.

There are now better approaches in play. In my June column I described Emma Taylor and her business vehicle Nimbus Ninety, whose initial creation, Obis Omni, is devoted to enabling ‘a free, independent and dedicated business intelligence and corporate performance management community’. She has since launched two further Communities – The Cloud Circle and the Big Data Insight Group.

I recently attended the launch of her Big Data Insight Group’s second report, focused on Manufacturing. It details a series of practical user-side focused case studies, with the vendor side involvement very real but disciplined to exclude marketing/sales tendencies.

One case study detailed is McLaren in Formula 1 racing. A comprehensive exploitation of big data tools ‘out on the race track’ (very literally where the rubber hits the road!) allows every aspect of the McLaren race car performance to be measured, simulated, improved and optimised endlessly. In the highly competitive environment of Formula 1 this is crucial to success.

The contribution of applied ICT, drawn from a range of suppliers, is clearly critical – but it is equally clear that it is McLaren that is creating and driving this learning, not the suppliers. In fact McLaren’s learning is of such quality that it has a venture, McLaren Applied Technologies, that is commercially exploiting that learning with clients such as the pharma giant GSK.

Such user communities work to enfranchise the enterprise by creating an environment in which the informed CIO can explore the potential of new capabilities in IT, and guide their development, by drawing on practical user experience.

Vendors should cut back on investment in aggressive marketing, and invest instead in resource with a different customer-facing profile – ‘listener/learners’ who can capture the richness of customer experience with the vendor’s product or service, and put that learning to work.

The nine CIO speakers at this year’s Summit provided ample evidence of the potential benefits that such a transformational shift in vendor behaviour could draw on. Believe me – I was there, listening and learning!