by Mark Chillingworth

Colt CIO Mark Leonard on Cloud and office of the future

Feb 22, 2011
IT LeadershipIT StrategyNetworking Devices

On the outside it may seem easy to transform a telecommunications company into a technology services provider, but any transformation is by its very nature involved and strategic. Mark Leonard, CIO of London-based Colt, was at the heart of the 2010 transformation of the company.

“Colt has transformed itself and the outward vision of that is that we are no longer Colt Telecom,” says Leonard.

“That transformation process was exciting. As the CIO I was excited to be a key part of the process and excited about the IT more than the brand.”

The first task, he says, was to sell the new Colt to the company’s own employees and involve them in the rebranding and transformation process.

“As a leadership team we decided to launch the brand internally and then earn the right with the employees to launch the new corporate identity,” Leonard explains.

“Discussions with them concentrated on us no longer being a telecoms company. We created a new mission statement, vision and new organisational values. These were workshopped through the business and 20 proof points were identified for the entire company to deliver by the end of 2010,” he says of the transformation process and the full involvement of the Colt staff.

“We have delivered on this culturally, technologically and in the managed service business. So we have taken the whole company on a journey.”

Tied into that cultural change and new business model at Colt was a move to the “office of the future”, which Leonard des­cribes as a new approach to providing computing to his workforce. At the heart of it Colt is embracing the consumerisation-of-IT debate that ran throughout 2010 and looks set to be a big topic again in 2011.

“I told the workforce that they had a better experience of IT at home than they did at work; this is not exclusive to Colt, and in fact the same can be said of most organisations,” says Leonard.

“The megalithic nature of what [CIOs] have tried to provide over the years has become very inflexible for customers to use,” he says of the technology that IT leaders have to provide their organisations.

Today Colt has a bring-your-own-PC policy and is at the forefront of cloud adoption. “These steps have opened the doors for proper collaboration and unified communications,” he says.

The IT transformation began with a pilot of 300 staff at the Colt HQ a stone’s throw from the City of London. The trial had a 96 per cent satisfaction result, which gave Leonard the confidence to continue the rollout across Colt.

The material changes brought by bring-your-own-PC and cloud computing are just a part of the IT transformation within the overhaul of Colt, and Leonard has also been busy changing the cultural attitude to IT within the organisation.

“We see ‘user’ as a word associated with dependency and a dependency culture. So that means people come into work and lose their independence,” he explains.

“We have developed a self-service capability for IT. You can set up your own SharePoint site by applying for it online and it is then fulfilled online. Previously we were getting 6000 requests a month for shared directories. Our new culture is all about ­being collaborative.”

As a former communications company,­ Colt has also looked to modernise its ­internal communications operations. For a start, there is no physical telephone on Leonard’s desk: company-wide IP means that every employee has a soft-phone and headset connected to their PC. In the CIO’s case it frees up desk space for more models of his beloved Lotus Elan, but for the employees it represents a significant cultural shift in attitudes towards IT.

“I wanted to take down the barrier bet­ween the network guys and IT, and bringing them all together has been important for us,” says Leonard.

“We are really pushing the boundaries and the IP switch is a start. I’d like to move to a place where we have unified communications on your mobile.”

The end result is that Colt is now a technology services provider with a heavy lean towards managed services and cloud computing based on a strong relationship with virtualisation leader VMware as well as its own telecommunications heritage of a private high-capacity network with a series of data­centres in the most important cities in Europe. That heritage was beneficial for Colt in the transformation.

“In a telco you are pushed to provide leading-edge solutions for the business and you sit further ahead ready to adopt new technology,” Leonard explains.

“The Colt network is key to us. The ­future is going to see more and more auto­mation in the move towards cloud computing. That means that network demands will increase, so the network will become more and more critical; that is our unique ­opportunity in Europe.”

Like most CIOs in the telecommunications and technology space, Leonard is a CIO that gets to see both sides of the coin, that of being a user and a provider. This has given him a unique insight as Colt moves into technology provision.

Leonard has worked with Colt to survey CIOs and its findings show that of 350 IT chiefs consulted across Europe, 86 per cent believe cloud computing will be the operating system of the future. The majority say they are currently considering cloud because of the cost benefits, but expect their motivation to change to being about flexibility. Leonard agrees with these findings and recognises the benefits: after all, he’s been through the journey and is now operating the model that Colt itself will take to the market.

The CEO’s view

Rakesh Bhasin, CEO of Colt, took over the reins in December 2006 and has been instrumental in the strategic redirection of the company.

“Colt has been evolving. The revenue has been changing, the right revenue mix has been the main objective of this strategy,” he says. Bhasin says the reason for the new strategy was more than just a plan to compensate for dropping voice revenues.

“Our P&L was focused on the operating country through the local relationships we had. We were not able to use our pan-European bases,” he says of the overly localised view of an essentially globalised corporation.

“In the last four years this has been changing, so the shift of revenues was by going into deeper relationships with existing customers.”

The new strategy will rely on these deeper relationships at first, but Bhasin is aware of the cultural challenges ahead. “The biggest pain is getting people out of an Outlook mentality – people are still using a desktop mentality,” he says in reference to the opportunities cloud computing offers organisations, but the overpowering strength of the Microsoft Outlook and MS Office tradition that exists.

An opportunity for Colt is the increasing pressure on datacentres. “We have a great set of assets in over 100 cities. We have 19 datacentres, just one billing system and one administration system,” he says.

In European commercial centres like London, Paris and Frankfurt there are growing real estate constraints on the building of new datacentres, and Bhasin hopes that these restrictions will lead CIOs to the Colt door.

Bhasin, whose background is in telecoms, is excited by the cloud and believes the public cloud will lead adoption, but expects most of his business to come from CIOs who for good reason are concerned about putting enterprise data and applications into the public cloud.