by Mark Chillingworth

Former Channel 4 CIO describes switching over to consultancy

May 25, 200911 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

From its launch in 1982, state-owned but commercially funded broadcaster Channel 4 has done things differently, and the same can be said of its departing CIO Ian Dobb. He’s leaving the station to set up his own business, just as the nightly Channel 4 News show is dominated by headlines of business closures and the collapse of the high street and the national economy slows down to levels not seen since Brookside was a small-screen institution. Dobb doesn’t strike you as a rebel who takes great pleasure in going against the grain; he is calm and assured in an understated fashion. As he exits the radical, Richard Rogers-designed Channel 4 HQ, he leaves a post he has held for 10 years. CIOs tend to have short tenures, but again Dobb is different and has been with the company through its transformation into the multi-channel broadcaster, film financier and web publisher it is today. “I’ve never been a job hopper,” he says. “If you are enjoying it, why leave? Here, the pace of change was so great that it was a great place to work. The challenge of leading the IT function kept me happy throughout the 10 years. Not one year was the same.” Considering the switch from analogue to digital and then throwing the web into the mix, you might think that Dobb has spent the last decade redeveloping the technology needed to push content into the homes of the British public. “It’s mostly been business challenges,” he counters. “We brought solutions to the business that they might not have thought of. For example, advertising revenue is our lifeblood – we have done three key overhauls of the ad system that have added four per cent to the firm’s revenue.” This involved rewriting the advertising trading system to provide better support for sales teams, and integrating business intelligence analytics into the system. Unlike the BBC and ITV, Channel 4 doesn’t produce content to fill its own schedules. Instead, its remit from the government is to be a publisher of -independently-produced television. As a result, the bulk of Channel 4’s budget is spent acquiring content or funding producers, so Dobb and his team created an online system that allows independent producers to submit show concepts for consideration. The system is now a major part of the assessment of the 20,000-plus ideas per year that are submitted. No matter what vertical sector a business is in, the CIO can at times face a business or technological change that means they don’t quite understand how to factor it into their strategic plans. Yet Dobb has been CIO through the most dramatically changing period of all time for television, and nobody in the media would argue that Channel 4 has been anything other than successful in adopting new technology and business models. “I align myself very closely with the organisation that I am working for. Everything I do is in the best interests of the channel [and] my own brand has not been a focus for me,” he says, before lightening the tone: “perhaps to my cost!” Dobb arrived at Channel 4 shortly after it launched Film4, its first foray into -multi-platform broadcasting. Over the last 10 years his department has been central to the development of ‘red button’ interactive TV services and the growing and successful online business which launched catch-up viewing via the web before the BBC released its much-vaunted iPlayer service. Because Channel 4 has been such a trailblazer in technology, Dobb says that one of the easier aspects of his tenure has been recruiting the right team. “The lure of the Channel 4 brand made it easy to get great people. You don’t have to sell the company,” he says.

All of which makes us wonder why Dobb is leaving the company when the doom-mongers are telling us this is the worst recession since the 1930s? It’s simply time, he says, for a new test. “I’ll miss Channel 4,” he says. “I was ready for a fresh challenge though, especially with the budget reducing. I have to be challenged, I cannot soft-pedal so it came to a natural conclusion.” Dobb has been replaced as CIO by Kevin Gallagher, formerly head of application delivery at Channel 4, with Bob Harris stepping up into the CTO shoes. Both have been senior members of Team Dobb. “That is very satisfying from my perspective,” Dobb says. “I had a great management team; a team that has been together for nine years and we were all very complementary.” As CTO, Harris will be responsible for architecture, technology and platforms, both corporate and on the web, while CIO Gallagher will be responsible for analysis and applications, delivery and maintenance. “Because these guys work so well together they all flex as they need to,” Dobb says, adding that the team ethic was one of the reasons he stayed at Channel 4. Dobb is switching back to a career in consultancy, which was how he arrived at Channel 4 in the first place: he was a consultant on IS performance for Coopers & Lybrand from 1997 to 1999 when the director of the company offered him a new client – Channel 4. “I never dreamed it would end up as a career option; it was just another assignment,” he says. Dobb explains that he was consulting for the channel when they turned around and asked if he could implement what he was advising, and the rest, as they say, is history. Speaking as a CIO about to turn consultant again, Dobb is critical of “career consultants” because they “miss something from implementation and from seeing people grow and develop, which is very rewarding”. But he believes there are real benefits from spending some time as a consultant on the path towards becoming a dedicated CIO. “I benefited from doing a year in business planning and working in a consultancy means you are very business-focused rather than technology-focused,” he says. Just a day after we interviewed Dobb on the patio of the Channel 4 HQ, with Big Ben tolling in the background, he began his career as the proprietor of a consultancy firm, Ionico. He is not making the jump from the Channel 4 ship into the seas of consultancy alone. Marcus Page, another member of his senior management team as head of business development at the channel – and formerly of EDS, PwC and BP – is joining him to set the firm up. “He has a lot to offer and some fantastic skills,” Dobb enthuses. “It’s a compliment to him that we are both prepared to jump and set ourselves up in very critical times. We hope to be a natural extension to the CIO team, complementing their abilities.” Dobb’s company will have five service lines: strategic alignment – what makes a real difference in business performance; project portfolio review; strategic sourcing – in-house or outsourcing and do you choose the best company; organisation development; and cost reduction. “We have done all of these and got the outsourced service providers integrated within the current organisation. I believe every organisation needs to be complemented by external provision,” he says. In the current market, Dobb says he wouldn’t be surprised to see the most -demand coming for the last of these offerings. “Cost reduction should be a habit, but don’t be afraid to invest, otherwise you throttle the business. At Channel 4 we didn’t have great scale, so you had to keep doing lots of cost reduction things. We took operational costs down to 36 per cent through a series of initiatives.” Although Dobb and Page were both at Channel 4 for the last decade, between them they have experience of the financial services sector, retail, logistics, consulting and energy. “Sure, we know the media very well, but the skills are not confined to media,” Dobb says. Dobb left university in 1977 with a degree in geography and geology from Reading, but no clear mapped direction for his future. A careers fair introduced him to Boots The Chemist, where, as a graduate trainee, he joined the new ranks of IT and became a business systems leader working on applications for their retail, warehouse, finance, personnel and pension systems. “I’m not a deep technologist, I just enjoy it,” he says. “Nowadays, there are a lot of IT graduates around. In the late Seventies they were rare, so then there were more opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come into IT.” Setting a trend for the rest of his career, Dobb was at Boots for nearly a decade, leaving in 1987 to join the Royal Mail as a business systems consultant, a role that sounds more technology-based than it really was, and which gave Dobb his first major experience in change management. “I joined the Royal Mail as an internal consultant, looking at how to devolve power from the central office to the regions and how to measure that. At the time the Royal Mail had 64 districts. As an organisation they talked about devolving power and we did some research in how that might be done and piloted it in five regions and then nationally.” When Dobb talks of the organisations he has worked for, whether it is Channel 4, Boots or the Royal Mail you can see his claim earlier in this article about aligning with the organisation is not merely a piece of management buzz-speak learned from a book – he really does care about the companies. The conversation turns to Lord Mandelson’s plans to privatise parts of the Royal Mail, being debated in Whitehall as we carry out the interview. Dobb passionately defends the Royal Mail’s core role within the infrastructure of the UK. He believes in a universal postal system that benefits everyone equally from the Highlands to Highgate, and knows from experience that it is an organisation that has to change in order to remain relevant and not be eroded by allowing in competition to cherry-pick at its services. From the Royal Mail he joined the Harpur Group, a charge card supplier to oil companies and petrol retailers which led to working in several countries on mergers, acquisitions and major service launches. Seven years at Harpur led to Coopers & Lybrand and the fateful day the director offered Dobb the assignment to grapple with the IT of Channel 4. Like many CIOs, Dobb relaxes by exercising his brain even further. He enjoys track days in fast British sports cars and was once the proud owner of a Caterham 7, the iconic car that as the Lotus 7 burst back onto Channel 4 screens in 1984 driven by a very different type of information officer, Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six in The Prisoner. With the commute from his home in Nottinghamshire to London hopefully reducing as a consultant, he hopes to have some more leisure time and admits to having begun perusing the car magazines for another classic British sports car.

Ian Dobb: CV

1974-1977: BSc (Hons.), Geography with Geology

1977-1987: Business systems leader, Boots

1987-1990: Business systems consultant, Royal Mail

1990-1997: Head of systems, Harpur Group

1997-1999: Principal associate, Coopers & Lybrand

1999-2009: CIO, Channel 4

Present role: Director, Ionico

State of play No discussion with a media CIO can pass at present without discussing the rapidly shifting sands the industry is built upon. As Dobb leaves the media after a decade within its creative walls, he is concerned about the changes and believes that increased co-operation between major players, such as discussions between ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC are beneficial. “In areas where there is no competitive advantage, why don’t we share the costs,” he asks, but warns the corporations, “If you are not careful, the loss of control is a cancer, you want things to move at your pace and at your costs.” He said in his time as CIO at Channel 4 he had open dialogue with his counterparts at ITV, BBC, Five and at the Discovery Channel. This of course leads to a discussion on Project Kangaroo, the video online service developed by Channel 4, ITV and the BBC. The competition commission ruled that three major broadcasters working together to develop a single platform of technology was bad for the business. The overall feeling across the industry is that it was a poor decision and Dobb agrees. “I’m very disappointed. As a member of the public, you don’t want to shop around, you want one platform. Some safeguards could have been put in place. I think that decision will be regretted in years to come.” Dobb doesn’t just say this as one of the IT leaders whose vision was knocked back in Whitehall: he’s been here before and has seen what happens when the mandarins of government are poorly advised. Boots was at one time as much a pharmaceutical company as it is a retailer today, and actually invented the anti-inflammatory drug, Ibuprofen. But without the capacity to fully exploit the potential of its new creation, Boots tried to merge with major drug manufacturer Glaxo. The government was not keen on this and Boots ended its manufacturing years and focused on retail. “How did that benefit us?” asks Dobb today.