CIO Interview, BT's Clive Selley sees goal chances in Internet of Things

As CIO for BT, the once nationalised telecoms provider, Clive Selley has one of the biggest information leadership gigs in UK telecoms. “We have 90,000 employees in a global company, two-thirds of them in the UK,” he says. “We are fundamentally a network company, with a presence in 170 countries.”

It has been two and half years since he and I caught up. In the technology world that’s pretty much an era, especially when, as Selley points out, your business is a fundamental network – oh, and your organisation has also become a major player in sports broadcasting.

But it is that network backbone of the BT business that has been the bedrock
of developments.

“Technology has been changing the way we work at some pace, particularly as it is now possible to translate very large amounts of data into processable information,” Selley says. “For example, we can now process the billions of messages that are being alerted from millions of pieces of our network electronics. Five years ago that data would not have been processable in near real time, but today it is.”

Predicting failure

“Today we are predicting when parts of the network will fail, rather than merely understanding after the event why the network failed,” he continues. “Now we have the ability to move from networks that tell you when they are broken and then you dispatch engineers to them to networks that tell you how they are performing and from that we can figure out from the signature when they are likely to fail in the future.

“That is a difference that big data technology has enabled for us and it is key given that the networks are the bedrock for BT. It really is transformational because that gives us the ability to change pieces of the network ahead of the failure event.”

The capture and analysis of data within the network is not only used to execute a strategy of prevention being better than cure for the network’s health, but also for the ever increasing threat of cyber-attacks that CIOs are fighting.

“The application of big data is defending BT,” he says. “We’ve put a lot of effort into researching and developing a big data analytics tool that majors on visualisation so we have the ability to look across the large BT network estate for intrusion or anomalies in terms of traffic patterns, which might give us a clue to where we are being attacked.”

Given that BT is one of the world’s largest network providers and reported a profit for the last financial year of more than £2bn, cyber security is, as for many of Selley’s peers, top of the agenda. “We have copious amounts of data on our people, customers, networks, services and platforms,” he says of the areas he sees as under threat.

“Our biggest team of people is our field engineering force. Recently smartphones with BT apps have enabled them to interact with the back-end systems, our databases or act as the mechanism for testing our services,” Selley says of the business process changes his team have been working on.

Selley remains a keen advocate of innovation and R&D, and BT has been modernising how it enables its myriad staff to develop. “We have put a lot of effort into building accredited learning pathways, which are online learning courses for our people so they can stay abreast of technology. We are now investing in MOOCs [massive open online courses], so I’m very pleased that my people can access course material from MIT, Stanford and world-leading universities and I think continued learning is hugely important.”

Selley says he has noticed that customer interaction with BT has become increasingly digital both in its consumer and business markets, especially in the UK. This has led to investment into gateways to increase and improve customer transactions online and the creation of collaboration portals for business customers.

BThas suffered from complaints about its customer service. A 2013 Which? report said it was the telecom operator most complained about by customers. Selley’s response is that BT continues to invest in the network, whether it’s the roll-out of fibre-based broadband or more Wifi spots.

“Investing in this platform leads to future revenues,” he says of the business case. He is confident that fibre will be a “game changer” for BT and its customers.

Talking of games, BT has in the past 12 months become the title contender against BSkyB in the competition to win sports viewers’ lucrative subscription revenues. BT Sport launched in August 2013 and just four weeks before CIO met Selley, it won the auction for the exclusive right to televise UEFA Champions League and Europe League matches for three seasons from 2015 for £897m.

Selley said BT had been intent on launching a TV channel because of the trend for consumers to pay for broadband, phone and TV in a single ‘triple-play’ deal. Televising Premier League football was a key part of that strategy.

“When we won the rights [to televise 38 Premiership matches a season] in July 2012 it gave us exactly one year and one month until our launch at the start of the 2013/14 football season, which was really great as a team project. When you spend £1bn on football rights, it really motivates your department! And 200,000 watched the first televised Manchester United match on our channel on an iPad or Android device.”

Selley admitted there had been some teething problems with the streaming on Android tablets, and that his team had found out about it through monitoring social media channels before any of their own systems flagged a problem.

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