Richard Cross has made a recent career of surrounding himself with creative, and therefore challenging, people. After a career as CIO for broadcaster ITV he is now Group CIO at engineering firm Arup. Ove Arup founded the firm that bears his name in 1946 and some of the most striking and influential buildings around the world bear the Arup hallmark, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the site of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Channel Tunnel rail link and the Sydney Opera House.

Arup is owned in trust for its employees and is very proud of its business structure, stating on the corporate website: “Put simply, Arup people are driven to find a better way.” Arup is one of the largest engineering firms in the construction sector and claims to have about 10,000 projects in operation at any time.

“Arup prides itself on giving staff creative independence,” Cross says of his employers. “Being employee owned there isn’t a command and control culture.”

Cross has been with Arup since January 2011 in what is a new role also for the engineers.

“There wasn’t a Group CIO before I came, it was pretty much a blank sheet of paper and I had to come and demonstrate how I could add value. I was really excited by the opportunity to shape the role, but I think many CIOs would be very uncomfortable with such an open-ended brief,” he says of the move across London from Grays Inn Road to trendy Fitzrovia.

“I was keen to get back to a global and strategic role. Last year I spent much of my time out of the UK discovering as much as I could about the organisation. I didn’t want to come here and just implement the same solutions that I have before. I wanted to shape something that would work for Arup. So there were no strategic programme announcements in the first 90 days.” As we will see, a Global CIO role at Arup is one of harnessing a culture to do more, to follow the company ideology and “find a better way”, vastly different from Cross’ experience at ITV which was to see a broadcaster through a major M&A and then rationalise its IT to suit the new media age.

“In many global roles you sit in your office and just issue policies, but that is not the case at Arup.”

CIO Event:

The CIO Big Conversation
Consumerisation: How to manage the new era of mobility

Date: Thursday 25th October 2012
Time: 6:30pm
Location: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, London

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Event Overview:

The Big Conversation is a business technology leadership forum that brings IT leaders together to listen, share & shape opinions on the key issues the CIO community faces. The evening will include a keynote from a top CIO 100 speaker sharing his experiences on this topic, as well as the opportunity to share your views with fellow CIOs over networking drinks and canapés.

Cross’ global role means he is part of the group executive board and therefore is actively involved in the wider business discussions beyond technology.

“This is an environment of very smart people, many are PHD educated. Everyone here is very engaged and wants the very best for the company and so it is demanding and stimulating. Driving through consistent standards can be challenging. In parallel with the media it is a less structured and a more creatively driven environment. There are groups that develop commercial software products that work out stress in buildings for example.”

“We have some very good skills networks and a really strong staff skills database. So I am challenging people to think about the future and the next potential step change – placing this into a social networking context.”

“I took some of our Group Board to Silicon Valley and met with Google and other innovators looking at how we can embrace social media,” he says. Cross described the trend of CIOs switching email and desktop applications to Google as one of CIOs typically having a problem to solve with email, while for him it’s a different take.

“I am interested in looking at Google as an opportunity to potentially change our culture by adapting the techniques of social media into corporate context. I wonder, is Google+ a social networking tool that will bridge the gap between communities of interest inside and outside of the company?”

Cross is considering these web-based and existing social networks because he, like many CIOs, realises that LinkedIn probably already has almost as much information on Arup staff as Arup or any other organisation captures internally.

“The people here really know the organisation and they are well networked and as we are not a plc with that top down behaviour, the way to get things done is to get some consensus around an idea and use that to generate viral marketing across the company. If someone is respected and advocates something, others will try it,” Cross says of the different approach he has to take to change management.

Cross did carry out a major survey with all Arup staff about the delivery and satisfaction with IT within the group on his arrival. He found that there was good satisfaction with the basic IT provision, but there was a feeling that IT was not a place for innovation and staff wanted to know where to go when they had an idea.

“There was a big ask for more choice on end devices, more flexibility on mobility. I am keen to embrace consumerisation and support any time, any place, any device. My role is trying to make Arup on the internet a place to work, but to make things available on the internet there are challenges with legacy. So I am trying work out what we run globally as an operating model to ensure we act and feel consistent. There is standardisation in the licensing and network to drive out some value.”

“We are adopting more cloud and software-as-a-service systems as they fit the model of any time, any place, any device,” he says. Security is often cited as the main block to consumerisation and cloud computing, but Cross has put in a software based virtual private network (VPN) to protect the sensitive material. While he is also considering Apps for basic business processes that would benefit from being enabled on mobile devices such as expense filing, “so we can make people more effective”, he says.

Read the CIO UK interview with Richard Cross when he was CIO at ITV

“We want to delight people. I think it’s important. A lot of IT groups stop people, they stop ideas. But we want to be more transparent. The model for me is to bring the best of the internet into the organisation. On the internet things are simple, cheap and people’s expectations are high.” The same cannot always be said of corporate IT.

“During the last 10 to 15 years IT has been very ERP based, with a big focus on standardisation of processes - there are not many companies that have not done all that. The next challenge is to enable effective personal networks so that people can collaborate and innovate to get things done. The challenge for the IT department is that this will come from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

“If you can embrace that while dealing with all the typical issues of cost; that is when the CEO sees you as a CIO that is driving the organisation forward. For CIOs it is how we challenge perceptions amongst senior people that IT says ‘no’. “

One way Cross is tackling this challenge is by chairing an IT & systems executive group which includes the regional COOs within Arup to discuss the IT strategy the organisation should follow and then drive this forward.

“These are intense discussions, typically over two days, where we work on thinking of IT as a way of potentially changing the business,” he says. IT is focused on as an enabler and he believes this is moving the perception from IT being reactive to becoming an enabler of change in the organisation.

Just as a building takes shape from drawings, models, to a skeletal frame then on to completion before an interior is added and finally it becomes a part of a community, so too is Cross building a structure, albeit a loose and collaborative one that just may transform the way IT operates in organisations, just as the Arup engineered Channel Tunnel has transformed rail travel.