I’m stood in front of a bank of screens loaded with data as a team of professionals huddle around laptops and to my right a whiteboard depicts the storage area network in use. All of a sudden the sound of an explosion bursts around us, a man dives onto the floor, my sphincter clenches and I no doubt tremble a little; the CIO next to me doesn’t flinch. The screens we are looking at run footage from unmanned aircraft and display advanced 3D maps. The laptops are coated with a veneer of gritty dust while the professionals and the CIO are all in battle fatigues. This really is frontline information technology and Brigadier Alan Hill is the British Army’s deputy CIO.

Hill and I are deep inside Salisbury Plain, the Ministry of Defence training area in Wiltshire, at a replica of a forward operating base camp that the infantry and signallers I’m meeting are using to train for deployment in Afghanistan later this month. During the course of the day it becomes clear that today’s British Army marches not on its stomach, but on information. From Brigadier Hill down to the impressive 23-year-old section commanders, information is key to what they do and everyone has an interest in it. Hill and the Army have allowed me to speak freely to troops as they prepare for frontline operations.

“An incoming mortar is an information problem as well as a lethal threat,” Hill says as I gather my wits. Within seconds of one exploding, soldiers on the ground will be listening intently to the Bowman radio system they use to communicate with fellow soldiers and commanders, while others will be using JChat, the Army’s collaboration tool, and information may also be shared with other elements of the force using other bespoke incident-reporting applications.

High-end security cameras will look for the mortar firing point, while others will analyse patrol data to determine whether a patrol route has been overused, thereby creating a pattern that makes it easier for insurgents to attack.

An incoming mortar, it turns out, is not an opportunity for lots of shouting and the wild firing of machine guns; instead, as Hill explains, it is the trigger for a business process. In the Army, a ‘mission thread’ is a business process as everyone involved uses the information systems available to deliver an outcome – peace and safety.

Army deputy CIO Brigadier Alan Hill

Information accuracy is important for the section leaders, who are wearing between 35kg and 65kg of body armour and toting a Bergen backpack of essential gear, not to mention carrying a gun. The section leaders have two radios, one for soldier-to-soldier contact and another to communicate with their commanders. The levels of concentration, leadership and incisive decision-making that are required – perhaps literally under fire – make good information an equally essential piece of equipment.

“Sections need to know that the information is up to date,” Hill says, “so we can’t have latency.”

Dress rehearsal

The Helmand Information and Communication Systems Signal Squadron I’m with on Salisbury Plain are part of the Royal Corps of Signals, They are training for the “daily battle rhythm of life” when they deploy to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. Strong information is key to the training, with all maps and information they use on the plain exactly replicating what they will experience in Helmand. The training is a dress rehearsal rather than a hypothetical training exercise.

“We are exercising the equipment locally before deployment,” explains Hill. “Behind all of this is putting information at the heart of the Army and there is an appreciation for that since Afghanistan. The counter-insurgency in Afghanistan demanded a different approach to technology and we had an operational driver in Afghanistan.”

The Army vehicles leaving Camp Bastion on patrols now bristle with beacons and aerials. The communications and jamming technology is even more cutting-edge than the weaponry and is all part of the protective armoury.

Putting technology on the frontline is challenging not only because of the remote and troubled locations involved, but also because Army operations are structured very differently from a retailer’s or manufacturer’s supply chain.

Hill’s signal corps is responsible for networks, infrastructure and applications through a chain from brigade headquarters to battlegroup headquarters, then down to the companies and lastly on to the sections out on patrol. That means a “big fat broadband pipe all the way to the battlegroup headquarters” and then reliable wireless communications for the companies and sections.

“We must remain focused on our services. If JChat goes down there is no command and control application. A 30-second outage is big for a bank, but it can be life-threatening for us,” Hill says.

A new digital army is rising through the ranks as a result of these demands. All signallers are multiskilled and able to act as infantry. Cross-training is a core belief in the Army’s strategy. One of the female signallers I met was also an electrician.

“Everyone has special skills, but everyone has the ability to help everyone,” Hill says. “Part of my job is taking people with no IT experience and making them effective.” The Army has always set out to skill and shape soldiers with a hierarchical promotion structure and Hill says training raw recruits and then retaining them is still the most effective way to beat a skills shortage.

“Training is positive and it pulls people through the Army,” Hill says as he introduces me to a signals foreman (a senior NCO) with a degree in information systems management. “Investing in people is important as they will stay.”

The Army operates internal training and has a Cisco Academy at its training school. “To train people is expensive, but it is important we invest in the soldiers, officers and commanders.”

The rise of technology means the Army is training its sights on digital skills. After the Iraq War of 2003 the coalition forces found they needed technology skills and that the local population was not as benign as the politicians had thought they would be. As a result the Army relied on IT contractors instead of local skills, but as contractors are civilians they require protection, therefore increasing the overall workforce.

“We were hit by a technology boom and you have to answer that need,” says Hill. He aims to carry through an Army digital revolution. “Dominating the information space through the collection, communication and exploitation of information is the strategy. We already dominate the battle space.”

UK permanent joint headquarters staff run operations like Afghanistan, making demands on all three armed forces. “We put together a package and permanent joint HQ operate the battle,” Hill says.

The digitisation of the Army isn’t just in the battle space, it is also in what Hill calls the business space, the essential back office that keeps the Army marching.

And with the Ministry of Defence cutting 25,000 armed forces personnel and 29,000 civilian staff by 2015, in the biggest round of cuts to the military since the end of the Cold War, that back office has come under heavy pressure.

Those staff reductions were set out in the government’s 2010 strategic defence and security review. The Army, a public sector operation with an annual budget of £10.5 billion, employs 140,000 people not only across the UK, but also in Germany, Kenya, Canada, Brunei and Afghanistan.

To make the Army more efficient, secure and able to achieve its complicated mission, in 2005 the Army and MoD launched the defence information infrastructure (DII) programme. DII is one of the rare large IT project successes to be found in the public sector.

He says that in 2000 the Army and MoD found themselves with a large number of different IT systems and a changing role. Outdated and bespoke systems were becoming ever more costly to run and upgrade, not to mention unable to meet the information exchange needs of a rapidly changing organisation – a classic CIO scenario.

DII was created by the Atlas consortium of Fujitsu, HP and Cassidian and provides 300,000 users across all three forces with access via any device to Ministry of Defence information systems. The National Audit Office has announced its overall satisfaction with the programme and praised it for delivering important benefits despite some implementation difficulties. It also praised the defence community for mitigating risk, learning from other large technology projects and having “robust commercial, governance and decision-making structures”.

DII integrates multiple systems within a single infrastructure of networks and datacentres, and provides the military with a single point of supply and contact for all IT. It includes hosted applications built by the Army’s own software house, such as a wounded, injured and sick management information system used to provide post-injury support monitoring and ensure the right level of care is provided to soldiers.

Life in the Army is very different to that of many careers in that it is very much a lifestyle, with the force providing housing and making great demands on its workforce. As a result Hill’s back-office systems have to provide information and access that fit with the personal lives of soldiers as well as the operational systems that any organisation needs to operate daily.

The Defence Gateway, for example, is a two-factor secure system that enables the Army to operate ArmyNet, a source of information and services for personnel. The site receives 70,000 hits a month on individual salary statement pages.

Hill is proud of ArmyNet and the behaviour change it has encouraged as its members use it to book ‘adventurous training’, check their pay, and use the apps and e-book stores. “We need more online training available in barracks and are starting a wifi delivery project to support that across 70 sites,” he says.

Hill’s datacentres are at IL3 and IL5 security levels – the highest – and the organisation is very used to cyber-attacks. The business-focused CIO sees it as an opportunity for his organisation to offer secure cloud computing to the rest of the government as a shared service. He says other armed forces already use ArmyNet.

Soldier-proof technology

With an increased focus on information, the need to cut costs and retain a motivated and professional workforce, the Army needs to be as cost-effective and efficient as any CIO’s watch.

“Where it makes sense we use commercial technology. We don’t need bespoke laptops, but some of our technology needs to be soldier-proof if it is out in the field,” he says of the need to have the right tools for the right job. Hill is always looking for ways of using commercially available products, but has an increased security concern should a device be lost.

“We are putting an information line of development into every change programme and business-as-usual process in the Army,” he says of the wider implications of the change the force is undergoing.

Like any CIO, Hill has come across those who don’t see a technology-led change programme as an enabler. He, though, is embracing the current wave of technology change in the public sector and says he’s enthusiastic about the opportunities provided by G-Cloud (the government’s cloud initiative) and looking to increase the number of SME vendors that supply the Army.

CIOs are always in the maelstrom of change as a result of technology or business developments, but as deputy CIO of the Army, Hill and his team are combating not only these changes but also a massive change in world events and therefore the Army’s role. An armed force built in the Cold War and expecting to be deployed in a world war, the British Army has seen many conflicts over the past 20 years; each has been different and changed the Army’s requirements drastically each time.

“What will be the coalitions of the future? We don’t have a year to plan any more, so the contingency is always to be ready to go. Now the question is, is the deployment peace support, combat operations or intervention?

“We have to be prepared to operate with any nation, which means your processes and technology have to be templated first, then adapted to meet the situation. You have to be good at risk management and you have to have your backup systems prepared,” he says of both the need for physical and process fall-backs.

“So we have to be as efficient as possible and be really hard-nosed about business cases. We are constantly changing,” he says in reference to recent announcements of redundancies, expansion of the Territorial Army and the closure of bases in Germany.

“All of this requires a really shrewd business understanding and it is hard to quantify value when there is no P&L.”

On CIO’s day with Brigadier Hill, the one-star rank is never an issue. Hill is a confident communicator keen to allow a voice to those serving him and not dominate the conversation himself.

And he never avoids the difficult subjects. Over the course of the day and the interview he freely admits the Army has suffered problems with the handling of Iraqi detainees, that Bowman wasn’t perfect on launch and that the Army is about young people who have to be deployable – a harsh reality for those seriously injured.

“I’m an IT person, but not a deep technologist,” he says of his role. “I’m business-aware and that is why I have a great team of technologists. This is an utterly people-driven business; they need to understand the technology and talk to me because they are the experts,” he says of his team.

Hill joined the Royal Signals as a direct entry officer and has been with the corps all his career. He became the commanding officer of the 700 men in the 3rd Division Signal Regiment in 2005 with frontline experience of commanding in Iraq. “At times it got too close to the rockets for my liking,” he laughs.

His career has also seen stints in Northern Ireland and extensive training in the Arctic. He became head of information superiority – in effect, CIO – in 2011 after two years as commander of the 11th Signal Brigade where he was responsible for 3,000 troops.

Not many CIOs can claim to have led 3,000 individuals, so what are the leadership requirements?

“Command them by being with them, helping them, leading them and making sure they feel valued,” he says. “And make sure you are out and about all the time – it’s not about being sat in an office.”

And the same is true of his current role. Although based at Army headquarters in Andover, Hampshire, he travels regularly and that means being ready for the next challenge or operation.

As a one-star brigadier Hill answers to a trio of two-star generals: the assistant chief of the general staff as CIO, the chief of staff of land forces for operations, and the director general of logistics, support and equipment for procurement and management.

“But I also answer to all the people that own the change programmes,” he points out. “As for my team I have four direct reports for security, business, software and C4 ISR [command, control, computer, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) – all highly talented officers.

“I’m passionate about it. This is a people-centric role and it has kept me here for 30 years.

“The fun lies in spotting a good idea, running with it and delivering the value in it.”

Brigadier Alan Hill with Mark Chillingworth