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
“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.”
“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.
BT has 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.
Internet of everything
Triple play into the household is the big consumer opportunity for BT. The internet of things is the major enterprise opportunity, as far as Selley is concerned.
“The next thing for me is leveraging a set of mobile spectrum assets we acquired in 2013,” he says of the 4G licences that BT won in the UK. “The 4G LTE licence and the prospect of some novel plays in the UK mobility marketplace are very exciting to a telecoms guy because the customer base in the UK is no longer 60 million people, it is many millions of things, devices, cars, fridges, pot plants, whatever. The internet of things will create a mushrooming of data traffic, so the future is going to be very interesting.”
Through its BT Business operation, BT is already developing the internet of things for the health sector.
“In the West with its aging population, the rising cost of care and greater longevity, the health sector faces an enormous challenge. Telecare and telehealth – the ability to serve patients in their own homes, and to monitor patients in their homes rather than in a hospital – will be absolutely transformational,” Selley explains.
BT is also working in the pharmaceuticals sector, developing a private cloud that can be used by researchers, pharma companies and the regulatory authorities in the development of new drugs.
“We are working with this sector to
put in place a platform where they can bring drugs to market just as quickly as possible. This has the potential to transform people’s health if it brings drugs to market faster.”
As the CIO at AstraZeneca has told this title recently, the pharma sector is under considerable pressure as drug patents expire and the global demand for healthcare increases. Although demand for healthcare is growing, the pressures on the cost of providing it, as Selley points out, are also increasing.
Healthcare and pharmaceuticals have always lived with the concept of big data, but the arrival of the internet of things in these sectors will see their big data rapidly increase. Selley returns to his analysis of big data and how it has helped BT manage its network.
“Big data visualisation will become important because to my mind the biggest issue is not the processing of big data, but its consumption by real humans. So the idea that you can visualise outputs in a way that is meaningful and actionable is one of my key research programmes,” he says of the research and development community within the BT organisation he is responsible for.
BT has an R&D centre at Adastral Park near Ipswich in Suffolk as well as centres in Silicon Valley and people in Israel and India.
“I love the idea of innovating in the technology field,” he says. “We are one of the biggest research labs in the UK and we register a significant number of patents each year.”
He adds that data analytics and the internet of things are two key areas of research in his operation.
“I’m passionate about the idea of everything being connected in the internet of things. We just have to figure out how we do that in a cost-effective way and how we twin big data platforms with a totally connected world in order to make sense of it and make use of it.”
Tech delivery, business goals
“In a world where the technology is changing so rapidly, as technologists all of us must commit to continued learning,” he says. And it’s just as important to understand the business. “The key with any technology-based programme is to understand it is the business outcomes that matter, not the technology delivery. It is very important for CIOs and their technology teams to become embedded in the business and understand the business problems to be solved or the opportunities to be exploited.
“Technologists must adopt a commercial mindset. They need to understand the business that users say they want as well as what business value can be delivered, so they are operating as business people, not just technologists.”
Selley admits that some of the understanding and communications issues are less rigid in BT as it is essentially a tech company. “Most of the challenges CIOs face I also face, but I do have the advantage that BT’s technology platforms are its revenue-generating platforms, which means they naturally get well supported by the board and invested in by the operating committee.”
As a life-long West Ham supporter, Selley may not be watching his team in the Champions League when his employer takes over the broadcasting rights in 2015, but he still has plenty of goals to aim at.