'Keep it simple, maintain honest communication.' 

Greg Morley is the CIO of construction company United Living. The company was formed from the merger of Bullock Construction and United House in September 2014, and is a leading provider of affordable housing and sustainable solutions.

Morley worked for Bullock at the time of the merger, and continues to oversee the merger process from a digital and technology point of view. He has a small team with 10 direct reports, and reports to the CFO who has a seat on the board. But United Living is a complex beast, and the IT division serves 650 direct users based in five regional offices throughout the UK, as well as what Morley describes as 'dozens and dozens' of construction sites.

Given that such construction sites can comprise anything from a man in the field to 50 people, and that on top of this number is direct labour, Morley's team can be providing support for up to 400 people on a single site.

Morley strives to improve the working lives and effectiveness of each of those users, through a programme of digital transformation. And to this untrained eye at least it appears that the merger has been both a challenge to, and an enabler of this process. (You can read Greg's CIO 100 entry here.)

The benefits of merging two complex businesses

Morley certainly agrees that the process is a complex, but stresses the positives. 'It is a challenge. We've got two businesses that are fairly similar. But in terms of the merger, it was a match made in heaven. Two businesses with a very similar culture and history and footprint across the sector, except for geography. Bullock was north of the M25 and United House was in and around the M25.'

And facing similar challenges in a different way meant that the merger became a great way of sharing best practices, and ridding the companies of legacy issues. 'As part of the due diligence integration we identified a lot of really legacy IT systems and infrastructure that needed sorting out. Once we identified those we then set out a strategy for modernization and a bit of a digital transformation, which is ongoing.

'We moved a lot of legacy servers out of offices. As systems were refreshed or replaced, those have gone into cloud. We moved to Office 365 Enterprise.

'To get the whole new business on to a single domain name and all of that managed all in one place was imperative, so that was done pretty quickly and I'm really proud of my team for what they achieved there. We work closely with a Microsoft partner to develop key solutions with SharePoint Online.

We're looking now to replace three or four legacy document-management systems across the two businesses. Then all the other good stuff that's come along with implementing a new ERP solution with Microsoft Dynamics and CRM.'

A lot has been done, then, but there is much to do according to Morley: 'At the moment we have a lot of plates in the air.'

To a layman, the really interesting aspect of all of this is the way that the merger has set the timescale. As Morley said above, the big priorities had to be handled first. But then by dealing with lower priority licences and contracts as they ran out the company was able to make efficiencies and improvements as they went. Thus change happens rapidly, without being rushed.

Here's Morley: 'The biggest challenge is managing multiple time scales like that in parallel because contracts start and end at a certain date. You've got to serve notice by a certain date otherwise it may automatically roll over. You don't want to end up in legal arguments. We've been lucky. Some of those things have taken a lot longer to come to term. For example, mobile contracts. Bullock mobile contracts expired last year. We've done nothing about renewing it because we wanted to harmonize and consolidate. The United House contract ends this month so that's allowed us a long and less-fraught procurement process.' (Read next: CIO 100 2016 new faces - Leading CIOs and upcoming technology executives new to the 2016 CIO 100.)

Merging IT teams - taking the best from each

Morley says that the two IT teams involved in the merged companies were very different in terms of culture and execution. But that this was an opportunity to share best practice.

'The IT team in the north was very lean and hands on so they would spend a lot of time traveling between sites and offices and spend time out on a site setting up, training staff.

'Whereas in the south it was very office based IT, back office with a more formal process-driven approach. Get things prepared and then shipped out to sites and then instructions over the phone.

'Finding the balance between those two cultures hasn't been straight forward, but we're getting there. We've got a cracking team and without them, we wouldn't be where we are today. (See also: How one UK CIO motivates himself, his team and his business.)

Transforming and investing in IT

The merger formed a template for rationalisation, then, and Morley and his team have used that opportunity to drive forward a digital transformation. Not easy in a business that is literally bricks and mortar.

Morley says that cutting costs and simplifying IT provision is a big part of this. But the key is mobility. 'One of the key things is helping your workforce be a bit more flexible and mobile. Historically at Bullock, everybody was desktop based, which is a real pain and we made a decision a number of years ago to make the whole workforce laptop based, with a few exceptions.

'When we did the merger, United House was still very much in that desktop mentality so that's now changing and we're adopting a much more laptop-centric approach. Along with that, the investments that we're making in IT solutions, like Office 365 and the cloud solutions and various other services, we're ensuring that those investments are tablet friendly, laptop friendly. Using things like remote services so you can log in from anywhere.

'We've got construction sites in parts of the country that just do not pick up a mobile signal whatsoever. We struggle with that a lot and have begun using mobile satellite broadband or locally available Wi-Fi hotspots. Without any intervention from IT they're straight on to VPN and working. In terms of sending out reports and daily updates and things like that, it's valuable.' (See also: 5 ways to use mobile to get your team to work smarter.)

Empowering the business

Mobility is just the start. Morley sees the key transformation being empowering line of business decision makers. Transformation through putting tools in the hands of business people.

'It's a fantastic time to be in IT because with some of the cloud solutions that are out there now, like Office 365 and a number of others, it's just opened up so many vistas. One of the key things is that a lot of those solutions are no longer the pure domain of IT. Marketing are getting involved. Design guys are getting involved. Everybody's now an IT consumer and they don't have to come through the IT department anymore. We're trying to encourage open dialogue to ensure that everything's being sense checked before they rush off and buy something, but we don't try to control it too much.

'That's where a lot of the transformation of digital comes in is the fact that IT is now a service. It's one of those utilities you can't do without, like water and electricity.'

'We're just going through a procurement process now for a new solution that sits in quite a specialized part of the business and historically IT would have led that procurement process. The only role I'm playing now in this process is more of a coordination role. The target team is leading the process, and I support them in an advisory capacity.

The key is working with a decision maker and understanding what the problem is that they're trying to solve and to help them look at the interconnecting aspects of the solution. We've seen many examples of expensive licences being purchased for niche requirements and used only once. A wasteful approach tends to upset a lot people along the way.

'Once we're understood really where they're coming from it's then a case of putting together a robust business case and saying we've looked at this, this and this. These are the costs. These are the reasons, the pitfalls, the risks and this is the recommendation. Discuss it and make sure we all agree sensibly and move forward.'

How to find the right tools

If it is the job of IT to provide line of business managers with options, then IT needs to understand the market. Morley says that he spends a lot of time reading, both case studies and books. But he believes that peer support and networking is the secret sauce for CIOs looking for leads.

'LinkedIn group discussions and the opportunity to reach out to peers across groups has been really useful in that sense. Looking at what other people are using, even in other sectors, to solve a similar problem.

'Industry events are often attended by peers who've got useful experience they can share. I run a mile when I see a vendor but occasionally there's a diamond in the rough.'

United Living

Morley also suggests that the best ideas can be within your organisation, in the form of younger team members. 'A lot of the young recruits have either come out of university where they've been taught to use a certain set of tools or they've had a graduate placement with a competitor. We listen to any kind of feedback that comes in.

'In certain areas of the construction sector there are certain tools and roles that are quite niche and there's often less room for choice in those niche areas but look hard enough and there are some options.

'I think it's quite good for everybody in the sector, be it IT, finance, whatever to attend briefings and keep up to speed on legal developments.'

Security - everybody's problem

One issue that Morley has to contend with is security. And with a large workforce spread out over multiple sites this is a challenge that is always top of mind. He says that CIOs have to think beyond locking the doors.

'I think the traditional model of IT security is bread-and-butter stuff. You've got to do that. You can't fall asleep on the job, and the tools and services out there today make it easier to keep a secure, locked down environment. Where the bigger challenge is for me, for us, is more around education and mindset.

'Security doesn't just end at the IT screen that you're looking at. It can also be bits of paper you've left on a printer. It can be the fact that you've left a device on the back seat of your car or on a train. Making sure that data are encrypted. Those kinds of things are fairly easy, but it's getting it into the mindset of people to be street smart about security.

'Staff have seen it very much as an IT domain. Something technical. Something they don't want to understand. What I've found works really well when I'm presenting to staff in different groups is providing relevant examples. You can talk about recent high-profile breaches such as Morrison's or Target. You can talk about all of those recent examples which are household brand names. When you start talking about things like their data that can be used to mess with utility services and open sewage gates at water treatment works and things like that, that brings it home to people. When you start talking about cloud connected medical devices that can be hacked. Your car can be hacked if it's cloud connected. All of that. That really brings it home and then people sit up and take notice.

'Also people don't realize how quickly the value of their personal details has gone from quite a high price commodity to being virtually worthless now, in a very short space of time. When the clever guys out there that stole all of that data start doing deep meta analysis on it and producing a really valuable picture about who you are, that's when you've got to be worried.

'Educating people has been the biggest challenge around security. Again it's doing it in a collaborative way rather than a "thou shalt not" way. This includes reviewing at security all the way through the supply chain as well to make sure that we're not missing a trick on that.'

The next challenge

Morley says that the process of transformation is ongoing, and that there is much to do. In some cases, certain contracts and platforms can't be changed until the deal runs out. 'We have another year or so of that,' he says.

But the transformation continues, with a vision: 'I think the key thing right now, post-integration, is we've accomplished some very good investments, projects and consolidations around the business. It's now a case of drawing all of those together and weaving a tapestry that works for the business. It's been quite difficult sometimes to see the wood for the trees but just maintaining that consistent, authentic goal all the time is key. I'm really looking forward to producing that tapestry.'

Lessons for CIOs

And what is Morley's advice for other CIOs either facing the challenge a merger throws up, or looking to transform their business? He says to have a vision, look for help, and keep talking.

'Keep it simple, maintain honest communication.

'There are some real rock star CIOs out there. Anthony Watson. Sarah Flannigan. Andy Caddy. Those guys are all very open and willing to share advice if you reach out to them. I find the CIO community in general has been very open. For anybody new to the game, just shout. Everyone's willing to lend a hand and help and offer advice.

'The other thing I would say is start seeing IT more as an essential utility, like water and electricity. It's no longer the pure domain of IT. It's very consumer driven. As long as you've got an eye on the ball, you should go places.' (See also: How to become a CIO: 15 essential IT career tips to getting a CIO job.)