The directions from the company's press office staff are admirably concise and clear: "If you're coming in from Twickenham, you're best getting the Jubilee line from Waterloo to Canary Wharf. Leave the station via the main exit up the big bank of escalators and turn right. Go past Smollensky's and Carluccio's and up the steps towards the big tower. Turn left and follow the road into Cabot Square and down the road the other side. When you get to the big roundabout at the end, we're the building on the left."
Hard to go wrong with instructions like these, and in no more than 25 minutes of arriving in Waterloo and making a comfortable journey on a spotless train to perhaps the most eye-catching station on the London Underground network, I am decanted at an impressive suite of modern offices. So, despite what many capital commuters might assume, Tube Lines, the six-year-old outfit that maintains and operates the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines - and the company I am visiting on this icy cold morning - must be doing something right.
Of course, head of media relations Laura Cox has heard them all before but my journey is a reminder that the London Underground is a bit like Dr Johnson's observations on a dancing dog: it might not always do it wonderfully well, but it is a miracle it can do it at all. And at the very least, travelling on the Underground is - generally speaking and especially at rush hour - infinitely preferable to the horrors of South West Trains.
Tube Lines, like any entity involved in the Sisyphean task of shunting 400,000 people around a network every day, parts of which that goes back to the middle of century before last, is always going to be a target for critics. But for John Connolly, who for the last 16 months has served as Tube Lines director of information, things are on an upswing. He is the first person in his position at Tube Lines to sit on the executive committee and with a head of information management, Liz Scott-Wilson, having recently been appointed, and a head of IT, Adrian Davey, already in situ, he feels he has the team to address both opportunities and problems.
"Before, you either worked for the FD or the chief executive and IT reported to the FD," Connolly says. "That's OK if you're trying to run IT as a back-office transactional service but if the dilemma is how you manage information, it's not such a good place."
That level of executive intimacy and freedom to focus gives Connolly the opportunity to drive the information agenda at Tube Lines, a key aspect of which is organising the reams of content implicit in upgrading track, stations, signals, and trains and maintaining infrastructure.
"What we were completely missing [previously] was a capability in information management," he says, adding that the intent now is to "create an information management culture". The key is to make it easier for construction and maintenance to work together in harmony - quite a novelty in a world where the two are normally kept well apart.
"My background is in construction and it's normally two organisations: design and build is completely [separate from] operate and maintain," he says, adding that there has been "less focus on quality information and [too many] Iron Mountain [secure records] boxes" bringing chunks of data without necessarily containing sufficient context to render this information useful.
The industry has "been plagued almost forever" by the schism that has led to poor knowledge transfer and, hence, in-efficient processes, Connolly contends.
Sharing the knowledge
Connolly says that creating a solid model and practices to act as a bridge between the pair "never entered the DNA of people" and stresses that the only way forward is to build in tagging schema, metadata and processes that people will adhere to.
"The amount of information grows exponentially [in the design and build phase] but only part of it is any use to the maintenance and operations people," he says. "If you [tag] as you go along it's fine, but if you do it at the end it needs restructuring. We weren't quite at the extreme end of that, but we hadn't enshrined the thought that managing the lifecycle was a key goal." And achieving that goal means "make it coherent and make it accessible".
This is particularly important for Tube Lines, which is a Public-Private Partnership created to have a long-term impact.
"The PPP lasts 30 years so an asset we build could be refurbished four times," Connolly says. "The better I structure [the information management], the easier I find it next time. In three to seven years we'll revisit a location and if the information is not structured..."
Connolly cites the pharmaceuticals industry with its "culture of documenting phase gates" and the consumer goods sector where the "store manager has no influence on barcodes or EPOS systems" and the industry is "ruthlessly controlled by standards and processes". His conclusion, borne of experience, is that embedding information management into tasks is infinitely preferable to making it an adjunct - "The more you automate it, the better it is, because otherwise it's regarded as a real drudge."
A major reason for his appointment, Connolly believes, was that Tube Lines was looking for somebody who would organise policy and build frameworks. A word Connolly uses often is "ruthless", used in the context of applying rigour to processes that will trap information and pass it on. Another theme is culture, as in creating a "cultural imperative that the information has as much value as the product".
"We have to be ruthless about structured and unstructured data management," he says, adding that an important challenge for Tube Lines is "information lifecycle management".
It's simpler than some believe.
"The common point of reference is the asset and if we all used the same word to describe it that would put us a long way further forward, for example, a photo," he says. "It's not that difficult a problem to solve. I could apply Autonomy text searching but if I had a document numbering system and everyone used it there would be considerable change."
Staying on track
Successfully building cultural discipline will mean that information will increase in value, improving governance but also management information.
"All of my peers run the risk of being badged the geek," Connolly notes. "A single failure in a transactional service can become defining" in management's view of IT. But by delivering information and progress that non-techies understand, he can help deliver real value.
A systematic approach can also drive change that passengers notice. One example is the escalators on the Tube that were continually breaking down and taking a long time to fix. Through instrumentation, Tube Lines "discovered a glimpse of the blindingly obvious". The steps were asymmetrically loaded because the majority of passengers stand on the right-hand side of the escalator, as staying on the left means you have to walk up or down. By using a stronger bracket and improved casting, the problem was largely solved.
Connolly is enthusiastic about the old-fashioned ethos of "British engineers working in garden sheds inventing things", pointing out that "sometimes with formal R&D teams there's a danger that we become divorced from the real-world problems [that enable firms to act] quicker, be safer and save money - and preferably a combination of those things".
With a stack of project experience, he also feels that he can apply lessons learnt from earlier roles and avoid nonsenses he has experienced, such as replacing light bulbs in a well-known museum at the end of their stated duty cycle - even though the vast majority of bulbs were still working.
He is also keen to improve usability and pans software programs that "fail the Amazon.com test". Nobody attends a course on how to use Amazon but many need a course to understand their own work tools, he notes acidly.
As befits a relative newcomer to the job, he admits that he has challenges ahead of him, notably a mismatch between the capabilities of Tube Lines' enterprise software programs, as currently configured, and what he needs to achieve.
"Some of the software tools don't match the business needs," he concedes. "Decisions were made in a hurry without calm thought about what you'd want to run your business processes."
Despite this, he says that "the only conversation I won't tolerate is ‘it's all the system's fault'."
He also wants to add some more enterprise architects to his team of about 28 (Tube Lines outsources much day-to-day work to Capgemini and Logica). But he is optimistic that progress is being made and defends the fundamental reasoning for PPPs, saying Tube Lines is delivering "a good ROI for the public".
Eating your own dog food - or doing as you tell others to do - is also important to him. Connolly is after "a culture where you shouldn't feel discouraged or disheartened" because company culture is "the stuff nobody talks about but just ‘is'", and things like reserved parking spaces for the managerial elite breed unhappiness.
Connolly regularly goes out with maintenance teams in the wee hours to get close to the hard, dirty and unheralded work that keeps London's underground transport moving by day and, in spite of the many challenges facing the issue of moving people in this huge and complex city, he feels confident that, even if Tube Lines hasn't reached its final destination, it is on the right tracks.
John Connolly: CV
1981: Manager of geotechnical engineering in Saudi Arabia for Law Engineering, following BSc in Geology and Environment at Oxford Polytechnic and roles in construction
1986: Completed MSc in Engineering Geology at Leeds University and joined Brown & Root/Halliburton as a chartered engineer and geologist. Later, chief engineer for the Great Man-made River Project in Libya and headed up the European and African shared service centre
2000: Business process automation consultant with Atos KPMG Consulting
2003: CIO, RWE Thames and American Water
2008: Director of information, Tube Lines
The CIO questionnaire
Q. Which business (or other) books have been influential in your career?
A. While not much of a believer in ‘business books' I did find The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema an excellent read in trying to define the most appropriate fit between ‘cultural values' and ‘business drivers'.
Q. Who have been the most influential people in your career?
A. Gosh - so many. Billy Newton, my first general foreman on a construction site - ‘lessons in applied terror'; Joe Klein III in Saudi Arabia - the importance of good writing (even in engineering) and the value of continuous improvement; Trevor Noble at Brown & Root, a mentor for many years, never forgave me for moving into IT.
Q. What are your approaches to training and mentoring?
A. Training and mentoring are very different things and there is the third strand, coaching. In my view, training is straightforward education in a specific subject or ‘teachable skill'. It is an essential tool in developing people and is suitable and applicable to almost everyone at any stage in their career. Mentoring is a more subtle relationship requiring two-way trust and, in my view, must be allowed to extend beyond workplace considerations. For example, it is legitimate for a mentor to suggest that a mentee may need to leave the organisation to develop in the direction their aspirations are taking them. Coaching lies between mentoring and training. Coaching is a valuable technique in developing skills that are not suitable for the classroom, for example, influencing skills can only evolve over time and need constant fine tuning; this is suitable for coaching. Usually, I find coaching much more effective when leading teams of experienced, competent people.
Q. Which tools or tactics have given you most success in communicating up, down or across?
A. Number one is listen first: if you can understand the audience's concern and tackle it first, you are more likely to get listened to when you deliver your other messages. This has been a long hard journey for me and as often as not I still don't get it exactly right. Candour and honesty are always better than spin - most people in the workplace are grown-ups and appreciate being treated that way. Beyond that, remember that in some circumstances you will never get heard and you are better served by finding someone who will get listened to, and working through them.
Q.What has been your biggest mistake?
A. I have made lots of small and mid-size mistakes but none that haunt me.
Q. And your greatest success?
A. Creating a successful team at the Halliburton Europe and Africa Transaction Centre and the engineering teams on the PFI road projects.
Q. What is your greatest strength?
A. I let good people both get on with their job, and stretch themselves.
Q. And your greatest weakness?
A. A desire to be liked.
Q. How do you keep up to date with the march of technology?
A. You can only keep up with the headlines and strategic shifts. The trick is to have an excellent team who can spot important trends and get control of the detail in a manner that it can be implemented wherever it makes a real difference.
No-one I know is an expert at everything.
Q. How do you deal with stress?
A. Sometimes quite badly - I take it home too often.
Q. What profession would you most/least like to attempt?
A. I would have loved to be a (successful) tour golfer. Also, I would love to have a cabinet maker's skills.
Q. Which word or phrase do you overuse?
A. ‘Does that make sense?' That is, constantly seeking to confirm that the other party has understood me.
Q. Which technology companies and people do you most admire?
A. Microsoft for sheer commercial ruthlessness - you might not like them, but you cannot ignore them. And anyone who makes their software instantly usable by anyone, for example, Amazon.com, eBay, Apple iTunes and BBC iPlayer. Also, Nintendo for the Wii: they have exploded their market opportunity by making games accessible to anyone.
Q. And which do you find most frustrating?
A. Any software company who makes their real money through the client having to build functionality post-purchase.
Q. Do you have a sport you practise?
A. Golf, which I practise much less than I need to. I do love walking and photography which I find challenging, calming and rewarding in equal part.
What is Tube Lines?
Tube Lines is responsible for the maintenance and upgrade work on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines of the London Underground.
It also provides services across the network, including the Emergency Response Unit and Distribution Services, and provides safety and skills courses and consulting.
Over the first seven and a half years of the agreement with London Underground, over £4.5bn has been spent on maintaining the system.