Orange Business Services (OBS) CIO Vincent Kelly arrives at the swish London offices of his PR handlers wearing a signature orange tie but with his wrist in a protective sleeve. “I fell off my bike at the weekend,” he explains, adding that his habit of tackling local terrain on two wheels causes a major spill once every couple of years. The odds sound scary, I venture. “You choose to live or die,” he laughs.

In fact, Kelly is a bit of a sports nut. Born in Kilkenny, this ebullient Irishman is a big fan of Gaelic games, cricket and also supports not one but two English Premiership teams in Arsenal and Fulham. That’s when he is in London: he spends Tuesday to Thursday of every week at OBS HQ in Paris, as well as having significant other travel commitments such as four visits a year to India and two to Egypt.

It’s a life in the fast lane but Kelly plays down what sounds like a fun but rather frantic existence. “Taking the train to Paris is not so different from commuting. I’m a big fan of Eurostar. I’m always in the same carriage and you see a lot of the same people. The staff are great. I can get some work done on there and catch up with things.”

OBS was created by France Telecom’s 2005 acquisition of Equant and renamed the next year. It is a global business-to-business provider of communications and IT infrastructure services including networks, IP telephony, telepresence videoconferencing, server management and remote working. The company has over 20,000 staff in 166 countries and a network that covers 220 countries. That’s a huge reach but Kelly says he has close empathy with customers.

“I’m providing IT to a division of 20,000 people and, as our CEO Barbara Dalibard says, we eat the cake we bake,” he says.

“Our people are using [Orange products for] remote working and we’re a customer of our own company. That’s very important to her and she gave me a strong steer early on. In certain cases we get offerings early on and we may be a beta customer for our own end-user offerings.”

Kelly is refreshingly unfussy about the CIO role and its status and he disagrees with the frequently-held view that the obvious next role for the CIO is chief operating officer.

The CIO Questionnaire

Q. Which business books have been influential in your career?
A. I have been influenced by a range of books written by different management gurus. These include: Charles Handy with books such as The Age of Unreason; Peter Drucker and Tom Peters on management; and The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, on globalisation.

Q. Who have been the most influential people in your career?
A.The people who acted as role models for me at work; people who have trusted me to take on certain projects and roles; people who gave me responsibility early on, and my first opportunities to work overseas on assignments in Europe, the US and Asia. One person in particular was also one of my computing lecturers at Trinity College, Dublin. This person sparked my interest in communications as a key part of information technology.

Q. Do you believe in mentoring?
A. I believe in regular one-to-one meetings and coaching. This incorporates looking at a key focus through a series of meetings, and talking about improving performance by adapting behaviours.

Q. Which tools or tactics have given you most success in communicating?
A. Adopting an open communications style and being honest in what we say are key for me, regardless of whether communicating up, down or across. With our IT staff and teams working in many different countries, it is important to use all available channels of communications. This can involve all of staff conference calls, local face-to-face meetings, team meetings, the intranet, newsletters, mail, cascading through the management chain and so on.

Q. What has been your biggest mistake?
A. In terms of IT programmes, the biggest mistake has been not getting the governance right up front with all stakeholders on a major programme which led to eventual downstream failure.

Q. And your greatest success?
A. Most recently, re-engineering our global IT organisation as a result of which OBS now has a global IT organisation which is an evenly mixed onshore/offshore model. This has given us an organisation which has the right skills at the right cost. Part of the model also is that we leverage group capability and assets within a matrix organisation known as Group IT, which links us with the IT organisations of the other main business units of the Group.

Q. What is your greatest strength?
A. Commitment.

Q. And your greatest weakness?
A. I can be too ‘nice’

Q. How do you keep up to date with the march of technology?
A. In Orange/France Telecom, there is a constant flow of internally and externally generated updates on technology, innovation, customers and markets. Listening to my two kids, one at school, the other at university, is also very enlightening.

Q. How do you deal with stress?
A. Talking to people, playing sport, cycling and reading. I also enjoy re-reading my favourite books such as The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers and The Lord of the Rings.

Q. What profession would you most like to attempt?
A. Long-distance sailor – at least that’s today’s answer. I am thinking of the challenges of the wind and the sea, of the closeness to nature, of the sense of achievement.

Q. Which word or phrase do you most use/overuse?
A. Teamwork.

Q. Do you have a sport you practice or sportsperson/team that you follow?
A. I enjoy cycling in the Surrey Hills, and jogging to the top. I follow football (Arsenal and Fulham), and rugby with the Irish national and provincial teams. I also follow England with the cricket.

“I’ve reported directly to the CEO and the COO, and at the moment it’s our COO Carlos Sartorious,” he says.
“Barbara’s focus is customer innovation, growth and so on. It’s important for me to be listening to the business and what are the priorities and pain points of other executives; the important thing is that you’re around the table.

“I’m running the IS and my number-one priority is that if you have made a commitment to a customer you deliver a network on time that’s working.

“My number-two priority is that the business needs to change, that it has transformation plans... it introduces new products and enhances products and services. Now, the COO role’s focused on the operations of the business and to me that’s -totally different.”

Logica progression

Part of Kelly’s strength as CIO comes from his having had a long stint at Logica, the training ground for many leading IT practitioners in the country today.

“There were a lot of bright people there at the time and it gave me a very strong background and customer focus, and a very strong project management rigour,” he says.

“At the heart of it we were a people company and there were colossal changes going on in the 1980s and early 1990s that were very interesting: early implementations of Ethernet LANs, applications for banking, or satellite networks. As a service company we had a broad range of experience in dealing with problems and how to resolve them.

“When I was on the other side of the table, one of the things I wanted to do was be a CIO. I suppose I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper but it’s given me a view as to how to deal with partners. Technology is important but it’s a people business and I regard myself as a people manager.”

At Equant, later to merge with Global One before becoming OBS, Kelly had to put those skills to use as the network infrastructure business changed rapidly through peaks and troughs in demand and through mergers and acquisitions.

“There was a massive merger consolidation with different sales, delivery, ordering, networks, network management and customer service management,” he recalls but adds that he relished the challenge. That period of change also informed his strategic outsourcing plans, Kelly acknowledges with characteristic frankness.

“We needed to take significant cost out of the business and give the business common tools,” he says. “We could get a 50 per cent lower cost by having service centres in India and Egypt. I went there driven by cost, but having gone there, you realise it opens up skill sets, new ideas, new ways of working, so you leverage that.”

Kelly has 300 staff in India, 300 in France and 100 in Egypt, hence his busy travel schedule. “Our customers want a good price and we have to be efficient,” he says. “We piloted near shore and made a staged transition [to offshoring]. You always have transition issues but we didn’t have any linguistic issues and I have been amazed by the quality of English and French [spoken in India and Egypt].

“The issues were about deep knowledge transfer. Not people not understanding what to do but, to make it really successful, what’s upstream and what’s downstream and the full implications of that. After a transfer, quality drops then you have a peak of defects and over time you get that back to normal or better levels.

What’s worked best for us has been having a specialist working in front of a team and leading by example.”

Now Kelly is amid another major change programme, dubbed IS 2010, that attempts to match IT responses to business priorities. Despite banking meltdown and the credit crunch, there are plenty of challenges ahead and he believes that the IP revolution has only just chipped the surface of collaboration possibilities. In fact, the future’s bright.