As departing BBC CTO John Varney passes on the baton to his successor, Keith Little, they talk exclusively to CIO UK about succession planning, change management and the future for the corporation

“The first thing you should do when you start a new job is look around for your successor and when you have found them, start preparing them to take over your role.” This is what John Varney, outgoing CTO of the BBC believes and practises. He is leaving the BBC after five years of overseeing a massive transformation project and handing over to his deputy, Keith Little, who has been working closely with him for the past 18 months to two years.

“Succession planning should begin the minute you arrive in a job,” says Varney. “In those first few months you should find the person who will succeed you and start to put together a personal development plan for them, so they are ready to take over when you leave.” Varney says that after working for 18 years at one organisation, he decided he never wanted to stay that long again in one place and always sets a limit of four or five years for a role. “I don’t think heads of IT should be in a role any longer than that and they certainly shouldn’t expect to be there longer. It is right to set a time limit and stick to it. It enables sensible succession planning.”

Having set the strategic direction for IT at the BBC for the next four years and completed the first stages in a massive transformation programme, both Varney and Little think there is a natural gap, where a change in leadership will work well.

Delivering the goods

“We have achieved the major transformation and are now in the delivery phase,” says Little. “We know what we need to do and we have a different set of challenges going forward. Whatever happens we have a very strong foundation on which to build. Obviously I will have my own views and there will be a change in energy but we have a solid long term direction and continuity to move forward with.”

In 2004 the organisation outsourced what had been its BBC Technology inhouse IT group to Siemens Business Services as part of a 10-year, £2 billion Technology Framework Contract. The deal involved around 1,500 BBC staff, who now work for Siemens Business Services Media Holdings – which provides the staff, skills and investment needed to support the BBC’s technology requirements. The main IT priority now is finishing the new business architecture, so that it works in harmony with its IT service delivery. Technology is right at the heart of the BBC’s plans both for delivering business efficiency and for digital broadcasting and production. “The priority now is the technology and business enterprise architecture,” says Varney.

"Look at Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. If ever there was a case of succession planning gone wrong, that is it"

John Varney, outgoing CTO, BBC

In his time at the BBC, Varney and his team have spent time working on a proof of concept for the architecture and in early 2004, the BBC used the new tools for the production of the prestigious Planet Earth series. This area is a big focus for IT at the BBC now. “The benefits in terms of times and costs were very compelling,” says Little. “Planet Earth was the first really tangible project and gave us a huge boost. It was not just the very cheap commoditised kit it allowed us to use but also the IT-based process flows that worked so well.”

Little will be concentrating on the convergence of IT and broadcast production as he moves the strategy forward once Varney has gone, as well as implementing new business systems. These include business systems for HR and financials being developed in tandem with the production and storage initiatives and will use the enterprise gate portal, which is a business-focused portal for the organisation.

The business enterprise architecture, the processes and workflows that go with it for the new technology framework, will be redeployed on the new IT enterprise architecture and the BBC is working closely with Deloitte and Siemens Business Services to achieve this.

In terms of production, the corporation is also working on a number of technical innovations, including the Raman network, which is scheduled to be fully deployed by the spring of 2008. This will amplify the bandwidth capacity of the network and offer a way for the corporation to move off tape to a completely digital production format.

It is also updating its storage management, which will begin deployment next year and yet another set of initiatives will bring its vertical stack of applications together onto the new enterprise architecture.

Leadership lessons

Little is very comfortable in the technical landscape of his new role but has been learning the leadership ropes from Varney over the past couple of years. As part of preparing him to take over, Varney has made sure that Little has deputised for him as much as possible at the BBC, especially in areas outside of his comfort zone. Little says he feels most comfortable talking about and working with technology, but working with Varney has given him the chance to learn key management and leadership skills directly from his boss before taking over his role. “I have been deputising for about a year, as part of the preparation for taking over,” says Little. “It has particularly meant moving outside of the IT business, getting to know the other business leaders and the executive board over the past 18 months. Most importantly it means they now also know me, before I have taken over.”

He adds: “I have learnt so much about leadership and communications in many different parts of the organisation. Sometimes in the BBC when you meet a creative, it can be a bit overwhelming. For example, being involved in a business creativity focus group with a household name, like Alan Yentob. But this sort of exposure and working with my peer groups in different areas of the business is very important. It absolutely helps me to take on the role.”

Succession planning is not a stated requirement at the BBC and given the amount of creative work done at the organisation it would be difficult to carry it out in all fields. But Little says the corporation is very supportive in core services and is a very passionate organisation that thrives on developing its people.

Little did not really cotton on to the succession plan at first he says, as Varney began to develop Little’s leadership and business management skills outside of technology, through mentoring, coaching and personal development.

“I am a strong believer that you never stop learning and that leaders need to develop their personal skills through coaching or mentoring. I have been able to do this through John’s succession planning,” he says.

"Exposure and working with my peer groups in different areas of the business is very important. It absolutely helps me to take on the role"

Keith Little, incoming CTO, BBC

Varney believes that leadership and communications are key to success for today’s CIOs, and that it is important for all CIOs to take some sort of training every year. “Presentation and communications skills are something I take refresher courses on each year and I believe it is something all CIOs should do. I am a technologist through and through but have spent the last 30 years teaching myself to communicate more effectively. You should never stop learning.”

Both believe that it is increasingly important for CIOs to be able to talk about the effect IT has on the business. “You have to focus on the business and then use technology to make it a success. That is the epitome of the model,” says Varney. It is ‹ also down to the organisation as well to believe there is no such thing as a technology project, according to Varney. For this to happen, the head of IT has to be able to talk about the business benefits without mentioning technology itself.

Like many who are passionate about technology, Little says he enjoys the exciting, new, sexy bits of technological innovation most, but says: “The core pieces of the systems must be in place first or the sexy exciting bits underneath won’t work. The core infrastructure has to be the top priority for staying in business, transforming it and making it successful.”

Little also believes that areas like supplier management, while critical, are part of the baseline experience heads of IT should have. He has significant previous experience in managing outsourcing and third partner providers but says the BBC outsourcing project has been a fantastic learning experience. “Partners are hugely important and from a personal point of view, I have learnt a lot from this outsourcing project. There is still work to do going forward with the contract, including working on business process strategy and keeping an eye on supplier and partner behaviour.”

The Siemens contract is working very well, according to both Little and Varney. “The hardware stuff will continue to need managing but it is facing up to the soft issues as well that makes strong supplier relationships,” says Varney. “Getting the right people working together is very important. It is the teams and heads leading the contract that make it work well and of course what comes next is massively important.”

Both Varney and Little believe today’s CIO’s key leadership challenge is to remain totally focused on the business. “Keeping IT aligned with the business to provide the right service to the organisation is the key,” says Little.

Board influence

According to Varney one of the most important roles for CIOs is to persuade the board and the business that technology can be an enabler. “Heads of IT are hired for their technical skills but they need to be able to talk to and persuade the board. This requires really good communication skills. Senior executives frequently want discussions about operations on a global scale, on business change and leadership but they still want you, the CIO, to be able to fix their computer.”

So would a technology background work against Little? Varney does not think so. “He has great communication skills to go with a varied background,” says Varney. “He now has all the skills to be able to deal with issues at a corporate level and where he did have skill gaps we have looked at what we can do to fill them and executed a plan.

“The outsourcing deal means many of the issues that are currently worrying some heads of IT, according to the tabloid computer press, such as datacentre energy costs, are not something that he will have to think about. So Keith will be able to concentrate on the business and building up trust and adding value.”
Varney adds: “You should always work on what you find fascinating and what keeps you up at night because it is exciting. Some heads of IT are not great communicators but I think they are just in the wrong place.”

Little’s job at the BBC will also be to bring IT to very traditional and very proprietorial, production departments.

“IT is taking over broadcasting and the BBC is the furthest ahead globally,” says Varney. “Look at the Planet Earth series. It was the first concrete example of IT doing the production work and covering the whole delivery spectrum, using commodity storage and processing. We need a mixture of skills – broadcasting is very linear while IT is process driven. In the future it will all be IP-based and bog standard.”

The next generation

Taking his lead from Varney, Little has already started to groom his successor. “During the past year or so, I have been looking at direct reports and have found someone very capable and we are working on his personal skills areas together. The BBC is strong on the personal development side of things and is very supportive of this type of mentoring.”

Varney concludes: “I can’t reinforce enough that you should be looking for your successor from day one. If you are nervous about this or worry about that person looking for your job, you probably need a change anyway. If someone already thinks they are ready to move up, I actively help them look for the next job if I am not ready to go. There is no point in spinning something out when they want to move – it creates a whole layer of tension.

“If it doesn’t work for both of you it is not right. Look at Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. If ever there was a case of succession planning gone wrong, that is it.”