When thinking of the sorts of activities that are the core of May Gurney’s business – mending roads and collecting rubbish – it may not be easy to see how IT can make a big impact.
It would be easy to assume that this sort of work is the least likely to need IT support, but the reality is that technology is increasingly used by the company to improve its own performance and to differentiate itself in the market.
May Gurney’s CIO Ian Cox is a firm believer in embedding IT into the fabric of the business at a very basic level.
He sees it as a critical factor in the ability of the company to win business as well as run it. He is a good example of how an IT leader has led innovation, rather than merely provided a service.
The 85-year-old company began in East Anglia, providing repair services to the local infrastructure after flooding – always a concern in this low-lying part of the country.
Primarily a construction company for most of its existence, May Gurney underwent a reinvention into support services about 15 years ago, in an effort to stabilise revenues and shield itself from unpredictability of economic downturns.
An IPO in 2006 reinforced this strategy, as the company needed to forecast steady growth to satisfy shareholders. Profit margins in the construction sector had become increasingly challenging and demand for support services was growing.
The company’s core business is now providing essential services for public sector organisations and government bodies.
Since Cox joined four years ago, the company has risen in this sector from a minor player to the top six, through contract wins and a series of acquisitions.
According to Cox, key to the company’s success has been the successful integration of those contracts gained through acquisition, which in turn has led to it winning more contracts.
“Certainly we focus a lot on understanding what the client needs are and making sure that we identify clients that we think we can work with,” he says.
“We tend to find that we do very well when the tenders are dialogue-based. We get an opportunity to meet with our clients and interact with them on a regular basis so we can understand their needs and adapt our solution around them.”
For Cox, who does not come from a strictly IT background, the people element of the solutions he provides is at least as important as the technology, which the company also uses as one of many sales tools to secure contracts.
In a few of the local authorities — Surrey and Oxfordshire — where May Gurney has contracts, the company’s IT is used by the client almost as regularly as by its own staff and this has led to a very pragmatic approach to the way IT is conceptualised and deployed by the company.
Because of its exposure to May Gurney’s customers, the IT department operates almost as if it were an external IT provider.
This approach, he explains, is driven by shrinking local authority budgets in a busy marketplace.
“They really need to extract value out of each contract and that’s one of the challenges for us in terms of turning the technology into something which genuinely makes us more efficient and as well as adding value to the client,” he says.
Driving internal efficiency also contributes to price competition, but the icing on the cake is the differentiation Cox has managed to achieve through offering technology-based services in mobility and open access to information.
Although the range of services that May Gurney offers is quite varied, Cox maintains the actual processes are pretty similar from contract to contract and that all need the same sorts of process automation and management.
“It’s about hooking up people to work in the most efficient way possible, getting information on what they do and then being able to use it ourselves and pass it onto our clients. Whether our employees are mending a pipe or pothole or collecting rubbish from the curbside, there is a base process and the system is probably the same. It’s part of the logic of the business.”
Although IT plays such a significant part in May Gurney’s ongoing success in the essential services market, the heavy reliance on it is a relatively new strategy. When Cox joined, the company had not previously had a strategic IT lead on the staff: he was the first IS director and that in some measure gave him the opportunity to shape the role.
Nevertheless the board recognised that technology had to play a more central role in the company’s operations and saw that in the eyes of clients, it was behind the curve in technology adoption.
Cox’s first task was to integrate the existing systems that had grown through acquisition or that had been built in an ad hoc fashion to support specific contracts, extend the network to the mobile workforce and build out information gathering to support clients’ needs.
A big problem, Cox recalls, was integration when even the finance systems didn’t talk to the process systems. It was Excel spreadsheet heaven.
“We were lacking a strategy and to the credit of the board they recognised that we couldn’t carry on this way and they needed a step change to a more strategic view of IT,” he says.
Cox made a point of going around the business over the first six months to gather an understanding of it before he started making any changes.
He already had an understanding of how contracts were managed and he met clients to gather information about their expectations.
Start low, aim high
The low level of technology within the company was actually an advantage because it meant that Cox didn’t have to try to integrate big, complex systems which would cripple the company if they fell over in the process.
He was pretty much able to build an infrastructure from the ground up.
However, it was also a drawback in terms of the board also having a very low level of expectation of what technology could do to take the business forward and a lot of Cox’s time was spent in spelling out to them what the possibilities were.
His prior experience outside the IT department and his familiarity with what the board was looking for in terms of business benefits meant he was able to get them, and the other line-of-business managers in the company, on his side.
Cox built a technology centre in two rooms at the HQ and filled it with prototypes of solutions that the company could adopt. Often these were quite simple technologies, that were widespread in other industries but still very new to May Gurney employees.
One of the basic applications that Cox showcased was a holiday booking service, and this was easily grasped by managers of large workforces who found keeping track of employees manually a headache.
“We brought in some clients as well, because we are on a path which takes a few years to get to and I didn’t want to sit in front of clients and say ‘It’s coming – it’s coming’. I actually wanted to engage them and bring them in at that stage and show them that it was for real. So it was partly in education for internal stakeholders and part of our sales process as well,” he explains.
Once Cox got the buy-in he needed from key non-IT managers, he initiated an upgrade programme based on phases set in line with the company’s financial year.
He used an inherently incremental approach to deployment, which meant he could demonstrate the effects his improvements had had on the business performance before moving on to the next phase, hopefully with the full financial backing needed to commence it.
The task in the first phase was to build the integration layer that would get all the systems operated by the company talking to each other.
This was based on a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) platform which was a Webmethods suite provided by Software AG.
The architecture allowed Cox to integrate systems when they were needed and gave him the freedom to build in new systems in the future and bolt on mobile technology to the existing infrastructure.
The mobile platform is provided by a Verifone subsidiary called Global Bay and it effectively links gangs of workers on the ground into the system, so that work orders can be sent to them directly and they can input information about jobs back to head office, and often to the client too.
Linked to this was a scheduling tool called 360 Scheduler, deployed a year later and provided by a vendor called IFS. This is used to organise and distribute jobs among May Gurney’s workforce, over mobile devices.
“In the first year we had this hybrid setup where we were still using some old operational systems, but with some of the new technology overlaying it,” Cox explains.
“That helped us to win some additional contracts by just getting mobile out there. That’s partly why we focused on the client-facing high-priority areas, so we could deliver some benefit earlier during the phases of the programme.”
The second phase, launched in the second year of the programme, focused on server optimisation delivery. Cox used a contract management system from IBM called Maximo to manage the company’s service delivery and set up an outsourced datacentre based on a virtualised server architecture, run by SCC.
As the IT systems were being used as selling points, Cox renamed the services with generic brands under the umbrella of MG Connect. For sales staff, this transformed IT into another May Gurney product they could sell.
Right now, Cox is starting to look into the viability of cloud services, and he has deployed such a service — hosted by GoodData — to deliver a KPI reporting tool to clients. Cox says the first consideration for going for a cloud-based application was speedy deployment but the deal-maker was licensing costs.
He explained the pricing models of his existing reporting solutions made publishing dynamic reports expensive, and that he also needed to be able to offer that service to clients.
“Visibility of what you’re doing is one of the ways you differentiate yourself. The work we do on the ground is a commodity.
There are only a few ways you can fill a pothole. It’s what wrapper you put round that, to add some value over and above what your competitors are doing and getting real-time KPI data out is one of those differentiators. Certainly we found we could do this in an economic way through a cloud offering.”
Cox now has an integrated infrastructure based on a modular SOA architecture that reaches out to every employee, even out in the field.
Through it, the company is able to manage its workforce cost-effectively and feed information back to its clients about the jobs they have been given in real time.
Each client is offered a standard IT support package, but if any new contracts necessitate building on those systems, Cox can integrate new applications easily and then offer them as part of the standard service in future bids.