After seeming to be winning the battle to reinvent itself as a modern communications and IT services provider, 2009 turned out to be an annus horribilis for BT with the telecoms giant scrapping about 30,000 jobs as its Global Services unit ran up huge losses.
However, CIO Al-Noor Ramji, a former information leader at Dresdner Kleinwort and Qwest Communications, remains characteristically sparky, quirky and loquacious. I first met Ramji early in 2009 in his shared open-plan office that resembles Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour with a constant coming and going of visitors. Back then, with hardly a break for questions, he explained his plan to break down complexity by introducing standardised platforms, agility and "right first time" solutions.
He also discussed his role as a combination of internal and external-facing management roles, combining responsibility for network and platform development with more blue-sky planning.
Of course, the going was somewhat better on that first meeting but, on a recent catch-up phone call, he was still buoyant.
"We've come out of a difficult time," he says. "With Global Services we went through a bad patch and the margins were not acceptable."
One-time Dixons Stores Group FD Ian Livingston replaced Ben Verwaayen as chief executive last June, so how does the new boss compare with the old one?
"[Livingston is] a lot faster," Ramji says. "He wants to see data and he's less tolerant of lack of speed. He wasn't a great surprise [as choice of CEO] and he was ready. We've become more customer-centric and interested in results. Ian wants to see the numbers on customer experience as well as financials before he does anything."
Far from being a trial, he calls 2009 "my best year ever [although] more by luck than judgement ... but we hit the nail on the head. Never waste a good disaster."
Hitting the nail on the head involved that continued tapping away at standardised platforms and customer ‘centricity' and sharp changes of staffing and sourcing. On standards, the plan is to have pre-cut services that can then be tweaked for clients.
"We've standardised much more to a platform-based services strategy that is unique to customers but not always BT," Ramji says.
"Customer-centredness" is a mantra for Ramji and he reels off the stats from abandoned consumer calls down by three quarters to average time to provide corporate MPLS down by 43 per cent, and both access line faults and average time repairing network faults halved over three years.
While many use the term as a throw-away, tick-box claim, he is refreshingly frank about how difficult it can be to change internal culture to make this a reality.
"Doing a complete overhaul always takes time," he says. "You get false starts where people pay lip service. A time-and-motion study revealed a lot of people weren't doing what they thought they were doing. Historically, people would think money came from me and not customers. We're merely filters, so we have to spend it wisely."
BT has embarked on a cost-cutting programme in a bid to save hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Pulling off that trick has involved ensuring rigour to governance processes. There is a weekly operating committee meeting that is "not fudged like many CIOs who report to a COO or CFO", Ramji says. BT is "hitting customer experience numbers and complaints are down two thirds or more. Strict governance is pretty normal for us. Being formerly state-owned, we're pretty good at CSR and reporting."
Responsibilities have also changed for Ramji with CTO and CIO roles merging to give him holistic control over technology development, innovation and research.
"The CTO and CIO roles are now the same," Ramji says. "Research and other bits that did not belong to me in the technology domain now do."
With typical frankness - especially considering that some observers have criticised him for outsourcing to India - Ramji has also re-examined BT's extensive use of third-parties. He characterises his current attitude as being that it is appropriate to use outsourcing and offshoring "wherever it delivers, but you need to pay attention to outputs. You hear stories about how cheap a person is but not how much faster, better or simpler. Most first and second-generation outsourcers forget that. They say: ‘here's an Indian or Chinese or Brazilian' and compare to an American - and people don't count properly."
Like many nth-time-around operators in the outsourcing pool, Ramji also stresses on ironing out the divisions between full-time internal staff and those attached to third-parties. He is deploying Global Development Centres "with everybody co-located and BT people ‘co-mingled' with [outsourcers' staff] so you can't tell who is who." Five are being developed around the globe from Ipswich to Dalian in China, via Amsterdam, Dallas and Pune, India. Desks are numbered from one to 23 with each number representing a process step to make it clear where links are breaking. Telepresence videoconferencing rooms and shared whiteboards support collaboration between these centres.
"We'd gone too far [with outsourcing] in the UK, you could claim. You have to know when to push it and when you have to cut back. Most people see coding as non-strategic ... it was interpreted as coding was a bad thing [to keep in-house]. We went too far at the junior levels and [later also realised that] coding is a core skill."
Some call-centre work is even being brought back to the UK, Ramji states, in part to protect BT jobs. In 2010, about 4000 fewer people will be contracted in India than in early 2008.
In terms of opportunities presented by technology, Ramji is optimistic about prospects for cloud computing, both to serve internal and external customers as a utility-like supply of bits and bytes with massively reduced admin requirements.
"It is core to us," he says, referring to the innate ability of telcos to "arbitrage comms and compute power. People forget why telcos made their money... it's balancing. [Cloud computing] is not a shiny bright new technology. It's sharing, storage and network and security. Cloud means saving money as well has higher margins. We started it internally a long time ago [but] until we could prove we were saving money, nobody wanted to know."
Rather than merely reselling a third-party cloud service like Microsoft Windows Azure or Amazon.com's Elastic Compute Cloud, BT, Ramji contends, is capable of "reaching a scale where we're cheaper than external entities such as Amazon" and is enthused by the prospect of the ability to "present SMBs with a monthly bill".
Even as it seeks to right-size and standardise operations, BT remains a planet to be explored, a labyrinthine organisation that must take years to become accustomed to. Ramji's answer is a variant of Management By Walking Around.
"We have to work as a team and this is close to my best team," Ramji says. "I do walk around. Tomorrow evening, for example, the top 100 people in my department will go to observe call centres and implement improvements based on what we've seen."
He also remains fascinated by design and is a committed fan of simplifying functions wherever possible, layering standards platforms to create marvels.
See Al-Noor Ramji's CIO CV here
"Since God created the Universe from a small number of elements, who are we to use 90,000 elements? The building blocks are quite simple, basically carbon and water. An iPhone is not made of complicated things but even I can't build it. Ease of use is a huge deal."
Little things are important in a globalising market, he notes. Red is a ‘stop' or ‘caution' sign here but with a mobile phone, for example, red is good in India and China.
He is full of the spice of life, and despite having once run a startup, he doesn't sound like a man on the move. He believes BT is being re-invigorated by its mandate to create new revenue streams through services like Ribbit, the Silicon Valley digital telephony startup acquired last year.
"Before, people were leaving for Google and we lost CVs to these sorts of places," he says. "It's becoming easier and we're hiring people back. Ian [Livingston] is better than I am. I don't really want to be a CEO of a company of this size; I'm much more of a second-in-command."