fitness first club

Fitness First CIO Ed Hutt says in the last two years the company has overhauled it's IT in a transformation which has helped foster a new relationship with vendors, his CFO, and been part of a cultural change which has created a new IT team dynamic at the organisation.

Speaking to CIO UK, Hutt said that the health club group had been able to move away from its legacy technology systems while creating a new workforce legacy where members of the technology team were empowered with new responsibilities and skills.

"The last 20 months have really been about the transformation of IT in Fitness First," Hutt said. "That was the sort of mission I got when I originally met John Wartig the CFO. He said to me: 'I need to transform IT but I don't know what to do; I'm a finance guy and it's not my job'.

Hutt, a qualified pilot, quipped in response that as somebody who did not completely understand finance would it be sensible if the CIO and CFO agreed to work together. "This whole journey we've been on has been getting from that position to where we are a digital business."

IT transformation

More than just the old technology "that came from the 1990s, or even the 2000s, or even the latter part of that and the current decade", Hutt said that the transformation was as much about how the organisation could change the way it operated and do things in a different way.

While this meant "taking stuff out of the data centre", Hutt said that the programme of work was equally characterised by pushing into the cloud and working on their digital basis and has already resulted in cost savings for Fitness First.

"I think a lot of the last two years has been what you might call digital fundamentals," he said. "The foundations of it has been put in place - when we choose to run things in house with effective data centre managment, when we choose to work externally with cloud technology. We've pushed dramatically to software-as-a-service.

"We've ruthlessly set up projects and executed against what we said we were going to do. In each instance we've set out the business case, taken systems out, put new ones in, pushed into the cloud where we can - all this was all about strategy.

"We have massive, massive cost savings, and much of the drive behind this is from having to save money first of all in order to reinvest. In some cases cost leadership is a strategy; what you can do that will save money in order to allow reinvestment.

"My style has always been go and find some things you can give back before you go and ask for something. It's a very hard sell to any business that you are not getting anything in advance."

Vendor management

Part of the Fitness First technology transformation under Hutt has been an IT vendor overhaul, as well as the way the organisation has worked with their technology suppliers, the CIO said.

Hutt explained that many of their old vendors were replaced, with the recognition coming from Fitness First that they needed to work with different organisations in order to drive a cultural change and bring about a different attitude and approach to IT partnerships.

Hutt now organises regular vendor days, inviting their suppliers in to go over the Fitness First roadmap and strategy - and find areas where their partners might be able to help.

"We do it quarterly and invite in senior people from our partners," Hutt said. "Ten of them come here, we brief them on the business, tell them what we're doing, what our forward strategy is. What's new on this year's budget, what's coming up, so they know what we're aiming at so they don't try and sell us stuff we are not interested in.

"The vendors say they like it, and the feedback I get from a lot of the senior people in these organisations is nobody else does this - clearly it's something that gets the right response from the supplier."

IT skills and development

Part of the IT journey at Fitness First has also included a skilling up of Hutt's team, giving new responsibilities to the team as business relationship managers and with expertise in different vendor relationships with a flatter structure and empowered, accountable staff.

"You can never have one person who is the guardian and master of everything," Hutt said.

"Fundamentally, once things are established you should be able to take a CIO out, and six months from then, 12 months from then, it should still be running in the direction of the course last set, at the same height, speed and heading without course correction. If you can't do that, you've done your job wrong.

"I have fundamentally set out to make sure I left behind a legacy, or perhaps will leave behind a legacy of people who can do a job and do it well.

"The aspect of this structural strategy is that it's flat. Instead of having a CIO -1, -2, -3 and so on all the way down, there is only one form of manager and that's a service manager."

Hutt's analogy was one of partners in a law firm, and that while some partners may be bigger than others they are all still partners in the firm with different responsibilities and clients. The end goal is to have each member of the team a business relationship manager, who is also a vendor manager for one of Fitness First's key suppliers, as well as being a manager for a buying category.

The CIO went on that with Fitness First not a big enough organisation to have full-time jobs for all the above roles, it made sense to have each member of the team to rotate their responsibilities every six months to share expertise and knowledge around the department.

"If you ever lose anybody, or somebody leaves and they take all of that knowledge, it's a big risk in IT today," Hutt said. "If other organisations are interested in your people because you have done great things for them and they have done great things for the business, the more likely you are to lose them.

Hutt said that this is worth celebrating, and that in its place the rest of the team should be able to cover and take over the responsibilities because of the concept of rotation.

Security and digital

One of Hutt's mantras is that "it's not whether or not you will have problems, it's how well you deal with them", and nothing epitomises this sentiment more than when the subject of security is breached.

The University of Sheffield graduate said that the move to digital technologies and self-service has created a new cyber threat by offering up access to systems to more people, which has coincided with the emergence of more sophisticated hackers from the individual to the political and jurisdictional.

With the new threat Fitness First also promoted an existing manager in the IT team to the Chief Information Security Officer role, although the company held back until their data centre security, web level security, as well as end-user security via security training was in place first.

"I've only had a CISO recently, but the reason we made the decision not to do it 20 months ago was because until we had done some of the digital fundamentals, having a CISO was like having a flag on top of a very small island, during a very large tsunami," Hutt said.

"Our arsenal now focuses on, if a problem happens, can we fix it quickly? Can we inoculate it, stop it, kill it, and get into a position where it's now working correctly, rather than just hoping it will work?

"The problem as always with a business case for security, it's until you have the problem, you don't have a case.

"It's not peace of mind having a CISO in the organisation, I think it's a hard-headed practical solution to have somebody whose job it is and who is accountable. I think there is a great analogy which says: 'Never have a job with more than one person you can point at'."

Getting the maximum from a Gartner subscription

Hutt, who has held senior interim IT roles at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, British Gas, Morrisons and BP, also discussed his jovial relationship with his Gartner account manager, and how other CIOs who subscribe to the service can get the most out of a Gartner subscription.

While many organisations who use the IT research and advisory company's market analysis service might go to a Gartner Symposium, the odd other Gartner event and download a few papers, Hutt reported that his account manager said that the Fitness First CIO was a regular caller and certainly getting his subscription's worth.

"It's bloody good," Hutt said. "Any time I want to know something I've got this enormous organisation and all I need to do is put in a call and ask; 'Could you line me up with some people to talk about this, this and this?' I think it's a stunning service, absolutely well worth its money. You can pay any other consultant firm, but you're going to pay by the hour on everything you do."

The CIO also utilised the company's research as a self-service learning tool with members of the IT team at Fitness First using the Gartner for Technical Professionals subscription to have calls with analystsand read research papers, with Hutt able to see what people are interested in and learning about.

"I don't think you would classify it as training," he said. "It's continuing professional development; it's good for them logging up under a category, but it's also sort of a cultural thing - we're giving you the ability to teach yourself and to carry on learning rather than send you on a training course."

While the Gartner service works for Hutt, the CIO said that other CIOs might turn up to an event and download a few papers but forget they have access, and actually for Gartner that might be a good thing, like a Ryanair-style booking model which relies on some people not turning up. "But it works for me, I'm the guy who always turns up."

Returning to Fitness First's journey, Hutt says there are still a few "older legacy systems that occasionally have little legacy problems", and seems proud that the legacy being built in the department by empowering different team members with responsibility and accountability is something to be proud of.

"It's helping build skills and making sure people in IT are not pigeon-holed," he said. "At some point when they move on - because everybody moves on at some point - they've got all the skills and will be more valuable, and they'll get a great move to another part of their career.

"We don't particularly mind that because they'll always remember Fitness First. I think so few people spend their time developing people."