It's been a long time since Chris Weston considered himself to be a 'pure IT' professional. He's been involved in the commercial aspects of most of the organisations he's worked for and finds it as natural to have a 'business' conversation as he does a technology one. No surprise then that he delivered a technology product last year that allows customers' spend to be analysed in far more detail than ever, shows where value is being driven, and where improvements are possible. He reckons it is giving the company the most comprehensive view of facilities management third-party spend in the UK – and that's a great position to be in.
Name and job title
Chris Weston, CTO, Bellrock Property & FM.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Our business is making a journey from a traditional pipeline business to a platform model. My role is to position the technology platform in such a way that the non-technical people – whether they're sales, operational, whoever – can articulate the unique proposition we're creating through the value of the data we collect and manage on behalf of our customers.
I work hand in glove with the managing director (who is a peer of mine as we both report the CEO) to ensure my programme is meeting his requirements, and the sales director to make sure we're hearing the latest from the market in terms of needs.
Since our business model is becoming far more about transparency, clarity and timeliness of data, the technology team that I lead is at the forefront of developing and maintaining the USPs that make us such an interesting proposition. I take an active role in sales meetings with potential customers to ensure we articulate our technology USPs effectively, but also to get feedback and understand what the market is looking for from a business like ours. I meet our existing customers as part of our account management process for similar reasons.
How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation, and to what extent?
The change from being a more traditional managing agent to a technology-led service integrator requires a lot of behaviour change. I've been very keen to get people into the space where data is almost the most precious resource we have, and that is definitely something that I can see manifesting itself in our teams.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months, and their impact on your organisation's performance
My time at Bellrock has been split into two phases. The first was to fairly quickly assess the IT landscape and prioritise the key areas for improvement and investment, and the second to build the team that can deliver on that plan and execute. The team as a whole has come together well and we've done some fairly innovative and creative things to achieve that. We've delivered some brilliant underlying technology and excellent mobile apps in the past year and they have helped to change the way our customers perceive us. It's not an exaggeration to say that we have won several accounts in the past 12 months that we would not have if it were not for the current and future technology proposition.
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
That's an interesting question because it is becoming our main selling point. We delivered a really significant technology product in the middle of last year, called Lens. It allows us to analyse our customers' spend in far more detail than we ever have before, and we have already been able to show where value is being driven, and where improvements are possible. As we drive more transactions through this system, the data becomes more useful, more valuable and more compelling. I'd say it's now the most comprehensive view of facilities management third-party spend in the UK and that's a great position to be in.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
We're a medium-sized business, so our IT function has to be fairly lean. Our effort is split between developing new software that powers our business, and the BAU work that ensures that everyone at Bellrock gets the best from technology.
The teams are split into infrastructure, service desk, development and data/BI, and we also have a number of customer support staff who are more concerned with making sure that our customers are maximising their value from our technology. That final group was part of the operations team until mid-2015 and moved under my wing as part of a drive to get IT and the operation completely aligned. I would say there's no difference between 'the business' and IT – we're selling a technology-enabled business model that relies on the whole enterprise to be in touch with both commercial and technology strategy.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
I take a different role depending on the aspect of digital strategy. Where we're using the insights from web interactions, social media, etc, the sales and marketing team lead, and I support with web development skills, social media advice, etc. Where we're pushing our app development to improve interactions with our customers or supply chain, I'm more involved in defining and prioritising strategic goals. I find it quite difficult to relate to the term 'digital strategy' since it's so bound in with any effort to engage with stakeholders in the 21st century that it feels quite contrived to talk of it as a distinct thing.
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
We are most efficient and customer-focused when we've got good data that we can use to drive better outcomes for the business. Our organisation is evolving to provide better data governance and own that information as it flows through the business. I've been working with the transformation team here at Bellrock to match the design of the process flows with the design of our technology platform. The technology we've delivered in the past 12 months has driven direct savings in time in several operational areas which we have identified, repurposing that time to work on the value-adding analysis of customer data.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organisation, and what impact is this having?
At Bellrock I contribute to the quarterly newsletter and send out periodic emails, but also because we've got a lot of people in one head office I make sure I'm talking to as many people as possible on a regular basis so that they know what to expect from the technology team. Just about every aspect of the business is touched by a transformation or change driven by the IT team, so I get plenty of opportunities to spread the word!
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
I've always been fascinated by the way people react to new technologies as I grew up just as technology was starting to become part of everyday life. I've built up a wide network of like-minded people in technology, but also in the commercial worlds that I've worked in, whether that's been FM, engineering, public sector outsourcing, etc.
Meeting and discussing with IT peers is something I try to build into my calendar. I am a semi-regular speaker and facilitator when time permits. Last year I hosted several sessions with IT leaders at the Richmond Events IT Directors Forum, which concentrated specifically on the subject of digital disruption, what this meant to IT teams and how they approached the subject. This year I'm speaking at the i-FM Workplace Futures conference on disruptive technologies in facilities management. All these things help me to drive and learn from those discussions that result.
How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
We have a technology steering group, which is made up of both IT and non-IT staff. It allows us to take submissions for new features, prioritise existing work and discuss the impact of recently delivered technology.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
I try to get to four or five events a year such as the recent HP and Microsoft events at Excel, and through building and maintaining relationships with original thinkers on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. My technology team are charged with bringing new ideas to the table. Only yesterday I got an email from one of my apprentices about Google Tango and the potential for use in buildings management.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
I've got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the 'same old' recruitment methods and reluctance of larger businesses to look beyond the 'three years experience' on CVs. So when the time came to restructure my IT support function, I looked to do something more creative and make some opportunities for younger people.
We'd already taken on one IT apprentice in our BI team and seen benefits from doing so. I spoke to our partner, Digital Native, about building a service desk function that included some new blood in our team, but also moving our first-line calls to a social enterprise they were setting up that employed apprentices to give them their first foot on the employment ladder. We now employ three full-time apprentices and the transfer of our first-line calls has been successful. Apprentices bring enthusiasm and energy, and a willingness to learn. This has an enlivening effect throughout the team. I am really happy with the way this has worked and it was featured in the IT press at: http://www.computerweekly.com/news/4500255067/Apprenticeships-could-stop-potential-employees-falling-through-the-net-says-Bellrock
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
We're a close team and my role as the CTO is to keep confidence in the technology platforms high, and be the evangelist for the new business model that we're building. I tell my colleagues that we're more like YouTube than Mitie, and that's not just for shock value!
The fact that our business is changing to the platform model, enabling interactions between stakeholders and being an integrator of services, means the technology aspect is always high on the agenda and that allows me to influence the direction we take. It also helps that it's been a long time since I saw myself as a 'pure IT' professional. I've been involved in the commercial aspects of most of the organisations I've worked for and therefore find it as natural to have a 'business' conversation as I do a technology one.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills, perhaps through mentoring, training or external activities
I love to talk, but I also love to listen. The sessions I've run over the years with CIOs and IT leaders on social media, digital disruption, collaboration, etc, have been fascinating for me because they give me the chance to listen to some great, innovative stories about success, and the occasional war story too. I try to learn as much as I can from this.
I'm also a mentor for a fast-rising IT professional for whom I'm able to provide objective feedback, but again this helps me to reflect on my own experience and how I might deal with situations in future. I'd encourage anyone with enough years under their belt to consider doing some mentoring. I don't have a mentor as such, but I do have several connections with people that I look up to for the way they've gone about their business. I make the time to see them every now and again to bounce ideas around and help to organise my own thoughts.
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We're running a pilot with Microsoft's backing, plugging building management systems into their machine learning product, to see if we can predict maintenance cycles and energy use. I see that as a really interesting area of development, and it also ties into our IoT work.
We're investing a lot of time and effort into our next-generation enterprise technology. Being based on web services it lends itself to integration with IoT devices (smart buildings). We can just as easily take a fault report from an air conditioning unit as a helpdesk agent, and our workflow engine then reacts in the appropriate way.
We're looking at open data, such as Environment Agency river levels, to create automated responses for those customers in danger from flooding. Our latest mobile apps are cutting out process steps that used to involve our customers making phone calls or finding their way to a desktop computer to approve spend on their sites, and this year we'll roll out our NFC tags to several sites to show how we can use smartphones to ensure we're working on the right asset.
Suffice to say that we're looking at any way that technology can improve facilities management, by capturing or delivering data that adds value to some part of the process.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
One side effect of being so visible and central to our organisation is that we get asked for a lot of new features or products! Our technology platform is designed around a core data model and web services, so we can work with third-party products and integrate – I'd rather buy than build if we can't add intellectual capital to the product. We can expand our development capability but, of course, this isn't highly flexible, so we look at the requirement, understand the impact of delivering in three, six, 12 months, and the cost/risk around internal or external products.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Not as much as I'd like, and the pace of change is now so fast that it's difficult to know where the next innovation is coming from. However, since we're getting more known in the market for the way we're exploiting technology I've noticed more of the new kids on the block are coming to us to talk about what they're doing, which does help!
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We work with suppliers who can demonstrate a customer service-centric ethos and deliver innovative solutions. Our strategic suppliers are those we partner with to provide skills and resource, such as developers, onshore and offshore, infrastructure and project management.
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
In 2015 we moved to development using the Xamarin platform for mobile applications. This has increased our internal capability and the speed by which we can develop and deploy mobile apps to our customers and supply chain. We have also moved our BI dashboards to Microsoft Datazen, which again has increased the speed of development and allowed our sales teams to take real examples of our data-led approach to customers. We've run an NFC pilot that gives our sales and account people a demonstration of how we can improve data collection and accuracy on our customers' sites.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
The key deal in 2015 was with Amdaris, who supply our offshoring development capacity. It was really important that we got this one right. Offshoring was not an easy decision for us and the partner we chose had to have both the tech skills and the approach that suited us. They work well with our internal teams and this has given us good options for 2016.
Rank in order of importance your sources for innovative technology suppliers
1 CIO peers. 2 Consultants. 3 Analyst houses. 4 Industry body. 5 Media.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What is the annual IT budget?
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
What is your budget's operational/development split?
35% BAU, 65% innovation.
How many users does your department supply services to?
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?