Disruption is in Graham Benson's blood – even being recognised in the Talent Unleashed awards where he won the Most Disruptive CIO award. He has taken an overgrown startup (in terms of the maturity of people, process and systems, and transformed an IT team into an engineering centre. The business has moved on from technical vertical teams operating on a waterfall model to multifunctional product teams aligned to business units and sat with the business, with business rather than technical objectives, and the prioritisation of backlogs set by the business area owner. Requests for more resources are business-cased and championed by the business product owner and not IT – this optimises business ownership/engagement. And that's just the first year of his tenure! For this year, he has plenty of technical solutions in the pipeline.

Name and job title

Graham Benson, CIO of Rentalcars.com and chairman of Manchester Digital.

How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
As a member of the Rentalcars.com leadership team (the board), I take an active role with my colleagues in defining the commercial strategy of the business, as I am a commercial leader first, with the secondary responsibility for overseeing technical execution. As we are a purely online business, pretty much everything has significant tech implications, so by default I have influence.

As chairman of the board at Manchester Digital, my role is to nurture and shape the strategic and operational directions of the organisation to ensure that it best represents the interests of the 500+ companies (and 18,000 people) who are members. This involves close liaison with business, education and political leaders.

How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation, and to what extent?
Rentalscars.com is a part of the Priceline group, quoted on Nasdaq and the world's third largest technology stock (after Amazon and Alibaba). The business is purely online and only 10 years old with a turnover in excess of £1bn. When I joined in February 2015 it was described to me as an overgrown startup in terms of the maturity of people, process and systems. It was phenomenally successful but needed to mature fast due to the turnover and the fact it has 1,100 employees.

I have therefore focused in the main on people and process, and transformation from an IT team to an engineering centre. This was underpinned by changing the name from IT to ISE (information systems engineering), getting us an ice cube logo branding, which was cool (pun intended) and I put a piece of acrylic ice cube on everyone's desk when they walked in on the day of launch – I believe in visual reinforcement!

My belief is that if we get the right people working in the right way, everything else will follow. The team has expanded nearly 50%, bringing in new skills and expertise to augment the existing capabilities. We have re-organised the teams and hired experienced, agile managers. We have massively improved the team experience by opening brand-new offices – described by the Daily Mail as "the coolest in Britain" – where the focus is on creating an environment conducive to innovation through collaboration rooms and cool technology.

The teams have moved from a waterfall technology-focused structure to multifunctional agile product groups targeted at business areas rather than technical. Team objectives have changed from technical to business and we have sat them among their business colleagues rather than all grouped together on a techie floor.

To optimise the sense of ownership and engagement from team members I created three SWAT teams – one each for people, process and systems. Each team met once a week for five weeks, adopting an agile sprint methodology. The topics we tackled were voted for by the members of the department, and the objective was for the SWAT team members, not the managers, to set key areas of departmental strategy.

Week one was about deciding topics, week two defining the problem, week three creating solution options, week four selecting solution, and week 5 defining an action plan. Therefore actionable output was delivered quickly from each SWAT. The strategies that arose from SWATs included callout scheme (process), induction programme (people), monitoring technologies (systems), workload prioritisation (process). They were changes designed by the people for the people.

In addition we have created code dojos – eg build your own minesweeper game – monthly lightning talks where people volunteer to spend 15 minutes talking to the team about pet tech subjects, followed up by month-end beers. We are about to launch our first code-clubs to some local educational establishments.

The rationale is simple: a department designed by the team for the team, and an opportunity to enjoy being an engineer. As a result of this our retention rate for engineers in a highly competitive Manchester environment has dramatically increased.

In terms of Manchester Digital, as chair I am responsible for helping represent the interests of over 500 member companies in the north-west (the Northern Powerhouse). This involves lobbying council leaders, MPs, cabinet ministers and investment vehicles (public and private) to ensure that the issues faced by digital businesses in Manchester are appropriately prioritised. We are holding the UKs biggest talent fair in February, and I have been working with the membership to expand our influence among the tech leadership community, as Manchester Digital has historically been strong in skills, UX and technical but not technical leadership. The first Manchester Digital CIO dinner is being held in March for instance. Disruption is an overused word, but I would like to think I have demonstrated a reasonably disruptive capability, which was very kindly recognised in the Talent Unleashed awards where I was lucky enough to win Most Disruptive CIO award.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
We have delivered double-digit growth through a number of initiatives, underpinned by the multifunctional agile product groups. Being run by the business for the business has simplified prioritisation, improved delivery velocity, targeted efforts at those initiatives that deliver best business value, and removed the "them and us" traditional issues.

We have delivered a new BI suite for better customer, supplier and geographical market insights, stabilised the operational architecture and reduced downtime, launched two new business units (rental cars connect which is B2B, and Rideways which is a car/driver proposition outside of renting a car for self-drive), implemented a supplier portal for collaborating and improving our services to our customer, plus significantly improved our team retention. Nevertheless, year one has really been focused on the foundations (best people, best processes, get the delivery machine optimised so projects can be fed into it) so we should deliver some really creative and innovative stuff in 2016 – well, that's the plan.

Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
In Rentalcars.com my first year has been around stabilising and re-engineering the people and process capabilities. In terms of organisational insight, we have built a new BI platform providing much better insight to our commercial teams, and have scoped a personalisation system.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
Rentalcars has gone from technical vertical teams operating on a waterfall model to multifunctional product teams, aligned to business units and sat with the business, with business rather than technical objectives, and the prioritisation of backlogs set by the business area owner. Requests for more resources (from the pool or new hires) are business-cased and championed by the business product owner and not IT – this optimises business ownership/engagement.

Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
Rentalcars is a digital business. We were created to disrupt the market. Our motto is "anything but ordinary" and I genuinely believe we live by that. That's why we have gone from a zero to a billion in 10 years! We do different things in different ways, both in a commercial sense and how we utilise technology. I am at the heart of the digital business strategy, as the leadership team spend days per quarter and one day per month on creative innovation and business strategy. It is what drives us (no pun intended).

At Manchester Digital, my role is to encourage, consult and share experience to try and maximise our value to our members. I believe this to be symbiotic: Manchester Digital benefits from Rentalcars' expertise and experience, while I am out in the marketplace seeing the innovation being delivered by many other businesses, from startup to multinational, which stimulates ideas that I take back to Rentalcars – a true win/win.

Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and organisational structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
We have embedded BAs and testers into the product groups as well as developers (software and infrastructure). This drives process and quality delivery into the commercial and technical deliberations/designs from day one. The product groups comprise key commercial people as well as the techies; I think that the most important thing is that these product groups focus on elements of the customer journey and are not organisational silos. In other words our product groups are horizontal sections of the customer journey, not vertical business function silos.

For example, our loyalty product group is part of the "post-trip" part of the customer journey and requires engagement from product, marketing and customer service as well as the engineers. We have avoided the temptation to make our product groups merely a different representation of vertical organisation silos – eg separate CS, marketing or commercial product groups. It makes them much more difficult culturally to implement but, even though it is early days, we are already reaping real rewards.

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?
For Rentalcars: community intranet, monthly glossy, Twitter, weekly team meets, quarterly departmental meets, quarterly all-colleague town hall updates, lightning talks, quarterly surgeries on business strategy.

How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
Via Manchester Digital' Twitter account, we engage in conversations around industry issues. I also contribute to magazine articles and speak at conferences and participate in roundtables – eg Harvey Nash CIO survey in Leeds and Manchester.

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 do this at leadership team level, and it happens organically within the business thanks to customer-journey oriented cross-functional product groups.

Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
As chair of Manchester Digital I both host and participate in events that cover the whole spectrum of digital. It comes with the territory!

Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
Rentalcars is a diverse business – we have a call centre supporting over 40 languages and employing over 70 nationalities. We actively recruit outside the UK for all of our teams, including engineering. I have discussed at length the initiatives we have done to improve culture – SWATS, strategy of by the team for the team, code dojos, lightning talks, school code clubs, etc.

Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
I am a facilitator, my role is to contribute creative innovative business ideas, but also to take their initiatives and hypothesise smart technical solutions. We are great advocates of the minimum viable product when doing something new, so we hit the market quickly and cheaply. If we fail, we fail fast and at low cost.

Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
My role at Manchester Digital has been great for personal development as I am dealing with public sector and part of a not-for-profit organisation. I am a qualified in neuro linguistic programming having taken my NLP qualifications; these are essentially counselling-oriented but are equally useful in leadership situations such as motivation, reviews, building rapport, demonstrating empathy and recruitment situations. I hold an MBA that I did part-time, graduating when I was 30. I still have a number of mentors (usually ex-bosses!) whom I rely on for advice.

What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We have an emerging data analytics research capability, and have built operational systems on Hadoop and Couchbase NoSQL technologies. We are investigating uses of some advanced technologies and how they apply to a car rental experience, but I am unable to disclose these because of confidentiality agreements, although they are aligned to our "anything but ordinary" disruptive philosophy.

How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
We have historically owned our own tin and built our own applications. This is changing as part of the overall departmental migration to an engineering focus and a "best fit for purpose" approach. We have now implemented two AWS-based solutions and partnered with a third party for the first time. We don't have a holistic strategy yet – that is on the agenda for 2016.

Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
We have innovative engineers who are passionate. If they request it, we grant it, but in the main they are so passionate that they do it in their own time then share it with the teams via our monthly lightning talks.

Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
We don't really have a sourcing strategy yet. That will drop out this year.

Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
There have been no technical solutions delivered yet during my tenure that I would claim to be innovative. There are plenty in the pipeline for my year two (2016). The innovation and focus for 2015 was on people and process.

Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are

  • Always referred to: CIO peers.
  • Often use: industry body.
  • Occasionally use: analyst houses, consultants, media.

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
No.

How is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
We have a security forum that meets weekly chaired by me, and monthly chaired by the CEO – we take this very seriously.

When did you start your current role?
February 2015.

What is your reporting line?
CEO.

Are you a member of the board of directors?
Yes.

What is the annual IT budget?
£13m.

How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
£8m open, £5m capex.

What is your budget's operational/development split?
50/50.

How many users does your department supply services to?
1,100.

Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Yes.

Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Yes.

Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
Yes.

How many employees are there in your IT team?
130.

Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Yes.

What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
100% insourced except the odd specialist contractor for a three-month period.