With user satisfaction and expectations low from many years of IT underinvestment, John Gillespie undertook a wholesale upgrade of every component of the core infrastructure over a two-year period that has sent IT's stock soaring. His centralised model has liberated IT, which is now supporting regional offices across the globe without a net increase in staff.

Name and job title
John Gillespie, chief information officer, Amnesty.

How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
We are proving that a distributed organisation can work effectively and that we can transform into a truly global force for human rights. I joined the international secretariat just as it was embarking on the most significant transformation in decades.

While Amnesty International is a global organisation with a presence in 70 countries, the headquarters, the international secretariat, is based in London. For over 50 years coordination and research has been carried out from London. However, it was recognised that to stay relevant we need to respond more quickly and effectively to human rights violations worldwide, and to grow outside our traditional base of Europe and North America.

The most painful part was relocating almost a third of jobs from our headquarters in London to new regional offices in Africa, Asia and the Americas. For this transformation to be successful the new distributed organisation had to work effectively and that means excellent IT services regardless of location. We could not afford new staff to feel disconnected from the organisation by poor IT. The role of IT was to help make the vision of new global distributed organisation work. And we have successfully done so.

IT had suffered many years of underinvestment. Both user satisfaction and expectations were low. A wholesale upgrade of every component of the core infrastructure over a two-year period has restored reliability. Replacing desktops with laptops have given the organisation mobility. A centrally managed desktop ensures that staff in all offices receiving the same services. Redundant networks and continual improvement mean that we can support nine offices around the globe with no net increase in staff. It is up to our researchers and campaigners on the ground to draw the world’s attention to grave abuses of human rights. We are giving them the tools to do so.

How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation and to what extent?
My part is demonstrating that we can create a global organisation that can work effectively and get things done. People work with their computers all day, every day. Old hardware, slow performance, unreliable systems create frustration and lack of confidence in the organisation as a whole. During the transformation many areas of the operation were, and often still are, undergoing deep and painful change. I&T needed to show that we could be as reliable, modern and effective as the organisation deserved.

Second, the organisation has been adjusting to more distributed organisation. Finding the right balance between local delivery answerable to local managers and the efficiencies gained through central provision has been a struggle for all parts of the organisation. The centralised IT model has been shown to work, and IT is now supporting regional offices across the globe without a net increase in staff.

Finally, in the middle of all this change we delivered a new website and demonstrated that in digital technology we can be agile, daring and successful.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
The most significant and expensive single project was the replacement of our website, www.amnesty.org, and associated CRM and document management platforms. As a campaigning organisation our website is our voice and our old website was failing. The design was not compatible with mobile phones, performance was slow, integration with CRM systems was broken and uptime was poor. It quickly became apparent that none of the components was fit for purpose and that wholesale rip and replace would be necessary.

Already a significant challenge, the project had an absolutely fixed deadline. The single most important event in our campaigning calendar, our annual report on the state of human rights across the globe, was due to go live on 23 February, and it had to go live on time.

In just under 12 months we:

  • recruited a new project delivery team
  • selected a new content management system and an agency to develop the site
  • made the in-house development team redundant
  • replaced our document management system with SharePoint and migrated 100,000 documents
  • migrated a 10-year backlog of news articles
  • replaced three CRM systems with a campaign platform from Engaging Networks
  • moved the website hosting to Azure

It was a close-run thing, but we got there. We have a modern mobile-first website; performance and reliability has been transformed; and staff across the globe can create their own content supporting the distributed organisation. Finally, we were proud to win the award for user experience for best not-for-profit website – see http://uxukawards.com/2015winners.

Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
This is the key challenge for 2016. The impact of our work may not be visible for years or even decades, and it is widely recognised that measuring the contribution of knowledge workers like our researchers and campaigners is hard. The challenge facing us in 2016 is to find measures of output that are recognised by staff and managers. It is going to be a difficult problem.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
Good governance is key to creating the space to operate effectively. I have invested in governance structure to make sure the IT remains in lockstep with the needs of the organisation. The core is an IT steering committee, which is effectively a sub-committee of the senior leadership team. It meets every couple of months and ensures that I&T priorities meet the needs of the organisation. The committee has gone a long way in giving the senior management confidence that IT is doing the right things.

To make sure that we are meeting the expectations of staff, we conduct an annual staff satisfaction survey and are delighted to have seen that improve significantly. We were particularly pleased to see satisfaction in our remote offices as high as London.

In terms of internal structure, the key is the project management team, who are responsible for delivering change and who face off against the team running the wider transformation programme.

Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
In December 2013 I initiated a collaborative exercise that set out the rationale and objectives of a new website. The outcome – a new digital communication strategy – was key to building the organisation-wide confidence necessary to embark on a very significant investment. More broadly, I subscribe to the view that there is no there is no such thing as digital strategy, only a business strategy that is up to date with the digital tools and channels.

In 2015 Amnesty International undertook a major programme of consultation to set out our strategic goals for the next three years. The goals are very much human rights objectives, so we undertook a process to link these to the technology initiatives necessary for success. Significantly while many initiatives are the domain of the IT department, the strategy recognised that many digital initiatives will be led and delivered by other groups in the organisation.

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
I take the view that one of the more important roles of the CIO is to be constantly on the alert for opportunities to improve the way the organisation works. While there are formal mechanisms that flow through the IT governance process, I find informal relationships with staff at all levels more useful.

For a technology change to be successful there must be: a business need, a technology solution, and a team that is ready to adopt new technology. Those don’t always coincide. Like every organisation, we believe that our problems are unique, and indeed Amnesty International has got some unusual challenges. Often my role is to get a sufficient understanding of the business problem to show that off-the-shelf solutions exist and can be easily adapted to serve our needs.

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?
The primary channel is a newsletter called the CIO bulletin that we send to all staff every couple of months with information on upcoming developments. Feedback suggests that it is read. I present to the wider management team when we have particular initiatives and after the annual IT satisfaction survey. I enjoy speaking at the staff induction, which is a great chance to tell people who we are and what we do just as they join the organisation.

How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
There are a couple of forums that I find very helpful. The Charity IT Leaders group in the UK meets quarterly and is a useful meeting of peers. The CIO4Good network based in the US helps me tap into a more global community. I find both networks very useful for exchanging ideas with similar organisations.

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?
I find most success in engaging in conversation with individual business leaders or their teams about their technology needs. Priorities differ across the organisation, so focused discussions about the challenges facing a particular unit and the technology solutions work well.

Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
The most important channels are the IT press and analyst reports followed by trade shows and the select conferences. I also have a well-stocked Kindle. The trick is to select the substance from the hype. While the IT press and conferences will give you the information, it is meetings with peers that tell you what really works and what doesn’t.

Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
The charity sector in general and an international one like Amnesty International tend to attract a really wide range of people. We will always recruit the right person for the job and so far have not had a problem recruiting a diverse team of people. Culture is key to team effectiveness. We focus on openness, trust and deliverables. There is no single action that changes culture; it is a matter of living those principles daily.

Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
I maintain close contact with the members of the senior leadership team and will meet with each member on a regular basis and take time to both understand their priorities and explain what IT is delivering. Impact and influence depends on how well you understand the needs of their unit, and what you can bring to bear, so knowledge of the real operation of their units is key.

Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills
I have been fortunate to join a senior leadership development programme focused on the particular challenges of leading in multinational non-profit organisations. I found it particularly useful to consider how the culture and the leadership styles in the charity sector differ from my commercial background.

What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We keep any eye on developments, but are yet to see a compelling application right now.

How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
Amnesty International is an NGO campaigning for human rights, not a technology firm. As a relatively small organisation we need to minimise the risk and the management effort inherent in developing – or where possible even operating – technology. I see the role of I&T as to find the best technologies out there and bring them to the organisation. This means cloud first, off-the-shelf packages second and development only when absolutely necessary. Having said that, this approach is constrained from time to time by concerns over the privacy of some of our data in cloud services.

Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
As particular projects emerge we will take a good look at the market sector and consider both established and new vendors. We have a constant stream of new projects and requirements, and it is more efficient to review the vendors with a requirement in mind.

Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
I am not convinced by wholesale outsourcing and I am more interested in building a portfolio of well-defined and often cloud-based services that meet our needs. So we maintain a constantly evolving set of services and suppliers that are reviewed typically on an annual basis to assess their fit with the business need and each other.

Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
The most significant innovation is the deployment of Microsoft Office 365 to replace our internal Lotus Notes platform. This is yielding a huge leap forward in our ability to collaborate together. We are a knowledge-based organisation, so the ability to share information effectively is critical. Right now we have only scratched the surface of its capabilities, but we have an ambitious programme of work to exploit the technology over the next couple of years.

What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We have relatively few truly strategic technology deals. Our website is based on an open source .NET-based CMS called Umbraco, and we have chosen to go with Microsoft Azure for hosting, which is working well. We chose a new CRM in 2015 from Engaging Networks because it is focused on campaigning and fundraising, and saves us the expense of configuring a more generic platform to our needs.

Finally, we have some fairly significant information security threats and we rely on Dell Secureworks to provide 24-hour management and monitoring of our firewalls and IDS systems – expertise that we couldn’t afford to retain in-house.

Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are

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

Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?

How is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
There is a high awareness of information security issues and it is discussed by the senior management team as required.

When did you start your current role?
January 2013.

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?
95% revenue.

What is your budget’s operational/development split?

How many users does your department supply services to?
Approximately 800.

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?