Ascential IT Director Sean Harley loves disruptive technology, especially for the business innovation and cost-savings over the established players the disruptors offer before they are gobbled up by the bigger players. Part of the executive leadership working with a tech-savvy CEO and CFO, Harley has helped deliver significant business outcomes while supporting the process which will enable the media company to IPO.

Name and job title
Sean Harley, Group IT Director, Ascential

How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
My organisation has two sets of customers, internal customers and external clients of our business. I influence both of these sets of customers by exposing them to technology in a business context through collaboration, communication, consultation and open relationships. Internally I have focused on the information flow and experience to key stakeholders, this has mainly been driven by more concise communications and tailored to the respective business unit we are supporting with an end game of providing actionable insight to how IT performs against the business demands and where this information can be used to provide enhanced services, innovation and cost saving to out operating companies.

For our businesses external clients, we consult and work in collaboration with our product and development teams to discuss ways to develop and deploy faster, whilst making use of existing and innovative software and products available to enable this. I also have open relationships with all of our partners and potential vendors in the software and hardware communities to allow us to ensure we are maximizing their developments to enhance our business services/products.

How as CIO have you affected cultural change and / or behaviour in your organisation and to what extent?
We have changed the way sales teams communicate, using online meetings and enabling them to be able to work better remotely. A quick piece of MI on this is that one (we have four) of our business units have participated in >20,000 online collaboration meetings between April and December 2015.

Our core services are available anywhere with an internet connection. This has changed the culture in many ways as you no longer need to be in the office to conduct your role, this has changed the dynamics of the organisation as a whole enabling true remote working and a disaster proof work force where we are not dependent on an office location to keep core operations; sales, meetings, demonstrations etc. running. Of course this is not done by IT alone we recognised that although technology was the enabler for this we needed to ensure that people managers and HR were onboard so this was a true business collaboration project, which also drive circa 42% opex reduction on our current telephony and collaboration costs. Over the past 12 months we have focused on the service we provide internally to our clients and can now confidently say that our Service Delivery offering is now world class and people have trust in the service we provide. They will engage with the desk on any technology issues in the knowledge they will receive reassurance of help and a fast, professional and friendly service. Our Service Delivery team are also key enablers within the business, ensuring users are kept informed and encourage engagement with Technology. This leads to our customers actually demanding more from us, technology, as they see us as enablers.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s company performance
I have driven programmes based on business requirements that have delivered significant business outcomes during the last 12 months:
• we have seen one of our businesses that has historically been a print only business move to be a digital content business with over 50% of its business now coming through the digital channel
• innovation programmes within technology that have provided significant OPEX savings allowing my team to do more with the same from a budget perspective
• supported the CEO and CFO of the organisation around the process to enable us to notify the markets of our intention to float on the London Stock Exchange
• established an information security framework to enable us to protect our IP in a more structured and governed way
• delivered technology solutions that have supported our growth as a group for our Cannes Lions Festival.

Describe how you have used organisational and third party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
We have retail analytics product in our business, which is a big data solution focused on buyers and merchandisers working in fashion. Knowing when to back trend and when to back off can be a multi-million-pound decisions. We introduced the concept to the product team of combining the insight that they had around the global retailers and the stock that they were stocking and linking it to 3rd party information such as weather, commodity prices for cotton (as an example) – this enabling the global retailers across the 6 regions we support to provide further insight. In our events business, one of the key drivers is the value of the exhibition (stand) space. I was asked by the business if there were any innovation that could assist in determining the value of space within an event space. We trialled ‘beacon’ technology aligned to the event app to provide foot fall information allowing the business to demonstrate where a particular stand had more foot fall allowing the sales teams to drive value in that space. We monitor our operational company’s product performance with tools, these tools enable us to advise our business’s on how applications can perform better and allow us to report on any issues with the various products that we have. One of the measurements in my team is to provide applications that are stable and perform well as this will support the business by reducing churn to poor product performance or availability. Currently our sites are typically available 99.7% of the time on a weekly basis. We recently advised, consulted and demonstrated improving website performance in China, with the use of a CDN. When we were asked to assist there was no clear measurement of the performance, we used tools to capture traffic across multiple providers then projected the results to assist in making the correct choice for a vendor ,service and also inclusive usage. Our solution innovation process often allows us to discuss our concept with third parties and invite them to pitch their product and services to us. Often we can take the best ideas from all and incorporate them into the strongest bid. This was something we looked at when talking to vendors over our CMS support requirements, we listened to various strategies and asked the strongest to include a local operative in the UK (where support is off shore) allowing us to have a visible resource to discuss requirements or deal with issues.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
IT is no longer a back office function, business and IT alignment has been key to the success of our business in the current landscape where technology is the enabler. Maintaining regular communication with business decision makers, understanding business roadmaps and budgets are all key to alignment. Positioning staff that bridge the gap between the business and technology departments is a must (Business Relationship Management) is a must which we have in place and the benefits are clear and transparent for people to see. The requirements from the business now means we are seen as the go-to teams for any technology requirement. The functions of the BSM’s are key to establishing what each business are trying to achieve and we are fast becoming an internal service provider that can enable the agile changes the business continues to make. My reporting line is into the CFO with a dotted line into the CEO, this works very well as I have one eye on the money and one eye on the innovation driven from the CEO down. We are very lucky that our CEO and CFO have technology backgrounds, however the flip side to this is that they do expect more as they ‘get’ technology and understand the potentials that it can offer our businesses. I will also site on the operating exec’s of our businesses and steering groups of large business projects being driven by each opco.

Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
My role in the development of the digital strategy is to enable, contribute and not be a blocker, it is important to allow the business’s to devise their strategy and for me to validate and ensure we enable the business to be able to conduct their strategy with the correct governance and support. Occasionally this means having to burst a bubble or two to ensure the business’s digital strategies are achievable. I enable them to achieve the best in breed product whilst ensuring my team provide a high level of support around the product

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
Enabling the business with tools and information helps the business become more efficient, a recent example of this would be taking a key product suggestion board and turning this into a living and breathing improvement forum using a “Facebook style” collaboration platform which is available internally and externally with a security wrapper. Our customer services teams, within our businesses, supporting the clients and the use of our products have benefitted greatly by taking our in-house service processes and adapting them for the client services world and using the same backend technology which provide my team the capability to support them in this service.

How do you engage regularly with your organisation (e.g. via a blog/seminars/newsletter etc.) about your team and the role of technology in the organisation and what impact is this having?
I take many different approach to the way that we build the brand of both the technology organisation and my personal brand in respect to how we are assisting the businesses. I endeavor to issue a ‘yammer’ update once a week to the technology team on what’s happening within the business and also a wider technology update, we have a monthly newsletter that we produce to the business covering technology using ‘sway’ technology as the medium, I attend on a periodic basis the various operating company operating exec meetings to ‘present’ technology, we run regular (business defined frequency) service reviews to discuss technology performance for the period, cost savings, spend and service availability reports, within technology we have a quarterly all hands calls where we welcome new starters, remind people of the products and strategy we are following, include some humour and enable the team to do a Q&A with me, finally I will regularly (at least twice a quarter) have stand up updates with the technology team in our Paddington office and typically offer the team an early finish on the following Friday.

How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
I recognise that I need to do more, potentially in social media, however I do regularly talk at vendor events, attend industry round tables, press interviews and am an active member and contributor of the CIO Connect organisation.

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 used to (have now delegated), but still attend, run a technology and business forum where the leader so the technology team and product teams get together to discuss projects, developments within the respective teams and share information across divisions – with the aim that we aren’t reinventing the wheel. We also invite ‘guest’ speakers to these sessions that can be industry vendors, partners or internal resource such as our Group CEO

Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management e.g horizon scanning, technology strategy workshops, involvement in industry events and bodies
I am a great believer in working with partners/vendors to understand the world we live in and try to have at least 1 or 2 updates with the ones we work with in a year for myself at an exec level and also in more detail for the technology resource in the team. I also attend user group events, industry workshops and am an active member of CIO Connect which allows me to network with a large set of peers within the technology sector.

Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
I have let one of the engineers in my team answer this question for me, this is taken directly from feedback that I asked as for part of the yearly review feedback process:

James Taylor, Network Engineer: "I’ve worked with Sean since starting at TRG (Top Right Group, now Ascential), he has been absolutely key to turning the IT function around and providing a level of service we are all proud of a team This year Sean has lead the department past what was a very challenging period of stability and internal resource issues, which is testament to his ability to lead, we’ve seen huge improvements to business service and altogether this has transitioned the IT department from a sustained period of firefighting, into a department that finally has its eyes firmly on the future. This again aids engineers and technical staff to start to map out where we should be in the future, rather than constantly looking backwards. One of Sean’s key strengths is his constant ability to interact with Engineers, exec, management and always has his finger on the pulse at every level. What makes Sean so strong in his role is both his willingness to listen to all levels of staff, taking feedback from the estate (as an example) and feeding this back in an effective manor to the IT function. This approach has again been absolutely key to helping engineers and the business highlight issue and often leads to us as a department rectifying long standing issues. Sean will always engage when he feels it’s necessary, often bringing ideas to the technical table, which is again hugely important. This allows technical engineers to get a feel for the wants/needs of the execs and help engineers understand what is driving change. This also makes it clear what impact or pain the business is going through during either a period of issues, or when driving the company forwards from a technical standpoint While I may only interact with Sean within the Network/Infrastructure space, Sean always leaves the door open to everyone,  always makes himself available and approachable, which is a key strength Within the network space, Sean has again been key to driving this portion of the technical stack forwards, we’ve moved/improved vast amounts of the network stack this year and its currently going from strength to strength, something again I can only thank Sean for, for listening during the more challenging periods, making key business decisions that allowed us to move forwards in both the technology and stability space. Sean is a not only a highly effective leader and great peer, he is considered a ‘team’ member among all, which I feel some at his level rarely achieve."

Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
We also have the sponsorship of the group CEO which is very important in ensuring we are able to influence and be listened to.

Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills, perhaps through mentoring, training or external activities
As many leaders I have had a varied amount of training, personal coaching and mentoring, corporate growth development programs but for me I truly believe that you develop by 1. making mistakes, mistakes ensure that you learn 2. Developing relationships both internally and externally, listening and learning from other people and finally by taking time to listen to your customers/employees and business partners, they can help you develop without you even knowing it!

How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach – e.g. from consuming services from the cloud or on-premise products through to spinning up in-house development teams for bespoke work?
We take the approach to put commodity type services in the cloud ie Office 365, Salesforce, ITSM etc and for ‘core to our business and future’ provide these services in house (on premise) but at a cost point that allows us to be more competitive that cloud based services for similar services.

Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
Yes, I love disruptive technology it really excites me – although eventually these technologies will be gobbled up by the big boys but I do like to get in early analyse what information Gartner have on these disruptors and actively engage. This provides our business innovation and typically cost savings from our established vendors

Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
As part of my extended management team we have a Procurement Category Director, I work with her on all of our sourcing from category plans, spend analysis, procurement processes, strategic partnerships, vendor selection, legal and commercial arrangements. Key strategic suppliers are EMC, VMWare, Microsoft, AWS, Computer Associates, Cognizant, Cloudsense, SalesForce, Hyperion, Marketo, Gartner, CIO Connect, Cisco, Alternative Networks.

What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
We have replaced our storage platform this year and moved to the EMC Extreme IO and Isilon platforms across the board, these have bought performance and operational benefits to the technology team. We have moved our SIP provider from BT to Gamma, this will provide us >27% operational cost saving for our Op Co’s We have moved from Vodafone to O2 as our mobility provider, providing an expected 22% cost saving and better commercial arrangement. We have procured the Zerto product to provide us a more comprehensive High Availability offering to our businesses Replaced our existing BT provided MPLS solution with an Expo-E provided VPLS Network solution for our global network Implemented Webex collaoboration tools increasing productivity of our businesses, see previous response, whilst saving 40k per annum by consolidating to one tools as opposed to many within each op co.

How do you rate the following as sources of innovative technology suppliers:
Analyst Houses  -  Always referred to       
Consultants  -  Occasionally use       
CIO Peers  -  Always referred to       
Industry Body  -  Often use       
Media  -  Often use    

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

How is cyber-security led and discussed by senior management?
Information Security comes under my responsibility and is something we have really established this year, allocating someone to be solely responsible for information security creating policies and establishing a Security Steering Committee across our group which is sponsored by myself and the Group CEO. We have updated and implemented several policies this year and have sponsored the person in role to commence an MSc in Cyber Security. We have also established relationships with Carsten Maple who heads up Cyber Security at the Warwick University, this was established through my professional network

When did you start your current role?
January 2013

What is your reporting line?
CFO with dotted line to the CEO

Are you a member of the board of directors?
No, sit on operating exec with Group CEOs, CFO, HR and Legal Counsel

What is the annual IT budget?
Opex £7million for central technology, development and npd spend sits within the businesses

How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
typically we spend £1m-1.5m CAPEX in central technology with other technology (dev and content) spend outside of central technology control, our group revenues are circa £300m

What percentage of your budget is spent on:
IT operational spend ("keeping the lights on")  -  100% of the £7m opex budget
New developments (innovation)  -  100% of the £1-1.5m capex spend

What number of users does your department supply services to?
1800

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?
No

How many employees are there in your IT team?
80

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% inhouse for technology, for development we outsource circa 80%