IT has taken a leading role in innovation under Dan Fiehn. In the last 12 months he has revolutionised business operations by delivering a big data platform and smart connected devices. They have enabled Markerstudy to build more profitable products, and optimise its business models.
Group IT director
How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Markerstudy Group is a rapidly expanding organisation and is always looking to improve processes and adopt new technologies to add value to our broker partners and consumers. This has been a particular challenge due to the sheer speed of growth, with the group expanding from 500 staff in 2011 to over 4,000 staff in 2016, based all over the UK.
This extensive expansion has placed enormous demands on the IT operation. To remain relevant it has been vital for me to ensure that we continue to retain small company values, and operate with agility, creativity and speed in order to achieve the goals of the group.
By implementing lean methodologies, alongside the best automated technologies in the market, we have been able to significantly increase the velocity of the IT operation and influence product development and services across the group. This approach is epitomised by the hugely successful launch of VisionTrack – which is the next generation of connected vehicle dash-cams and was awarded Gartner best digital product in EMEA 2016.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
2016 has been a pinnacle year. The culmination of five years of careful investment in technology platforms has enabled us to greatly simplify our infrastructure, reduce costs, and provide stable and secure systems.
With the right foundations in place, the team have revolutionised the operations of the business with three key transformational projects. Namely:
- Orchestrated the implementation of a cloud-based rating hub to provide in excess of 30 million online insurance quotes a day.
- Established a big data capability to provide real-time analytics on billions of records, resulting in reductions in claims fraud and increased retention rates.
- Launched VisionTrack – which is the next generation of connected in-vehicle dash-cam (IoT). These devices are positively changing driver behaviour and lowering insurance premiums for our customers.
In addition to this, over the last 12 months the team have successfully integrated a number of acquisitions across the group. All of which has made for a very successful year.
What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
Markerstudy Group has over 80 different brands, spanning five contrasting vertical markets. While this can sometimes present a challenge when it comes to support, it does create ample opportunities to innovate. Much of the innovation starts with us taking a holistic view of the group, and borrowing a solution from one industry to apply it to another, creating a point of differentiation.
I always look for IT to take a leading role in innovation. In the last 12 months we have revolutionised our business operation with delivery of two significant new initiatives; namely big data and smart connected devices. Both projects are heavily technology-based and have transformed the way we are using our data. This has enabled us to build more profitable products, and optimise our business models, which better meet our customer’s needs.
The pinnacle of our achievement was the launch of a brand new product, called VisionTrack. This brings together the next generation of technology and aims to improve road safety and lower the cost of motor insurance for our customers. It has been recognised with numerous industry awards, including Gartner’s Best Digital Product 2016 in the EMEA region, which is a fantastic achievement by the team.
How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
With over 230 IT professionals, this has challenged the traditional way an IT organisation is structured. Siloed technical teams were inhibiting much needed knowledge transfer, which in turn created bottlenecks and dependencies. Meeting the demands of the business was becoming exponentially harder and putting ever increasing pressure on an already stretched resource.
Last year, I set out a vision to radically change the way the IT department functioned. Embracing lean methodologies and the best in-class technologies to automate the back-office functions, this step-change is now allowing us to upskill our technical capabilities and focus on key areas of business differentiation. The programme also put great focus on investing in our people and increasing communication across the department.
To foster a culture of innovation, and maximise the impact, I took the decision to completely rebrand the department from ‘Group IT’ to ‘M-Powered’ to mark a step-change in our capabilities. This has quickly changed the view of the IT function and the innovation we can bring.
The transformation programme also included:
- running BBC Dragons’ Den-style competitions to encourage thought leadership and generate new ideas
- ensuring every individual has clearly defined objectives that link to the overarching department vision and development plans
- a coherent communication plan, which includes monthly video blog updates and highly visual updates
- an ecosystem of best in class monitoring and infrastructure visualisation tools to accelerate cross-functional collaboration and remove staff dependencies.
How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
This is the key part of my role as CIO. Over the past six years I’ve working closely with the CEO and group board to illustrate the unprecedented effect technology has on levels of operational efficiency within the business.
By adopting a ‘blue sky’ approach and delivering a strong strategic vision, I have been able to demonstrate clear initiatives on how to make this vision a reality. As a result, I encouraged the business to invest in big data technology, and more recently machine learning, which have transformed our business operation.
Last year, I established a small transformational team with the goal of creating small digital ‘nudges’ to change behaviour and make a lasting difference. This has resulted in a number of demonstration sessions with my board, showcasing new technologies and how they can transform operational efficiency.
How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We place the utmost importance on our supplier relationships, which are absolutely key to continued success in achieving our business goals. At the end of 2015 I put in place a strong vendor management and procurement team.
Following numerous acquisitions over the past five years we’ve built up an impressive list of suppliers. To drive economies of scale and get best in class solutions, we have worked extremely hard to consolidate and rationalise the suppliers we work with.
We now look to establish true partnerships, where we share a similar ‘can do’ attitude and where there is a real generosity of knowledge between both parties. These successful partnerships can be seen in the most successful projects we have delivered. As a prime example, working closely with RDT, SAS and Cloudera, we were the first in the industry to launch a cloud-based insurer-hosted rating hub together with a big data analytics platform.
How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
Having a diverse team and developing new capabilities have been key to our success over the years. When I first joined Markerstudy six years ago, the IT team comprised only 12 desktop/infrastructure engineers. This has grown over the years to over 250 IT experts supporting hundreds of systems across a comprehensive array of technologies.
Throughout I’ve tried to maintain small business values, and embrace startup methods to grow new capabilities. Teams have been kept to a small size, and given autonomy and accountability. We have embraced lean ways of working, inspired by material such as the Lean Start-up and the Phoenix Project to increase the velocity of the department and improve collaboration.
Through the implementation of the kanban board, the engineers are instantly connected. Everyone’s work is now visible, so it’s a great way for employees to see what their colleagues are working on. This approach has spawned numerous new capabilities, most notably our own home-grown big data expertise.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
No two days are the same at Markerstudy, and it has been necessary to evolve the IT structure over the years to meet the demands and goals of the group better. Recently, we have moved to a federated IT governance model. Each local IT function has full accountability for application development and functional changes. These teams possess a high degree of business acumen and are well placed to effectively support the varying businesses across the group.
These federated teams are ably backed up by a strong central function, which acts as an internal service provider to the group. The central team is a 24x7 multifunctional department that comprises operations teams, application support, project delivery, enterprise architecture, and IT financial management capabilities. The team also includes a number of highly specialised technical experts focused on emerging technologies such as machine learning and advanced algorithms.
What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
Markerstudy Group is very diverse, and last year we put in place numerous key technologies to underpin our continued growth.
To meet the challenge insurers are facing with rising fraudulent motor claims and to help improve driver behaviour, we’ve created the next generation of connected in-vehicle dash-cams. This initiative brings together world-class digital technologies and combines them with a bespoke internet of things (IoT) hub, which we have built ourselves, so that we can track a vehicle in real-time.
The technologies used include:
- the latest high-definition telematics camera, which we exclusively import from the manufacturer in Korea
- Microsoft Azure cloud infrastructure (PaaS)
- Apache Hadoop big data analytics
- automated machine learning powered by DataRobot
- dynamic NoSQL design
- advanced data compression.
Cybersecurity is also high on our agenda, and last year we were seeking a partner to safeguard against intruders and emerging threats. The group selected Cyberseer’s managed service and Darktrace technology based on their proven ability to detect potentially malicious insiders.
What are your key strategic aims for next year?
I’m expecting 2017 to be another exciting and challenging year. Our key strategic aims break down into three key areas: business value, operational effectiveness and people excellence.
Ensuring our services are transparent and provide value will be critical. We have already enjoyed much success with adopting machine learning and data analytics technologies. In the year ahead it will be of strategic importance to push these capabilities further across other areas of the group.
It goes without saying that it will be vitally important that we continue to provide a stable and secure environment to all of our businesses. Cost optimisation will be a primary focus as we look to reduce the cost of IT ownership while also delivering outstanding service. This will mean careful investment in automation technologies to enable us to work smarter.
Finally, and most importantly, we will continue to invest in our staff and look to be among the best companies to work for. Developing new capabilities will be critical to the ongoing success of the group and help retain and attract the very best technical talent.
How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
As IT leaders we are used to dealing with change and uncertainty, be that technology advances or mergers and acquisitions. Political stability, economic conditions, demographic shifts and regulations are all shaping the future and introducing market volatility. Therefore, I have looked to avoid a short-term overreaction to Brexit and treated it like any other external risk to the organisation.
I have created a small task force to prepare for changes, initially focused on people, applications and suppliers. We have conducted a full assessment of these to assess potential impacts. Cost optimisation remains a priority, as we look to reduce our potential exposure until there is more clarity on the degree of impact Brexit may bring.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Once a month.
How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
Approximately 4,000 across the UK.
What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
Approximately 75% is spent on running the operation, with the remainder focused on growing/transforming the organisation. This has been significantly improved from approximately 95% being allocated to ‘run’ activity back in 2011.
Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:
- CIO peers
- Industry bodies
- Analyst houses
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
No, not currently. However, we do have a dedicated security team within the IT operation who report directly to the group board and business assurance function.
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 or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- machine learning/artificial intelligence.
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- machine learning/artificial intelligence.
What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
Connected in-vehicle video telematics (IoT). This technology is transforming driver behaviour, particularly young drivers who are at the most risk. In addition, automated machine learning technologies.
Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?