The hub of Sean Harley’s considerable achievements in 2016 is the implementation of the Ascential operating platform, designed to let the brand teams market, sell, fulfil and deliver to customers as easily and as consistently as possible. Allied to this has been the cleansing and enriching of  multiple customer databases into a unified, single customer view to provide full visibility of a contact and client’s history and interactions with Ascential.

Job title

How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
Ascential is a global business to business media company offering a focused portfolio of live events and digital information products, most of which are market-leading in their sectors.

As CIO and a member of the Ascential executive team, I play a critical part in decisions made around the digital products we offer to our customers.

First, we need to understand what our customers require from us, then set out to deliver that product or service. As CIO, I and the leaders of the technology team verify any application architecture to ensure platforms can be supported long term and the right decisions are being made for our business and customers. These decisions range from selecting development tools, innovation, versions, etc, through to where the workload should be hosted, supported and managed.

On the executive team, I advise on technology choices, product ideas and initiatives, and provide a rubber stamp for approvals. This includes establishing and leveraging relationships with the internal brand teams, our partners and personal networks to fully support our customer offerings.

Increasingly, our product brands provide both a live and digital element, enabling customers to either access content and connections from an event long after the doors close, or provide industry-wide networking and celebratory occasions. Our product set has to keep ahead of these and other customer requirements.

A few recent product enhancements are:

  • A video content distribution initiative to live-stream some of our flagship events. Three partners have been selected, and my team are driving the setup, testing and leveraging-specific expertise to ensure we are making the right choice on any solution.
  • Event experience to activate delegate intelligence onsite at events. This enables the business to deliver an improvement in onsite experiences for groups such as VIPs, speakers and visitors. The collection of data and meaningful insight helps to inform and drive strategic decisions, with the ability to build enriched profiles and delegate segmentation based on behaviour at the event to maximise the effectiveness of the communication and relationship in the future. This is done by answering specific business questions by event, using data and embedding value-added services that are appropriate, scalable and valued by our customers.
  • Over the past 12 months, more emphasis than ever has been put on understanding the needs of delegates at our events, responding to those needs and ensuring they maximise their attendance. Ascential is particularly advanced in this area for both onsite enhanced experiences and data collection and insight. We have successfully trialled an end-to-end digital proposition that encompasses before, during and post event activities, such as airport welcome, personal concierge, speaker management and post-show infographic detailing sessions, where the collection and analysis of onsite data has been refined. In 2017 we will release the value of that data and insight for other individual events and the business as a whole.
  • To enable higher productivity, I and my team have worked closely with our digital product team to create a new platform for managing payments across our global business. This has step-changed the way we process payments and now saves a significant amount of time in the finance processes.
  • We have deployed live agent technology, which simplifies engagement and enhances the customer experience.

Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
To ensure the business has the right tools for the right job, support and data, technology has provided the following:

  • A Hyperion upgrade, moving away from Essbase in Excel and using the right tools to simplify financial data planning.
  • A new ITSM solution provides a global service which drives users to a more self-help platform on any mobile platform. This has delivered an uplift in helpdesk performance and service to our end-user community.
  • An Ascential operating platform (AOP) has been implemented. Essentially it is a set of capabilities underpinned by technology and systems, supported by a new organisational model to ensure success. Simply, the objective of AOP is to enable the brand teams to market, sell, fulfil and deliver our world-class products to our customer base as easily and as consistently as possible.
  • This, in turn, has required an entire review of business systems and applications, some very legacy, and streamlining them to ensure they are supported and fit for purpose. For context, there were over 150 applications, some still with the correct level of support, and some being retired. The businesses now use leading technologies such as Salesforce, FinancialForce, Marketo, Tableau, etc.
  • We have implemented a new sponsorship capability for enhanced sales, offer and contract management, using Salesforce, but keeping it simple and as configurable as possible. This included: setting up the products in such a way to help the team understand the inventory available for key sponsorship items; building in criteria-based rules to ensure that controls are in place around the volume of delegate passes included as part of a package, in line with the commercial policy; approval workflows to enforce appropriate management approvals on any variances in terms, discount levels and the overarching product bundle. Finally, it included the deployment of EchoSign to enable a seamless e-signature process. This resulted in higher sponsorship sales, a better customer experience, and a much more streamlined, simple and more efficient brand operation for sponsorship sales.
  • Good data enables us all to make better decisions and work in a smarter way. One deliverable this year was to establish a better data environment for our brands. My team cleansed and enriched multiple customer databases into a unified, single customer view that provided the business with full visibility of a contact and client’s history and interactions with us. We are also ensuring that the data is continually cleansed and augmented with key segmentation profiles to drive targeted marketing activities.

As a result, the business can now view – either within Salesforce or via dashboard access to a data warehouse – the various relationships and roles that individual contacts have had (such as delegate, speaker, juror, VIP or credited individual on an award), together with: their transactional profile and the history of their job roles across companies; the interactions/transactions at company level; and the relationships between companies within the complex company hierarchy structures of the agencies/networks/holding companies.

After our IPO in February 2016, we focused even more heavily on information security. I personally report to our Plc audit committee and CEO/CFO on our cybersecurity status.

This has required the implementation/review of new/existing processes such as checking of our monitoring and logs for anomalies that could indicate compromise or potential threats, culminating in a new threat and vulnerability assessment which is reported to our executive team on a weekly basis. An example set of key deliverable in this space are: to reduce the risk of people choosing simple passwords, we worked with the technical team to implement a single sign-on solution, Okta; our new internal auditing processes also highlighted a number of unmanaged devices on corporate networks, which led to the selection and implementation of identity-aware access controls, Cisco ISE; a security awareness roadshow addressed our general user security awareness – a new and home-grown approach to engaging face to face with our employees across the group that has been successful and is set to continue and evolve to make increased use of our internal creative and marketing resources; the groundwork for this new initiative was completed last year with the creation of our security content, shared with the business in monthly communications within our group.

What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?

Product innovation. Technology is at the heart of our product innovation.

  • We have an ambitious customer experience (CX) project within one of our cornerstone brands to build on the position of the robust and full-featured systems we have today. The technology teams are reviewing and extending the capabilities with the known scale and scope of what the brands need while incorporating all the iterative lessons learnt over the past 10 years.
  • We are delivering world-class customer and user experiences with marketing and data insights while supporting efficient employee processes. The overall programme is a clean and clever set of cogs to deliver now and adapt to future needs at pace.
  • The introduction of Ascential Service Anywhere has transformed the way that staff in the business interact with technology through a service which has user experience at its heart, much like the products our staff and customers use daily. This has been delivered through: a simplified request logging process, with routing rules to ensure requests reach the relevant team as quickly as possible; intuitive search, including self-help knowledge articles to empower staff; transparency around the progress of existing requests, with the introduction of validation to ensure staff requests have been fulfilled to their satisfaction along with customer surveys; a truly adaptive design, ensuring the same user experience and functionality regardless of device along with an Android mobile app.
  • Event experience (as explained earlier) sets out to activate delegate intelligence onsite at events and deliver improved onsite experiences for groups such as VIPs, speakers and visitors. The collection of data and meaningful insight helps inform and drive strategic decisions going forward with the ability to build enriched profiles and delegate segmentation based on behaviour at the event to maximise the effectiveness of the communication and relationship in the future.
  • We have worked closely with our digital product team to create a new platform for managing payments in a global business. While digital payments have been led by the digital products team, it has really created a major difference to the way we process payments and saved a significant amount of time in the finance processes, enabling higher productivity.
  • Reviewing and working with product owners on a range of AI and recognition software to assist in the development of revolutionary products specifically around our information services brands.

Business model. This year we have centralised our business systems functions under my organisation. This has allowed us to define a strategy across the group and hire a team of experts to deliver business systems architectures into our events and information services brands, alongside developing and collaborating more with strategic partners in this space. This will also allow us to build out the Ascential operating platform mentioned previously by having a focused set of people delivering alongside our business brands.

Technology innovation. Making our sites highly available was a requirement for Ascential, and a definitive action that needed to happen as part of our IPO process. We were able to quickly find a solution that enabled us to do this at a software-defined level as opposed to the ‘plumbing level’.

The benefits of the project were:

  • The company met its requirement as a plc.
  • In the event of an incident with only one business platform, it can be failed over individually without impacting other business platforms.
  • Each business platform can be failed over individually within an hour, with the vast majority in 30 minutes or less. That minimises lost revenue for our transactional sites and avoids reputational damage for our other services;
  • By combining this with our backup strategy, we are able to minimise the loss of data during an incident. This has taken Ascential into the future in terms of enabling the content the business delivers to be accessible all the time, and provides an improved layer of redundancy.

How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
Across the team we are located in four main hubs: UK, New York, Hong Kong and Dubai. I have 78 people located globally across these offices, covering service, technology support, technology architecture and design, business systems and information security.

Managing the business systems and architecture of applications meant change for my department, not only in terms of headcount, but also of alignment of vision and strategy. To accomplish this, I delivered a programme of work in conjunction with HR and leaders from my team to change and improve the culture of my group a s it was important to ensure understanding of what was going on and get buy-in. The outcomes of this programme were:

  • quarterly all-hands video calls – bringing together my global team to discuss our progress, challenges and successes
  • open dialogue culture, which has led to effective problem solving
  • creation of specific values and behaviours that tie into objectives
  • regular social programmes and assigning a social secretary
  • annual half-day session at our company conference for my global team to ensure we are aligned with the brands we support.

Our recruitment process is as much about assessing the candidate’s cultural fit as their technical ability. By continuously referencing the behaviours framework, we re-iterate the level at which we expect people to perform. Making behaviours front-of-mind means people think about how they interact with others. We’re client-facing (albeit internal clients for most), which also brings this to the fore. Our reputation is built on our deliverables and interactions.

Our approach, which is purposefully positive and collaborative is infectious when dealing with the brands that we support. It’s very difficult for your opposite number to do anything but raise their game!

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?
I work closely with our group CEO who has a deep technical knowledge and regularly sits on meetings with each business and my team to review our platforms and encourage creativeness. This transcends our whole organisation as it comes from the very top.

Internally, large numbers of our users are under 30 years old and therefore used to self-solving issues, so our new ITSM system aids them in finding answers to IT problems with published knowledge articles.

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?
All of our work and delivery is always aligned with our current partners, and also new SMEs and startups. I keep a small but effective ecosystem of partners that we work with while also ensuring we don’t miss out on other capabilities by keeping watch on the market.

This year, we have again worked with many vendors from large IT partners such as Salesforce, IBM, EMC, Marketo, Microsoft, HP, AWS and Sitecore. But also with SME partners such as FinancialForce, Cloudsense, Transactt, Modern Networks, Spencer Technologies, and startups such as Zerto – apologies if I’ve missed anyone!

Salesforce is a great example where my desire to build stronger relationships with Miguel Milano and his EMEA leadership led to a meeting with our group CEO, myself and the heads of my business architecture teams to understand how we can develop more strategic ideas and relationships around the Salesforce platform and ecosystem.

How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
As a global business, we value diversity across all our teams and have top-notch tech talent available to us on a world-wide basis. The challenge comes in finding people who share our goals and values. We are an ambitious, fast-paced media organisation, which might not suit everyone. I have advised my team when recruiting to constantly balance the immediate need to get someone in with the longer-term need to get the right person in. That’s not related to skill, but culture, attitude and fit. Pick the wrong person and you jeopardise that.

Above all else, I firmly believe that you have to keep hold of great talent once you’ve found it. It is important to figure out what makes a new hire tick. Often their real talents come to light when they’re exposed to a new challenge that really excites them.

If we’ve hired well, then the best talent pool is the one we already have. We develop people, encourage them to speak up when they crave a challenge or development, and constantly talk to them about team progress, aims and ambitions. In my experience, nine times out of 10, the bright spark you need is right in front of you – we have many, many examples this year around growing our own people and their contribution is being recognised at internal and external awards.

At our company conference this year we had the team that delivered our high availability project recognised and rewarded in front of the whole company, and one of my leaders gained a special CEO recognition award.

I, one of my management team and one of our engineers were also shortlisted this year in the final 10 in our respective categories at the BCS UK IT Awards. I was personally very proud of this as my nomination came from my team, not myself.

We care what people bring to our business, not where they come from, and hire the best person for the job, no matter the race, creed or gender. This has ensured we have a diverse team. This is a company policy and I constantly encourage my leadership group to distil this message down to every hiring manager and beyond.

Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
I focus on all the brands we service. I align my teams to support our brands that create the revenue for the business. It is our job to enable the business and brands to deliver, and they are dependent on us to do so. We align with the business leaders and product teams to make sure what we do is for them and not for us.

What are your key strategic aims for next year?

  • Simplification, innovation and culture.
  • Following the success of the business systems team and bringing that under my division in 2016, we will continue to build out our expert capabilities around: data and analytics; development capability; and our internal capability around QA/test for business systems.
  • Our datacentre strategy is something we will be reviewing. This doesn’t necessarily mean the cloud. I will be looking at what our brands want to do, and ensuring their workloads are in the best place to enable them to do what they do best – provide best-in-class products to their customers.
  • We will deliver a new set of values and behaviours on how we will operate within our team and also partner brands we support this coming year and beyond. After our company conference in the second week of January, we have a clear direction to work towards, and I want our V&Bs to reflect this as a team. We have formed a team from across all functional areas of my group to lead this, to ensure that everyone has a say and can bring their team’s input into the discussions.
  • Information security continues to be a priority for me, my team and the group. This year will see us continue to focus and build on the awareness, technology and processes that we have been successful in during 2016.

How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
We are a global business operating in a spread of currencies, focused on supporting our customers, delivering events and digital products to help them do their jobs better (make smarter commercial decisions). They succeed, customers buy more from us and our business grows. My role is to ensure that my team supports the business and customers to deliver this.


When did you start your current role?
Progressed from IT director to CIO in February 2016.

What is your reporting line?
Direct to CEO

Are you a member of the executive leadership?

Are you a member of the board of directors?

What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
CDO – another Sean, so we are like Sean squared. We need to work closely on digital product development and technology, service, business systems and security to make them enterprise.

How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
Weekly meeting with CEO, bi-weekly with the CFO, bi-weekly with CDO, COO and CEO, monthly with CEO, CFO and COO and brand executive teams.

How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
Circa 1,700.


What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
Circa 1.5 % of company 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)?
We will spend circa 1.5% of company’s revenue on operational support, this year. In addition, we invest in our business at a higher rate than our peers, and technology will be a significant portion of these investment programmes to improve our business offering and provide new digital services and events to our customers.


Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:

  1. CIO peers
  2. Industry bodies
  3. Analyst houses
  4. Media
  5. Consultants


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?
Yes. Information security is a responsibility that comes under my organisation’s remit. It is led by an IS manager and sponsored by the group CEO. I report on our cybersecurity position weekly and to the Plc audit committee.


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?
Circa 78, increasing to 102 this year.

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?

  • cloud
  • CRM
  • IoT
  • security
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • devices (desktop).

Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?

  • cloud
  • data analytics/business intelligence
  • CRM
  • IoT
  • security
  • AR/VR
  • machine learning/artificial intelligence
  • social
  • devices (desktop).

What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
All of the above. We need to keep at the forefront of emerging and disruptive technology to understand how it can add value to our brands.


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?