“There’s a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, because thanks to a lot of work and planning, everything went well,” says Nourse. “There are some things I would have done differently in retrospect, but I think we got the fundamentals right. I’m certainly not sitting here saying if only I’d done this, or if only I’d used that technology.”
With his contract terminating at the end of May 2006, he plans to take a break before embarking on his next challenge and while he does not know what that might be at this stage, his experience with the Commonwealth Games has served to strengthen his skills in a high-profile niche. “I enjoy the sporting arena, but there are lots of other types of events around the world, which command a similar level of expertise,” says Nourse. “I could turn around and take on a corporate role, but I enjoy the sporting event management specialisation. It requires some very specific skills which are hard to come by so I’ve got a good chance of staying in this space.” There is nothing in business which quite compares to staging an international sporting event. Broadly speaking it is a bit like a project that takes three or four years, billions of dollars, hundreds if not thousands of athletes, paid staff and volunteers and a live audience in the billions.
The Olympic Games are at the top of the ladder with 10,000 athletes, 57,000 volunteers and an estimated television audience of 3.8 billion. Not far behind comes the FIFA World Cup with just 736 players, 15,000 volunteers, but an estimated television audience of 3.5bn. By comparison the Commonwealth Games, with its AU$1.1bn (£443 million) budget, 6,000 athletes, 800 paid staff, and 15,000 volunteers seems small fry.
However, it certainly does not feel like that when your every slip up is beamed live to a global audience of 1.5bn people.
For exactly this reason Nourse was not going to take any chances. “We kept things as simple as we possibly could,” he says. “A lot of the games infrastructure and management comes from suppliers who’ve been able to provide the software for previous games. We weren’t using any leading edge technologies and we weren’t using things that were unproven.”
This led to an infrastructure based entirely on 100 servers, about 30 kilometers of cables and about 2,000 desktop computers. Although wireless internet access was provided to spectators and athletes in the athletes’ village and in a few other venues, it was essentially an extra gimmick and ruled too unreliable for critical environments. “Wireless technologies would be worth looking at for future events because it is maturing and offers a lot more flexibility but when we began looking at the infrastructure for these games, it just wasn’t mature enough,” Nourse says. “It will be great when it’s reliable enough to work in critical environments, because it will introduce a lot more flexibility to event management.”
In the meantime however, Nourse relied on 2,700 mobile phones and 3,500 two-way radios to provide mobile communication within and between venues. Nourse’s caution comes from 14 years experience working on events such as the Melbourne and Adelaide Grand Prix, and he knows that three years worth of work is judged in an 11-day window. As a result vendors become close working partners, and risk mitigation is all about testing, rather than contractual arrangements or litigation.
“Everything went through an extensive testing process before it went live,” says Nourse.
“There was a facility to test software and interoperability set up near the games headquarters, and we also ran a series of simulations to parallel the actual games operations.” Given the profile of the games, security was also a concern and Nourse was forced to dedicate substantial time and energy to crisis management scenarios in the case of sabotage or terrorist aggression.
“Although it wasn’t used, it was important to have worked through those systems,” Nourse says. “We needed to know we’d know what to do in a crisis.”
However, the greatest challenge associated with information systems management for sporting events is creating systems that have few costs and are rapidly scaleable. In this case, every piece of technology was leased for the duration of the games and then duly packed up and sent back to the lessors.
“One of the differences between sport and the corporate environment is that we have a very fixed budget and a very fixed goal, then we just match whatever technology is needed within that budget,” Nourse says.
“We have a fixed timeframe so we don’t need to worry so much about return on investment.”
Although the profile of the games provided an added challenge in terms of security, Nourse worked this in his favour.
He managed to secure significant vendor participation, cutting back on his own personnel costs and management issues.
Structurally Nourse divided his task into seven different, but slightly overlapping areas: office technology support; games management systems; information services; results; communications; network services and venue technology. “We used the experienced management teams of the IT providers to get the systems and infrastructure that we required,” says Nourse.
“Most of the technology partners had been involved in big events before and they knew what they were doing, so we worked with them where possible, rather than simply buying the technology and trying to figure it out ourselves.”
This left Omega taking a significant role in the recording and delivery of results; Microsoft managing the website; and local telco Telstra ensuring the communications programme and networked services were up to scratch.
Nourse was also keen to contract smaller local IT outfits as well, providing them with the experience and the profile of an international sporting event.
They were forced to comply with strict selection criteria which stipulated technology partners would be able to provide a world class offering.
“Where possible we used Victorian suppliers and technology partners,” says Nourse, “but they had to prove they could do the job, or they simply would not make the cut.”
The heavy vendor participation left Nourse overseeing a crew of 90 paid staff, 550 volunteers and 1,100 vendor contractors, the vast majority of which only turned up in February 2006 or for the 11 days the games were actually taking place.
Nourse was forced to become a short-term HR management specialist, measuring his success by whether or not his tech team were actually communicating with each other. “Team building is always a challenge for CIOs but, few teams grow so large so fast,” Nourse says. “We had to lay the groundwork to make sure people had the right background and commitment to work together in the way we wanted successfully.”
To achieve this balance, Nourse worked closely with recruitment specialists Hudson’s Resources to build a skill set from around the world. While experience in previous sporting events was desirable, Nourse was more interested in a blend of experience and technical skills. “I needed to know that people were up to the challenge and able to work with different technologies,” Nourse says.
“You can generally measure the success of team building by whether or not people are talking to each other when it’s all over. In our case the farewell was lively and happy, so I think we did well.”