CIO profile: Alan Cook

If you're ever building a wall and want to know how many bricks you will need, Alan Cook is your man. He started life as a civil and structural engineer and might still have been one if, in the mid 1980s, he hadn't found himself working for Leeds City Council.

For those with short memories, those were the days when Margaret Thatcher had embarked on a mission to shake up local government. She decided council workforces should compete with the private sector for key tasks such as sweeping the streets or maintaining buildings through a process known as compulsory competitive tendering.

Leeds had set up its own quasi company called CMS Construction and Maintenance Services. It had to bid for council building contracts against private sector rivals. It was Cook's job to handle the estimating, a task which traditionally involved well-chewed pencils and lots of paper.

Cook, however, had a state-of-the-art computer to help him with the task. It was an Apricot Zen 1, which boasted a 640k memory and stored anything beyond that on five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks. "It was basically just a complicated calculator," he recalls. By today's standards, it was "pretty rudimentary," he agrees.

However, the databases he developed on it were better than many of those of his private sector rivals. Not all competitors had got round to investigating the business-transforming potential of the recently born PC. Even the Apricot meant Cook could process more information, make more calculations and explore more options than rivals with chewed pencils.

"We were using information to find ways to make jobs cheaper," he says. "For example, we were able to work out that it would be cheaper to buy ready-mixed cement than get the workers to mix it on site themselves."

For a civil engineer who'd only just found his way into computing, this was an important lesson in the potential of IT. And it has coloured the way he has developed his career.

"If you look at my CV, you can see that it's always been business-biased," he says. "I have never got really excited about the technologies themselves. I look at new technologies all the time, but I am always looking at them from the viewpoint of how they can assist me in the work I've set out to do - or, these days particularly, how they can be used for innovations that will help the organisation develop."

Today, Cook still works in local government. He now has the grand title of head of services, business improvement and IT at Cumbria County Council, which covers the Lake District and the countryside running up to the Scottish border.

Cook's title suggests it is still imperative for local government to change itself but, unlike in the days of the Apricot, IT has a central role to play in helping to improve services. The career path which brought Cook to one of the most beautiful parts of the country has plenty of lessons about how someone from practically any profession can make it in IT and use that experience to get to the top.

A key theme that runs through Cook's career is the ability to innovate. These days, the word "innovation" is often bandied about as a piece of management jargon, but it boils down to finding ways to give an organisation an advantage over its rivals. Using IT is an unrivalled way to achieve this but the ability to think creatively is the key to doing it and this is where Cook has scored.

There is an important lesson for IT people - the ones who are able to innovate successfully get noticed.

Cook's work with CMS at Leeds City Council got him noticed. He was given the opportunity to take part in a one-year programme run by the Industrial Society to "fast-track future leaders".

In Cook's case, the programme helped him fast-track out of local government into management consultancy. "The programme made me realise I wanted to experience the wider world of business," he says. But it didn't mean leaving the world of local government completely. First as a contractor and then as a staffer, he provided consultancy services to councils through a company called Aramis Computing. It was the beginning of 12 years in consultancy which saw Cook move into ever more senior posts as he spent periods with some of the big names of 1990s IT consultancy, such as ROCC Computers, Admiral Computing and CMG.

During this period, Cook built his reputation as a successful innovator on a string of projects in different industries. For example, there was a project to make it easier for passengers using Manchester Airport to shop at the terminal's stores.

"A lot of the passengers were business people coming in on the morning flight and going out in the evening," explains Cook. "We thought it would be a good idea to provide them with a value-added service - a text message to their mobile phone which would let them know if their outgoing plane was going to leave late."

Today, that might seem a commonplace application. In the early days of mobiles, it was innovative.

Cook also worked on an early Bluetooth application which used text messages to passengers entering the airport to alert them to any special offers in stores. "We were encouraging them to spend money while they were waiting for their planes," he says.

Cook is the first to admit that a key part of the success he has achieved is down to the teams he has recruited. The ability to build and manage a team is a key skill for the IT professional who has eyes on the executive suite. "The biggest challenge in building a team is making sure you all have the same vision," says Cook.

Another factor which helps is the ability to develop relationships with people, especially those the IT is to serve. "Building relationships is about creating trust," argues Cook. "You have to be credible and you need to place an emphasis on what your customer or user is trying to achieve."

Cook admits it is a tough job building trust among users, but there can be an enormous pay-off when it happens. "If your customer trusts you then, in the long run, the relationship will be more useful for both of you.

"You start to find that they will touch base with you about all sorts of things and you pick up a lot of knowledge that you can use elsewhere."

After 12 years in consultancy, Cook moved back into local government. One of the reasons was to improve his lifestyle. He'd been travelling an exhausting 80,000 miles a year as a management consultant. The opportunity to spend more time at his home in the remote Pennine village of Croglin was attractive.

So was the challenge offered by Cumbria County Council. Change was in the air again for local government - and Cook could see councils needed to add value to compete for central government funds. Since he joined, he has played a leading role in a number of innovative projects.

But not everyone likes change, which is why Cook believes the ability to communicate is a vital IT skill. "Speaking to people in their language, rather than IT's, is the key in all this - and being honest about what you can achieve," he says.

 

CV Alan Cook 
 1980: Joined West Yorkshire County Council (with degree in civil and structural engineering) as a graduate trainee. Moved on to become design engineer.
 1986: Became principal estimator with Leeds City Council's direct works organisation.
 1990: Moved out of local government, initially doing contract IT work for consultancy Aramis Computing.
 1991: Joined Aramis as a business consultant and computer trainer.
 1994: Moved to ROCC Computers in Manchester and became business director of the consultancy's local authority practice.
 1999: Promoted within the world of IT consultancy as business manager at Surrey-based Admiral Computing.
2001: Returned to Manchester as programme director at CMG.
2002: Lured back to local government, first as programme manager for Cumbria County Council, now as head of service, business improvement and IT.

 

Alan Cook's role 
 Alan Cook heads a department at Cumbria County Council where his driving principle is to "work with the business to effect change, rather than doing it to them". Reporting to him, Cook has a deputy head of IT (DHIT) and a deputy head of business improvement (DHBI).
 The DHIT manages IT issues and a project office with six programme managers. He also has day-to-day responsibility for account managers who liaise with service departments. Cook explains: "We started out with one account manager for each council directorate, but have matched the service more to demand. Now we have account managers that operate across more than one directorate and the DHIT balances the resource requirement."
 The DHBI provides quality assurance and project support to business improvement teams based in the individual council directorates. "The DHBI draws resource from the project office in discussion with the DHIT," Cook says.
 Cook also has an administrative team which, among other tasks, manages his diary and oversees financial performance reporting.


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This was first published in November 2008

 

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