Managing a global IT department requires a global mindset, an understanding of different cultures, and an ability to fit the right approach to the needs of the organisation, CIOs at Computer Weekly's 500 Club heard in February.
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Detailing the challenges he has faced as CIO of fast-growing market research specialist Ipsos, Ben Booth discussed how he manages IT at an organisation which has a global remit, and where 30% of the organisation's revenues now come from emerging markets.
Ipsos, the world's fifth-ranked market research business, is best known in the UK for its acquisition of MORI five years ago. The organisation announced 2010 results in February which showed revenues up 20% and profits up nearly 26%. It has a target to double in size by 2019, and to increase its operating margin from around 10% to 15% in the same time frame.
Booth's five year tenure as CIO has coincided with significant growth in Ipsos, both organically and through acquisition. When he joined, Ipsos had businesses in 44 countries. Now it's 65, shortly to be 66, with several hundred locations around the world, 10,000 permanent staff and a further 20,000 temporary staff who are mostly market research interviewers.
If the growth of the company wasn't a big enough global IT challenge to manage, Booth also has to deal with the increased complexity caused by the different scale of businesses in each country.
"Our North American business has 2,200 staff. In contrast, Nigeria or Morocco have less than 10 people in their offices, and that's quite a variety of scale. We have seen rapid growth in some markets, for example, Korea, where business trebled in size last year. At the same time, Western Europe and North America are relatively solid. The ongoing acquisition programme itself offers challenges of integration because in the last five years as a business we've moved from a relatively standalone business to a much more globalised model," says Booth.
IT at the heart of the business
Ipsos has five key lines of business: advertising, marketing, public affairs, loyalty and media - and IT is very much at the heart of it.
"IT in our business has several different strands. The first is the normal thing for a multinational business: finance, HR systems and desktop systems. Knowledge management too is quite important. And then behind that, we have operations, which in market research terms is 'the factory'. That is all about the data collection, the analysis of the data and then sending it back to clients. And then there are the support functions which are all arranged globally. My brief when I took over the global infrastructure job five years ago was to run it globally because our business had moved that way."
Booth's IT team has had to match its use of technology to dramatic changes in radio listening and TV viewing patterns. Now, instead of viewing or listening habits being tracked by a diary, a separate device can measure what people are watching by looking out for an encoded signal. Alternatively, a program can be downloaded onto people's mobile phones to tell Ipsos what they are listening to. Social media plays a key role too.
"The traditional way of getting our respondents don't work so well now. For example, the younger generation doesn't do e-mail. And the older generation doesn't do unsolicited e-mail or answer the phone if they don't know who it is. In the US, there are almost no face-to-face interviews now. Acquiring respondents is a big and on-going challenge for us. The use of the telephone for interviews is also declining and online is taking over. We also have to support 'the factory' for data collection, do the number crunching and then get the data back to our clients."
"Data delivery is becoming a big thing. Sometimes we're sending the raw data into our clients' systems. Sometimes we're providing interactive tools for looking at their data. Sometimes we're providing an extranet where they can view all the data we've collected for them. In all those areas, cost effectiveness is a key driver and we use technology to give us an edge against our competitors."
Ipsos spends around 5% of its revenues on IT, supporting the business with 12,000 PCs, 4,000 telephone stations, and 4,000 tablet PCs for face-to-face data collection, as well as a growing number of handheld devices for data collection. It has around 10,000 servers around the world: 700 physical servers and a lot more vertical servers sitting on top of them.
Booth's challenge has been to map IT to the business, moving from a collection of standalone countries doing their own thing to a global model that matches Ipsos's global business model.
"Fortunately I have had a very clear steer from top management that IT would be done globally as the business was going through a global transformation. What we then had to do was find the best way of doing it. There has been a lot written about how to do IT globally and there are various approaches. One way is to outsource a lot of it, or even all of it; then there is also a federal model where people do their own thing but you have some central control; and finally there is a centralised model where you lock everything down, and it's all done from headquarters."
Booth's problem was that none of those models fitted Ipsos very well.
"We don't readily spend any money outside our business at all so we weren't very keen on outsourcing on principle. It looked expensive and most of the things we've market tested are usually more expensive outsourced. We also found that the scale of our operation wasn't attractive to the outsourcers. They were very keen on North America and Western Europe but on the other hand when it came to the smaller businesses in far-flung places, they didn't deliver an economic rate at all. The federal model was not going to give us what we wanted, because we'd been a federal business and we were moving to a much more centrally-managed global business. And because we try and operate globally, and we have value in all of our businesses, we didn't think creating a bureaucratically centralised business was the way to do it."
So Booth decided Ipsos had to work out what to do itself, doing most things in-house to be more cost effective. Although it has outsourced its core network, it still manages the periphery of the network because, says Booth, "we haven't found anyone who can do a global job at a good price, and all of the so-called global players we found don't perform globally."
To support its clients, Ipsos needs to maintain a 7x24x365 service model, so Booth has made the most of the organisation's global spread to provide that support.
"Our clients expect that round-the-clock support, so our systems have to work all the time. Our approach to that is to use a follow-the-sun model where our technology teams around the world cover for each other. We have global management and global technology teams, and we have global standards of control. Our servers, network, security and project management all run to global standard, with local delivery for our helpdesks. Sometimes we have to battle with local management who want to control everything but we've managed to provide the responsiveness, through a process of evolution rather than revolution."
Under Booth's watch Ipsos has made savings by putting IT teams together in North America. It followed a similar plan In Western Europe, getting five or six teams to work together and for Greater China, and it put China, Hong Kong and Taiwan together in one group.
The next stage for Booth was to move to better global co-ordination. Ipsos's helpdesks are co-ordinated globally, it has global security teams and it also has a global team that looks after delivery to its clients. The organisation currently has a number of software development groups around the world - 24 teams at the last count - which Booth admits will need to be rationalised.
A critical area of Booth's role is understanding local cultures and matching management styles to them.
"The richness of my job is in the different cultures and I've learned a lot about the clarity of communication. For example, there are some cultures that won't disagree openly with you. I've also found that it's very English to say that 'it would be a good idea to go and do something'. But my North American colleagues will say, 'You said it was a good idea and then I thought of a better one so I've gone and done that.' They also think when someone says 'Yes, they're going to do it', then that is what they mean. But sometimes that's not the case."
Questions for Booth from a group of around 50 CIOs within the CW500 Club covered a range of subjects, including budgets, managing language and cultural barriers, creating and delivering innovation, adopting a Cloud-based approach, and demand management.
The Computer Weekly 500 Club
The Computer Weekly 500 Club is an exclusive IT leadership networking group that brings together the UK's top IT decision-makers. Members of the club have access to an extensive range of benefits, including monthly face-to-face networking events with high-level speakers discussing matters relevant to an IT management audience, as well as the opportunity to meet peers to share experiences and expand their personal network, enhance their knowledge and further develop their careers.