CIO interview: David Cooper, chief information officer, British Gas

British Gas CIO David Cooper's multimillion-pound IT transformation is one of the highest-profile jobs in UK IT

British Gas chief information officer (CIO) David Cooper likes to keep things low-key. But the scale of his multimillion-pound technology transformation, and the impact his team's work has on customer spending, makes his one of the highest-profile jobs in UK IT.

Since joining British Gas 18 months ago, Cooper's key areas of focus have been delivering the IT systems that enable the company to become more efficient internally, while serving customers in an equally agile manner. That covers issues to do with simplifying the IT architecture or changing the way IT runs and interacts with the other business functions to minimise operating costs.

There are 26 IT workstreams underway at present, which were kicked off about 15 months ago. During that time, contracts with key suppliers ended or renegotiated and a new approach to third-party work has been introduced.

"We have been changing the way we work with partners and upscaling our own people to deal with fixed price and fixed outcome contracts. We get competition for the divided pieces of work and have been getting huge benefits out of doing things this way," Cooper tells Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.

"Interestingly, this also makes British Gas a better place to work for people, as the streamlining makes the team more empowered. They have more authority and responsibility as there are fewer people involved in each item, so it has been a very enjoyable journey so far," he says.

Customer focus

One of Cooper's biggest projects is the roll-out of an SAP customer relationship management (CRM) system. The platform, which replaces a myriad of systems, including Siebel databases and bespoke or highly-modified software, is intended to simplify the processes for callcentre agents in handling the queries of millions of UK customers.

CRM has had a chequered history at British Gas – the company has worked hard to repair a damaged reputation since deteriorating customer service standards caused the defection of approximately a million customers in 2006. Between 2008 and 2010 the firm moved from having the least satisfied customers to having the most favourable ratings, according to a Morgan Stanley survey.

Cooper's predecessor, David Bickerton, described in 2010 the impact the billing problems had on consumer confidence, saying he had "never seen anything so severe" in his entire career.

Things have changed since then and the current CRM project will improve processes even further.

"What may be a 20- to 30-screen process at present will be reduced to a couple of screens. The process of moving home and changing suppliers is very complicated, there are many complexities that make up the UK system - it is not a British Gas process - but you have to deal with all that," says Cooper.

"The new system tackles some of these very complicated problems as agent knowledge has been captured to simplify that process. We captured all that in order to speed up the average transaction within the callcentre and minimise errors."

The system is being rolled out across what the company defines as "customer journeys" such as debt, home moves and prepayment. The last phase of the roll-out will be complete in a few months' time and it also means that, differently to the previous set-up, all British Gas services will be consolidated onto one system, providing a single view of the customer.

Even though the roll-out of smart metering by 2019 is still a long way off, Cooper says there are many projects that have been delivered towards customer self-service and many more are underway. The company already offers iPhone apps that allow customers to book engineers for maintenance jobs and another that allows remote boiler temperature control.

"I know it sounds perverse because we make more money if people buy more energy, but do you know what? Customers want to be able to be in control and by giving them tools that enable them to buy less, they are more likely to stick with us," says Cooper.

Datacentre migration

Another significant piece of work for Cooper's team is the datacentre migration to HP and Fujitsu from the previous incumbent, T-Systems. All of the company's UK–based servers were based at T-Systems datacentres and now all the back-end systems are going to HP, while user applications are going to Fujitsu, and that process is mostly complete.

The major systems, including SAP CRM and billing, moved to HP about a month ago.

"The migration was incredibly successful – if it had been a failure, you would have heard about it in the 10 O’Clock News, because we wouldn’t be able to operate," says Cooper.

"The HP side was more on the biggest and most-complex systems to start with, so that would flush out any issues. We did the massive SAP systems first and now we have a lot of smaller systems to do. While we move them, we are also taking the opportunity to rationalise them to drive efficiencies," Cooper adds.

The final stage of the HP migration, given the decommissioning component, is expected to take over a year to complete.

People development

Cooper's remit includes British Gas IT and also parent company Centrica's operations such as datacentres, networks and telephony, all of which are shared with British Gas. In development alone, the company employs 700 people, with several hundred working on the infrastructure side. That is supplemented by contractors providing expertise for specific projects and legacy maintenance.

"As a consequence of that datacentre migration, some systems will be eventually be closed down, so I want people more focused in the future. It is all about steering people's focus on new things," he says.

A core component of Cooper's strategy in his time at British Gas so far has been the implementation of a new operating model, which places a lot more importance on the way IT engages with the business and in interpreting business issues, as well as finding pragmatic solutions for those problems.

"The IT people are now much more involved with the business decisions at the front-end, whereas before they were more like recipients of requirements. We have done that across the lifecycle and were able to get massive benefits and find a better fit to internal customers' problems which gets them to the live operations cheaper and faster," he says.

"We also assessed and mapped roles so people could understand what career paths they could follow. There was definitely a gap in that sense. Although a lot of it is down to individuals, we put a framework in place and it was an easy thing to do; everyone was in favour and now people are much clearer about their roles.

“These things have a knock-on effect regarding results and everything else," adds Cooper. "People can see a future and you can get much more engagement – they are prepared to go the extra mile for you."

Cooper adds that the new operating model also helps in terms of management of IT suppliers.

"We are ensuring that British Gas people are in the steering roles while the back-end is more outcome-based. That will be key to the future, the executive management sees IT as a key enabler and also we are past the days of outsourcing, they have learned some lessons about being in charge and the need to steer the internal capability to drive strategy," Cooper says.

"Not all the skills will be in-house – you can get people to do that externally – but the idea is to do a lot more inside."

To illustrate his point, Cooper mentions that, in September 2011, British Gas took on 30 IT apprentices of all ages from local communities and will be taking more people on this year.

"We wouldn’t be doing that if a lot more outsourcing was on the cards, he says. "We have a steady flow of apprentices and are training them up to be great IT people. Definitely, one thing we have to do is make the decisions, be it in terms of architecture, contracts, anything: we have to be in charge."

Driving change

Despite coming from a telecoms background, Cooper says that a lot of the IT issues faced at British Gas are similar to his previous roles –  comparing smart meters to "static telephones" to explain the technology requirements behind the operation. The skills acquired in previous roles include the ability to bring in a fresh approach to change, as well as an entrepreneurial spirit to the IT organisation, he says.

However, his predecessor David Bickerton was also keen to introduce change at British Gas according to his own ideas and strategy. Often, CIOs tend to come in and start again with new ways of working and make their mark every time they start on a new job.

Given what Cooper has done so far in terms of leadership decisions, will the changes confuse people?

"We are building on some of the pieces, like the SAP CRM roll-out - those were strategic decisions made a while ago, we made those work," he says. "The fact that British Gas was split into different businesses a while ago and the fact that we are now joining all of them up is also important. Plus people have said that now they can see that we are joined up, whereas before they felt they were tacking only part of the problem," Cooper adds.

"Now we are much more integrated and that really makes a difference. It is okay to change a bit: we now have a better place to work, people understand the problems of the business, how they contribute to solve it and feel they are adding more to this. It becomes a win for everybody."

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How can David Cooper claim to be making teams more empowered when the exact opposite has happened after he joined British Gas and the staff morale is low and engagement has long gone, many people have left the organisation - often as a consequence to the people Cooper has brought in from companies he has worked for before.

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Wow, what a puff piece. The truth of the matter is that David Cooper is a hatchet man. On the ground everyone in IS is shit-scared. Empowered? Think again. Pre-Cooper we may have had inefficient management, but now management is afraid to manage, We have lost hundreds, if not thousands of talented, knowledgeable people since Cooper took the reins. Cooper will eventually leave, God help the poor sod who inherits his abortion.

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There is a lot of emotion in the previous posts, as an IT professional who has been "released" by David Cooper in a previous company I can say at the time it was difficult. We/I had become used to thinking "management" needs to develop, train or that we are great at our roles and it can't be done differently. The world has changed around us and let's be honest with ourselves all CTO's now want and need depts and skills that meet that challenge. If you don't like that reality of whatever role you are doing or you think your quality is that great and not recognised.. Just leave your job. If you are really are good you will soon find something better. As one of the posts quite rightly says this is IT!!

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Kind of strange that they don't outsource the lot? Why just behind the scenes IT. All they need is perm senior management doing the strategy / planning - the rest can all be subbed out offshore.

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...."CV on jobserve / jobsite / monster. Search stackoverflow careers / linkedin for niche jobs.... Sort ya linkedin profile....." Get a job you like. Have a leaving do. Start ya new job. Simples..."

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David Cooper has all but destroyed the capabilities of Centrica IT and the technical teams that support them. His management team is afraid of him and most of the staff don't respect him or the people he's brought in. Unfortunately, David runs his management team (and the teams beneath them) using the style of 'Cooper's way or the Highway'. Yes he maybe saving Centrica a few pounds but at what cost??? I just hope that he doesn't bring Centrica down in his time there!!!

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Some of my friends have been working there for a long time and say things have got a lot better since his arrival. They go on to say that they can't tell if it's because of him or the departure of old teams, either way they are happier now and I don't have to listen to their moans and rants about centrica makes me happy too.

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If you are right, then maybe I like him, any IT department that can lose hundreds or even thousands of people says it all, hatchet was probably needed and centrica probably survives because of it.

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David Cooper not hatchet, good influence. App security team thriving under him. Thank you for giving me opportunity to work in this very interesting team.

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All his predecessors were non tech and made stupid decisions. Centrica will now see proper IT, lead by someone who knows technology and understands customer needs.

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Yes, proper IT, offshored, with a cast of thousands......Cog / Cap fighting over fixed price contracts.

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So, you hire people to an IT function, which (in your words is a mess). For arguments sake the employees do well (maybe get awards) then 'see the light', and realise that they should move on to protect their career. This most most certainly is one-dimensional. Do you think the individual is at fault?

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The point of views predominantly expressed on here are employees who are disgruntled. This is relevant as people take an interest in careers, expect an employer to be honest with them, and likely want some stability. This is not self-centred, but rather normal.

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a one year service badge, a none relevantvtraining course, where the subbed out provider sent an email stating that i should be getting excited to be attending the course.

HR using their matrix to consolidate our jobs.

All these initiatives are not of any use
to the people at tbe coal-face. And yes I do, surprisingly care about my career.

I find your posts lacking the fundamental view that dedicated individuals should be valued, not used as for initiatives.

Please don't reply with 'individuals are selfish'. Go and talk to some of them instead. You may find out some things which be used, which aren't in the MBA or HR book.

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I would love to know who klay12 really is, if you currently work for BG. I would be interested to know if things have improved since leaving a year ago?

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