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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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."
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."