What do the corporate giants of Shell, BP and Guinness Brewing Worldwide have in common with the Caravan Club? Simon Hill has worked in the IT department of all four.
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The Caravan Club's IT chief has also worked in IT for large UK public sector organisations such as Surrey Council and the Metropolitan Police, where he directed its Solution Centre for seven years, providing all back-office systems to 30,000 employees.
Hill joined Guinness on a graduate programme after gaining a degree in procurement and logistics. It was here he got his first hands-on experience of implementing the SAP enterprise resource suite, something that has recurred throughout his career. He spent six years at Accenture working on SAP projects and was subsequently SAP programme manager at Surrey Council.
Today the London School of Economics graduate heads up IT at the Caravan Club as it embarks on ambitious plans to expand into new areas of the travel and leisure industry. The club, which has 360,000 members – and, with their families, reaches about one million people – runs leisure sites across the UK and offers insurance and other travel services. Its IT operation currently works out of a single room in the club's office and a small space in a warehouse. But it is moving to dedicated servers in third-party datacentres.
Hill has responsibility for all technology at the club, including head office and over 160 sites across the UK. When he joined a couple of years ago he inherited 14 direct reports and a department focused on supply.
“Recognising the need for change, I secured board-level support for my vision for the department and set up demand management, service delivery and project management teams,” he says.
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“This has meant that we are now more closely involved in value creation for the business, and I have been given the opportunity to help shape the Caravan Club’s exciting growth strategy.”
He says the IT department is now more consultative. Rather than just building what the business asks for, it gets managers to explain the business goals and then recommends the IT systems that can support that outcome.
“We help senior management clarify how they intend to achieve delivery of the club’s strategy through iterative conversations about what it will take, both technically and in terms of business change, to help to achieve their goals.”
The IT operation is split in three. One team manages the pipeline of demand for change, developing all pre-project documentation such as business cases. Another team is responsible for developing and delivering all non-property related change, from small change requests through to multimillion-pound projects. And the third team ensures the ongoing provision of IT service while looking to reduce cost and improve quality.
The Caravan Club’s growth strategy is a major challenge, and Hill and the IT department are heavily involved.
“Through providing an initial drive by establishing and facilitating a number of strategic workshops with the club’s directors, I have been able to help define the key long-term themes for the club and ensure that the IT department will be in a much better position to proactively anticipate business requirements earlier,” he says.
This year the organisation’s top IT priority is a hosting project with T-Systems. It is in the process of moving to a private cloud after outsourcing parts of its IT to T-Systems to support the expansion of the business.
Hill says: “As a department our abilities to meet the various demands from the business were limited by both the physical space available in our server rooms and the capacity of our infrastructure team to be able to continue to understand and adapt to the ever growing number of technologies while being able to maintain best practice and continued efficiencies.”
A CIO needs to decide whether IT stays clearly as a back-office support function or starts to move into and influence the front office
The deal helps a small organisation punch above its weight. “When the migration to the T-Systems private cloud is complete, the future reliability and consistency of our infrastructure, as well as the in-built scalability and flexibility of the solution to help meet the club’s growth strategy whichever way it goes, are well beyond what would have traditionally been possible for an organisation of our size and budget.”
Next year Hill plans to switch the focus to digital because there are a number of areas where business process, organisation and approach holds the club back from making the most of its digital assets. “This includes increasing efficiencies in content management, a customer-centric web experience and adapting to a mobile world,” he explains.
Because digital affects the entire organisation, Hill aims to ensure that work on digital marketing, channel management and the product areas are joined up with a technical foundation, rather than worked on in isolation.
“I have recently established monthly innovation workshops to find opportunities to digitise and improve the member and employee experience when interacting with the club. Ensuring that areas across the business are able to contribute ideas and have the ability to help move them forward to pilot and roll out should mean that we can take significant steps forward in helping the business using digital.”
On the future role of the CIO Hill believes post-holders need to make a choice. “A CIO needs to decide whether the focus should be on providing the traditional operational service or one of transformation – essentially whether IT stays clearly as a back-office support function or starts to move into and influence the front office.”
Inevitable digitisation will be a challenge for CIOs, and they must be proactive in moving forward, he believes. “A strong IT leader will want to position IT in a proactive role, leading, facilitating and enabling this transformation rather than waiting for different areas of the business to all go in slightly different directions.”
He set up the demand team in the IT department specifically to change the business’s view of IT from a department that purely provides technology to one that understands the business strategically.
He believes CIOs will also have to react to the increasing demands from the business to give it the IT it wants.
“As the business expectation around speed of response and reliability of technology increases, together with cost-efficiency requirements, the CIO will also need to be able to provide as lightweight a governance framework for technology as possible.”
This, he says, will help the business see IT as a key business enabler rather than a blocker that seeks to slow change down so it can maintain control of the technical landscape and the security of customer and other sensitive data.