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CIO interview: Chris Hewertson, CTO at hotel group GLH

Chris Hewertson combines the responsibilities of a chief technology officer and CIO with the aim of customer-focused technology transformation

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Chris Hewertson, chief technology officer (CTO) at hotel group GLH, has pushed a cloud-led business transformation in his organisation and is keen to share his best practice advice with other CIOs.

Hewertson meets Computer Weekly in a fashionable restaurant near his office in Warren Street, London, to discuss his dual role at GLH, taking on the external facing accountabilities of a CTO and the internal change-and-run responsibilities of a CIO.

“I think this dual role is the future. CIOs can’t be wallflowers anymore. You’re an advocate for how your company is using technology as a business differentiator,” he says. 

Since joining the company in 2012, Hewertson has been at the forefront of an organisational transformation that has put customer experience at the centre of the GLH business plan.

Getting involved with business change

Hewertson joined GLH from telecoms specialist Colt and he relishes the opportunity of working for a user-focused company. “Any CIO that gets to the top these days has to work on transforming the business,” he says, reflecting on both his personal achievements and the issues faced by some of his senior IT peers. Hewertson recognises that transformation is the key concern for all CIOs.

“There’s still a lot of old-school IT directors – and it’s kind of easy to understand why. It used to be easy as a CIO to do a series of repeatable tasks when you entered a new position, such as upgrading Windows, upgrading SAP and then moving on. That isn’t the case anymore, because those repeatable tasks are simply hygiene factors. Great CIOs are doing something much more interesting,” he says.

Chris Hewertson, GLH

“CIOs can’t be wallflowers anymore. You’re an advocate for how your company is using technology”

Chris Hewertson, GLH

Hewertson is heavily involved in product development in his joint role as CTO and CIO. Similar to Christina Scott at the Financial Times, who created the position of chief innovation and product officer before her departure to News UK, Hewertson works closely with the business to develop services for users and customers. He recognises that a combined focus on creativity and stability brings challenges, yet it’s the kind of complex situation that he encourages other technology executives to embrace.

“It’s a bit of a schizophrenic position being both CTO and CIO because you have to drive change, while also being accountable for information security and daily IT operations. I have to go out, meet people and come up with interesting ideas, but then I also have to implement and run the technologies I find,” he says.

“It means you have to take more risk than you might feel comfortable with as a pure CIO. You can’t just do something and pass it on to other people. You have to think about how the great things you find will be implemented and operated. My number one advice for CIOs is to be more like a CTO. It’s a lot more fun when you’re involved with the innovation.”

Moving to the cloud

Hewertson’s top priority during his three years in his position has been to transfer the firm’s IT infrastructure to the cloud. Unlike other boardroom executives who might use a mix of on-demand IT and in-house resources, Hewertson helped his organisation make the most of external service provision. As much as 95% of IT services are now delivered through the cloud.

“We used to do fire fighting on an ageing back end and we’ve become a technology organisation that is supporting the business in the things it wants to do,” he says. “We wanted more than a sticking plaster – we wanted to solve the operational issues for good.”

Currently, the firm does not run any in-house servers and IT costs have been reduced, with GLH moving from standard capital expenditure to a steady operating-cost model. The first major step to the cloud saw the company’s hotel management application pushed to Micros in June 2013.

Other key initiatives have included the use of Google Apps for Work for enterprise productivity applications and the movement of SAP to a cloud-based platform, which is managed by Absoft in Scotland. Hewertson says the only infrastructure that remains beyond the cloud are elements relating to single sign-on and governance concerns, such as security standard PCI 3.1.

“The lights stay on now and we don’t have to upgrade anything because everything’s managed by our service providers,” he says.

With such a limited reliance on IT, Hewertson is able to rely on a small IT team of just 13 staff. Intriguingly, that is the same number of technology professionals that worked for GLH before the transition to the cloud.

“I was shocked when I joined and found out the size of the team here because it was only slightly larger than the number of direct reports I had at Colt,” he says. “But one of the reasons I’ve been able to go on-demand is because we started small. We had a supportive CEO, who held massive visions in regards to change.”

Building a case for transformation

Hewertson reflects on the transition that has taken place during the past two years and says he had to make decisions quickly. He knew his human resources were limited and unlikely to increase. The cloud, says Hewertson, became the natural mechanism to support business change and growth. Yet the move to on-demand was not prescribed.

“We didn’t set out to run a cloud transformation – it just naturally became the obvious choice,” he says. “In my first three months at GLH, the executive team got together and decided on some success factors. We wanted systems that were always available, easy to set up and intuitive for the users. And when you look at the best technology for those factors, you start to realise the cloud provides the best system.”

Technology transformation at GLH has run alongside broader business change. The group has launched more brands during the past two years as part of an attempt to focus on high-quality customer experience. The company operates hotels associated to several key brands, including Clermont Hotels, Amba Hotels, Every Hotels and Thistle Hotels, along with four luxury London hotels.

“We are currently refurbishing our existing estate and the plan is to take our brands to an international audience. The cloud allows us to turn a new hotel on in seven days, with fully operational systems,” says Hewertson. 

Read more CIO interviews about the hospitality sector

Hewertson assumed it would be problematic to integrate the firm’s cloud services. However, bringing the various applications together has not created serious issues.

“We’ve settled on an approach where, rather than create a large data warehouse for reporting, we rely on the reports from the individual systems,” he says. “We are looking at consolidation and we have developed a centralised reporting capability through our data science function. But even that’s fairly light.”

Hewertson says GLH has also built an application programming interface (API) layer behind the cloud services that links into the firm’s property management system. That integration, he says, provides a platform for future digital services and the development of products. Hewertson says the firm is coming to the end of its infrastructure transformation and is set to tackle the next set of issues.

“We’re now working on the digital transformation and the API layer is core to our approach,” he says. “We can potentially develop revenue-generating services that we can sell to other firms. Some of our internal systems, for areas such as price distribution, could be sold to outside businesses, even competing organisations in our sector. But we’ll focus on polishing our own systems before taking our approach to other companies.”

Looking to the future

The firm is currently developing interesting services by hooking into its API backbone. In 2014, GLH created a prototype of a mobile service called Chooseyourownroom.com, which allows guests to view their room online before booking.

“We’ve got chunks of our inventory in the system and it means people can see the room they will be staying in,” says Hewertson.

“Our API platform has allowed that to happen. Once that service is working effectively for us, we can sell it to other hotel companies – all we’ll need to do is build an interface to their property management system.”

Hewertson says personalisation will be the key to the long-term success of the firm’s digital transformation strategy. Hotel companies traditionally retain guests through loyalty schemes, but Hewertson says many of these initiatives are outdated in the digital age and businesses must look for different ways to promote customer engagement.

“Hotel CIOs must think about how to retain guests and to make them book directly with the chain,” he says.

“We’re doing a lot of work around providing services to guest both pre and post stay. I can’t talk in too much detail about what we’re doing, but technology will play a key role and the final service will be very different to a traditional loyalty scheme.”

Hewertson looks back on his achievements in the role and believes he has created a technology platform that will help GLH continue its upward growth trajectory.

“We’ve delivered a phenomenal rate of change during the past few years. This has been a cloud and digital transformation and it’s been from the ground up – we’ve worked on everything,” he says.

“The capability we’ve built will support business expansion. I get such a buzz from change. Success for me would be that the organisation is able to use that platform and continue to improve operational efficiency. You always have to return to what the business wants to achieve. And we all just have to focus on growth now.”



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