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CIO interview: Alan Crawford, City & Guilds Group

Four months into his role as CIO of City & Guilds, Alan Crawford opens up about the challenges of tending to the needs of a company that has hit the acquisition trail with aplomb in recent years

Industry analysts are fond of predicting that enterprises will, in time, end up taking a multi-cloud approach to IT consumption by sourcing services from a variety of suppliers as their cloud plans evolve.

But for City & Guilds Group CIO Alan Crawford, supporting a business that relies on a mix of cloud services from a patchwork of providers is already a familiar situation, thanks to the vocational charity’s propensity for mergers and acquisitions.

“Within the group of companies that make up City & Guilds, there is hosting in Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Rackspace,” he says. “We also have some in a Claranet facility, plus others.

“I’m keeping an open mind about things, but what I have said from the outset – because of the business strategy around diversification and buying more companies – is we will need connectivity to both Microsoft and AWS, and we can’t afford to close ourselves off.”

These acquisitions have not only served to expand the group’s geographical reach, but also widen the range of learners it targets beyond City & Guilds’s traditional customer base of school leavers, apprentices and first jobbers.

As such, the organisation has branched out into providing executive coaching, leadership training and management training through its acquisition of The Oxford Group in February 2015.

Meanwhile, its purchase of e-learning technology provider Kineo in December 2012 has seen it lend support for organisations wanting to run their own in-house training schemes.

Wide-ranging IT needs

Aside from City & Guilds, The Oxford Group and Kineo, there are also two further organisations that make up the group, each with their own IT priorities, legacy technology investments and management teams.

“It is a different challenge for a CIO, because we have four to five companies here, each with their own managing director,” says Crawford. Instead of going into one meeting to decide an IT strategy with a single board, your responsibilities are a lot wider and more diverse.”

The size and nature of the businesses that make up City & Guilds Group varies widely, adding another dimension.

“To do this job, you do have to put yourself in the shoes of each managing director when you are dealing with them,” he says.

“Our executive coaching business has a turnover of around £8m, and it’s almost like you’re dealing with a medium-sized business on its own. The managing director of that company will view the world one way,” he says.

“Then you have City & Guilds with a £100m turnover, which operates more like a traditional enterprise, which has a completely different view of the world.”

Working with such a diverse group of people and ensuring their IT needs are met is not without its challenges.

“It makes for a dynamic working environment and certainly creates tension,” says Crawford. “That’s something you either enjoy or find quite difficult, but I really like it.”

Simplifying a diverse IT estate

Helping newly merged organisations negotiate their newly expanded and unfamiliar IT landscape is an area Crawford has particular experience in.

He joined Help the Aged as IT director in 2007, just ahead of the organisation’s merger with Age Concern, which resulted in the creation of the Age UK brand in 2010.

“I went out of IT for a year on a secondment to work on the merger as a programme manager, which was a great experience,” he says. “I then went on to become its first IT director.”

“We will need connectivity to both Microsoft and AWS, and we can’t afford to close ourselves off”

Alan Crawford, City & Guilds Group


“That was a genuine merger, where you had to build everything new: the networks, datacentres, IT support, finance systems and CRM [customer relationship management]. Everything.

“We had two to three of every kind of technology, and it was a really good experience, but also three or four years of hard work.”

It is this experience Crawford intends to bring to his current role, as he gets to grips with how best to simplify the IT estate of the companies that make up the City & Guilds Group, and any other future acquisitions the organisation decides to embark on.

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The City & Guilds part of the group uses Microsoft Azure, but, as previously stated, other parts of the business have hosting contracts in place with other cloud and datacentre providers, including AWS.

“We’re going to have to be working with both Amazon and Azure in the short-to-medium term, and because we have contracts in place still to run, we will be running more on-premise, third-party private cloud providers within the group estate for the next two to three years at least,” he says.

“Whichever way we go after that, we will end up with a hybrid cloud, and I have a clear direction of where I want to take the business, which would require connectivity to both Azure and AWS.”

Beyond that, standardising some of the organisation’s back-office IT is another avenue Crawford is exploring, which will include eventually moving every employee on to Office 365, Microsoft’s online business productivity suite.

Alongside this effort, he is currently identifying which systems and applications give each organisation within the City & Guilds group their competitive edge.

“At the front end, we need greater agility and innovation, particularly where the customer-facing issues are concerned,” says Crawford. “Then you have the general office and collaboration tools any office uses. I want us to standardise there.”

 A charitable cause

Crawford joined City & Guilds in July 2016 after a three-year stint at the charity Action for Children. During his tenure, he oversaw a sizeable Windows XP migration project, paving the way for the organisation to leave the ageing operating system and start rolling out tablets to staff instead, as part of a wider productivity drive.

During his time there, he was actively involved in the charity’s annual Byte Night event, which sees people from all areas of the IT industry sleep rough for one night in October to raise money to end youth homelessness.

While Crawford may no longer work at Action for Children, it is a cause he will continue to champion for a long time to come. His participation in this year’s event on 7 October shows his ongoing commitment.    

As well as the charitable aspect, another benefit of taking part in Byte Night is the networking opportunities it can bring about.

“You get contacts with suppliers, for example, at a European vice-president level, rather than dealing with an account manager,” he says. “When you’re dealing with the best people in Europe, they can have better discretion over discounts when negotiating deals.

“It was really good for Action for Children, because we raised a fantastic amount of money. But we also benefited internally from discounts and information we got from spending the evening building contacts.”

Despite having spent the past 15 years looking after the IT requirements of charitable organisations, Crawford says there is not much difference in how they operate to firms in the commercial sector.

“If you look at Age UK as a group of companies, as well as the charity, they had a £50m financial services business that did insurance. They also had a £50m retail business in their charity shops and made £50m in fundraising. The way they, and a lot of the larger not-for-profits operate, is very commercially focused these days,” he concludes.

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