Chief stirrer helps BP to bridge the gap between IT strategy and business needs

Christine Ashton has one of the most senior IT jobs with energy giant BP, yet she jokingly refers to herself as “chief stirrer”

Christine Ashton has one of the most senior IT jobs with energy giant BP, yet she jokingly refers to herself as “chief stirrer”. In fact, that is an apt description for the role of “bridger” between business and IT that she has been promoting since co-founding the BCS Business-IT Interface Specialist Group in 1999.

“Bridgers do not just liaise between business and IT,” Ashton said. “They are like entrepreneurs, creating added value.”
Indeed, the Business-IT Interface Specialist Group said, “Bridgers have a role in helping businesses understand how IT fits and supports strategy – including new opportunities, helping to build business strategy with systems embedded, and developing IT strategy to deliver maximum benefit.”

Bridgers need perspective  beyond any particular application or technology, the group said. They need organisational and people skills to break down barriers between IT and business and help educate business about IT and vice versa. This means having the confidence of both sides.

Ashton is the practical embodiment of this. She has an MSc in electronics and computing and is both a chartered chemist and a chartered engineer.

“I got into IT in the water industry, developing reports for works managers from vast quantities of data held in databases,” said Ashton. “Later I was head of business systems at Cable & Wireless, delivering systems from a commercial perspective and based in the business.”

She joined BP in 2001 and is  currently chief information manager, strategy and integration, for BP Refining and Marketing. The organisation, which covers refining, services for marine and air industries, and the BP Connect retail outlets, has 75,000 staff. Its IT section is responsible for 35,000 PC users worldwide.

IT is a central function at BP. Ashton said this has helped ensure corporate standards and  best practice are followed. It has also helped Ashton and her team focus on the business.

“Some organisations have a single department that develops, manages and runs applications and infrastructure,” she said.

“Separating operations from development and planning gives operational economies of scale. It also allows the business development side of IT to stay close to the business, focusing on meeting its needs with information strategies to make it successful, while the operations professionals can become focused on running world-class operations and communications.”

Even so, business processes and systems could be standardised across company divisions. Ashton said, “It is sometimes assumed that different ways of doing business need different systems. But when you boil things down and make them simple, it might just be, for example, that one unit needs data about its product faster because of the way it distributes it.

“Having a good, clear architecture enables you to switch on the more sophisticated data acquisition facilities that a unit needs, while the core systems are the same as for other business units’ processes.

“So we still gather user requirements, but we look to develop the solution using a set of preferred central applications. We can still be entrepreneurial, but we build things in such a way that they can be delivered using common infrastructures and datacentres, bringing economies of scale.”

This means different types of bridging are needed. “In the early days of the BCS group we saw the hybrid manager as a single combination of skills, but actually a range of different hybrid combinations is needed,” Ashton said.

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