Mind the gap: how Tube Lines information director John Connolly sells IT to the board

Interview: John Connolly, Tube Lines information director, discusses his role as the bridge between IT and the board

John Connolly has been in his post as information director of Tube Lines for just a few months, after the company's board decided they needed to bridge the gap between the business and IT.

Although the company had reliable technology, the business was not getting the information it needed. "Someone was needed on the executive table to bring a fresh perspective on how to combine work practices with technology," Connolly says.

His main role is to understand and reduce the frustration between business and information technology, while smoothing out problems with IT systems and looking forward to the next phase of innovation.

Tube Lines, which manages the infrastructure of the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines on the London Underground, has a 30-year contract running as a public-private partnership.

Connolly's challenge is the first review of this contract, due in two years' time. The reviews are every seven years, and his aim for the period before this first review is to create a strong IT infrastructure that can be built on. This means ironing out issues with the IT infrastructure. The company rolled out systems including Oracle and Documentum 18 months ago, and Connolly says he needs to make small improvements to IT before the first review, rather than major IT implementations.

"It is partly training, because not everyone is using the systems to the best of their ability," Connolly says.

"The IT world is not always about radical innovation. Sometimes it is about getting good at what you are already doing."

After the first review, the next phase of the contract will be more "sophisticated", with plans for development of Web 2.0, says Connolly. Tube Lines has a workforce situated all over London, with some working night shifts, and Connolly hopes innovative use of Web 2.0 will ease communication with staff.

The company is also planning to introduce systems that will help them change the way they carry out maintenance.

At the moment, Connolly says, planned maintenance means assets are maintained whether they need it or not.

"It is organised but not very cost effective. We are looking at changing the business of maintenance, using information on the performance of a product. Manufacturers give you information on the life-time of a product, and we will need systems that give performance information in real-time," he says.

Connolly reports to the CEO, and oversees an IT department that is heavily outsourced to LogicaCMG and Capgemini.

He says, "If IT reports to the CEO, it means the business is looking to create business advantage out of information, and use it strategically.

"From our perspective, if you want to be a good asset operator and maintainer, it is imperative you know timely and accurate information to make good maintenance decisions."

A main challenge for information directors, he says, is to match expectations between business and IT.

"My definition of success is that the business has expectations founded in what is possible. There is no point any IT team saying we will meet the business expectations if they are not realistic," he says.

Connolly's engineering background helps in his communications with the business. "I can walk into a situation with an understanding of the business issue, using their language, not technical language. I have better empathy for the challenges that all parties face.

"There is a degree of misunderstanding and frustration between business and IT. If you understand both sides have frustration, it gives you a way of engaging that is more powerful than if you do not understand," he says.

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