Selling the IT vision

Empowering its 37,000 employees with the tools to do their jobs well is the main aim of Reed Elsevier's vice-president of...

Empowering its 37,000 employees with the tools to do their jobs well is the main aim of Reed Elsevier's vice-president of information systems and technology alliances. Ross Bentley talks to Computer Weekly's guest editor Nigel Stevens.

Reed Elsevier is a £5bn global information provider and publishing company made up of four distinct business areas - legal, science, education and business-to-business publishing. As well as owning strong brands such as Science Direct Harcourt, Ginn and Butterworth/ Heinemann its publications include international medical journal The Lancet, the legal profession's premier information source Lexis Nexis, New Scientist and Computer Weekly.

The man tasked with the responsibility of empowering the 37,000 employees around the world with the tools and technologies they need to undertake their jobs effectively is Nigel Stevens. He is responsible for, amongst other things, technology alliances and the organisation's Platform 2000 project, which will see Reed Elsevier deploy Microsoft Windows .net Server and Office XP on XP across most of the business by 2004.

Stevens, whose full job title is vice-president of information systems and technology alliances worldwide, also has to cope with the additional complexities that come as a result of Reed's acquisition strategy and the diversity of its individual businesses.

"In a strategic position such as mine, you must present a vision," he says. "In fact, you must sell that vision in order to get the funding you need to do the things that need to be done."

Stevens says that although IT is the "absolute lifeblood of the company", it is still seen by many as an "overhead, not an opportunity," and although things are changing, winning mindshare is a slow process. He says, "For example, someone said to me recently, 'all you are doing is giving my secretary more tools so she gets even more confused. Doesn't she have enough already?'"

In fact, giving employees the tools to do their job is his biggest challenge, he says. To clarify his vision, Stevens divides his task into three segments: providing the appropriate technology strategy for employees; doing the same for customers; and product delivery.

"The employee architecture is always understated in importance," he says. "When we talk about big implementations we think of complex financial or ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems such as SAP or Oracle.

"There is no similar song and dance about the client and server arena - people take it for granted that it is there to allow people to do their job and that's just the point. While small groups use SAP or Oracle applications to service their functional responsibilities, everyone uses Microsoft Office and e-mail every hour, every day," Stevens says.

"If you then consider all the add-ons required in this space - external and personal firewalls, other utility licensing costs, remote access and secure authentication and now things like peer-to-peer videoconferencing there is a lot to consider and if you do the math, the overall cost to an enterprise is massive."

He continues, "In the 21st century [the desktop] should be approached far more strategically and holistically. I think we still have a hangover from the time when we called our desktop our 'personal computer' - people still sadly think 'It is mine - it's my personal computer' rather than seeing it as a portal hung off or transparently connected to the enterprise network and the Internet beyond."

Stevens says his company spends £80m to £100m a year on operating costs for the current desktop environment for all 37,000 employees. "People don't see end-user computing on that scale," he says. "For example, you can buy and run a mainframe for £5m to £10m and people see and accept the initial investment and ongoing costs. However in reality organisations need to realise that servicing the employee base with what appears to be £1,000 utility clients actually works out to be a much bigger overall cost."

Currently, most of Stevens' time is being devoted to the Platform 2000 project, co-ordinating a multinational global team involved in the design and implementation of Microsoft .net and Microsoft Windows XP. ".net and Active Directory will be central to employee architecture and we will be running Office XP on XP with Exchange 2000 as our core e-mail backbone," he says.

The business goals are:
  • Globalisation - "We are looking to globalise the way we think about and run our employee architecture."

  • Standardisation - "The complexity of the existing architecture and inter domain trusts leaves plenty of room for improvement. We want to have a far more standardised and simplified architecture."

  • Flexibility - "We want to be a lot more flexible in future migrations to the next generation architectures. With this new architecture and the way it is deployed, we are looking to be able to migrate to Longhorn and Blackcombe - the codenames for the next generation Microsoft platforms in a six- to 12-month timeframe. This is a fraction of the cost we are currently faced with to move forward and keep us on the latest versions of software."

Stevens says the facilities that this platform offers the company are key as it will allow a far more seamless integration and transportation of the corporation's content which comprises many terabytes of general text, rich content, multimedia, video and images etc - facets that are vital for a global information provider to stay competitive in the 21st century.

"We recognise the issues with a Microsoft platform but equally we have selected this as the best investment for our employee architecture. We are part of the .net joint development programme, which allows us access to Microsoft's new releases as soon as they become available and this allows us to stay ahead of the curve and exploit any new features.

"Moving forward we want to implement a standardised architecture with a design, especially with Active Directory, that comprises a single forest and can be deployed by each of the business units."

So what about Active Directory? "It scares the hell out of me," says Stevens. It puts your entire corporation in one place. That's a good thing and a bad thing. You just have to have your eyes wide open from the start.

"If Active Directory gets corrupted, there's a possibility that 37,000 employees won't be able to log on. To put this right would mean a significant outage. They say it won't happen but you need to know what you would do and how long it would take if it does.

"Microsoft still has a lot to do with Active Directory but with the .net release there will be a greater take-up and it will gradually become the cornerstone of the business - not just for the employees but for customers and suppliers too. Everything could end up in Active Directory or integrated to it in some way making its reliability business critical. We are ensuring we have the organisational structure to support it.

"You could be very cynical and say that Active Directory is the next phase in the Microsoft plan. It has got us with Windows, NT and the desktop and this is its next move to dominate the enterprise. But we are going in with our eyes open, we've made a decision to invest in Microsoft's platform and want to capitalise on it."

For Stevens, Reed Elsevier's basic customers fall into two categories: subscribers and advertisers. And to define his strategy for providing these with a high level of service he reluctantly uses the "c" word.

"CRM [customer relationship management] is what it is all about," he says. "But first we need to define what that actually means. Within the organisation we have different business groups which define customers differently and have differing processes for how they work and interact with them.

"Of course there is a choice of CRM systems. Siebel has some deep vertical features and is renowned for its sales modules. The overall Oracle portfolio can incorporate lots of different aspects while some niche players offer cheaper alternatives."

But for Stevens the crux of CRM is not about the system, it is about the data architecture and the definitions assigned to that data.

"Systems selection is a red herring. It is the data architecture that is key - the fields that define certain key aspects of that customer need to be the same everywhere across all business units but also we need to decide where we are going to standardise and where we are going to differentiate.

"Today companies must understand that each customer is an individual. They need to know what each of their customers is about and build up an appropriate knowledge base of this information," he says.

"Our mission statement is to be the indispensable information provider to educational, science, legal and business professionals," he says. "This defines what we are looking to achieve, to understand each customer as a person. We need to be more granular and find opportunities to sell across our portfolio of products.

"For example, we provide legal information but at the same time we are world-leaders in publishing information about the aviation industry. We need to be able to locate legal professionals who like flying and add a broader level of value to those individuals - that kind of thing."

For Stevens the same granular approach to customer service must be adopted when considering the delivery of timely and relevant information. "Information products are what we are all about," he says. "Without them we don't have a business and technology is vital in enabling us to deliver focused and reliable information to the right people in a timely fashion."

He says personalisation and accurate search technologies are key.

"If the information is not reliable and our customers can't get to it quickly they will go elsewhere. This means we must tag and index in an appropriate fashion because typically there can be thousands of variations on a particular theme," he says.

"This is true whether we are talking about employees, customers or products - everything needs to be tagged the same and consistently. So you only give people what they really want and avoid information overload and general spam. And in this age of the mobile worker and handheld devices we have to be able to deliver it to them whenever and wherever they ask for it."

Stevens' tips for enterprise success
  • There is a lot of focus on system selection but getting the data architecture right is key. For example you may standardise on PeopleSoft as your ERP system across all your business units but if the data fields are different within those applications - in effect you still have multiple different systems

  • Customers are individuals now - in the past this was not the case, but it is now reality and it must include the small spenders as well as the big budget holders

  • In our space - the product delivery is key and it is technology-driven, permeating the whole environment. We have to show that we can manage content reliably and securely. We need to be able to take content in, aggregate and track it and then re-purpose it in a timely and cost-effective fashion

  • Historically, the employee architecture has focused on cost and its continued reduction while CRM has been regarded as being project orientated with costs and returns on investment and the products have been seen as revenue generating. They are all revenue generating and should be viewed as such.

How to manage supplier relationships
  • The old salesman routine doesn't work any more and suppliers realise that too. We are all more savvy than we used to be. It is much more about them truly understanding what my business wants. What do I want to purchase and why?

  • Trust plays an important part. You have to treat a relationship with a supplier like a marriage. There is a courting period and if you get on well - you'll be in bed and married before you know it. But that is only the start. Like a marriage it will have its ups and downs, if you don't work at it - you will end up divorced

  • It can be easier to deal with the big suppliers because they are set up to negotiate big deals but at the same time it can be difficult to navigate the organisation and you can get lost in the lower levels of the overall framework

  • The small niche players can sometimes be a little naïve but they are more flexible and entrepreneurial

  • You have to understand where the sales guy you are dealing with sits in the whole of the organisation - has he got the authority to guarantee what he promises? In negotiations I want to have the global account guy in there from the start so he understands what's been sold and what he's expected to deliver.

Company profile
Reed Elsevier has
  • 37,000 employees worldwide

  • 22,000 people based in the US

  • 13,000 people in the UK and Europe

  • 2,000 in the rest of the world

  • Business-to-business publishing employs 12,500 people

  • Lexis Nexis Group - 13,000 staff

  • Science - 6,500 employees

  • Education (Harcourt) - 5,500 to 6,000 employees.

Nigel Stevens: Job experience
Nigel Stevens has 20 years' experience in systems, project management, manufacturing, distribution and engineering as a line manager and consultant. He has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Liverpool University.

Stevens began his career as a development engineer with Rolls-Royce and worked for a number of companies including Air Products, Coopers & Lybrand and Unilever, before joining Reed Elsevier.

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