Good times for IT at Ipsos

In an exclusive interview with ComputerWeekly, global chief technology officer Ben Booth talks about the revitalised technology agenda at the polling giant.

In an exclusive interview with ComputerWeekly, global chief technology officer Ben Booth talks about the revitalised technology agenda at the polling giant.

After a tough couple of years, Ipsos is moving out of recession mode and is looking to revamp its technology set-up to provide better services to clients.

Global CTO Ben Booth said things are "looking up" - the polling group reported 18% in growth for the first half of 2010 with revenue of £441m - so IT improvements that had been deferred during the recession will now be accelerated.

"If you take the base [IT] budget for 2008-9, we went down to 25% of our normal spending and we are now back up to about 60%. I can't say what the next year will be like, but hopefully somewhere between where we are now and back to normal," said Booth.

"IT investment tends to follow several things, growth being one of them. For example, our business in Korea has almost tripled this year, so we have to buy more PCs because we have more people there," he said.

"But we have to be smarter and deliver more value for money, be better than our competition and do things in a really lean way."

Booth said Ipsos is seeing fast growth in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Asia Pacific regions, while business in Europe and North America is "OK". In the UK, despite its large client base in the private sector, the firm also does work for many public sector agencies, so it will be "watching that space" as the government presses ahead with further spending cuts.

Reviewing the hardware estate

Business expansion means Ipsos will need to equip its burgeoning markets with the appropriate tools to provide service and one of the areas that need immediate attention is the company's 11,000-strong desktop portfolio.

The years of belt-tightening meant the company had to make do with "a lot of old kit", but now there is an opportunity for review and Booth's team has started a comprehensive review of the equipment, which is mainly supplied by Dell.

Ipsos is about to start a "serious procurement exercise" and go to market to launch a competition for the provision of desktops worldwide. The request for information will be released before Christmas and the project should be phased over a three-year period.

One of the options considered for the update was thin-client terminals, but surprisingly, Booth said this option turned out to be financially unviable during the initial evaluation.

"With the current licensing regime from Microsoft and the kit you have to get from suppliers like Citrix, thin-client is actually looking very expensive. We have looked at it very hard and I think thin-client is out, because it is an awful lot of trouble and costs substantially more," he said.

"There is also the issue of migration and non-standard applications: if we had 10,000 people in one place using the same applications, it would be quite straightforward despite the fact we would still have the cost problem. But we we are spread across 68 countries and what people use is different even though we'd like to make it more standard."

Ipsos is also looking to refresh its software; in order to do that, it would have to completely replace a third of its estate, whereas the remainder can wait or continue operating through the addition of extra memory.

When it comes to recycling old equipment, Booth says the company uses the usual disposal methods in different territories and is mindful of regulations, but added that the firm's main hardware supplier has not necessarily been helpful in that respect.

"To be honest, I don't think Dell helps us that much. When we dropped our spending two years ago, they lost interest in our account," he said.

Catching up with customer technology

The application side of the IT set-up at the polling firm is also being reviewed. Currently, the main user platforms are Office 2003 and Windows XP.

For the client-facing aspects of Ipsos' business the case for software updates is more compelling, said Booth, as clients would have the latest versions of Microsoft products.

"In those areas, if we are not 100% Microsoft and using the latest version we run into difficulties. On the other hand, a lot of what we do doesn't need the latest - especially back-office activities," he said.

"So I think there is a big opportunity for us to mix up-to-date Microsoft products with Open Office or something similar".

According to Booth, Ipsos' clients are becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of service requirements and there is strong demand for reporting and online data access.

To that end, the firm launched a tender for the provision of a set of systems for data collection and analysis worldwide. Currently, the main products used for online and phone analysis are supplied by ConfirmIt and SPSS, which was acquired by IBM last year.

"The main thinking is to bring in systems for data collection and analysis in the emerging markets, but assuming we get something suitable for the rest of our operations, we would introduce that to Europe and North America as well," said Booth.

Capability reviews

As the IT department at Ipsos has grown through several acquisitions the company has made over the past few years, Booth has focused on assessing his global capability and identifying pockets of expertise that may not be known to the rest of the business, as well as ensuring best practice across units worldwide.

However, things are moving slowly when it comes to new recruitment. Ipsos has downsized its IT department in the past three years and further reductions took place during the downturn, but the intention for the future is to keep staff levels stable.

"I am not hiring, but I am not firing either. We have grown by acquisition, so we inherited a lot of standalone businesses with their own IT teams, so there are some efficiencies we can generate by moving towards a more global delivery model," said Booth.

"At the same time, we really want to try and hold our numbers steady. Where we have dramatic growth in a particular country we will have to hire some more people. But the general trend will be to have the same amount of [IT staff] as we become more efficient," he said.

Ipsos already fulfils its needs around large software developments through its own nearshoring capability in Romania, where data collection is also managed and co-ordinated, but Booth indicates that there could be further developments in that area as the business expands globally.

"We have a pretty strong team in Romania and we certainly want to keep it, but we are also interested in looking at what we can do in lower-cost regions: for example, we have teams in Brazil, Argentina and Lebanon," he said.

Cost is still something that is on Booth's mind constantly, despite the fact that his department is under less financial pressure than a couple of years ago.

"I am optimistic, because I think the global economy has turned around and since we are a global business, a lot of the group is doing very well and even the other bits are doing quite well," he said.

"Because IT is right in the centre of all of our activity, me and my team have more to do. But we are still very cost-conscious: our clients squeezed us very hard during the recession and they expect us to do a lot more for less and that is going to stay."


Computer Weekly says

Ben Booth is not the only IT chief to question the financial advantage of thin-client terminals. The CIO at airport operator BAA actually reversed the model by moving from Citrix thin-client technology and Wyse terminals towards a "fatter client" set-up. While the technology was attractive to other organisations such as Transport for London, this lean model has a few disadvantages, including the fact that thin-clients can place more demand on servers and the network as they proliferate. So if the workload limit is reached, crashes could start occurring then server architecture would need to change - and that could be a costly exercise.

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