CIO interview: Steve Townsend, Transport for London

TfL CIO Steve Townsend is leading IT changes to ensure efficiency and value through the London 2012 Olympics and beyond.

According to its critics, The London 2012 Olympics is going to bring transport chaos to the capital. For the IT team at Transport for London (TfL), the body responsible for the Tube, buses and traffic control in the city, the challenge is to use technology make sure that doesn’t happen.

TfL chief information officer (CIO) Steve Townsend plans to introduce changes to ensure efficiency and value through the events that will take place in 2012 and beyond.

Townsend was appointed in June 2011 amid a restructuring dubbed Project Horizon, which covered key support activities including IT, procurement, finance and HR. The goal of the initiative is to generate savings by simplifying the organisation and merging support functions – including the IT department –currently carried out in a variety of different areas.

“Whereas before we had a number of different IT functions delivering discreet activities, we will now bring them together into one place underneath the CIO, who has visibility and ownership of all elements of information management,” Townsend told Computer Weekly.

“Obviously, that means a restructure and simplified processes around procurement, management of third parties and day-to-day provision of services, but also makes it easier for the business to know which services they are getting and how they can be changed going forward,” he says.

“I would say that up until now TfL has had a number of different ways of managing IT activity and change and Horizon brings it all together in a much simpler approach, a completely different way of looking at information management.”

Townsend has worked at TfL for nearly five years and is a former director of information management (IM) for London Underground (LU), which gives him the confidence of knowing what his organisation needs.

“I have spent years working on the coalface of information management at LU, so I have an extensive knowledge of what services and functions TfL needs in order to run its business of moving people around,” he says.

From a leadership perspective, Townsend will also be looking to address organisational issues that Transport for London has had to contend with for quite some time.

“It would be a true statement to say that, historically, a number of these [IT] departments were working in isolation. Services and operations teams have had little interaction with change management and business engagement team, for example,” he says.

“They attempted to work in a more siloed fashion – and one of the things that Project Horizon has allowed us to do is to remove those silos and allow the IT and IM leadership teams to work together in a more cohesive way.”

A simple structure was introduced to support the IT operating model and goes live on 20 January, based on four pillars: engage, run, change and govern.

The IT transformation

The changes brought about by Project Horizon resulted in a new IT agenda for TfL, which will run until about 2014 and is divided into three themes: stabilisation, consolidation and innovation.

The first stage of the plan will be carried out from January over the next six-to-nine months and is all about assessing the way the organisation delivers IT-enabled change, as well as its processes, technology and the skills it employs.

“One of the issues we’ve had over the last few years is around reliability and stability for business-as-usual activities. So whether it is about desktops or enterprise resource planning (ERP) functions, we will be applying a set of baseline measures to look at the state of the service and where it needs to go in the future,” Townsend says.

Once that body of work is finished, Townsend’s team will move on to a phase of consolidation, which should continue until the middle of 2013 – at that stage, changes in the way TfL sources IT as well as contracting are to be expected.

The last stage of the programme will focus on a programme of innovation, which includes look at business engagement and making better use of data internally with improved use of business intelligence.

“At the beginning of 2014, we should be maximising our benefits and starting to leverage some smarter technology for TfL going forward – we are currently very limited in the mobility of our data, getting the right information into the hands of the right people to make the right decisions, regardless of whether they sit behind a desk, stand on a platform or drive a taxi,” says the CIO.

Collaboration on the cards

Townsend is a big fan of collaboration and engaging with the IT teams at other members of the Greater London Authority (GLA) to come up with more ideas around cost-efficiency and innovation.

He says, there is scope for collaboration around the way in which GLA IT departments buy infrastructure. Many GLA bodies use SAP as their enterprise resource planning standard so there are opportunities for alignment in systems as well. For example, TfL is in talks with the Metropolitan Police about a possible partnership around these areas.  

“What we have to do is look more pragmatically at what we can do [with the GLA] and turn some of those ideas into some more tangible outputs, predominantly around reducing the cost of IT across the GLA,” says Townsend.

“We’ve got to look at where the boundaries of commercial and technology activity cross – after all, we all need technology to support the business, so there must be more areas of collaboration that we can explore.”

Townsend points out that one of the historic shortcomings at TfL is that it didn’t have a lot of strategic direction from an IM perspective. The CIO expects this will be fixed with the new structure, but he says that if IT strategies aren’t aligned, there is a risk of mismatch in business outcomes when it comes down to joining some of the GLA technology estates together.

“For that reason, we are first talking about our own strategy, what other members of the GLA family need and looking at where the synergies are, so that we can work together more effectively in the future ,” Townsend says.

An eventful agenda

Despite concerns over extensive overcrowding and excessive delays during the London Olympic Games, the Transport for London CIO says his team has learned a great deal from the test events carried out in late 2011 and is confident the IT underpinning the public transport network will run smoothly.

“Because of the way Transport for London does its business, most of the services we require are there to cover major events, so there is no real provision of new services going forward,” says Townsend.

“What we have to ensure is, where a service may be required from say, 6am to 10pm as part of major events, that they are available and supported 24/7,” he says.

“The service that LU uses will be same they use for managing day-to-day services, but beefed up to make sure they can cope with the influx of additional users.”

The IT chief insists that even though the Olympic Games is a key area of focus for the team, there is a lot more on his plate.

“There are a number of key events in London this year, starting with the mayoral elections, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee as well as Olympics, so it is not just the Games. 2012 really is one large event not just for TfL IT, but for the whole of the UK,” says Townsend.

To carry out a large internal transformation and still ensure services are provided during such a crucial year for the IT department at Transport for London, Townsend will seek to avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

“There has been a bit of an ‘I am providing services’ [mentality] and ‘technology looking for a problem’ historically, but we need to make sure we understand this business and become a part of it,” says Townsend.

“IM at TfL was named ‘YourIM’ and had its own branding, and that has bred a culture of IT and IM being slightly divorced from the main areas of the organisation and that needs to be fixed, they need to deliver the service,” he says.

“That [disconnect] has created a culture of silo-based delivery, which doesn’t drive the efficiency and collaboration that this organisation needs going forward. We also need to focus on how and where we spend our money and consider whether we are driving value across the organisation or taking the simplest route of implementing change in a very complex world.” 

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