CIO interview: Sean Harley, group IT director, Top Right Group

Sean Harley is an IT leader who likes to get stuck in – and he has plenty to get stuck into, having transformed IT at publishing firm Top Right Group

Sean Harley (pictured) is an IT leader who likes to get his hands dirty. “I like technology,” he says. “I like getting stuck in.” And he has plenty to get stuck into – having transformed technology operations at publishing firm Top Right Group, the group IT director is now turning his focus on supporting business growth.

“I’m not the kind of CIO who sits in an office all day with the door shut. I like to walk around the team and chat about how things are going. I take pride in knowing about what’s going on in people’s personal lives, as well as their business lives,” he says.

Harley talks achievements and aims with Computer Weekly at Top Right Group’s recently opened Wilder Walk offices near Piccadilly Circus in London. As well as providing a smart venue for a wide-ranging discussion, the office provides an opportunity to showcase the kind of transformative work that Harley has been undertaking since working at the firm.

Building a platform for change

Having previously held the position of technology operations director for customer intelligence specialist Sky IQ, Harley first worked in a consultancy role for Top Right Group through 2012. During the year, Harley ran a number of transformation projects, particularly around promoting better ways of working across the newly created organisation.

Top Right Group was formed in 2012 and consists of several different elements, including magazine publisher Emap, database business 4C Group, fashion forecasting firm WGSN and i2i Events Group. One of Harley’s projects during his year as a consultant involved helping the organisation move about 1,200 members of staff from Greater London House in Mornington Crescent to four new offices in the heart of London, including Wilder Walk.

The aim of the project was to give the constituent parts of the new business their own identity. The physical transformation ran hand-in-hand with a technological change programme. Rather than having to use legacy IT, the new buildings were kitted out with the latest unified communication, video conferencing and collaboration systems.

Harley, as the consultant leading the team, had to install the underlying networking infrastructure. He and his team had nine months to complete the transformation. “It was very successful,” he says, reflecting on the achievements of the project. “Unified communications has allowed our staff to be more mobile and productive. It’s enabled flexible working across our businesses.”

As part of the process, Harley also paid attention to datacentre resources. Systems had previously been outsourced to various third parties. The business was keen to bring services back in-house so the IT team could be made more accountable for service management and technical delivery. It was at this point, in January 2013, that Harley became the permanent IT director for Top Right Group.

“Being a consultant beforehand allowed me to establish a relationship with the various parts of the business, so moving into the permanent role worked really well,” he says. “The physical transformation that I’d already been involved in continued and, to an extent, still continues today. We’re always looking to use digital technology to deliver new products and services. We have a truly global remit and we want to take our approach to technology into new areas.”

Continuing the transformation

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Harley says it is also important to reflect on decisions because, as an IT director, you can discover earlier implementations require a tweak. Harley had to work across multiple areas during the change process. He says that with hindsight, some decisions might have been made differently, particularly given the fast pace of change required.

“We’ve been refining some of our technical decisions,” he says, pointing to earlier changes in systems and services. Rather than continuing to rely on traditional tiered hardware, Harley has helped the business move towards high-performance, tier-zero storage. “The business doesn’t stop,” he says, reflecting on the constant need to reflect and modify. “We’ve had to keep delivering new platforms to support growth.”

One example of that form of delivery includes the creation of a fashion retail analytics platform, based on EMC’s Pivotal big data product. The platform, which is a service offered by the WGSN part of the business, collates high-level business intelligence on fashion trends for retailers, merchandisers and designers.

As the venture capital-backed Top Right Group continues to grow, Harley also has to help the organisation absorb new businesses. He points to another example from WGSN, where the online trend specialist recently acquired forecasting tool Stylesight. Harley supported the business integration, helping the merged entity to take advantage of technology and launch new products.

“By working with the product leads across the business, we’ve enhanced our platforms to create more stability and to provide better customer service,” he says. So what about his other aims and objectives? Is Harley going to be pushing creative solutions to intractable challenges across all areas of the business? In time, possibly – but his key priority for 2015 is to take stock and to exploit IT.

“We continue to innovate but I’d like to say that, in as much as it’s possible, this could be a year where we have no new projects,” he says. “Our focus this year is on orchestration and automation. We want to be able to build services quickly for the different parts of the business and to be consistent in the way that we work. We need to fully exploit our investments in technology.”

Making the most of what you’ve already got

One of those areas involves cloud computing and server virtualisation. Harley is keen to help the organisation make the most of the installed VMware platform. He is working closely with the supplier to identify new opportunities for orchestration and automation. “We want to use the technology that we already own to help create careful capacity planning and management,” says Harley.

“Some of our businesses are unpredictable in terms of load. Fashion weeks, in particular cities around the world, provide a good example. During those weeks, we can see up to 40% more content being generated. As the technology around content production improves, we need to be ready. We need to make sure we are supporting the business as the demands grow and that we can access additional compute power and storage as required.”

We have to define what bring your own device means for the business – and that’s a big challenge

Sean Harley, Top Right Group

Mobility is another priority. Harley says the firm has spent the past few years developing its unified communications approach based on Cisco technology. The company has invested in a range of services, including WebEx collaboration technology and Jabber instant messaging.

Harley says the aim now is to start using some of these applications across mobile devices to improve worker productivity and efficiency. The approach can also help slash costs. Harley estimates the introduction of unified communications into Top Right Group helped save the company at least £25,000 a month.

Using WebEx as the sole collaboration platform provides another means to help cut outgoings. “Introducing one communication system provides a stable conferencing tool for the entire business and that’s a big step forwards,” says Harley. “To have a reliable and functionally strong platform is great for our senior executives.”

The focus on collaboration forms part of Harley’s broader aim to provide clarity around the firm’s mobile strategy through 2015. “We have to define what bring your own device means for the business – and that’s a big challenge,” he says. “There’s many different facets to the strategy and we have to give people the mobility they need.”

Many workers can already access corporate email and other services securely through their personal devices. Some restrictions are in place, regarding what type of device staff are able to use. In many cases, Windows Phone has become the standard mobile operating system, and the company uses Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365. Harley says the Windows device provides a great user experience in terms of service integration with key applications, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Moving into the future

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For Harley and his IT team, 2015 will be a year of stabilisation, where – in his own words – the technology organisation gets its operational processes and procedures nailed. “We want to get everything sorted,” he says. “Our objectives are to help the business grow, to reduce customer churn and to innovate.”

Harley says meeting those aims through 2015 and onwards means the IT department will have to remain tightly aligned with business goals. When it comes to helping the various part of Top Right Group to continue to grow, Harley says the IT team makes sure every resource it rolls out is high-performing and scalable.

“We have to ensure we can work quickly in regard to the business’s deployment plans for its new products,” he says. “There’s a healthy product delivery schedule across all areas of the business. At the end of the year, success will mean the IT department has helped the rest of the organisation to deliver those products.”

For other objectives, Harley says reducing churn is about making sure the IT being deployed is available, ready and able to handle demand. And new technology, despite Harley’s desire to focus on stabilisation through 2015, remains very much on the agenda.

“We love a bit of innovation,” he says. “Our CEO is a technologist and we enjoy using creative IT solutions to help the business reduce costs and offer new services. As an IT organisation we’ve been having meetings with emerging companies and our business has started to think how it might use the technologies created by those firms to help develop new products and services. That’s what makes the job exciting.”

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