CIO interview: Damian Smith, head of IT, England and Wales Cricket Board
Embracing change at an institution more than 200 years old can be a sticky wicket, but England and Wales Cricket Board’s head of IT is batting for a digitally enabled future
Damian Smith, head of IT at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), is pushing dynamic, digitally enabled change in what might be considered the most traditional of sports.
Smith has provided consultancy to the national governing body for cricket since 2004. He was appointed to his full-time IT leadership role five years ago, in January 2013, and Smith says he joined at just the right time.
“It was a very interesting inflexion point for the ECB,” he says. “They recognised that they wanted to grow the game significantly and there was a change in the conversation. Instead of just being a national governing body, they had ambitions to increase participation, improve the customer and match day experience – and they wanted to start taking advantage of digital technology.”
It is here, through the smart use of advanced systems and services, that Smith was expected to deliver a match-winning performance. “They wanted me to help navigate them through that journey,” he says.
Smith relishes the opportunity he has been given, and says running IT for the ECB is a great role. “I’ve done my fair share of work in defence, tobacco and financial services, so to do something lighter is really enjoyable,” he says.
“There is a massive opportunity in cricket. We are nowhere near realising that yet, but we are on the right track to start capitalising on the opportunities we have outlined. It’s a wonderful sport and industry to be involved in.”
Smith recognises that the role provides some special opportunities. “I get to walk into Lord’s every day and I have meetings at cricket grounds all over the world,” he says. “I’m involved with elite athletes and some incredible sports science and medicine practitioners.
“We are doing some cutting-edge work that will also help us reach new audiences. And you can potentially make a massive difference to people’s lives, because you’re encouraging individuals of all ages to get outside and play team sports.”
Understanding the scale of operations
The ECB is responsible for running cricket across 18 first-class clubs across England and Wales. Smith says he and his colleagues have the extensive remit of managing the game from the elite level right down to the amateur games that take place on village greens.
“I’m in charge of some cool systems,” he says. “In the elite space, we’ve got systems that cover biomedicine, telemetry, video analysis and medical surveillance. We also have systems that support the smooth running of matches and tournaments. So, that’s everything from media accreditation to match day experience and Wi-Fi systems for spectators.”
At grass-roots level, Smith and his team look after the computer systems that administer the recreational game, such as uploading statistics and footage, and helping fans share highlights on social media. The IT team also maintain electronic learning and membership systems.
Technology is used to support the governance and operations of the sport. Key enterprise applications cover areas such as safeguarding, anti-corruption, anti-doping and day-to-day business systems, including human resources and finance. In total, Smith and his team manage more than 70 systems. So how do they focus their efforts?
“Our product is the participant,” says Smith. “The more participants we have, the more value we can generate for the game through broadcasters, sponsors and the government. The more we know about participants, the more value we can create for our backers and the more money we can extract. We must keep reinvesting to keep people interested in the game.”
Analysing big data quickly
Smith says his work on information and insight sits at the heart of his transformation efforts. “Big data underpins everything,” he says. “It’s hugely important from a performance perspective, so that we can analyse the opposition and our own players, to make them better cricketers, make them fitter and reduce the number of injuries they sustain.”
But Smith has had to overcome some challenges. He says the ECB, like many other organisations, was wedded to a traditional model of collecting and analysing data. This relied on business users asking for insight via a data warehouse, with IT specialists pulling together sources, cleansing information and producing reports.
The technique involved a time-intensive method, during which the business process – and the demands the organisation faced – could change. Smith looked for a different approach and chose a data lake architecture that has allowed his team to reduce monthly reporting to a matter of hours. The lake runs on the Google Cloud Platform.
“When someone talks to us and wants to analyse a source of data, we can pick it up, drop it into the Google Cloud Platform and the information can be analysed instantly,” he says. “We have all the tools and technologies to analyse data and produce analytics within the hour.”
Making fact-based decisions
Smith says the key lesson from this new, integrated approach to data is that users who want to make the most of technology should not have to rely on complex applications. “People at the ECB do not want to have to wrestle with BI [business intelligence] tools,” he says.
“We are delivering all the insight through apps, via rapid and low-code development. People across the organisation can come to us, say they want to pull information together and, within a week, they have an app that allows them to analyse their information source, without having to use BI tools.”
Smith says this app-based way of working means the organisation puts big data into the hands of people who would not otherwise use it. He gives the example of cricket performance analysts, who previously relied on spreadsheets to indicate the various strengths of players. Now all that performance information is pushed into a single app. The result, says Smith, is that team selections are fact-based rather than gut-based.
“The head of fast bowling had lots of spreadsheets that held information in different sources,” he says. “Only he had access to the data, unless he shared it with other people. So he came to us in IT and said he wanted all this information in one place so he could share results with every county bowling coach.
“That way, when the bowlers come to England and work with the coaching team, they can go back to their county afterwards and continue to focus on the same things. We created an app that integrated all this information within a week. Within three weeks, we had a fully operational app that could be rolled out to the county coaches.”
Delivering great results
Smith says other projects work alongside his big data initiative. The ECB is using customer relationship management to create a deeper understanding of customers and participants. “When anyone contacts us with anything to do with cricket, we know who they are and what their motivations are for talking with us,” he says. “We know the information we need to give to these people to help serve their needs.”
Another related priority area is digital contact points. Smith says people can contact the organisation in a variety of ways through a broad range of touch points, whether they are a spectator watching the sport at home or an individual who helps run a local cricket club and who is keen to use the pavilion at the ground for a wedding reception.
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“Everyone in cricket must make sure they know the answers to this broad range of questions,” he says. “Digital technology plays a significant part in allowing us to deliver those results. Whether it’s second-screen apps providing information to people at home or data to people at a venue, our aim is for people to have the knowledge they require when they need it.”
Partnerships are crucial, says Smith. He points to his work with IT suppliers, but also to the various stakeholders with an interest in cricket, such as those who run venues. “We all need to work together to achieve that shared goal of making the experience at cricket the best sporting experience it can possibly be,” he says. “We want people to go away and tell everyone they know that this is a fantastic sport.”
Smith expects the ECB vision to evolve over the next few years. “We have a massive opportunity with our new city-based Twenty20 tournament, which is set to begin in 2020,” he says. “We have the chance to market that competition to people who might never have followed cricket before. We can show them that getting involved in the sport provides a wonderful experience, whether that’s watching, playing or taking a part in a local cricket club.”
Embracing continual change
Smith says achieving those aims through digital technology is key, but he also recognises that reaching that goal is far from straightforward. He refers to several challenges.
“Across all areas of IT, finding highly skilled people and choosing the right partners is key,” he says. Smith and his executive peers must also be careful to drive change delicately across a sport that revels in its rich tradition.
“Like all organisations, especially one with more than 200 years of history, there are areas of inertia when it comes to how the business is perceived,” he says. “People have strong views on how cricket should be played. However, the sport needs to continually reinvent itself and attract new audiences, while also respecting and embracing its traditions.
“The worst thing we could do would be to tear up existing and successful forms of the sport, like Test cricket and club structures. That is the lifeblood of our game that has driven us to this point. What we need to do now is to find ways to allow us to embrace new technology and new formats of the game without upsetting our rich heritage.”