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CIO interview: Ian Cohen, global CIO, Addison Lee

Addison Lee’s global CIO is building a business strategy and ensuring the transport company has a flexible platform for growth

Ian Cohen has a history of seeking new challenges. Over the past 20 years, he has held digital leadership roles at some of the UK’s biggest brands, including Lloyds Bank, the Financial Times, Associated Newspapers and Jardine Lloyd Thompson.   

At the end of 2014, Cohen took a new direction, spending almost three years building a portfolio career, helping startups and scale-up businesses to emerge and grow, while advising established firms how to embrace digital transformation and think like startups. It was a role he relished.

Cohen enjoyed the broad range of opportunities during his time away from the day-to-day demands of digital stewardship, yet he remains a business leader at heart.

Last August, Cohen joined transport specialist Addison Lee Group as global CIO, where he is helping to drive the global expansion of the business. “It’s been so fast – we’re literally running at 1,000 miles an hour,” says Cohen, reflecting on his first 12 months at the firm. 

“We are changing everything – from the building we’re in to the core infrastructure, the services we use to run the business, as well as creating new digital products for our passengers, corporate clients and drivers.” 

Getting back in the hot seat 

Returning to a full-time digital leadership role might have come as a shock to the system, but Cohen has relished his return to corporate life – and much of that enjoyment is due to the pioneering nature of the role. “I’m absolutely loving it,” he says.   

“Even though I’m called CIO, I’m actually the chief product and technology officer. I have a remit that runs from product management, through solution development and platform engineering, and on to infrastructure and delivery. Apparently, I’m part of an emerging group of CIOs extending their remit in this way. I guess it was natural for me, given how drawn I am to customer experience and product-led development.” 

Cohen says this focus on products means recognising everything your business does is directly related to creating great client experiences. The single-minded concentration on the customer experience forces you to look at their needs differently, he says. It also creates a clear purpose for digital systems and services. 

Despite this central focus on the customer, some elements of a traditional CIO role will always be important. “You can’t just focus on the products and technology without a wider understanding of context and governance. You must be well versed in GDPR [EU General Data Protection Regulation], data protection and residency, and risk and compliance to do this job nowadays,” he says.  

“Equally, if you don’t understand how to assemble technology services and recognise where to apply cloud, containers, serverless, hybrid or whatever, you’re going to struggle. You need a point of view on development frameworks, methods and tools as well. It’s that diversity – challenging what’s left of my inner geek whilst feeding my obsession with experience-led product development and delivery – that makes this role so special.” 

As a product- and consumer-focused CIO, Cohen says technology is best thought of as the components that allow him to create new value for the business. “It’s about using those tools to assemble something different,” he says. “As a modern CIO, you must continually look through the lens of people who are consuming your services, and design and build new products based on that point of view.” 

Innovating on behalf of the customer 

In his broader executive position, Cohen receives a significant opportunity to work alongside his board colleagues and think about the firm’s business proposition. Addison Lee was founded in 1975 and Cohen says it was the first ground transport disruptor in London – the firm recognised early the need to create a service for its customers, rather than just a journey in a vehicle.  

“That recognition changed the market,” says Cohen, who says the firm was also the first to use in-cab technology and the first to allow its customers to book online. While these successes were impressive, Cohen also recognises the firm “lost its way a bit” when Uber arrived and provided a platform that changed the market dynamic. 

Yet he also believes the basis for long-term success remains strong, stating that about 80 of the FTSE 100 are clients. “We look after their most valuable assets – their people,” says Cohen.

Looking back on the firm’s in-house technology developments, he says: “We first became an expert in building systems to allocate and dispatch rides. We then grew those systems and put CRM [customer relationship management], billing and pricing into these full-stack technologies.” 

But while those strengths in allocation and dispatch have provided a platform for growth, they will not – in isolation – be enough to guarantee success in the future. “That’s just the ticket to the game – it’s everything else you do around customer engagement and service that ensures a great experience,” says Cohen. 

“For us, the customer means our passengers, corporate bookers, intermediaries and our drivers. Our business is predicated on creating and delivering a great experience for all our customers – so that’s where we must focus. We’re still experts in allocation and dispatch, but we must also be experts in customer engagement. What brought me back to being a CIO is that we have an opportunity to delight all these customers in new and exciting ways.” 

Building a business strategy

With customers ranging from passengers and drivers to personal assistants who book cars for executives, travel management companies and online booking specialists, Cohen says it is essential for Addison Lee to continue to innovate to create great experiences – and he refers to this continuing business transformation as “mobility as a service”. 

“That’s the thing that differentiates us from everyone else,” he says. “It’s about delivering a premium service married with levels of quality, trust, security and assurance that can’t be found elsewhere.”

Our business is predicated on creating and delivering a great experience for all our customers – so that’s where we must focus. We’re still experts in allocation and dispatch, but we must also be experts in customer engagement

Ian Cohen, Addison Lee

Cohen says this process involves digitising emotion – and success here is crucial to creating a long-term competitive advantage. “There’s an emotional state when the customer’s thumb is hovering over an app icon on a phone – we want you, because of our ability to establish trust, assurance and high-quality service, to pick Addison Lee.”

Technology is central to Cohen’s business strategy. On the customer engagement side, he refers to “relatively straightforward work”, including investments in Salesforce to help develop effective marketing, sales and service strategies. Cohen also mentions the requirement to create seamless integration across platforms.

“We need to build APIs [application programming interfaces] and services that hook seamlessly into our clients’ and partners’ systems,” he says. “We need to do that bi-directionally to allow allocation and dispatch times to adapt automatically if circumstances change, such as a meeting overrunning or a flight being delayed.”

Creating a flexible platform for growth

Cohen says moving away from big-stack, monolithic IT systems and towards flexible and extensible services is key. “We’re doing all the things you’d expect – we’re introducing rapid decomposition, microservices architecture and service bus-enabled technologies,” he says. “We’re breaking down monolithic IT into its constituent parts so those elements can be moved around quickly and re-assembled as new services.”

Other critical projects include moving the core infrastructure to a managed service and a hybrid cloud approach. Cohen continues to integrate systems and data from newly acquired firms – Addison Lee has purchased three businesses in the past 18 months. He is also changing how employees use computing as part of a forthcoming move to a new global headquarters at Paddington Basin in London. 

“There isn’t a part of the business that isn’t moving and changing in some form or another,” says Cohen. “It’s that kind of challenge that makes the pull back to corporate life so enticing. It had to be something special that brought me back – and this is it.” 

Cohen says a lot of his work over the past 12 months has been what he refers to as plumbing. When business leaders focus on strategy, it can sometimes be forgotten that CIOs must still manage and re-platform legacy systems. “When I arrived, we still had servers sitting on the third floor of a building with all the issues that come with traditional in-house IT,” he says. 

“Twelve months from now, I want us to have an infrastructure that’s enabling the global growth of the business in a frictionless fashion. Anything to do with our infrastructure should never be on the critical path of any business initiative we have. We’ll also have a fully flexible working environment, with most people walking around with tablets or laptops.” 

Seeking out new opportunities 

Cohen says he is aiming for seamless working in the firm’s soon-to-be-opened head office. “We want to use the collaborative power of technology to bring people together,” he says. “I hope you’ll be able to walk into our new building and see hot desking, lots of huddle space, and you’ll be unable to see the differences between business functions and teams.” 

When it comes to product development, Cohen is keen to help Addison Lee develop a series of experiences that are available digitally on whatever device a customer chooses to use. “We cover the full spectrum of ground travel, from high-volume and relatively low-cost journeys to high-end chauffeur services, with ever-increasing levels of passenger-specific customisation,” he says. 

“I want us to have an infrastructure that’s enabling the global growth of the business in a frictionless fashion”
Ian Cohen, Addison Lee

“Working across the full spectrum is difficult – that’s two very different models; one that’s optimised for efficiency and one that’s optimised for deep relationships. We want to create products and services that – irrespective of who you are and what situation you’re in – make it seamless, simple and impossible not to choose Addison Lee.” 

Cohen, above all else, remains passionate. “That enthusiasm is the one thing you simply can’t create,” he says. “I’ve always been curious. I see shapes and patterns in business and I’ve always been interested in how things fit together, whether that’s code, processes or strategies.” 

Another key feature of Cohen’s character is opportunism – and he will continue to search for stimulating experiences. “When things happen, I tend to say yes rather than no,” he says. “I’ve always moved between sectors for the challenge. When I left financial services back at the start of the noughties for the media industry, it was because of what I believed I could bring and what I could learn – it was something different. And I still think like that today.” 

Read more CIO interviews from Computer Weekly

  • The CIO of logistics firm Wincanton, Richard Gifford, is in the process of improving its digital propositions and developing a digital supply chain, while dealing with legacy systems. 
  • Michael Cole, chief technology officer at the European Tour and Ryder Cup, discusses how he is helping the sport of golf broaden its appeal through his “connected course” digital transformation vision. 
  • PayPoint CIO Jon Marchant describes the company’s shift to retail services and how it went from knowing very little about electronic point of sale system software to creating its own.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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