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CIO interview: Ian Cohen, chief product and technology officer, Addison Lee

At taxi and transport company Addison Lee, technology is focused around customer experience before worrying about datacentres, servers and what elements make up the IT infrastructure

Ian Cohen is more than just a CIO – his job title says as much. As chief product and technology officer (CPTO) at taxi company Addison Lee, it’s Cohen’s role to lead transformation and global expansion at one of London’s most recognisable transportation brands.

So, how did Cohen – who is also referred to as group CIO at the organisation – end up in the CPTO role? The emergence of this position seems to be a growing trend in technology leadership. Since Computer Weekly last caught up with Cohen in September 2018, a number of IT chiefs have taken on a similar CPTO remit, with responsibility for not just information, but also products and technologies.

Cohen says the shift is, in part, related to a split in CIO styles. There are some IT leaders who are more drawn to “things”, such as boxes, wires, processes and governance. These technology chiefs see the world through the lens of something that has to be controlled and managed – and that’s a strength, says Cohen, because things do have to be controlled and managed.

But he also argues that there’s another group of IT leaders who have risen through the ranks by focusing primarily on the needs of the customer. These CIOs see technology through the lens of the people who consume the systems and services that are actually created using technology, but that are not always created in the IT department.

“I started out in the world of datacentres and servers and boxes and networks, but I quickly moved into the world of consumption and how people consume their products,” says Cohen, reflecting on his IT leadership career, which has included CIO stints at the Financial Times, Associated Newspapers and insurance specialist JLT Group.

Cohen argues that IT leaders with a similar background to himself have also tended to lean more to a product-centric view of the world. These CIOs think less about servers and more about customer experiences, and they concentrate on how products are designed and built.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that those people are less interested in infrastructure,” he says, “and it doesn’t mean the infrastructure people can’t do products and customer experience. But where you start from matters.”

Building trust in a brand

This focus on products has had a consequential impact on Cohen’s role at Addison Lee. When he started at the company in July 2017, he found an organisation that had tended to focus on the underlying mechanisms that supported allocation, pick-up and dispatch. But the demands of business change in an age of digital disruption meant they had to look at different ways to engage customers, who are passengers, bookers and drivers.

“We used to be about the car turning up and offering a great service – now, anyone with an app can get a car to turn up,” says Cohen.

“The car arriving on time to take you to where you want to go is just table stakes and when everyone can do the basics, it challenges you to do more and be more. What matters most now, and differentiates us, is the focus on experience, the quality of the service and the trust in our brand. Everything is predicated on the moment that you, as a customer, make the decision to use us instead of one of our competitors.”

Addison Lee faces an increasingly tough marketplace. The company still counts 80% of the FTSE 100 as clients and the company is battling to maintain its position following the entrance of Uber and other ride-sharing apps into the market. The company was recently bought by a group of investment banks.

“We are all about making the most of the emotional state that means you, as a customer, pick us over everyone else”

Ian Cohen, Addison Lee

Cohen says the role of a technologist at Addison Lee – or at any other customer-facing business – is to better understand and tap into those emotional decisions about which brand to use. He says technology is simply the conduit through which customers pick their transport provider, whereas it is the customer and product experience you create that drives behaviour.

“My role is about digitising experience – I don’t like describing it that way, but we are all about making the most of the emotional state that means you, as a customer, pick us over everyone else,” he says. “And that’s all about consistently delivering great customer experiences and building trust in our brand. How do we create that experience, whether that’s in an app, on the web or through our contact centre?”

When Computer Weekly last spoke with Cohen 18 months ago, he referred to a range of technology implementations and developments. Addison Lee had invested in Salesforce to help develop effective marketing, sales and service strategies. Other priorities included application programming interfaces (APIs), microservice-based architectures and big-data technologies.

He says this focus on cloud, integration and insight continued through 2019 and into this year. Cohen reiterates how the implementation of systems and services across the business is less about radically changing the technology landscape and more about how Addison Lee becomes a passenger-centric and customer-obsessed organisation.

“We can’t reach that goal if we have layers of technical complexity separating us from our drivers, our passengers or our corporate customers,” he says. “All that stuff – like service architecture and APIs – has a purpose, and that purpose is to help us drive an incredible customer experience.”

Cohen says it is surprising how many companies still fail to put their desired business objective before the technology implementation. He says CIOs and technologists comfortably talk about simplifying the architecture or creating a contextual, bi-directional information flows between one system and another.

“Yet too often, what we don’t talk about – when you make a decision to use containers or microservices or whatever – is why would you do that?” says Cohen.

“What do you want to become at the end of the day? When you’ve made all the technology changes, how different an organisation are you going to be at that point and, most importantly, why would your customers care?”

Creating collaborative workspaces

Sometimes the aim of a business-change project is closer to home. While CIOs must strive to keep their clients happy, internal customers matter, too. Cohen gives the example of collaboration. In 2018, Addison Lee moved from a building that was spread across five floors to one floor in a new building with an open-floor workspace. Technology is key to the set-up.

The new office space is arranged in functional neighbourhoods, such as sales, finance and marketing. An individual from one function is free to go and work with colleagues in another neighbourhood if they need to, because the company is using mobile technology and collaboration software to allow its employees to work from any location.

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“Some people found that a bit unnerving because they had become comfortable with a mode of work where they’d come in and sit at their own desk every day. But most people have embraced it,” says Cohen, referring to a common concern facing CIOs who try to introduce new technology-enabled ways of working. While flexibility can come as a shock to some, the benefits become clear during the average working day, as he explains.

“On my way out of the office for this meeting, I saw someone in marketing – who might have been three floors away from their IT colleagues in our previous office – walk over to the customer relationship management engineering specialist and explain what they’re trying to achieve with their next marketing campaign,” he says.

“The engineering specialist then explained how the marketing team would be able to meet that goal using Salesforce. And I love that kind of conversation – because it’s just two people wanting to do the right thing for their business and we’ve been able to make that as simple as just having a chat.”

Building experience-focused teams

Cohen says he has worked to ensure that the requirements of the client stay front and centre among the technology team. One of his key tactics here has been to ensure departments in the technology organisation are structured around experiences rather than focusing on the digital channels through which they deliver their capabilities.

“We took the decision early on to not have app teams or web teams,” he says. “Instead, we have an experience-led product approach and we’ve created specific squads focused on the passenger experience, driver experience and the booking experience. The product owners leading those teams obsess about continually improving the experience. And they're empowered to use technology to make those experiences better.

“If you obsess about the channel and not the experience, then you miss the behaviour that goes on. As our technology continues to evolve, we won’t worry about what channel the customer contacts us through, whether that’s web, app, mobile or something else.”

When it comes to the use of emerging technology, Cohen warns other digital leaders to be wary of the hype. He says he encounters lots of business people talking about the potential impact of artificial intelligence, data science and robotic process automation – and he fears the hyperbole is often greater than on-the-ground action.

“Sometimes it feels like a lot of people seeing something in a research paper and then throwing a lot of things across the desk,” he says.

Cohen concludes by reiterating his core premise – CIOs who want to use systems and services to change their organisations for the better must put business requirements first and technologies very much second.

“The fundamental thing that we’ve done is to take a business that worried about cars and to create one that obsesses about its customers, whether they’re passengers, drivers, bookers or partners,” he says.

“The biggest transformation at Addison Lee has been its shift to being absolutely obsessed by the experience that you have with the brand when you book with us.”

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