CIO interview: Bruna Pellicci, global head of IT, Ashurst

Global law firm Ashurst is rolling out a new IT strategy based on single platforms worldwide for its core business areas

The best way to interview a CIO is over a cooked breakfast. True to this principle, Computer Weekly meets Bruna Pellicci, global head of IT at Ashurst, at a café on the Bethnal Green Road, a short walk from the legal firm’s head office in Liverpool Street, London.

Her family – just as they have since 1900 – runs the café in question, E. Pellicci, a grade II-listed London landmark and an institution beloved by east London’s builders, hipsters and celebrities. As we talk, family members and morning regulars come over for a chat. Pellicci (pictured) is the one sibling to have ventured beyond the art deco panelling of the family-owned café, but she still calls in every day for her early morning cup of tea. And this morning, the pick-me-up is very welcome.

A jet lagged Pellicci has recently returned from a two-week trip to Australia. “It’s a beautiful place,” she says of her visit to Sydney. Yet Pellicci’s trip was for work, not pleasure. In September 2011, Australian law firm Blake Dawson combined its Asian business with Ashurst. Full financial merger of the two firms followed in November 2013, with Blake Dawson renamed Ashurst Australia.

While on the other side of the world, Pellicci worked alongside Frank Baliotis, the recently appointed head of IT for Ashurst Australia. As well as face-to-face catch-ups, Pellicci says the two technology chiefs are in constant communication, be it through email, phone or video chat. “He has the autonomy and I know he’ll make things work,” says Pellicci, who believes effective staff engagement is critical to the modern technology organisation.

“Successful IT leadership is all about having a great team,” she says. “Without your people, you can’t do anything as a CIO. I’m lucky, because I’ve got good people stretched around the organisation and across the globe. My trips to Australia are all about maintaining that connection and ensuring the staff there always feel like they’re part of a much bigger business.”

Building a global technology team

Pellicci’s focus on engagement is not just concentrated on interactions with Australia. In June 2014, Ashurst announced it would become the first international law firm to establish a legal and business support services office in Glasgow. The initiative provided an opportunity for Pellicci to consider whether the structure of the IT team was right for the needs of the business. She used the change to create three geographically separate, but highly connected, work hubs.

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The London team deals with projects that are close to the business, such as project management, core application support and IT architecture. The team in Glasgow, on the other hand, deals with business-as-usual systems, manages the service desk, and works on software development and testing. Finally, the team in Australia focuses on projects associated with Pellicci’s recently signed-off IT strategy. 

Having an Australian IT base also allows Pellicci to consider alternative forms of service provision. By creating one service number around the globe, Ashurst employees can have their IT request fielded by staff in Australia or the UK at any time.

Pellicci continues to refine the working model in relation to how employees in each location develop, manage and run the firm’s global projects. She points to the work of one project manager who runs global initiatives from his base in London. Pellicci also makes reference to a similar individual in Australia, who is working on an initiative that relies on business sponsorship from an executive in London. In a further attempt to increase integration, Pellicci is looking to appoint a global delivery manager.

“Distributing work around the globe is not a straightforward task, but we try to give our people a global remit,” she says. “Our people have to expect some early starts and late finishes, but the reward is flexibility in regards to when and where they complete their work. And our IT team gets to work on some exciting projects that are implemented on a global basis. We’re using our approach to the division of work to upskill people.”

Pellicci meets with her global IT leadership team early every Wednesday morning. London-based executives attend the hour-long session. Senior employees who are away from the firm’s Liverpool Street base in London call in via video, including workers in Glasgow and Australia. “It’s a chance for us to sit down as a team, to talk about what’s happening and to discuss whether we’re being as effective as we can be,” she says.

Creating a strategy for business change

Pellicci continues to run a broad range of IT projects which draw on her 20 years of experience as a technology professional. Pellicci joined Ashurst as head of applications in October 2007. Eighteen months later, she assumed her current position as IT director at the firm, which now boasts 28 offices across 16 countries.

Pellicci presented her new IT strategy to the Ashurst board last summer, the aim of which is to deliver a cost-effective and high-quality IT service to the firm’s lawyers and clients. The strategy focuses on a broad range of areas but attention is directed towards the creation of a single platform for three core business areas: practice management, taking advantage of Elite’s 3E business software; customer relationship management (CRM), where potential systems are currently being evaluated; and new business intake (NBI), working alongside legal software specialist Intapp.

There’s only so much change you can run at one time; push too much transformation and you’re in danger of suffocating the business

Bruna Pellicci, Ashurst

So, what would Pellicci liked to have achieved by the end of the year? “We’ll be almost finished in terms of those three big projects,” she says, adding that she expects to put the finishing touches to a global approach for CRM in early 2016. “We’re spending time evaluating right now and we have to make sure we have the right strategy,” she says.

“There’s only so much change you can run at one time; push too much transformation and you’re in danger of suffocating the business. You have to take time and reflect on your choices and that’s what we’re doing right now in regards to CRM.”

The three big transformation projects – practice management, CRM and NBI – will provide a strong foundation for further change. Pellicci says some of the decisions regarding the next cohort of programmes are currently being finalised. Many of those decisions are being made as the firm moves into its new financial year in May. Pellicci is in discussion with the firm’s finance chief and other senior executives about which potential projects are valued and sustainable.

“There’s loads that we want to do in terms of IT,” says Pellicci. “But the reality is always about cost and making sure the money spent helps the business meet its priorities. When it comes to the next set of IT projects, it’s all about the rest of the business making decisions in regards to what kind of flavour of digital technology they would like.”

Focusing on security and mobility

One key focus remains information security. Pellicci recognises, like so many of her peers, that defence remains a moving target. CIOs could potentially spend every penny of their IT budgets on preventative systems and techniques. Pellicci says the modern focus on security is in sharp contrast to the early days of her career. “When I started working in IT, you didn’t need to worry about people hacking your systems,” she says.

“Now, the cyber threat is a huge concern for CIOs. It’s always the number one priority for legal IT directors. People looking to attack our business could be doing it for fun or they could be doing it to put our clients’ information at risk. Good security isn’t just about IT, either. You have to pay attention to physical areas, like entry gates and people sifting through printouts. You can always do more to make your company and its employees feel less vulnerable.”

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Mobility is another important area for Pellicci. She aims to make the organisation mobile by default, giving employees an opportunity to work safely from mobile devices and from any location. Microsoft Lync has been deployed globally across the business. Pellicci is evaluating the best way for the business to make the most of mobility. She says many workers at the firm still use BlackBerry devices, although iPhones have started being approved.

“Technology changes so quickly, so the thought of a model that allows people to choose their own device is potentially great. But that simple strategy can be complicated by the choices people make – what if someone wants to use more than a single device, and should we give these employees access to their corporate information across a range of devices?” asks Pellicci.

“If people use their own devices, you have to make sure policies are in place to allow you to wipe the technology remotely. You also have to be very careful about charges and the costs that will potentially be picked up by the business. The challenge is to create flexibility, maintain control and keep costs in check. And like many other CIOs, I’m still searching for the best possible model for mobility that allows us to address all those business concerns.”

Focusing on the right areas

Leaving the café and walking towards Liverpool Street, Pellicci reflects on her achievements and long-term objectives. She still lives in Bethnal Green, just a short stroll from the family-run business. But running a global IT department means she has plenty of opportunities to venture further afield.

It is a challenging role, but balancing service management and technology transformation around the world is something she relishes. “I’m tired but happy,” she says, stressing how important work is to her enjoyment of life.

“I love my job because every day brings a new challenge. And great IT management is like life. It’s better to do one thing properly rather than 10 things shoddily.”

Image courtesy of Martin Burton/CIO Connect

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