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CIO interview: Brad Dowden, Airswift

Recruitment firm’s new CIO wants to help the business make the most of IT and use technology to improve speed and efficiency

Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment firm Airswift, is full of the enthusiasm that comes from assuming a new IT leadership role in a fast-growing business.

After spending almost two years in interim executive posts, Dowden has built his knowledge base, surveyed the market and found the right opportunity. 

“I love this role,” he tells Computer Weekly over lunch in an Italian restaurant near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Airswift specialises in placing skilled experts in blue-chip oil and gas companies. It helps businesses to source talent and then manages the logistics, such as visas, wages and transportation, involved in placing workers around the world. 

“Labour markets are global now, yet firms often don’t have the right people in the right locations,” says Dowden. As well as helping firms to source new talent, Airswift uses logistics skills and intelligence to help move in-house workers between jobs and locations.

“Recruitment is the core of our business, but we are diversifying and IT can play a key role in increasing our value,” he adds. 

After leaving his post as CIO at recruitment firm Adecco in mid-2014, Dowden spent time in a range of interim positions, including a year managing IT transformation at Odeon and UCI Cinemas.

One of his later interim appointments involved running technology for Airswift, and after working for the company since August last year, he became full-time CIO in February. 

“I was really enjoying the role,” he says, explaining his decision to take up a permanent IT leadership position. “It’s a great company with great people and I can see so much potential in the business.” 

Potential for growth

Airswift was formally recognised as a single entity in January, when specialist recruitment firms Air Energi and Swift Worldwide Resources merged. Dowden says he looked at the two firms and realised that, despite the potential for growth, the IT needed a lot of work. 

“There was a poor understanding of technology projects and how the contracts that had been signed could help deliver results,” he says. “The service from suppliers wasn’t great. Wherever you look, there are lots of opportunities to improve how the business makes the most of IT.” 

“Wherever you look, there are lots of opportunities to improve how the business makes the most of IT”

Brad Dowden, Airswift

Dowden says many of those improvements relate to underlying technology platforms, but there is a greater opportunity for a wider IT-led business transformation.

Dowden says the management team is young and eager: all the company’s vice-presidents are under 40, for example. 

“Everyone at the company wants to do more and learn more,” he says. “They are looking for me to provide the kind of high-level IT knowledge that they haven’t had before. As a group of senior managers, they can really see the benefits that technology can bring to the business.” 

Platform for change 

Airswift is keen to move into new markets and Dowden says technology can give it differentiation. “We want to be a lot more competitive,” he says. “By shortening the time it takes for our client companies to hire people, and reducing our infrastructure costs, we continue to increase our profitability.” 

Technology helps the business to create a more detailed understanding of its clients, both in terms of individuals looking for specific roles and enterprise customers that require broader solutions to recruitment challenges. Dowden wants to use IT to help his firm’s recruiters spend more time with candidates and for sales people to spend longer with businesses. 

Technology isn’t a silver bullet – we still have to get our processes right
Brad Dowden, Airswift

“Technology isn’t a silver bullet – we still have to get our processes right,” he says. “But if we can apply technology correctly, we know we can improve the speed and efficiency of our business processes. We need our people to know they can rely on the data and systems they use in their work.” 

Dowden’s challenge is only just beginning. At Airswift, he has inherited a recently merged business that uses a series of industry-standard applications. The key issue, he says, is integration – many of the applications run in silos and there is a reliance on manual data entry as reports move around the business. 

“It works, but integration would provide so many efficiencies,” he says. “We want to merge platforms to create one common system so we can operate as a single business. As we link systems, we want to make it possible for information to flow seamlessly. Then we want to use that single platform to enhance the business and create the biggest possible benefits for employees.” 

Using the cloud

Dowden expects the first stage of business transformation to be complete by mid-2017. For now, he must run a bi-modal approach whereby he keeps key systems running, while also looking to make careful changes to the firm’s IT setup. The re-platforming of key enterprise tools is already under way, however. 

The firm has consolidated productivity applications and moved all its employees to Office 365. Dowden has also implemented a company intranet and introduced social networking platform Yammer. In terms of information, the firm has merged its recruitment databases and is now turning its attention to Salesforce. 

Small changes can have a big impact. For example, Dowden has renamed the IT department ‘information management’. “It’s a re-branding exercise to show the rest of the business that we’re not just technologists – we provide the data to help people make informed decisions,” he says. 

I’m a fan of on-demand IT
Brad Dowden, Airswift

The broader aim is to reduce the number of platforms used by the organisation. And, as with so many CIOs, cloud computing will play a key role in Dowden’s activities. 

Forrester says use of the cloud will shift into the next gear through 2016. Rather than just picking elements of enterprise IT to run on-demand, the researcher believes a new stage of the cloud is beginning, where executives will be able to run entire business ecosystems in the cloud. 

“I’m a fan of on-demand IT,” says Dowden. “It’s so much simpler than having to maintain your own technology and the maturity levels of [suppliers] are increasing quickly. The cloud allows me and my team to spend much more time focused on business outcomes, rather than operational IT concerns.” 

Right internal expertise 

Dowden’s focus on business transformation means he is also keen to stimulate skills development, and he wants to create an IT department of business experts rather than technologists.

He is currently establishing the internal structures of his new IT organisation. Workers are transferring from other parts of the business to create an information management team, he says. 

“You’ll always have some people who focus on production elements,” he adds. “But we now need people who can use technology to help improve the organisation – and, in our case, those people are coming from the rest of the business.” 

Read more CIO interviews

Some industry experts expect to see increased movement of business professionals into technology roles. The movement outlined by Dowden confirms this trend, but with an important and subtle caveat. Once in the technology team, these business specialists will not become coders or be expected to assume technical responsibilities. 

“They will enter our information management department and learn what technological capability exists in terms of systems and services,” says Dowden. “That knowledge isn’t hard to acquire. And once they’re capable, these business-focused specialists will be the people who help lead the technology department.” 

Such specialists have deep organisational expertise and excel in their understanding of how the business runs. The situation that emerges, says Dowden, is a meeting point where specialist people within the information management department are aware of both the business’ broader requirements and the particular tools that can help the organisation meet its objectives. 

“You don’t want to customise an application to suit a business process that might be broken anyway,” he says. “By getting people in your department who understand how the organisation operates, you can tweak the right elements. And you can then really start to use IT like a utility, calling on particular systems and services as the business demand emerges.”

Competitive differentiation

Dowden’s grand aims for business transformation are aided by his high status within Airswift. He sits on the company’s operations board and reports directly to the chief executive. “This shows that technology and information are key drivers to business success,” he says. 

CIOs entering a new role often have to spend time proving the value of IT leadership. Dowden is in the fortunate position of being able to hit the ground running, thanks to the receptiveness of the board and his own strengths as an individual. “I do view myself as an IT leader, but I also view myself as a business executive,” he says. “You have to be commercially aware as a modern CIO.” 

Dowden says this awareness will help him push his information-led transformation across the business during the next 12 to 24 months. “I want us to have developed a much better level of insight into our data,” he says, adding that there will be three key levels of focus. 

Internally, he wants to give employees dashboards that illustrate key business metrics in almost real time. For candidates, he is keen to provide a clearer view of the roles that are available and the potential benefits. And for client companies, his aim is to focus on service delivery and business intelligence around key areas, such as price and project management.

“I want to enhance Airswift’s services so we become the recruitment company of choice for candidates and companies,” says Dowden. “We want to use IT to add more value for our customers so that we create a competitive differentiation in the marketplace.”

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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