Coffey CIO resets path to stability

 

Rebuilding IT after rounds of redundancies.

Engineering consultancy Coffey International's new chief information officer John Talbot has drawn on his experience at Colonial First State to drive IT stabilisation at his new employer.

Since joining in August, Talbot has led the company on a series of IT reforms aimed at instituting a new structure and renewed sense of discipline in the technology services team.

His appointment came after a turbulent 18 months in the Sydney-headquartered consultancy's history, with the global financial crisis leading big projects to be cancelled or delayed and an acquisitive growth strategy not delivering expected returns.

Coffey made changes. It brought in a new managing director, John Douglas, who immediately ordered a review and set about restoring the company to its former glory.

"We need stability, clarity and alignment to regain our strategic direction," Douglas told investors in June last year.

Talbot is charged with instilling that strategic direction and stability within Coffey's IT organisation.

"The short term plan was to get in, stabilise and build up [our] people," he says.

"Because of the disruptive past, my role was really to give people some solid ground to stand on and build up their skills and capabilities.

"That's what we've been doing for the past three to four months and that's what we'll continue to do over the next six months."

He concedes that, upon starting with Coffey, the effects of the past 18 months on staff were apparent.

"Coffey went through a number of rounds of efficiency cuts - redundancies, effectively," Talbot says.

"That always has a damaging impact on the company, on the people that are left behind, and really when I got there I saw a lot of the effects of that.

"I've been through organisations where redundancies have been carried out but probably nothing that would parallel to Coffey's position."

However, Talbot saw much of the same business attributes in Coffey as Douglas has espoused to investors.

"The reason Coffey appealed to me was because the business fundamentals were always strong. Despite the financial difficulties they've had, they've got a fantastic reputation in their marketplace," he says.

"When I joined and saw the state of the people, it was an easy thing for me to just focus on the fact that the fundamentals are really strong, you've got some good strength in the leadership team - now let's set some goals and take it forward."

Talbot says he found "no resistance whatsoever" to planned stabilisation measures.

"In many respects, kicking [the process] off and getting support was really easy," he says.

"I think people were waiting for [an] approach and they gravitated towards... a set of goals that made sense, that [they] could see benefits from."

Eyeing ITIL

Underpinning some of Coffey's new direction is version three of the IT infrastructure library (ITIL) framework.

Talbot's pursuit of ITIL is a throwback to his almost six years spent as head of IT infrastructure at superannuation company Colonial First State.

There, IT staff faced a different set of pressures: "[Colonial] was looking at a growth strategy," Talbot says.

"[IT] was having very high demands placed on it and that can be just as stressful for people as the other end of the scale where things are very hard."

Talbot views ITIL as a "pragmatic" solution to Coffey's challenges.

"It happens to have all the key criteria to give people skills but more importantly gives Coffey as an organisation consistency of service at the lowest unit cost we can possibly deliver it at," he says.

"It seems to have all the right hallmarks of what any organisation would want. And having done it before successfully it made sense."

Talbot's believes his experience with ITIL will help avoid potential pitfalls associated with the framework, such as version three's reputation for being onerous or complex to implement.

"I have seen where [ITIL] becomes the dogma rather than the framework and that learning is well and truly [instilled]. I'm avoiding that at all costs," Talbot says.

"At the end of the day every time you're looking at this sort of process-centric and process excellence sort of framework, every change has to deliver value back to the customer, and if it's not then you've got to really have a damn good reason why you'd want to do it.

"That keeps it lightweight, pragmatic and value-centred."

Read on to page two for Coffey's immediate IT projects and longer-term vision for software development.

One of Coffey's next IT-centric projects is the establishment of a central IT service desk.

"At the moment we've got pockets of service desks in strategic locations around the world," Talbot says.

The company plans to consolidate those existing operations into a single, global service desk this quarter. The desk will operate out of facilities in Manila and Sydney.

Manila will run three shifts a day and act as a central point for IT support.

Talbot says the company is "at the pointy end" of a decision on the technology platform that will underpin the global service desk.

He declined to reveal who is in the running for the project but says the system will be "cloud-based" due to the global nature of Coffey's business.

Lync upgrade

Also scheduled is a software upgrade to Coffey's unified communications platform, Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS).

OCS use at Coffey is "extremely high" according to Talbot, and the next version of Microsoft's system, Lync, is expected to bring more benefits.

"The Lync product is the next step change in that technology space and it makes perfect sense for us to embrace that," Talbot says.

"The beauty is bottom line dollar savings are significant in our space. The ability to integrate voice and data [and]... to remove legacy environments reduces our costs."

Talbot says a broad range of "aspirations and ideas" have been raised internally for greater use of Lync, including the potential use compatible clients for smartphone devices.

Long-term strategy

One of the major changes to the CIO role at Coffey is responsibility to oversee software developers that have previously been siloed along particular service lines, such as mining in Western Australia.

Under a revised corporate structure, they will remain embedded in their service lines - close to the end-users they support - but will also be included in a 'virtual' team under Talbot's remit.

One of Talbot's aspirations is to surface these (mostly geospatial) tools for use across Coffey's global business.

"We're looking to try and leverage them across the group," he says.

"[We want to] bring them together and really using them as a competitive differentiator.

"In terms of bringing this together it should be in an IT realm and that is, we [as IT] broker and bring together the different service lines and then create value by sharing the technology capability across those service lines."

Bringing those tools to the global business will take some time, Talbot concedes.

"It's going to be quite a journey but certainly that's in front of me as an objective."

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