Anton Collyer, formerly Head of IT at GSK: The dark side of the IT moon

Pink Floyd is more relevant to IT management than most people realise. “Hanging on in quiet desperation” describes of the feelings of many CIOs and IT managers according to Anton Collyer. Anton recently retired as Head of IT for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and talked to us about his view of the big IT issues for the next decade and what CIOs need to do to rise to these challenges. As the song (Time) continues, “he has something more to say”.

Anton: “The biggest secret in IT, always hushed up, is legacy. Security and a lack of visibility are the other two key issues that are quietly brushed under the carpet.”

Before discussing these issues further, a little information about GSK is required to put it into context. Employing about 110,000 employees worldwide, GSK is a large multinational pharmaceutical company. With huge research departments, large scale manufacturing and an extensive sales and marketing operation, it is a complete organisation. As with all pharmaceuticals, GSK is highly regulated, making it controlled and deeply risk averse. It was created by the merger of several large pharmaceutical companies and its operations are still decentralised. As a result, its IT systems are massively complex, with 3,000 different applications running the business: the cobweb of interfaces between them requires constant maintenance.

Many multinational companies want to become global companies. This entails moving from many processes to a single process and disaggregated systems are typically the biggest barrier to achievement. For instance in GSK, which had over 300 HR applications, a single change to a global HR policy could involve a vast amount of work – a fact which senior managers could barely believe. Legacy systems are always the ones that run companies. Consequently, if they are problematic they can disrupt business operations and the cost/elapsed time of changing anything makes the company less flexible than it wants to be. Recent events show how CEO’s, not just CIO’s, can lose their jobs as a result.

Given the significance of the legacy problem, why are so few tackling it? In GSK, Anton estimates it would take 15 years to fully resolve, with little benefit for five years. It would cause huge upheaval: people hate change and IT systems tend to have a profound impact upon people’s daily lives. And at a time of constant cost cutting, it would be expensive. CIOs find other innovations easier and earn brownie points more quickly. Big systems aren’t as sexy as ipads.

Anton: “The only companies currently addressing legacy are either the desperate, whose systems have catastrophically collapsed, or the few with exceptional leaders, such as Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase.” Only relatively new companies, such as Google, Ebay, Amazon and Apple have had the chance to escape legacy issues.
40 years ago, when Anton started his career in IT, business computing was in its infancy and the only computer system was payroll. Anton describes the impact of 40 years of system development as being like a 60 year old looking in the mirror and seeing 40 years of flab. There are three ways forward:
• Put the mirror away and forget about it
• Crash diet and then put it all back on
• Gradually lose weight and keep it off by changing your lifestyle

Anton: “I’ve heard many stories about companies that claim to have substantially changed but, when I investigate, I find it’s rarely as radical as they made out. Often they’ve gone back to their old ways.”

“We all know the only way to lose weight successfully is to do it gradually and change your lifestyle. I think the IT equivalent is a process of paring down systems and making this a routine part of the justification for all investment. In other words, any new system or process has to demonstrate that it will substantially reduce complexity or else it will not be approved. This is the pragmatic route for large companies to slim down their IT systems.”

Sharing information causes substantial issues: society is sharing data on an unprecedented scale and employees need to collaborate and cross fertilise their ideas. But too much sharing makes sensitive and/or valuable information vulnerable.

Anton: “Again no-one talks about this, but many organisations have been infiltrated and all are under severe attack. Currently the biggest targets are government organisations, banks and defence contractors. Utilities and mining companies are starting to feel pressure. Pharmaceutical, electronics and manufacturing companies with their valuable intellectual property are probably next on the list.”

What do you do? In Anton’s view, you focus on the basics. Anton: “The biggest threat is internal and the solutions are mainly humdrum. Do we control passwords adequately? Are we controlling the information shared with external partners, consultants, auditors? How vulnerable are their systems? ”

Lack of visibility
Anton: “If I had been asked whether my IT systems were better or worse than my peers, I, and every Head of IT, would have had trouble answering. It is genuinely difficult to obtain good quality information and hard to interpret how you compare with other companies. Sometimes I thought one area was performing poorly only to speak to other companies and find that we were doing better than most.”

“Meaningful benchmarking is the obvious answer, but hard to achieve. Conventional benchmarking tends to concentrate on the things you can measure easily whereas it is the hard-to-measure factors that you really need to understand. If you find someone who can do this for you, hold onto them.”

Anton’s view of the position and role of IT
To tackle successfully the legacy, security and visibility issues, the position of IT in the organisation is material. If IT reports to the Chief Finance Officer (CFO) then it risks being seen as a cost to be cut. Whereas, if IT reports to the Chief Operating Officer (COO), there is a much greater chance that it can be seen as enabling operations.

But more importantly, the CIO needs a far sighted and fearless CEO and, if they are to complete this difficult journey, both also need to be obstinately pigheaded.