Managing IT in the construction sector requires focus, agility, and accommodating technology partners, Keepmoat's IT boss Andrew Newton says.
IET member Andrew Newton is head of IT for construction and community regeneration company the Keepmoat group, which has an annual turnover of around £570m. Joining the organisation in 2004, Newton was faced with a number of disparate systems, and began a relationship with on-demand service provider Star to outsource the organisation's infrastructure communications.
He used a number of Star's services: a wide area-network was created for over 300 sites, with server collocation in Star's London data centre. Keepmoat's main hosted service is MessageLabs' hosted email security, sold by Star's shareholders to Symantec last year.
During his time at Keepmoat, Newton has put in place several enterprise systems and applications, including Websense Internet security, locally-hosted business specific services and a HR.net, a newly implemented group-wide system for human resources (HR) and training. Throughout the implementation of these projects, he also managed a growing IT usage with a static number of staff.
You joined Keepmoat in 2004, and were faced with a number of disparate computer systems. Did updating the organisation's entire IT infrastructure prove to be a slow job?
No, it was quite quick. I was brought in with a background working in international groups – 'blue chip' types of organisations – and was used to working in fairly IT-centric environments. The construction sector, certainly at that time, was a very late adopter in terms of IT and technology. For me it was quite strange to go back 10 or 15 years in terms of what was expected from IT.
Did the process of sorting out the infrastructure at Keepmoat involve having to unite dispersed operating departments?
We are a group, so we've got different operating units around the country, but it is all based in the UK. The business units each have their own small IT teams, and they had all been working completely independently. My objective was to try and get everyone working together.
It was also very clear that the skill-sets were not up to the challenge of a business that was growing very rapidly. Just to give an indication, we went from 400 users in 2004 to roughly 1,300 by 2007. That was without the IT team itself growing proportionately. There was more and more to do with fewer and fewer people.
Was this one of the imperatives of adopting a managed service – making resources stretch further?
Using Star as a managed network provider was really key to being able to leverage the IT people I had without getting them bogged down in all the network management issues. It also eliminated the issue of having people on different networks as Star provided a group-wide MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network.
Presumably in the construction sector IT needs to meet the needs of fixed-duration projects?
It is a much more flexible environment, and the managed service is more fit for purpose in terms of the needs of construction. Our network is a mix of a relatively small number of permanent or semi-permanent locations, regional offices, and so forth. We do a lot of social housing work, so we might be working in a particular city for four or five years at an office in that city. That would be for all intents and purposes like a small business in its own right, and that would have permanent connections.
Specific construction sites have a very clear beginning and end date, and you do not want them running beyond that anyway. ADSL technology is more appropriate for those. Star had a managed data centre in London Docklands. It was scalable, and I didn't know what the future would bring, nor did the rest of the group so having a data centre in central London which was physically plugged into the main connection to the network Internet link was an advantage.
There's a major telecoms hub there called Telehouse, so we can get a very fast Internet connection from the whole network to the outside world and control it using fairly traditional technologies in the data centre to secure a physical point. Everyone in our group goes out into the Internet through that hub. We expanded it further over the course of time, so it started off as a router, and now it has got quite a few applications on there as well.
You decided not to go with a larger 'tier-one' provider – what was your thinking behind this decision?
We thought that was a better way than going to the big telecoms providers who expected a much higher expertise in telecoms than we had. The whole point of doing it was to get someone who had the expertise rather than us to become experts ourselves.
If you go to 'tier one' – companies like Cable & Wireless and BT – in some regions they're very good, but in others you'd find that they hadn't got local points of presence. You could run up some hefty connection fees for a location for no apparent reason. Tier two [players like Star] can pick and mix, so we have a mix of BT and Cable & Wireless connections which Star manages.
Also with a 'tier two' company you are more likely to get better pricing than if you do it yourself, because they are leveraging a bigger portfolio of connections. For example, they would have several thousand connections with BT, and would get a much better price with those.
Did you find as you made so many changes and improvements IT-wise that there was also somewhat of a need for a culture change at Keepmoat?
Yes, very much so. Initially we appointed a central IT group which consisted of the IT managers from the principal business units moved into a central team, which meant the expertise that each business unit had was within the centre. Then we brought out functional specialisms to focus on the areas those individuals were particularly strong in. It then meant their functional specialism was leveraged across the whole group and we got a much more consistent approach.
For example, we use a product called COINS for financials. We have got three legal entities in our organisation with three accounting teams in those small business units. They were all implementing the same software completely independently, so we have tried to get some consistency into that.
That worked very well to be fair, until the financial crunch happened; then the focus was very much on head count, particularly in our house-building company, which sells affordable housing to first time buyers. Their entire market disappeared overnight in early 2008.
How badly was your department affected by the credit crunch and the onset of recession?
IT was seen by the powers that be as an overhead; we had significant headcount reductions as well. Since then we have had a 'business as usual' approach. We are now at a stage where people want to do new things, but do not want to increase the headcount. Our latest challenge is to leverage external resources... to implement change within the IT infrastructure without increasing headcount.
What is it, then, about the external factors that impinge upon Keepmoat's mission?
We primarily work in social housing, and over the last 10 to 15 years there has been a government-driven agenda called [the] 'Decent Homes' [standard]. This programme was due to end around now, so this [slow down of growth] is not caused by the recession; it was a natural turn of events.
We have been moving from social housing to new-builds again, and as that has changed, the mix of employees and geographical sites has changed – with a knock-on effect in terms of computer resources required. From an IT point of view, we have to support that.
One of our business units has been running a pilot with Citrix, and has been using it for about 12 months. That's working well, but it is not a cheap technology. In an industry where cost is king we sometimes find ourselves 'making do', rather than implementing best solutions.
With times being tough financially, how hard is it to gain approval for new pilots like that?
Each of our IT managers reports to a different finance director, which makes coordinating IT particularly challenging. I have got to get all the financial directors in the same room – which is difficult enough – then get them to agree, which is nearly impossible.
With some initiatives we just tell them what we are doing. There are some things that are non-negotiable. With things that are negotiable you really go with the enthusiasm of the particular financial director. With the Citrix pilot the director in question is more technology-focused than most of his counterparts, so he is been quite keen to use this; he thinks that it is the right answer and the right idea. He has been prepared to put forward his own financial justifications for it, and as he signs them off, that helps enormously.
Do you have a 'vision' for the future of the information technology architecture at Keepmoat?
Ultimately IT is about information. The vision from a top level would be to allow the decision-makers in the business to have the information they need at their fingertips to make the decisions they want to. The construction industry more so than anywhere else I have ever worked is an industry rather than a company, so people will come and go based on individual projects with no strings attached.
That makes trying to get ahead of the curve in terms of the technology that you are using quite challenging, because new people will come in with their own ideas and conceptions of how to do stuff.
As a Chartered Engineer you're aware of the importance of professional registration. Does the IT profession need to become more professional to bring it in line with other professions where certification and accreditation are essential to practice?
The IT profession has some fairly major challenges. I have always reported through to a finance director. There is no route from IT to finance. If you are in an organisation that is highly dependent upon IT, there is a route all the way through to board level for IT people. If you are not, you will always come up to this glass ceiling: the people who become financial directors are always from financial control and account department backgrounds. That is fairly universal across the UK – not necessarily internationally – but definitely in the construction sector.
But does independent, non-vendor-related accreditation matter in respect to career progression?
Nobody has ever asked me about me being a Chartered Engineer, but I am pretty sure it got me the job I am now in – and the previous one. At the level I work, people literally flip the world-view, and instead of wanting specialists they want generalists. You switch from being a specialist performer to being a conductor and using the skills of'the other people to achieve what you want to do.