The media industry is undergoing a huge shift as audiences move from print to online news and increasingly access content via mobile devices.
As publisher of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World newspapers, News International is dealing with these changes while also pursuing ambitious plans for audiences to pay for their online content.
Technology is playing a crucial role with the company upgrading its infrastructure to support these changes in audience but also developing its own consumer-facing technology that will attract paying audiences.
Paul Cheesbrough was chosen as the man to lead the technology strategy for News International in the UK and became CIO in September 2010.
Cheesbrough made his name as a proponent of cloud computing during a three-year stint at the Telegraph Media Group (TMG) in which he masterminded a strategy to move much of the company’s IT infrastructure into the cloud.
Reflecting the huge changes he made at TMG, Cheesbrough was voted onto the silicon.com CIO50 list in 2010.
Now six months into his job with News International, Cheesbrough is bringing cloud technology to a bigger and more complex organisation, while also overseeing the development of online technology for audiences.
He spoke to silicon.com about moving to a new business, the changes he’s made since taking up his current role and the major technology projects underway at News International.
Starting the journey to the cloud again
The technology landscape Cheesbrough encountered when he arrived at News International was significantly different to the one he had left at TMG. Whereas much of TMG’s technology was in the cloud when Cheesbrough left, News International had a far more traditional technology set-up.
“Having built that up [at TMG] and then come into News International and having gone back to a very on-premise, self-managed model again, you miss a lot of what you got from the cloud,” he told silicon.com.
The operating model for the technology team was focused much more on…
…keeping the technology infrastructure running than using it to provide value to the business.
“So the bulk of the energy and effort is diverted into the back-end of the systems rather than the front end and keeping the operation going as part of that, whereas when we made that journey at the Telegraph, that’s the stuff you can leave to the cloud provider and you take for granted after a while,” he said.
Cheesbrough isn’t aiming to replicate what he did at TMG though, partly because cloud computing has progressed significantly in the intervening years.
“So a lot of the partners we’re working with might be similar but the way we’re deploying, the work we’re doing with users, the way we’re joining it up, that may well be different. The one common theme is that cloud technology will be at the heart of our strategy and the browser is going to be the key mechanism for deploying applications to the organisation,” he said.
Changing the structure of the IT organisation
Soon after he arrived at News International, Cheesbrough revamped the technology management team to address changing business needs by focusing less on keeping the lights on and more on innovation.
“We are really trying to make the technology department much more relevant to the changing nature of our business. That’s the number one thing that’s keeping me busy,” Cheesbrough told silicon.com.
When Cheesbrough arrived, the 350-strong IT team was mainly focused on running the infrastructure, so he created two vertical divisions in IT: enterprise and digital.
The enterprise side is focused on modernising the internal infrastructure of the company while implementing cloud technology wherever benefits are identified.
Meanwhile, the digital division is focused on building News International’s websites, developing consumer apps and supporting them once they’re up and running.
Cheesbrough has brought software engineering talent in from the likes of Apple and Google, to ensure development is in line with the most up-to-date consumer technology.
There is also a delivery and planning group that co-ordinates and orchestrates projects of both vertical divisions.
“The requirement was for the technology team to really step up and be much more strategic and much more at the heart of the change that we’re doing. So there’s a lot of change going on across the company as a whole and making sure the IT department became the technology function that could enable some of that change was quite a major shift,” Cheesbrough said.
Leading this kind of change is clearly a challenge for any business leader and Cheesbrough feels that communicating with the different departments to explain the changes as they’re made is key, along with personal sponsorship from the board.
He added that he needs to be…
…bold but calculated in driving the changes through: “Being bold in terms of picking the rights things to focus on, calculating the risks around that and making sure you progress and push the change through.”
Standardisation, collaboration and cloud
A major difference between TMG and News International is the scale of the organisations. News International has four newspaper brands compared with TMG’s two, so the business is much more complex.
At News International, Cheesbrough has to balance the need to generate economies of scale across the four businesses with the individual requirements of each brand. Standardisation is one approach being pursued to achieve these economies of scale.
Although the four newspapers in the News International stable are very different in the type of content they provide, the company is trying to put a common platform in place to give staff working on all the brands the same set of tools and workflows to produce content.
Collaboration is another theme that’s going to become more important and the company is testing Socialwok, which is essentially a Google plug-in similar to Facebook for internal business use.
The feedback on the social technology has proved encouraging: “We didn’t force that on anyone yet we’ve had over 20 per cent of the company ask for it and adopt it and start to use it, and we’re seeing conversations on there that are really going across the organisation rather than within one part of the organisation. So it’s very, very positive on that front,” Cheesbrough said.
Despite using Socialwok for the pilot, News International is likely to use Salesforce.com’s Chatter tool if it rolls out social-networking tools across the business because the company is implementing the SaaS vendor’s CRM in the digital part of the business.
Given Cheesbrough’s recent work, cloud computing is understandably a big technology area on News International’s agenda.
As well as Salesforce.com, the company is testing Google Apps. About 20 per cent of staff have access to the technology and are providing feedback to the tech department. A decision on whether to roll it out further is likely in the next couple of months.
Despite the clear move towards cloud technology, Cheesbrough stressed that it’s still early days for cloud computing in News International.
The company’s SAP implementation for finance and HR, for example, will remain on-premise for the time being and there are no plans to adopt SAP’s Business ByDesign on-demand ERP technology.
Giving staff technology choice
In terms of the hardware used by News International staff, Cheesbrough has introduced more choice, reflecting the trend for the consumerisation of technology.
Employees have a menu card from which they can choose…
…hardware and software, depending on their role and responsibility and within guidelines set by the IT department.
“Clearly, you can’t let every employee have total freedom of choice over that because of the financial framework and there’s also a role and responsibility piece in there that you’ve got to deploy stuff that’s supportable and also operates and runs the systems that the user needs,” Cheesbrough explained.
Employees can choose to have a combination of tech that suits their needs. So one person could have a laptop and BlackBerry while another member of staff might prefer to have a desktop computer and an iPad for when they’re out and about.
Since arriving at News International, Cheesbrough has revamped the base technology used in the organisation. The company moved into new premises shortly after his arrival and took the opportunity to upgrade PCs from Windows XP to Windows 7.
As well as PCs, there has been a good uptake of Macs with about 20 per cent of users now having Apple devices.
“Part of our technology philosophy is really to work with companies that understand our consumer business as well as our enterprise business. Clearly, Apple are a key partner to us on the consumer side for the sorts of things that we’re building. So actually utilising them internally is part of that,” Cheesbrough said.
However, the choice of operating system is likely to become less important over time with more systems being delivered via the browser, according to Cheesbrough.
Addressing the needs of a growing digital business
News International moved to a subscription paywall model for The Times and The Sunday Times websites in autumn 2010, with the
The business has also developed electronic editions of The Times and The Sunday Times, with a number of other tablet and mobile apps in development.
One of the crucial areas of focus for the digital part of the business is measuring how the websites are performing as well as how they can be improved. The company monitors the user numbers, engagement levels and application downloads as well as the financial performance of the paywall.
“One major project that we’re looking at is how we put data at the heart of our business. With our subscription businesses online, there’s a lot of data that we get from behind the scenes and we’re making sure we’ve got real-time access to that data to make clear business decisions rather than the old world of looking at newspaper circulation once a week.”
The company recruited a head of data analytics from YouTube to assist…
…with these efforts and is using cloud-based business-intelligence and data-analytics tools to help monitor performance.
A lot of business data is exported to Amazon’s EC2 processing platform and presented back to users using the ClickView real-time dashboard, also hosted on EC2.
“It’s actually surfacing the data as well as trying to embed and create the data. Like most businesses with history and legacy, you’ve got lots of pockets of data that are quite difficult to access and aren’t necessarily timely – so we’re really looking at this from the ground up,” Cheesbrough said.
As the dashboard is based in the cloud, staff can access the information outside the corporate firewall on their work mobile devices.
“So we have to make sure we’ve got the right analytics tools and the right skills in place so our data and information is free-flowing and available to the right people at the right time in the right form,” Cheesbrough said.
The move to a subscription model also necessitated the introduction of technologies to support the new revenue streams.
Much like he did at TMG, Cheesbrough turned to Salesforce.com’s cloud-based CRM technology to deal with the additional influx of customer information and transactions that the website subscription brought.
The new CRM system effectively combines 29 previous customer-management systems onto a single platform for managing billing and subscription.
The introduction of Salesforce.com, which started in December and is due to be completed in April, was far faster to implement than an on-premise technology.
Extra functionality will soon be added to the initial technology using Salesforce.com’s Force.com cloud platform. “Once that piece of work is done, we see Force.com as being a strategic platform for us and for other applications,” Cheesbrough said.
News International is also using the cloud-based Zuora subscription and billing engine which feeds into the Salesforce.com CRM system.
As well as developing the websites and paywall concept, the digital team is building consumer-facing applications that subscribers can use to get the most out of the content on the websites and to provide more revenue.
One of the first applications as part of this strategy was The Times and The Sunday Times iPad apps, which are essentially digital editions of the newspaper. These apps were developed before Cheesbrough’s arrival but there are more in the pipeline.
The digital team is spending time working out how to launch and develop applications and websites in the most efficient and effective way and how to get ahead of competitors in developing technology such as augmented reality.
The main focus for the development team at the moment is on…
…mobile applications for the iPhone and Android platforms, which Cheesbrough said represent the two key platforms for the next year or so. The Times iPhone app is due in April.
Cloud plays a role in the development of these applications as well, with the company using Amazon’s EC2 platform as a testing and development environment for applications as they’re being built.
Getting the right skills for technology change
With such a radical change in the focus of the technology group, a shift in the skills to support this change was clearly needed.
News International is actively recruiting tech talent, with software engineers in particular needed to support the growth of applications and website technology.
Cheesbrough said software engineers used to play a role as part of partner organisations but getting them into the business is now key: “They are the creative energy that is really key to the future of the organisation,” he said.
The company is looking outside London and the UK for talent and is working with companies in eastern Europe to access web and operational talent for the digital side of the business.
“So we’re trying to bring digital people into the business to look at the technologies and approaches that a lot of the native digital companies have been living and breathing for many years now,” Cheesbrough said.
The recruitment of the right tech skills remains competitive but Cheesbrough is hopeful that the vision of News International will prove attractive to the people with these skills.
“We’re all trying to get the good people. I’ve been very fortunate to get people out of Google and Apple. Given the drive in the company to move forward, we’ve got quite an exciting vision to share with people but it’s still tough to recruit really good software engineers especially,” he said.
Despite these changes, Cheesbrough stressed that retaining the best talent is as important as recruiting new talent.
“As we start to ramp up the cloud technology on the enterprise we’ll start to retrain, reskill resource to move much more into the transformational areas of the business. Keeping your best people and adding to those with new talent is obviously a fine line to walk,” he added.