Neville Brown Interview

Neville Brown is the Managing Director of ITICA, a management consultancy with IT at its heart. Neville managed the consolidation of the IT systems of the two corporate giants Glaxo Wellcome and Smithkline Beecham following their merger. This mighty task formed the basis for his move into IT consultancy.

Victoria Scott – Head of Marketing at ardent met up with Neville to find out how business is adapting the ever changing world of IT. Here is a short version of the interview – to hear the full interview please go to YouTube

VS:   When it comes to IT development, what is this big question that businesses need to ask themselves?
NB:   The business first needs to ask itself what it trying to achieve from a business perspective, and only when that is answered, what IT is needed to underpin the plans then link the two together and decide the best way of doing it. Although fashionable, the cloud is not the only option, there could be several options and businesses, particularly smaller businesses, are often at the mercy of providers who don’t actually take them through that thought process.

VS:   Is this where a consultancy can be valuable – knowing the right questions to ask to help a business come up with the right solutions not automatically heading skywards towards the cloud?
NB:  There is no supplier in the world that will sit there and tell you about all of the drawbacks of going to the cloud, they will try and accentuate the positive. When it all started the target was the chief financial officer because it [the cloud] was cheaper, allegedly cheaper, and I will cover that bit in a minute. Now we are finding businesses are more concerned about cybersecurity, everybody is worried and this has gone right to the top of the agenda. People tend to be exposed to cybersecurity, some businesses have property. The question in all of this again is what problem is the business trying to solve?
Regards the economics of the cloud I think there is still a debate going on so that says to me it is not quite decided whether it is or it isn’t cheaper per se and in our experience we have taken several clients through establishing whether the cloud is the right solution for them and costs being part of that and we have not found any situation where the cloud presents a significant saving. However where our clients have gone to the cloud there have been issues to do with continuity of service, security, technical capability, a whole raft of other issues that are under consideration rather than just cost.

VS:   So in many instances when someone is going into a business to help them with their IT solutions they have got something to sell and not all are getting to the bottom of what the company really needs?
NB:  With a lot of companies, their expectation is that the provider will act as a consultant and advise them accordingly. In some cases if the right relationship exists between the provider and the customer then that can work very well, like contracts with new providers where they are now the trusted adviser to that client. Small businesses, 40+ people, where IT as an essential part of their business that don’t want the overhead of having an IT department rely on the provider to give them good advice on what services or technologies they ought to be deploying.

VS:  You mentioned cyber security; it seems to be an increasingly big topic, a big problem and potentially a big expense for SMEs, where can they turn for help?
NB:  It is extremely expensive to do it effectively yourself and that is not just true of cybersecurity, to run a good IT operation in house takes money. I worked at GSK for a number of years and when I look at the level of investment needed to keep those IT systems running, to upgrade them, to manage them, to have the tooling, to provide the info about the status of those systems, those are big significant investments aside from the technology itself per se, so a small company trying to replicate that kind of model and making their IT secure, operationally efficient, available and performing well, is not cheap and on top of that a lot of smaller companies have an IT manager who is meant to know about every single thing to do with their system. Well in our experience they are few and far between, most know something about a lot, but not enough about enough so they again get themselves into problems where they have kind of applied sticking plasters running from crisis to crisis and of course the business can see that, they don’t know how to solve it. Of course going for a managed service provider, whether that is cloud or a hosted provider or managed services provider is actually quite effective because you get access to a much, much bigger talent pool of skills and expertise.

VS:  Did the recession do a lot of damage in terms of investment in IT systems, did people just hang on to what they’ve got rather than develop their systems in line with their businesses?
NB:  Absolutely, we saw a massive slowdown in 2009/10 where people were deferring investment and we have seen a bit of that recently as well where people have been waiting for the outcome of the election, but in all of this the savvy companies know that you invest during a downturn so they are ready for the upturn and what we are seeing is, we are talking to a few people at the moment who have delayed investment, and actually they are now running to catch up, they have realised they haven’t stood still, they have gone backwards compared to their competition.

VS:  Does running to catch up cost companies more money in the long run?
NB: Inevitably it does but you try making that case to the CFO or the FD when he is interested in securing the balance sheet or cash flow or whatever and reducing capital investment to an absolute minimum because that is what they have to do and IT is not alone in that. We are seeing a much more positive outlook where people are beginning to say “we have not invested, we need to invest” and move forward from there.

VS:  Are there other big issues that are hitting IT manager’s desks or CFO’s desks as regards to technology?
NB:  People keep talking about mobility, big data, the cloud, and now we have got this new thing called internet of things where we are going to have machine connected data, we are going to be processing a load of stuff and making some kind of insightful decisions based on millions and millions of bits of data coming from all of these connected machines. I am not convinced if companies would want that data making decisions for the company. I had a conversation only yesterday with a client who is looking at it and when you actually articulate it back ‘you are going to ask that data to make automatic decisions about capital expenditure or some kind of expenditure would you be happy to do that without human intervention?’ of course the answer is “no we wouldn’t, course we wouldn’t”. I was involved in one of the first integrated IT and building management system implementations but it still comes back to fundamental questions – What are you trying to do? What are you going to use the data for? How is it going to benefit your business? Never buy technology for technology sake.
However, I think in some industries it will be very useful, we have already seen an instance in the mid-west in the US where people whose crop spray had sensors, where the sensors can pick up humidity temperature, conditions in the soil, and therefore find the optimal time to spray the crop and, on top of that, they are not using aeroplanes anymore, they are actually using drones to do. It is changing our model of how some things are being done but people need to be very, very careful to understand what it is they are trying to get back out of it.

VS:  In summary, the opportunities that the right IT solutions present to business are immense but it still comes back to asking the right questions at the right time and being absolutely certain that you are not making decisions based on excitement of the technologies as opposed to outcomes that the technology can provide.

If you are using sticking plasters to resolve your IT issues, if your business has moved forward and your IT has yet to catch up or you simply need more experienced and knowledgeable hands on deck – then please get in touch with us at ardent – we make IT easy