Can you tell us about yourself, your role and how you got involved with the Forum?
I’m Julian Turner, IT Commercial Manager at Virgin Atlantic Airways. I’ve been at Virgin for nearly 10 years and pleased to say that Virgin Atlantic has been involved with the Forum for about 9. It was certainly an organisation I had been aware of the Forum from my previous company, but I think my boss at the time got an invitation to come and listen to Kevin Mercer from the BAA talk about Supplier Management. So, we went along for our first taster here at Virgin and we liked what we heard; we got some value out of it immediately, and so we signed up. We’ve been active members ever since.
Can you provide an insight into the life of an IT Commercial Manager? How have you seen the role evolve during your time in the industry?
It’s very varied; no two days are the same. I’m involved in working with the big suppliers (Microsoft, Apple, etc.), getting involved in all aspects at the technology that we provide, whether it’s iPhones and computers from the hardware manufacturers through to bespoke software, and a lot of time working with our service providers. A lot of time is spent just checking we’re getting value from arrangements (that we’re getting what we’re paying for). I look at all of the contractual obligations and work with suppliers to make sure that they’re delivering what they’ve promised. Obviously, also checking our bills and making sure that what we’re paying is what we’re due to pay. That can be quite fun at times, some very different activities with working with people, focusing on the relationships, and another day could be spent head-down in spreadsheets and worrying about financials between us and our suppliers.
I think the focus is more now on getting the financials right, on the detail. I think Supplier Management in the time I’ve been working at Virgin and with the Forum is it’s become a much more professional disciplined. I think that is one of the areas where the Forum has really helped, in terms of Supplier Management and the work that we’ve done at various events and various activities as part of the Forum.
How has the advancement in technology changed the way that you procure and manage supplier contracts?
Yes it has. Technology isn’t just for running business processes. Technology also helps us inside technology. Sometimes, in all organisations, we’re perhaps not very good at that. We’ve moved away from having to have all of our contractual documents being on paper, we’ve moved to electronic contracts, electronic signatures, which is a great saving, not just in the time it takes (particularly when you’ve got to send something around to be signed by lots of people), but it also helps with our green agenda. We have a lot more tools available to us now, repositories such as SharePoint, and we don’t have to have filing cabinets full of paper. In truth, I’ve got one pedestal here at my desk and that’s half-empty, and that’s all the paper that I keep. We’re not completely paperless (nobody is), but the days of having heaps and heaps of paper all over your desk are now fast receding, which is absolutely brilliant.
What large-scale projects is Virgin Atlantic currently embarking on? Anything exciting that you'd like to share with us?
We are doing so many exciting things! The biggest project that we’re working on, not just within IT, but across the company, is changing our Passenger Service system. This is the heart of the airline that contains all our reservations and all of the applications that support passenger processing at the airports: the contact centre, the website, the mobile app; all of that is being changed pretty much overnight later this year – an absolutely mega project. I think our IT Director described it like doing a marathon and doing open heart surgery at the same time. We have a huge number of projects involving implementing mobility solutions – iPads and Windows-based devices for large numbers of staff this year. We’ve got a really exciting project to move to a new head office later this year (we’re looking to use technology to improve ways of working in our new head office building), and moving our operations at Gatwick from the south terminal to the north terminal. All of those things are huge projects in their own right and they’re all happening around the same time over the next nine months or so.
We understand that Virgin Altantic is currently undergoing a 5-year transformation project of legacy systems. How has the move to the Cloud affected your department?
Cloud is interesting and one of the projects I’m currently working on is rewriting all of our governance processes - how do we control what goes in the Cloud? What should go in the Cloud? How it goes in the Cloud? Moving stuff into the Cloud gives a lot more control and a lot more ability to turn things on and off very quickly, so we’re having to rethink so many things. It’s a bit like, from a development perspective, we had this big shift from Waterfall to Agile and that’s really changed how development works; moving to the Cloud is having a similar revolution in rethinking how IT operations work. We’re getting to work with all sorts of different suppliers; the Cloud has spawned a whole host of new suppliers that just haven’t been involved with legacy and traditional IT. There are also completely new financial models, in terms of how the cost of IT works and the ability to be far more nimble in terms of ramping up and ramping down costs. We’re running to keep up!
Virgin Atlantic's CEO has recently highlighted the importance of ethical business, stating that carbon is your number one environmental issues. How can IT help to reduce carbon and further the green agenda?
As an airline, we clearly have a major impact on the environment by the nature of the business that we’re in, so if we can offset some of that within IT that’s really helpful. We’ve seen, over the last few years, clearly one extreme with the impact of virtualisation reducing the amount of data centre assets we all need. We’ve moved from, about six years ago, with almost no virtualisation through a number of stages to where we are now, where we are approaching 90%. That’s had a huge impact on our ability to help the green agenda.
At the other extreme, is something that is part of our selection process. So, when we’re buying PCs or Laptops or printers, any of these devices, one of our key comparators is power consumption, looking at the green credentials of the suppliers we are working with. Five years ago, it just wouldn’t have been on the list, but now, particularly when you’re looking at some of those commodity products, if somebody can save a few kilowatts on the power bill then that’s absolutely great! We can also help people in terms of reducing what people need to print, saving power, saving trees, and so workplace solutions, using things like SharePoint and other technologies, really helps that whole agenda.
You've been heavily involved with the Forum's Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) Special Interest Group. How have you benefitted from this and what has taken back to your organisation?
The Special Interest Group has been an absolutely highlight of recent time with working with members in the Forum - a great opportunity to work with likeminded professionals in the same discipline to share experiences and different ways of working To a degree, we all have similar challenges, but we all have slightly different ways of solving the problems. It’s been really interesting. I’ve met some useful contacts and we’ve had lots of discussion, not just at Forum events but outside of the Forum at different times. We’ve used that new network to bounce ideas off of each other. What I’ve taken back, specifically? We’ve contributed lots of great ideas, but equally from listening to members we’ve heard lots of ways of how other organisations are tackling these issues (governance around suppliers, score-carding, etc.), lots of different approaches. After these events, I take some of these ideas back and discuss them with the team and see what great ideas other people have got that we can use, which is what meeting in the Forum is all about.
Having spoken at a number of SRM events, how would you describe the experience? Why should people take the opportunity to speak and share their knowledge?
For some people, standing up in front of a large room (sometimes it is a very large room and other times a much smaller room) of strangers and talk about your specialist subject can be quite daunting. Actually, I’ve found it very enjoyable, which is why I’ve been happy to put my hand up. Once you’ve got over that initial hurdle of having that confidence barrier and breaking through it, it can be quite fun. If you know the subject you’re talking about and what you’re saying then you come across professional and committed and you get quite a buzz from it. It’s really great being able to share experience with other members in that way; they can take it or leave what you have said, but you are sharing experience and that is what the event is all about. I would certainly encourage any members who have a story to tell to share it. Nobody gets harassed or shouted at; everyone is treated very professionally and invariably there are lots of interesting stories from all manner of industry. Fundamentally, the purpose of the Forum is knowledge-sharing between the member organisations. The more people we can get to stand up and tell their story, the more value everyone will get from the Forum.
Having spent most of your career in the airline industry, what are the benefits of speaking to peers from other industries?
Meeting other organisations from other sectors at the Forum you get different insights, whilst fundamentally many of us have the same challenges, because people are coming from a different background with a different perspective from a different industry, you learn so much, and it’s really interesting learning about other sectors. We’ve had some great presentations from people from all sorts of organisations and sometimes you think: wow! Recently, we had a presentation from a kitchen manufacturer and it was just so interesting! Some of the other members have given us some absolutely fascinating insights into their business and the things they are achieving, which is all part of the benefits of the Forum.
What do you value most about the Forum? Is there anything you've found particularly useful?
That opportunity to meet fellow professionals from a wide range of organisations who all have different backgrounds, different experiences, at different stages of their career, some new in their role looking for more help than others and some people with lots of experience who are there able and willing to share it. That’s really what makes a great session, when you have people from that whole sector of experience. There are people there very actively sharing what they know and others with really keen, enquiring minds who are keen to learn. It’s good for the membership; it’s good for the Forum, and good for the health of industry in the UK.
How would you compare the Forum to other similar services you might have used?
With Gartner, you’re talking to esteemed academics who have an academic spin on the subject matter you are talking about, but they aren’t actually out there doing it. Whereas, when you are talking to people in the Forum you are talking to people who are doing the job; you ask a question and you get first-hand experience. You can talk to a Gartner analyst and they can be sitting anywhere in the world and they’ve got their academic view and it is valuable, but it is a different service. I think the Corporate IT Forum is unique, in terms of the service we are able to enjoy by being members of the Forum. We, like many people, use Gartner and the Forum, but you’ve got to decide what is it that you want from a Gartner advisory service as opposed to the insights you can get from the Forum. They are both providing you help and advice, but in different ways. They are very much complementary.
Once you’re in, you can talk to any of the other members at any time. Yesterday, we hosted a long talk with some folk from SSE, which came about from a Forum event where they heard me talking. I got some people here together and we had a call with them about some of the issues we had raised – they wanted to explore them in more depth. You can’t do that sort of thing with Gartner. It was a really beneficial spinoff from talking to the Forum. There was another member of the Forum who, hearing who our principal outsourcing partner was, wanted to have a chat and get some real-world experience and see how it worked independent of the supplier, having used us as a reference. We had a group of people from Tata Steel here the other day, sharing insights into how we work with our suppliers. It is a different service.
Any final message to the membership?
I would simply say that the Forum is there for all of us as members of a community and just leverage it, use it, suck every ounce of insight out of it that you can get. I don’t know another way of tapping into the ton of brain power across organisations, with the breadth of experience, the breadth of different businesses (you have charity organisations, government organisations, airlines like ourselves, energy companies, banks, insurance companies). There isn’t a broader pool of talent that you can tap into by the Forum. I am forever giving my team a boot to be more active and I would really encourage all of the other principals at member organisations to get out there and get their team engaged, because it’s good for us all. We all profit from it.