It dawned on Peter James that he urgently needed to rein in corporate brands and divisions when he was on his way to visit operations in Perth. He had identified seven Web sites through which the company connected with clients and suppliers.
"Just as we got there the IT manager rang to say he'd found another one. There were eight," James says with a tinge of exasperation.
As chief executive officer of Spherion, a group that provides education and training, recruitment and IT services, James had been overseeing a consolidation of the company for the past five years. Spherion, which was in a former incarnation the Computer Power Group (see "Powering On After All These Years"), had ballooned with a broad spectrum of brands serving its key markets. It was to some clients CP People, to others Equus, to others Parity, to yet others MTE or the Control Data Institute. Even within the brands there were startling anomalies - Computer Power in Brisbane used different colours from Computer Power in Sydney. Equus in Melbourne had a different logo from that used by Equus in Sydney.
It was not just the marketing face of the company that was scarred by confusion. "We had never actually integrated either the client-facing or the back-office [systems] and that was one of the reasons I stepped up and said I want to do this, because I could see there was a huge amount of upside in doing some of this integration," James says.
During the 1990s the prevailing management wisdom was decentralisation, with branch managers developing their respective businesses in virtual isolation from the parent company. "At that time there was no attempt to get national - let alone international - consistency and harness the power of the brand," said James.
The tangle in the engine room was as bad. As James says, "You could get your arms around the silos of corporate information but there was no helicopter view available. We had at least four different payrolls, and it was the same with the general ledger. We had a similar number of knowledge bases. Obviously the financials came together, but in terms of client-facing CRM, in terms of synergies across the business, there was little if any of that. In fact some of the businesses were actually competitive."
The business had been running with a portfolio management strategy, which worked well when the market was booming, margins were good and clients were happy to be serviced locally. But times got tougher. Clients wanted national approaches, and it was time to strip away the artificial boundaries between the elements of the company and seek some economies from additional efficiency.
The changes wrought have not suited everyone and a number of employees have moved on. Indeed James himself left shortly after speaking with CIO, moving to Ainsworth Game Technologies as chief executive in July. His exit promised more change for Stephen Withnail, Spherion's group IT manager. Appointed earlier this year, Withnail had only just developed a relationship with James when his dance card changed with the appointment of new CEO Andrea Galloway.
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