Thursday, June 20, 2013

What can a major sports team's IT teach the corporate CIO?

Feway Park. Photo from Wikipedia
Yesterday I sat in on the final keynote session of the Boston e2 Conference to hear from the IT leaders of major sports teams about their experiences using IT to support such unusual businesses. And the information they provided turned out to be hugely valuable for more traditional companies too. 

The stars of the show were:

* Bill Schlough, CIO, San Francisco Giants
* Jay Wessel, VP of Technology, Boston Celtics
* Steve Conley, Director of IT, Boston Red Sox

Boston considers itself a serious sporting city, and is intensely proud of all of its top-tier teams, so to add sport into the enterprise software conference is always going to be interesting for the audience. And despite the expected rivalry, the insights all of the tech leaders presented were quite thought-provoking.

Really though, what can a corporate CIO possibly learn from these guys? After all, the largest IT team among any of the presenters is 11 people at the Giants. And maybe that is the biggest point: all of these teams have deadlines that can’t be moved (the new season opens, the next game is scheduled), they have an ever changing temporary worker base of thousands, so they all have to think ‘lean’ to get things done. No pressure then.

Forgetting the team rivalries, what were the memorable points a corporate CIO can learn from?

“Don’t  be a server-hugger”

For a lean IT team, your VP of IT can’t be too attached to the actual physical servers. The cloud for custom hosting and more importantly SaaS products that already package the functionality you need to run your business are essential. IT egos can’t be attached to the actual physical boxes, since managing those things just kills time. Applications just can’t be developed in house, so use what is available commercially and can be customized to suit your needs.

“Good job, the email server was up today”

This is not something any IT team hears. The daily grunge of operating important IT infrastructure doesn’t win anybody awards. Outsource this kind of commodity function to any of the big players who can do it better than you, probably at lower cost. This allows you to really focus on your critical services, such as ticketing, and front line customer systems.

“Demand-based pricing - or doing anything radically different”

Freeing up resources lets you look at transformational projects, enabling your IT team to really help the business. By getting data to support decisions, and managing external resources to trial new ways of working, the Giants were able to roll out a new demand-based pricing model for tickets. Much like buying a flight, nowadays ‘last minute’ doesn't mean cheaper. If you can commit to a ticket in the stadium early on when demand is low, you get a better price. As demand rises and space becomes limited, ticket prices rise, steeply. Since the major share of revenue for all these teams is supporters in seats, getting this right can have a huge up-side, or a terrible impact.

For this to work, the IT team needs to have the capacity and capability to look at the bigger picture. To look at how the current ticket sales systems work, what can be adapted and what needs to be replaced. They need to be able to analyze the current state, and model the future. IT needs a business head on its shoulders to operate in this environment. And it definitely needs to acknowledge that external advice and experience is going to be needed.

“Loyalty data is not Big Data”

If you have a loyal customer base like teams have with season ticket holders, and a city full of people wanting to watch a game, knowing your customer is essential. But outdated, paper-based, in-house systems can’t do what you need in this regard. At the same time, there is no need to fall into the trap of building out a huge Big Data facility to understand your customers. First, you actually have to get hold of information that can get you the insights you hope for.

Can you imagine that at least one of these major teams has only recently moved from paper tickets for season pass holders to a smart card? What does the smart card get you, beyond saving a tree or two? Well, once you have that central ‘identity’, you can use it to track purchases of beer, snacks and ice-cream at games. You can watch attendance at games. You can collect information that you never had before in order to understand how to attract new season ticket sales in future, and to reward and retain your existing customers. This isn’t a big data problem. It is just a “get the data” problem, and fixing up old ways of working can help you do that.

“If sporting performance has peaked, how do we retain and attract supporters in the future?”

Not every team wins the cup every season. Not every company releases new, stunning products every year. How can IT support the business when the primary product starts to lose some of its sparkle? Customers are fickle and have a short attention span. Fair-weather sports fans especially so.

Again, it comes down to having the time, the vision, and the right people to allow you to focus on keeping current customers happy, and making the experience of being at a major sporting event even more exciting. It has to be incredibly better than watching an HDTV in the comfort of your home. IT can provide fans with facilities such as free wi-fi, allowing tens of thousands of people to remain connected, to Tweet, to share photos of their experiences. And to feel like they are connected to the players who are the face of the team. It can enable more interesting online community experiences, and work with Marketing to keep people involved outside of the stadium. IT can help streamline business processes so the business can adapt more easily to customer demands and expectations ensuring that the nitty-gritty doesn’t get in the way of the experience.

The end game

The sports team CIO is really a model for how a CIO in any corporation that takes customer loyalty and experience seriously (not just lip service) should consider operating. Think:

  • identifying technology that can enable an exceptional customer experience
  • getting and using data smartly to understand your customer better
  • letting go of the physical servers and outdated business processes to allow transformational projects to be considered

A post from the Improving It blog
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