Addison Lee Group CIO - focus on experience, not buzzwords

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth March 10, 2019
Addison Lee CIO Ian Cohen is building better working neighbourhoods and being pragmatic about the next wave of technology.

Image of an Addison Lee cab
I am drawn to people who are the anti-zealot, the pragmatic people.

So says Ian Cohen, Group CIO and Chief Product and Technology Officer at Addison Lee, the well known private hire car firm. Addison Lee, arguably was the first digital disruptor of ride hailing, long before Uber became a global phenomena and overused buzzword. In recent years Addison Lee has become an international business following a spate of acquisitions from investment, which is coupled with a clear focus on being the quality service for business users.

With the rise of Uber and soon to IPO Lyft, Addison Lee has had to ensure its premium service stands out and retains the business consumer base it has cornered; 80 of the FTSE 100 organisations use the Addison Lee fleet of luxury saloons and MPVs. It is for this reason that Cohen wears two technology leadership hats. The experienced CIO is amongst a growing trend of CIOs and CTOs taking on a product role as a rising number of vertical markets see major parts of their business digitised, with the digital element being key to the customer service; the purpose of the business as Cohen calls it.

Cohen joined Addison Lee in the summer of 2017 and has been at the helm of a technology modernisation, part of a reboot of business purpose and customer care, as well as being part of the leadership team moving the organisation to its new London Paddington headquarters.

Neighbourhood service

In the new group headquarters the meeting rooms reflect the fleet that Addison Lee is known for and carry the names Ford, Benz, Maybach, Buick and Pullinger. A tech bar in the coffee space provides easy to access support and in reception a large screen depicts a heatmap of the capital and positions of every active vehicle in the Addison Lee fleet.

As we tour the new headquarter, on foot not in a black Ford Galaxy, Cohen explains the neighbourhood concept that the leadership team used in developing the interior of their new home.

HR, IT and our internal property team worked together to focus on what would actually work for our people. Too many big move projects focus on what you’d ‘like people to do’ or ‘think they do’ - we wanted to really understand how people actually worked. We wanted all the benefits of a new location, new technology, but also wanted an environment that supported natural ways of working. That's why we settled on the neighborhood approach.

As a result there are no set desks, but teams sit together in communities because they need to work closely on an almost daily basis. But Addison Lee wanted to ensure its team members came out of their ‘neighbourhoods’ to collaborate on new ideas and the office has large open spaces for group networking, cosy booths and those meeting rooms named after premium cars.

In building an open plan, flexible space, we wanted to retain everything that is good about people working in small multi-disciplined groups, so we created lots of small huddle spaces as well as traditional meeting rooms with all the connected tech you’d expect. People can sit and work anywhere, but we also created neighbourhoods organised by function.

Neighbourhood are a natural and familiar construct - you know the people in them as well as others nearby. So we placed teams who work together close to each other to create that effect. But equally, people also know other neighbourhoods where they go to for “stuff” - coffee, food shops etc - so we also created destination spaces.

Just one team has a permanent home, car control who are the air traffic controllers of Addison Lee and therefore need to be in the same driving seat at all times. London was not the only new home that Addison Lee has been focusing on, a new customer contact centre in Peterborough was also created over a year ago.

Technology impact

The office move has been driven in alongside a range of technology modernisations at Addison Lee since Cohen belted in. All in-house infrastructure has moved to a third party hosted and managed service model, whilst there has also been a wide scale implementation and adoption of Microsoft Office 365 capabilities to enable the collaboration the business was aiming for. Office 365 also apply the necessary security and compliance out-of-the -box required. He explains:

A lot of that activity was risk mitigation, part of it was cost control, but a large part was about creating that flexibility we required to be a digital business. If you just approach the infrastructure as just defraying risk or moving to the cloud to lower cost we would have approached it all very differently. But you have to make the changes to you infrastructure and services in the context of where you are going as a business. You decide what you want ‘to be’ and then you do things explicitly to drive towards that outcome. To transform a London car business into a global mobility services provider we needed a different architecture both technical and as a business.We are using a hybrid cloud model as there are things that we do much better on our own kit.

On how Addison Lee Group uses development methods to improve the business, not just deliver a technology change, Cohen says:

I hate the dogma behind modern methodologies. Of course we use Agile but we also use Waterfall. We are “experience led and product centric” with rapid feature iteration, but we also run traditional projects. The question is always, are we improving the customer (passenger and driver) experience and can we do it better and faster? And, by the way, Agile is not always about fast.

The ceremonies of Agile are great way of bringing people together. Really good commercial technology leaders should have enough in their toolbag to mix and match the most appropriate ways, because what the best CIOs do really well is use the right tools to solve the the right problems, at the right time and in the right way.

Cohen also isn’t a fan of companies that use technologies just because they are currently experiencing a lot of industry hype. Avoid the buzzwords and focus on experience, Cohen says.

People get hung up on ‘I have to do containers or cloud’, if it is not a means to an end then it is a waste of time. It has to make your organisation more of what it wants to be. We want to be all about the experience.

As an industry we have the ability to use buzzwords way before they are ready for the prime time. There are some huge claims that organisations are doing artificial intelligence (AI), most are doing machine learning (ML) or advanced pattern matching.

However, don’t be confused into thinking Cohen isn’t excited by the opportunities to use data and tools more effectively, the CIO is just honest that this is what CIOs should be doing and is not a new dawn as a result of a new technology. But he says organisations need to ensure that they have good tools operating on good data, otherwise the organisation is just wading about in a “data swamp”.

You have an obligation to ingest customer data and understand it end to end. It's not yours anyway, it's entrusted to you by your customers so how dare you not make the effort to understand it's end to end value and provenance.  That means you need to be as obsessed with the front of the event data pipeline as you are about the end generated profiles and see the all the possibilities along with all the corresponding obligations.