How the CIO of the Year transformed technology at the Financial Times – and will she do the same as Rebekah Brooks' new CTO?

Information Age speaks exclusively to CIO of the Year Christina Scott as she prepares to make the move from one media giant to another

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‘We didn’t go away and design a huge all-singing, all-dancing solution. We learned as we went along and we are still very much learning in this space’

 

Christina Scott scooped the prestigious CIO of the Year award at last week's Women in IT Awards 2016, recognising the digital and technology transformation she has led at the Financial Times.

When Scott joined the Financial Times almost four years ago, technology was not in a good place at the 127-year-old newspaper. Not only was it criticised for not delivering on its goals, it was seen as being subservient – or, at least, a blocker – to the business.

But when she joins News UK – publisher of The Sun and The Times – as its new chief technology officer later this year, she will leave behind an organisation where technology is now seen by stakeholders and the CEO as an important partner to the FT's success.

Changing how technology is viewed by a business so positively requires more than just delivering solid IT projects – Scott has, in particular, transformed how the FT approaches data – but a complete, organisation-wide cultural change.

>See also: Women in IT Awards 2016: winners announced

The nature in which Scott's role has evolved since she joined the Financial Times is testament to the increased importance of technology across the organisation

Joining as CIO in charge of an IT team and a digital team, Scott soon inherited product and project management, entailing an even greater understanding of the business and bringing together her teams to focus on one common mission: driving the FT with strong, simple and open technology.

Scott has also been tasked with leading the FT’s customer strategy work, further cementing her position in helping other parts of the organisation understand how technology can help them.

‘If you’re in marketing,’ she tells Information Age, ‘your role has changed phenomenally over the last few years because of technology. Same for if you’re in journalism.

‘So I think technology is very much able to give more insight into some of the possibilities and help people understand how their role is going to change as well.’

That’s not to say, however, that Scott hasn't faced resistance to the innovation and cultural change she has introduced to the FT.

‘People generally don’t like change,’ she says, acknowledging that some employees intrinsically oppose ideas that involve them doing something differently.

She also admits some of the things her teams have attempted to introduce haven’t worked for the business, resulting in them having to try something else.

As a result, she’s found success in constantly evolving the company’s approach to innovation and technology, rather than taking a ‘big bang’ approach.

‘Whatever it is – whether it’s how we do our delivery, our governance or how we try to empower teams – we introduce small changes,’ she says. ‘So it really relates to the concept of agile delivery and cultural change, where it’s more of a drip-fed process in which people feel comfortable in making those steps, and can understand the logic behind the change.’

Five to ten years ago, the Financial Times – like every other traditional publisher – was faced with the major decision of what business model it would adopt online.

The rapidly growing number of people wanting to consume news and content on the internet meant publishing companies had to sufficiently invest in the platform to remain competitive. More than that, though, they had to gamble on the best way to approach it.

Most organisations fell broadly into one of two models: free-to-view content monetised entirely through advertising, or content that requires a paid subscription to access. 

Most websites went down the free-to-view route, although critics claim this has deteriorated quality – as publishers chase clicks to serve advertising campaigns – and given birth to the era of ‘clickbait’ journalism, where articles lure readers in with sensational headlines to increase traffic.

On the other hand, many of those that adopted subscription models have failed to lure enough paid readers to boast of impressive bottom line figures, while also missing out on significant advertising revenue due to their underwhelming traffic numbers. 

The Financial Times, however, has proved to be somewhat of an exception – and a very positive example of how to get paywalled content right.

According to Scott, this success is largely down to an early decision the FT made to keep its relationship with the customer at the heart of what it did. And doing so involves an astute use of data.

‘A lot of the media’s approach to online has concentrated on getting their content out there all over the place, and they lost sight of the customer,’ she Scott. ‘I think as companies have come to more and more understand about the power of data in understanding their customer, and in return providing the customer with the value they need, a lot of them are now changing.

‘There were some good decisions made by the FT around customer understanding, the relationship with the customer, and the use of data. And obviously we’re lucky we have content that customers are happy to pay for, so through our subscription model we’ve been able to build that relationship over time.’

Initially at the Financial Times, data was used in a way that will sound familiar to many organisations: very casually in the marketing and advertising teams, and very much in siloes.

However, over the last couple of years Scott's teams have increasingly taken customer understanding from all parts of the business, and started using it across the entire organisation.

Now, the FT is cranking up its data strategy by building it into its products and using it to test features. For example, it recently featured a slowdown of its website to see what impact speed had on customer engagement.

‘We have an engagement metric that we use as a KPI across the whole company to see the health of the business,’ says Scott. ‘That’s something that is transferrable across the editorial, marketing, sales and product teams because they’re all interested in our customers being more engaged.

‘It’s a metric we’re able to use, through the in-house data across the whole company, to centralise everyone against a very clear goal.’

But it’s not been an easy ride getting to this stage. According to Scott, the FT went a long way with ‘pretty poor data systems’.

‘One of the cautionary tales of the technology projects that go off and build some amazing capability is that the business doesn’t really understand what it wants to do with data or how to do it,' she says. 'You end up with a lovely, shiny data warehouse to one side, and the business not really utilising it fully.’

>See also: Why the editor of The Times kicked News UK’s big data chief out of his office

The FT took the approach of understanding the value, building the capability, and, only once they were ticked off, building the technology to enable the organisation to take it forward.

It has built its own data warehouse on the cloud and moved away from introducing tools that are only suitable for data scientists to use.

With all employees now able to use the tools, whatever their skillset, everybody across the company can now gain insight into the data they need to do their jobs.

But, Scott assures, that wasn’t what was designed initially. ‘We didn’t go away and design a huge all-singing, all-dancing solution,’ she says. ‘We learned as we went along and we are still very much learning in this space.’

Scott will no doubt take these learnings when she moves to News UK, where she will find familiarities in The Times and The Sunday Times, which like the FT have been behind an online paywall for many years now, but a whole new challenge in The Sun, which recently scrapped its paywall following two unsuccessful years of charging for content.

With print circulations continuing to decline, and The Sun considerably behind free-to-view leaders like Mail Online and The Guardian, Scott will lead technology at a critical time for the Rupert Murdoch-owned publishing company, which is currently led by chief executive Rebekah Brooks.

Scott will work with another Women in IT Awards winner at News UK, Sarah Wood, co-CEO at Unruly. The social video advertising firm was acquired by News UK's parent company, News Corp, in September, eight months after Wood collected the Innovator of the Year award at the Women in IT Awards 2015.