Interview: Christine Ashton, BP Group

One of BP's top IT managers has firm views on melding business and IT to give business an edge and open new career options for IT specialists.

Christine Ashton has one of the most senior IT jobs in the huge BP group, yet she jokingly refers to herself as chief stirrer.

In fact that's not a bad description for the role of hybrid or bridger between business and IT that she has been working to promote across industry since co-founding the BCS Business-IT Interface Specialist group in 1999.

'Bridging isn't a passive activity: bridgers don't just bridge the gap and liaise between business and IT,' she says. 'They're like entrepreneurs creating added value that just wouldn't be there otherwise.'

Indeed, the Business-IT Interface Specialist Group says bridgers have a strategic role in: 'helping businesses understand how IT fits and supports business strategy, including new opportunities; helping to build business strategy with information systems embedded; and developing IT strategy to deliver outputs and maximum benefit'.

Bridgers must have a wider perspective than any particular application or technology set, the group says. And they need the organizational and people skills to break down barriers between IT and business - barriers such as IT jargon - and help educate business about IT and IT about business. This means they must have the confidence of both sides.

Ashton is the practical embodiment of all this. She has an MSc in electronics and computing and is also both a Chartered Chemist and a Chartered Engineer.

'I got into IT in the water industry, developing exception-based reporting for works managers, making sense of vast quantities of data held on mainframe-based databases,' she says. 'I enjoyed it very much.

'Later I was head of business systems at Cable and Wireless, delivering systems from a commercial perspective. I was based in the business.'

She joined BP in 2001 and is chief information manager, strategy and integration, for BP Refining and Marketing, covering areas ranging from refining to services for marine, air and other industries, and global customer businesses such as the BP Connect retail outlets.

BP Refining and Marketing has 75,000 staff; the IT section, known in BP as Digital and Communications Technology, has 35,000 PC users worldwide in Refining and Marketing alone, excluding BP Connect outlets.

Ashton has a small but hugely experienced immediate team.

'My team would be senior IT directors if they weren't in BP,' she says. 'For example a former IT director looks after skills planning and making sure world class competency is continuously developed.

'A projects portfolio manager looks at whether projects are being carried out well, with the right processes and controls followed. There is an architecture team with extensive experience from across BP, and senior managers responsible for enterprise systems and compliance.

'We're using techniques such as architecture showcases to show business people how information flows integrate with each other. I'm also a big fan of conference-room piloting, which works at business process level.

'These techniques help improve the business-IT interface by presenting capability in a business context as opposed to a systems context.'

IT operations is a separate central BP function. This helps ensure that corporate standards and world class best practice are followed, Ashton says, and also helps her and her team focus on the business.

'Some organizations have a single department that develops, manages and runs applications and infrastructure,' she says. 'We've separated operations from development and planning.

'That gives operational economies of scale and allows the business development side of IT to stay close to the business, to focus on the business and meeting its needs, and the operations professionals can become focused on running world class operations and communications.

'The type of bridging you get then is much purer and a lot more value-added. We are totally business facing, focusing on information strategies to make the business successful.

'I'm currently working on five-year planning: how we help to make the businesses successful and achieve their objectives from the points of view of applications, data, business processes and business continuity.

'Simplification and standardization of business processes that cross divisions or units is the goal of many federated businesses like BP - and bridgers have a real role to play in creating the climate for dialogue between business and IT.

'It's sometimes assumed that different ways of doing business need different systems. But when you boil things down and make them simple it might just be for example that one business unit needs data about its product faster because of the way it distributes it.

Having a good, clear architecture enables you for example to switch on the more sophisticated data acquisition facilities that the one business unit needs, while the core systems are the same as for other business units' processes.

'This has become easier in recent years because there are such good applications and middleware products on the market, which also means easier ways of joining both strategic and heritage technology.

'So we still gather user requirements, but look to develop the solution using a target set of preferred central applications. We can still be entrepreneurial but we build things in such a way that they can be delivered using common infrastructures and data centres, bringing economies of scale.

'We've also found that most of the benefits of IT systems can come by spending more time on pre-system process simplification. In fact it's my mantra these days to make complicated things simple - and that's actually quite difficult. But a good architecture helps push the boundaries while maintaining a certain elegance.'

All this shows that different types of bridging are needed,  Ashton says: 'In the early days of the BCS specialist group we saw the hybrid manager as a single combination of skills and tried to define that one role, but actually a range of different hybrid combinations is needed.

'Across BP for example we've got business process-IT hybrids, business-application area hybrids, IT operations-business development hybrids. Supporting them are architecture, infrastructure, data and operations specialists who have to think about how the technical strategies should continue to develop in support of business direction.

'The BCS bridging group seemed to falter as a result of our own success. IT managers who had made the transition no longer talked about "the business and IT", and "bridging" no longer had any meaning for them: IT strategy had long been subsumed in the business strategy, and they were not seen as IT people by many.'

But Ashton does not believe this means the end of bridging. She now sees it as an important staging post.

'Being effective bridgers allowed us to become credible and also gave us the right to become entrepreneurial,' she says.

'But this is no longer enough. With the bridge now in place we need to become pioneers all over again in the new business territory.

'We must be able to articulate alternative futures and scenarios in a way that is intuitive for business and project staff, to demonstrate leadership in rapidly reshaping processes using technology, and to be seen to deliver benefits right across value chains, time and again.

'Having crossed the bridge, we can now become the true organizational fire starters that many of us joined the profession to be.'

in a nutshell

  • Hybrids or bridgers bring something extra to enable the organization to exploit technology to the full.
  • Business units must be shown IT architectures and information flows in business process terms, not systems terms.
  • Separating IT development from operations allows development to focus on business needs and operations to concentrate on providing world class services, bringing economies of scale.
  • Simplifying business processes identifies what individual business units really need and highlights where common systems can be used.
  • The next generation of bridgers need to show even greater leadership - and can have even greater impact.

Pen portrait

Christine Ashton got into IT as a business manager working on complex databases. Her career as a bridger developed as she moved to IBM as a business development manager, to United Utilities as organization and systems design manager, and Cable and Wireless as head of business systems.

She became global IT director at chemicals group Octel and in 2001 joined BP, where she is chief information manager, strategy and integration, for BP Refining and Marketing. She co-founded and chairs the BCS Business-IT Interface Specialist Group. She is a non-executive director of the UK Passport Service.

Her interests include wine, cars, psychology and family holidays in the Scottish islands.

This article first appeared in May 2005 ITNOW.