Keeping the customer front and centre has been at the heart of Foxtel's IT strategy since the early days, says CIO Robyn Elliott.

The long-serving IT chief has worked for the media company twice -- the first time as it delivered 30 cable channels to 100,000 customers in metro areas, and this time for more than 11 years as viewers exceed 2.3 million and the company pushes 200 channels though cable, mobile and digital services.

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"It has been a remarkable journey and one of the great growth stories in Australian business," Elliot claims. "We invented an industry -- it wasn't new overseas but we didn't have the on-demand TV business here.

As Telstra rolled out cable, the IT team created a 'cable passed homes' database, which was really our first customer database, so we'd know the people to market our services to.

"I can trace the history of our data warehouse and business intelligence to that database. Viewing customer data as an asset right from the start was one of the smartest things we did from a technology point of view. Information was going to be one of our key assets and customer data the bedrock."

Elliot is one of those forward-thinking CIOs who combines a strong work ethic and technology lineage with professional accreditation, strategic experience, and business nous. She first came into contact with IT during a commerce degree and quickly became enamoured with its program-solving nature.

This led into a graduate program at consulting group, Accenture, where Elliott worked her way up from junior consultant to partner delivering business analytics, project management and technology strategy in Australia and South-East Asia.

From there, she stepped into her first CIO role at a stockbroker/investment bank to pull a technology transformation project back from a near-collapse. "It was a tough role and I often say to wanna-be CIOs that you have to take the job no one else wants to get started," Elliott says. "You have to be able to back yourself and believe you can solve the problem.

"At that time in that role, the relationship between technology and the business departments was very bad. As a CIO, I needed to show there was a value being delivered by technology.

"We ended up with interesting projects directly related to the bottom line including connections between the internal advisers and their clients. We did early work on 'extranets' as we called them then, and using the Internet to connect companies to deliver investment advice directly to clients."

The key lesson was to turn the conversation so that IT wasn't seen as the bottleneck or cost. "Once you achieve that relationship, much more starts to happen," Elliot claims. "It's about a true partnership where technology is part of the job, an enabler and a value-add."

Building bridges

After 11 years as Foxtel's CIO, Elliott has seen plenty of change including the organisation's expansion into digital and mobile services, program applications, remote recording capabilities and more.

"Technology is challenging and difficult, and some of the things we use at Foxtel are not considered traditional IT -- we are pushing the boundaries of what we can do with a set-top box or a smartphone, and how we translate video content into Internet-enabled services," she says. "It presents a lot of interesting challenges."

Today, technology is critical in all facets of Foxtel's business, improving knowledge and respect outside the core technology team. According to Elliott, IT still needs to enable everything, but not necessarily drive it.

"The reason we can accomplish so much is because we have business-led projects where technology is a fundamental part and the IT team is front and centre shaping the delivery of that," she explains.

"You want to enable as much as you can across the different functions. In the business applications space I have a lot of help from other business units and executives as to how we go about it. We all jointly own the results and our mission statement and KPIs are the same in IT as the business.

"Terms like alignment don't reflect the level it needs to reach; technology has to be completely integrated into the business projects, results and outcomes."

For Elliott, CIOs and their teams need to be good technologists while building the right mix of skills and understanding around their business impact. "Part of my job is to think about what might happen, and look at how the decisions we make now on the technology front open up strategic options in the future or constrain us," she says.

"Long-term thinking is also fundamental because no one else will do that. If the CIO doesn't do it for the technology roadmap and how that affects the business roadmap, no one else will.

"You have to have a clear view of what might happen in the company, and that's not something that will be written down and given to you. It's part of the engagement of executives and your thinking, industry knowledge and keeping up to date."

Any strategic approach also should be about providing a continuous stream of delivering value to the business both short- and long-term. At the same time, great CIOs focus on what the organisation needs at any given point in time.

"Operational stability is so critical to productivity and bottom-line results on an annual and quarterly basis, and those issues have to be addressed when they come up," Elliott adds.

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Innovation

Much of the debate on how to be a great CIO today revolves around business aptitude, but innovation is equally important. Mobility is one emerging area for Foxtel, and the company has already rolled out a subscription service on the iPad, with plans for more mobile-oriented offerings shortly.

Another way Elliott is tapping into innovation is via the wider range of external solutions and technology innovations available outside its own walls. "I look at us increasingly operating in an ecosystem of partners and industry players," she says.

"Some will have great ideas you can work with, and others will challenge the way you do things. That aspect of innovation requires a CIO to be outside their company's walls more than what many would do. If governed in the right way, these opportunities can deliver more value to the organisation and shouldn't be a threat."

An example of how Foxtel is looking to find innovation is through sponsorship of the CSIRO's new Broadband Innovation program media and entertainment category. The academic organisation has launched a competition to develop broadband apps and prototypes that demonstrate what entertainment might be in the future.

Closer to home, Foxtel's big IT investment this year is on integration. The company acquired Austar last May and is working to combine the regional company's set of systems with its own.

Elliott said the migration project will be completed by the end this year and is an opportunity to upgrade systems while replacing others. A new call centre front-end is being rolled out for example based on both Austar and Foxtel's experiences, and which will be more intuitive and agent-friendly. "One of our core IT principles is simplicity," Elliott comments.

"It helps our speed and flexibility to market as well as costs, if we only have to make a change to one system."

The amount of data available is exponentially greater today and mining both internal and external information offers additional ways for Foxtel to improve customer interaction. "Understanding how we make it easier for the customer to find the right entertainment for them and make life easier is our core challenge, and where the data discovery piece will be focused for us," Elliott continues.

"The executive director of marketing and I are jointly accountable for that customer experience; our customer engagement people are equally interested in additional information. Our advertisers also want more on what the value of these programs will be, and how the ads perform on all platforms and devices.

"It's obvious now we're in the world of the customer and the choice of what they want and what they do is critical to all businesses."

The trick is prioritising and using the data. Elliott stresses the importance of clear business actions and plans. "There are interesting opportunities when you start combining data with information outside your boundaries as well."

With so many business units focused on data to make better decisions, questions have been raised about how this will alter or potentially remove the need for a CIO. For Elliott, remaining relevant comes back to that blend of business insight and IT management.

"How data is used and interpreted sits more in partnership with business and business should be accountable for that and have a better understanding of it over time," she claims.

"But the I in CIO stands for information, and you have to be able to understand the data and the integrity of it. If two executives have different interpretations of the data, the CEO will look to the CIO to determine which one's right."