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CIO SUMMIT 2014: An offer he couldn’t refuse

NBR talks to CIO Summit 2014 headline speaker Peter Ennis, a former technology manager for TVNZ, who headed to Doha in 2012 to become executive director of technology for the controversial, ground-breaking global broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Chris Keall: How did you come to move from TVNZ to Al Jazeera? 

Peter Ennis: I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  It’s not often you get shoulder-tapped to lead the technology function of one of the world’s seminal media brands, particularly at a time when the organisation itself is going through significant change with a new director general (DG) and a restructured executive team, a budget to completely renew the ageing infrastructure across five channels, two of them global, and a mandate to create a technology structure and processes fit for the 21st century.

CK: seem to be lots of Kiwis or at least former NZ radio and TV talent at Al Jazeera now or in the recent past, including Kim Vinnell, Anita McNaught, Laura Frykberg,  Liz Puranum, Wayne Hay,  Trish Carter, Charlie O’Kane and Heather Shiels, Andrew Potter (inventor of the immortal OneNews phrase “weather bomb”). The list goes on. Is it a Kiwi invasion and why do you think it is?

PE: Al Jazeera is a veritable UN but I would say that Kiwis and the Irish are probably over-represented given the size of their respective populations.  I can say that because I’m an Irishman living in New Zealand. I think the reason is that we tend to be more open, less judgmental and more resourceful.  I’ve worked in this industry around the world and Kiwis are highly regarded.

CK: Do you think CIOs are given enough say in management, in general and how did this play out at Al Jazeera?

PE: I think that it varies by industry and rightly so.  In some industries IT is largely a support function (some would say a necessary evil ...), therefore little strategic input is sought or expected.  In others IT, and technology in general, is a key enabler and should sit at the top table.  This, however, doesn’t always happen and it is interesting to note that having had technology represented at executive level, the two main NZ free-to-air broadcasters (TVNZ and TV3) now have no technologists on their senior leadership team.  Considering the technology-driven challenges that they face from OTT [over-the-top-services like QuickFlix and NetFlix], HbbTV [hybrid broadcast broadband] and other disruptive technologies I believe this to be a retrograde step.  Sky TV is probably the most technologically innovative broadcaster in New Zealand and has its head of technology on its executive team.  

Before my appointment technology was seen as a support function in Al Jazeera but the new director-general, Sheikh Ahmed Al Thani, saw the need for Al Jazeera to be at the forefront of innovation and technical best practice both regionally and globally and I was appointed to the global executive board.  I was involved in all key business initiatives in some way and was involved in the Al Jazeera America initiative from the outset which accelerated our time to market and allowed us to innovate.

CK: At Al Jazeera, how were you addressing the move toward online and multiplatform broadcasting? 

PE: Al Jazeera already had a vibrant but small online team, which I inherited.  I doubled the size and set it a target to simplify our delivery systems while expanding our availability across all devices.  A particular challenge was the nature of AJ’s audience, some of whom are affluent and have access to the latest devices and hyper-speed broadband but yet others live well below the poverty line and have limited connectivity.  

An added complication is the almost daily attacks on Al Jazeera ‘s IT and delivery infrastructure from various agencies in the Middle East who, for one reason or another, disagree with AJ’s coverage.  I replicated and expanded an approach I took at TVNZ, scrapping in-house bespoke (and often sub-optimal) delivery platforms and outsourced to a number of global partners to ensure an attack on one would not take us offline.

CK: Have you been keeping tabs on TVNZ’s online/app etc efforts; if so, how do you rate them?

PE: TVNZ has been late in the game delivering good quality apps to the market but, that said, they have been, and are, ahead of the local competition.  By international standards they are at Version 1.5 where some markets are now rolling out Version 3.  Addressability is a key goal, yet while I was there Jeremy O’Brien (now head of sales) came up with a great initiative to give TVNZ a competitive edge, which I took on, and with my team devised a technical delivery solution but we could not get executive level support, despite the support of Tom Cotter, then general manager of digital media and now chief executive of BuzzDial (Since Peter Ennis left TVNZ, Kevin Kenrick has taken over as chief executive).

CK: What are you going to talk about at the CIO Summit?

PE: I’m going to talk a little about the global media business in general, and the challenges, threats and opportunities it faces. I will talk about the difficulties of leading a widely dispersed and multi-cultural technology team across many boundaries and probably round off with some thoughts on New Zealand’s position in the global media technology landscape.

CK: What are you doing now?

PE: I’ve been running a small consultancy (Hahei partners) since I left Al Jazeera in September, working with a small number of clients globally in the media, telco, technology and finance sectors.  Assignments have included market analysis, acquisition target identification, pre-acquisition due diligence, market analysis and high-level operational reviews. 

I’m particularly keen to work at the nexus of where strategy meets culture meets technology – it is fascinating; value-destructive if done badly but organisationally-empowering when done successfully.  It’s all about delivering value to stakeholders, whether they are viewers, advertisers, shareholders, producers or anyone else.

ckeall@nbr.co.nz

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