Racing ahead with IT

Running IT like a business is the best way to inculcate a healthy competitive spirit among your IT staff, says Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of IT.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor
CIO 1-on-1 Sunny Lee sees himself as a matchmaker, among other roles, in his capacity as the executive director of IT at the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC).

Just two months into the job, Lee endeavors to utilize capabilities and assets to achieve maximum value for the organization. If there is an ongoing project in one area of the business that could also benefit another part of the business, he will match the interests and necessary resources to carry the project through so both areas stand to gain.

By Lee's estimates, HKJC undertakes an average of about 300 different projects each year, some of which are large projects requiring extensive resources.

"Most of the time when your customers ask for something, they needed it yesterday!"

The club serves a member base of around 20,000 individuals, most of whom come from well-to-do backgrounds. It also supports over 1 million betting accounts and some 2,000 horse owners.

On a typical horseracing day, more than 5 million transactions are conducted online or over the counter using cash or betting accounts. The club hosts 78 of such races annually. In 2005 alone, it held over 100 lottery draws and accepted football bets on more than 6,100 matches.

HKJC is one of the largest employers under China's special administrative region, with 4,400 full-time and 20,000 part-time staff. Lee, who is also the current president of the Hong Kong Computer Society, leads a team of 360 IT professionals.

Prior to joining the Jockey Club, he spent 10 years at the Hong Kong and China Gas Company (Towngas), where he was a member of the executive committee. He held a number of key positions at Towngas, including group CIO and CEO of two strategic diversification businesses, iCare.com and Towngas Telecommunications Company.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Lee describes what it takes to run IT like a business and how he keeps updated on current and upcoming technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification) and biometrics.

Q: You're no stranger to the IT community. How have your previous roles help prepare you for this one?
A: Running IT is very much like running a business. I was a CIO before where I had a chance to run IT, and when I became a CEO, I found that the better way to run IT is to run it like a business.

It doesn't matter whether you're running an IT shop or you're running a non-IT business, you have to be equally customer-oriented; you have to have the same sense of competitiveness such that your internal IT dept has to be almost like a vendor...that you're actually in some ways competing against outside vendors because your users do have a choice--if they don't like you, they can go out and use other people and directly outsource to those companies.

You have to have the same knowledge and awareness of the business to the extent where you need to know it so well, you have the ability to anticipate what's coming down the pipes. Most of the time when your customers ask for something, they needed it yesterday!

Sunny Lee
Job title
Executive director of Information Technology at Hong Kong Jockey Club
Geographical responsibility
Hong Kong and China
Work experience
Lee joined HKJC in July 2006. Prior to that, he spent 10 years at the Hong Kong and China Gas Company (Towngas), where he held a number of key positions including CIO and CEO. He was vice president and systems director of Bank of America (Hong Kong) between 1990 and 1996.

You have to know how to market your IT capabilities, and know what IT can do for your customers. You have to know how to do business process reengineering, and understand your internal and external customer needs. You also have to know how to strike a win-win partnership, not only with your internal users, but also with your suppliers and vendors.

If you adopt the same principles of running a company and use them to run IT, a lot of these things are relevant. What I'm trying to do now is sell these ideas to my staff, to let them understand they need to think like a vendor and that they need to be as responsive, as business-hungry and as market-driven as a vendor. At the same time they need to have a good feel of the business, to the extent that they are able to anticipate what it needs. They need to be very much value-driven, understand how to turn IT into value, and how to spend their day so that they'll be returning maximum value to the business.

What are the club's current key focus areas in IT?
We're constantly looking at ways to do things better. Of course the most important part of our IT is having non-stop, 'bulletproof' and always-on [systems]. If the system goes down you will see us in the news, and we won't like that. Making sure the systems are stable and reliable is very important, but it's also an uphill battle because our environment is getting more and more complex every day. This is partly because we're making data more accessible

to our customers and enabling them to interact online with our systems.

Security is an issue; hacking is an issue. We're constantly looking at ways to protect our systems, to enhance the availability, stability and security…these are the fundamental things we need to make sure we're good in, before we even think about adding new capabilities to the system.

Mobility is another area we are looking at. With Hong Kong's very mature wireless infrastructure, which has 3G and Wi-Fi capabilities, our customers are getting more and more interested in accessing or placing bets through wireless devices as well as through the Internet. We want to continuously look at ways to make it convenient for them to do so anytime, anywhere, with good response time and the right level of security, and on any device.

Interactive services is another area we're continuously exploring for different technologies, both on the Web as well as mobile devices. Our interactive transactions have gone up in a big way over the last few years. Just last year alone, our interactive transactions over the Web have gone up by 65 percent. We're seeing that the e-society is actually working for our business, in particular, where people are seeing--almost like e-banking and related type of services--the Internet and mobile phone or devices as a very convenient and appropriate way of doing business or conducting transactions.

We're also looking at a better way of managing our information--we're getting deeper and deeper into business intelligence and data warehousing. In order to serve our customers better, we have to understand them better and we can do so through our daily interaction with them.

What's hot on your agenda these days?
We're looking at extending our enterprise… We're in the process of looking at opportunities outside Hong Kong, where we may be able to export our racing business and cooperate with other countries.

There's also a clubhouse that we're building in Beijing--a very premium club serving people from Hong Kong who travel frequently to Beijing, as well as locals who are interested to join. That requires extending our enterprise, our IT systems to various places, introducing the platforms that we have for these diversified businesses as well as ensure that there's an appropriate level of integration and information management.

We're also introducing a racing club, which is a new membership for people interested only in horses. That opens up the opportunity to leverage on our current capabilities in membership management and CRM (customer relationship management), to support that new business.

As part of these plans, we're going to introduce very personalized customer service using either biometrics or RFID tagging technology. This will enable us to recognize our members when they come in, so that we will already have all the things they need lined up for them before they even arrive at the club.

We're currently using RFID quite extensively, and we're getting into biometrics. We're thinking of trying out a few things--palm reading, facial recognition and pattern recognition. For example, we're launching a car-parking system very soon that reads the plates of cars so we'll know whether to admit these vehicles.

How has RFID helped your business?
We actually have a system in place to tag the horses and track their location when they're in a race, so we can monitor the timing, speed and performance as well as the location.

We're in the process of implementing this project. The initial phase went live in end-2003. The system is now able to show on a real-time basis, the sequence of horses as well as the sectional timing--that is, how long each horse takes to finish each section of the race. This provides very insightful data for people to analyze the performance of horses so they can try to bet more 'intelligently'.

In future, we're going to use those location and performance data to put in place multimedia information for our customers who come to the race and also to put on the Web.

With such a large IT team at the Club, are most IT projects done in-house?
Today, more work is done in-house but we're actually moving toward outsourcing, especially for some systems that are what we call betting related. For systems that require specific skills, it may be difficult for us to outsource and we have people who are very knowledgeable in these areas. For other systems such as HR, finance, business intelligence, we find that either co-sourcing or outsourcing would be a good way to do it. So we are moving toward that direction.

While we hope to do that, we're also seeing the importance of continuing to strengthen our project management capabilities. Over the last couple of years, we've put in a lot of professional, comprehensive and robust project management governance in place so that we're able to keep everything under control, especially projects that have been outsourced.

We've tightened up a whole lot of methodology; we're continuously strengthening our IT architecture capability and process. All these things will better position ourselves in the future so that we are able to enjoy a more flexible resource pool, combining internal expertise with external capabilities.

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