Q. You and your team have a one-of-a-kind mission. What does this mission involve?
A. Atos-Origin has been an official partner of the International Olympic Committee since 2001. Our job is to supply all the technology needed to run the Olympic Games — we are in charge of the design, integration and deployment of all of the systems that make the Olympic Games possible: the hardware, the software, the telecoms systems, the network, everything. We supported the Games in Salt Lake City, Athens, Turin, and Beijing; and we will do Vancouver and London as well.
We have three main groups of “users”: The first group is what is called the “Olympic family,” and that is the athletes, coaches, journalists, security teams, and other employees on site. The second group is the on-site spectators and visitors. The third group is all the spectators in their homes around the world.
We design and deploy a Games Management System which supports the accommodation, transport, accreditation, staffing and all the other things that allow the “city” of the Olympics to function; and we design and deploy an Information Diffusion System, which manages all the timing and scoring, sends results to scoreboards and to the press and enables the commentator information system. Of course, all of that is in absolute real-time.
It’s quicker to say what we don’t do: We are not responsible for the anti-doping testing, we don’t manage the system for selling tickets and we don’t do the video production, all of which are the domain of specialists. But all the other information technology systems are the work of some 4,500 staff managed by Atos-Origin.
I would argue that it is one of the most complex technology projects because we cannot delay the start date for any reason, and we cannot tolerate any errors during the 17 days of the Games. Other projects can often delay their start date if things aren’t quite ready—but we cannot. It’s a real constraint. For example, some of the venues for the Athens Games weren’t finished on time so we couldn’t start work on installing everything until much later than we anticipated. But we still had to finish everything on time.
Q. How do you do it?
A. Risk management is the key to our work at the Olympic Games. We freeze everything one year before the start of the Games. Any requests for changes after that require a full review which results in an impact statement. We have to decide whether we can honor the request without putting the operation at risk. And we do this for every request, even if it comes from the President of the IOC or the Head of State of the host country. We have to, or we can’t manage the risks properly. For example, two days after the start of the Winter Games in Turin, we were asked to change the way the qualifying system worked for one of the events. We prepared an impact statement, and we had to refuse the request. The change seemed small but once we studied it, we saw how it would create a cascade of changes on many other systems and processes. It was just too risky; we had to refuse to do it.
Another example: We manage the systems that allowed the 340,000 people in the Olympic family in Beijing to be accredited, and believe me, we’re not just talking about a badge hanging around a person’s neck. In fact, the accreditation for the Beijing Games also served as an official visa for entering China, that’s how secure and complete the information gathered needs to be. The system behind that process had to be completely secure and functional.
For some systems, we used up to four levels of redundancy. We had an entire duplicate of the data center which was housed completely apart from the Games, on a different seismic plate in case there was an earthquake under one of them. Disaster recovery procedures were in place and tested regularly. It’s risk management.
Q. What are the human capital implications?
A. We had 4,500 people helping us run the Beijing Games. About 85 percent of the staff were local. It’s a classic recruitment process: We write job descriptions and we hire people. About two years before the start, we go to universities in the host country to identify the best students. We hired 100 students in Beijing in this way.
Training is very important. Some people start three years before the event, and some people start three days before, but everyone who works for us is fully trained. We use both e-learning and what we call “tabletop” exercises which are simulations of real situations. There are then tests and if someone is not up to the job, they’re out. We expect everyone to respect our processes and do things the way we have agreed to do them. That, too, is part of our risk management.
Because the Chinese language and culture are so unique, we made sure our core management teams for the Beijing Olympics were Chinese nationals. We planned ahead—we sent 14 Chinese managers to Athens in 2004 so they could live through the Games in major roles at Atos-Origin. It seemed more logical to teach the Atos-Origin way of running the Olympics to Chinese managers, than to send experienced but non-Chinese managers to run the Games in Beijing.
Q. How has convergence affected your project?
A. People “consume” the Olympics in a different way than they did before. It used to be that people would watch an event on TV, live if the time zones were aligned, and if they weren’t, then they’d be happy to read the results in the newspaper the next morning and watch it on TV after the fact. Now, people want to see the events live, wherever they are. They want to know immediately not only who won, but also who placed second and third, and how the results compare to other races and records.
The Atlanta Games in 1996 were the first “Internet Olympics” and of course in recent years, the Internet has become a real presence in the Games. The latest trend is mobile. There’s a real balance now between TV and “new” media. So for us, convergence means that we need to be capable of providing the same information on all media, because people want richer information, in real time, in a mobile world.
Q. What challenges does convergence bring to your business?
A. Security is a challenge, especially since 9/11 – we need to protect the Olympic Games from cyber-terrorism. Every day of the Beijing Games, we had a multitude of issues to deal with. Of course they’re not all real security problems, but we have to take a look at every one. We have to determine what’s a danger, what’s not. If we always assume the worst, then we would “close down” the system so much that it would have a negative impact on the user experience, which is definitely not want we want for the Olympic Games! Our challenge is to find the right balance between the user benefits of new converged technologies, and the safety and stability of the project. We have to draw a line somewhere. We would not deploy a new technology just because it’s nice to have, it must have a material impact on our customers and users. We need to weigh the benefits against the risks, and we’re always going to choose “safety and quality” over “innovation”.
Q. What do you see on the horizon?
A. Content is going to become richer. Today, content is just data in a one-way news feed, but as we move forward it will be much richer, more interactive, more animated. Instead of just receiving a news feed, users will be able to be more selective, probably even adapt and personalize the feed. I also expect we’ll see much more information prepared for “communities” of users, small groups with very specific centers of interest. Convergence for us means looking far, far ahead: We’re already asking ourselves what we might need to provide for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Our Digital, Media and Entertainment Practice
The Russell Reynolds Associates’ Digital, Media and Entertainment Practice sits at the intersection of dynamic digital content, which is reshaping the way we work and play, and wireless and broadband networks, which keep us connected seamlessly around the globe. We also have significant experience in helping our clients recruit in the managed services and outsourcing areas. The combination of our experience with service providers as well as infrastructure solution providers (who design, build, and deploy their platforms and networks) allows us to work at the forefront of technologies including IPTV, WiMAX, FTTx, IMS, Ethernet, 3G/4G and VoIP. Finally, our success with assisting media and content providers and aggregators to leverage these powerful new technologies positions us at the heart of the convergence movement as the key human capital solutions provider on a global basis.