CIO50 2022 #12 Rob Pickering, Australian Football League

  • Name Rob Pickering
  • Title General manager of technology and chief technology officer
  • Company AFL
  • Commenced role November 2020
  • Reporting Line EGM
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Technology Function 20 in IT function, 4 direct reports
  • You wouldn’t ordinarily think of ‘footy’ as something needing anything much in the way of digital transformation. But for the AFL's general manager of technology and chief technology officer, Rob Pickering, he was tasked with doing a good deal more than merely challenge that assumption.

    Standing up a number of transformational projects, he and his team have played a big part in getting the organisation behind Australia’s beloved local game back to form and fighting fitter than ever after a bruising confrontation with COVID, which saw major disruptions to match schedules, with fans often barred from attending.

    Among the first cabs off the rank proved not only that AFL is serious about making real investments in technology, but that it’s also willing to play at the bleeding edge.

    Marking its foray into Web 3.0, Pickering and his team - in partnership with Telstra, Google and Accenture – have delivered a world-first augmented reality ‘wayfinding’ application at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium, allowing punters to visualise the route to their designated seat simply by scanning the ticket and being guided there. Premiered by Google at its I/O conference in May 2022, the technology is currently at proof-of-concept stage.

    In another nod to Web 3.0, the AFL is the first Australian sporting code to launch its own NFT (non-fungible-token) with AFL Mint now offering AFL items offering fans the chance to ‘own’ iconic moments, spectacular highlights and their part of the greatest champions.

    “Through AFL Mint we proudly celebrate our strong heritage while exploring the endless possibilities to connect with our fans in new ways,” says Pickering, adding that ‘minting’ moments is just the beginning.

    “We strive to innovate, to ensure our fans can share in the moments that matter and reap the rewards of investing in our great game."

    The first drop debuted in August and sold out in just 12 hours.

    Helping to support initiatives like these and others, Pickering and his team have been working with technology partners, Telstra to switch on mid-band 5G (referring to the 2.4GHz-4GHz ‘sweet spot’) at Marvel Stadium this year to give fans in the stadium what Pickering boasts is the “fastest 5G on the planet”.

    “This technology unlocks the types of fan experiences we want to provide for people attending events at Marvel Stadium such as the AR Wayfinding application, as well as other fan engagement capability,” Pickering says. 

    The project is part of a $250 million renovation of the iconic ‘Docklands’ stadium, which also now has a wired and wi-fi 6 network built, as well as a new audio visual system that has replaced 1500 screens with ‘super screens’ across the entire stadium.

    Fans can expect to feel even more engaged soon now that Pickering and his team have started implementing an AFL ‘iD’ which will be a single customer identity for all of the 1.3 million AFL Fans and around 4 million casual supporters to interact with the AFL. The goal is to have a single source of truth for customer identity by the end of 2023.

    Traditional transformation

    Meanwhile, he and the team have delivered a number of more traditional business transformation initiatives over the past 18 months, including deployment of a new CRM system linking the AFL, Marvel Stadium and seven clubs to date, “which is already showing great promise in our ability to deliver personalised and timely communication to our 1 million plus members."

    Added to this is a new ERP/finance system, once again linking the AFL with its top stadium, as well as 12 clubs, which Pickering and his team managed to stand up in under six months, “delivering significant uplift in operational efficiency and risk reduction."

    This project won a global Microsoft award for AFL partner, Fusion5 in recognition of its high-quality delivery within an aggressive timeframe. Systems for ‘people management’ have also been overhauled, with implementation of a single rostering and timesheet platform for some 3,500 staff, consolidating over 30 systems to a single source of truth. In parallel with all of this, the AFL’s PlayHQ game development platform was successfully rolled out to over 300,000 participants.

    “This platform underpins the competition management of several hundred clubs and leagues across Australia from NAB Auskick through to our Masters clubs and replaces a legacy system with a participant centric platform the enables the effective running of our community football,” Pickering explains.

    Genuine relationships

    Pickering tells CIO Australia that he prefers not to think about how to build "influence" across the AFL.

    Steeped in tradition and home to a highly diverse community, rather he sees the only way to succeed in the organisation is by developing real connections.

    “For me, it’s much less about influencing people as an end of its own but it’s about building genuine relationships with people at every level and part of the AFL ecosystem so that everyone I interact with feels that we are there to help, provide advice and ultimately execute to deliver the capability required to support the business imperatives.

    “That’s about spending time with the people you work with, understanding them as individuals and what is important to them and how we can help to meet those goals in a genuine, non-transactional sense."

    Follow this approach and Pickering reckons you’ll never need to "lobby to be involved in anything", because people will naturally want to work with you, while valuing you and your team’s input.

    “Genuine relationships across the entire business are the key to ensuring that technology has a seat at every table and is a part of most decisions – because all stakeholders know we’re there with the right mindset and with the right capability to deliver,” he notes.

    “The flip side of this is that technology leaders need to earn the seat at the table by making sure the basic technology functions work, and work well.”

    David Binning

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