As the Skandia Great British sailing team charts a course for London 2012, it has joined up with Accenture to create a bespoke performance management tool - a streamlined and focused way of developing both individual athletes and the team as a whole. MT spoke to the team's Olympic manager, Stephen 'Sparky' Park, Sarah Treseder, chief executive of the Royal Yachting Association, and Stuart Cotton, a senior executive at Accenture who is leading the project. The tool could prove key to Britain retaining its status as the world's most successful Olympic sailing nation.
MT: How does the performance management tool work?
Sarah Treseder: The system is designed to log progress as the team prepares for the 2012 London Olympics. With Accenture's help, we've established a system of key performance indicators, or KPIs, showing where an athlete or squad needs to be at any stage - covering everything from starting technique to body weight. Managers, sailors and coaches log progress on an online database, Microsoft Performance Point, which identifies strengths and weaknesses and gives colour-coded feedback on how things are changing over time - and what we should be aiming for. For example, red means x, blue means y and yellow means z.
MT: How did the collaboration with Accenture come about?
Stephen Park: Accenture came on board in 2005 so we already had a strong relationship with them. It built us a robust tool that we can manage and update ourselves. And it facilitated the learning for us - how to nail the KPIs and get sailors to understand the whole program.
Stuart Cotton: We looked at this project with the same rigour about delivering high performance as we would any consulting project: whether for a FTSE-100 company or an elite sporting organisation. We use the same approach to identify how to improve the performance of individuals and the team, and the measures by which that progress can be gauged.
SP: Our operation has to run as a business these days. There are 100 athletes on our programme, plus 40 support staff - including everyone from sailing coaches to chefs and meteorologists. Everyone is absolutely driven by performance. But there is a difference: if you miss your target in a regular business you don't have to wait four years till your next shot!
MT: Is performance profiling in sport a new thing?
SP: We've been performance profiling for many years, but it used to be impossible to find time to drill down to the necessary level of detail. Nutrition used to be just 'have a banana'; now, as sport becomes more competitive, it gets right down to exactly how many calories and grams you're taking on board, how you'll be affected by 40-degree heat in Brazil, or five-degree heat in Weymouth. Thanks to Accenture's tool, we can measure all this against our targets and communicate that data back to the team. Sailors and coaches establish a baseline profile at the start of each year, set their goals and develop their training plans, then track progress through regular updates to the tool.
MT: And, as well as helping individual athletes, is it helping the organisation as a whole run more smoothly?
ST: We're largely funded by UK Sport and the National Lottery and have to demonstrate that the money is being well spent. It's in our interests to quantify our results. With the performance management tool, we're able to draw data in from a range of sources - including the RYA's financial systems, results data, medical data and surveys from sailors, coaches and other support staff. It means that when they report back, Sparky and the team aren't spending two days a month filling in audit reports like they used to. That's time they can put towards improving performance, not just talking about it.
MT: So your work with Accenture has been a podium-placing collaboration?
SP: Since 2000 we've been the top Olympic sailing nation. We won five medals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, six at the 2008 Games in Beijing. And in 2010 we won 47 different championship medals. This year we won 14 medals in one World Cup regatta - our nearest rival won only five. Our results are continuing to improve. Thanks to the work we have done with the team at Accenture, we have a better understanding of how well sailors are adhering to the programs, as well as their satisfaction with access to facilities and support staff. And we can act on that. We know that if we're not winning medals it's not through lack of support.
MT: But other nations must have these techniques too? Doesn't it feel like you're sailing into the wind?
SP: Sometimes. As we're the top nation and it's our home games, everyone's taking our lessons as best practice and following what we're doing. This piles extra pressure on the individual sailors. So we need to measure everything we can, and the performance management tool allows us to identify the really small things that can keep us ahead.
MT: Surely this kind of tool has its detractors - people who complain that sport is being reduced to a box-ticking exercise?
SP: With most management programs it's easy to imagine CEOs just implementing something because they read it in a textbook and no one buys into it. Here any intervention is clearly taking place because of the feedback we're getting and there's plenty of room for inspirational leaders with their own ideas. It's only a quarterly requirement, but around 70% of sailors are now using the tool on a daily basis.
MT: Can we expect to see more of these techniques?
ST: Yes. It also helps younger athletes challenge more experienced rivals in a more consistent, sophisticated way. It's no longer a game of fluke talent-spotting: we can see those future stars coming through.
SP: The future's about working smarter, not harder. These athletes are already working ridiculously hard, and Accenture helps us work smarter. Our job here at Skandia Team GBR is to develop medal-winning sailors: they need to leave London 2012 with medals swinging round their necks from port to starboard.