Canadian CIOs rally to combat recession

The economy is top of mind for everybody these days, and so the theme of this year’s CIO Peer Forum, “CIOs as Leaders in Tough Economic Times”, was a particularly appropriate one.

The annual two-day gathering of IT executives, held last month in Toronto, is the flagship event of The CIO Association of Canada. It attracted CIOCAN members from across the country, including Edmonton, where a new chapter launched in March.

Wayne Gudbranson, president and CEO of Branham Group Inc., kicked off the Forum with the positive news that Canada’s ICT industry is strong and growing: companies appearing on the consulting firm’s annual list of the top 300 ICT companies in Canada took in $75.97 billion in revenues in 2008, an increase of 17.96 per cent over the previous year and the highest combined revenue total since the list has been compiled.

A view of the changing threat landscape during the economic crunch was provided by Joe Sexton, SVP Americas for IT security firm McAfee. According to Sexton, there’s been a huge growth in the amount of malware, which tends to vary inversely with the health of the economy; threat levels are up 500 per cent year over year. He added that cybercrime groups have almost become an organized industry, and have developed suites of malicious software.

A panel session entitled “How can CIOs effectively position IT to respond to heightened economic challenges?” addressed the conference’s recessionary theme head on. Moderator Steven Lachowski, an Executive Partner with Gartner, set the tone for the session. “Set expectations for lower IT service levels,” he advised. “When you have lower funding, such strategic decisions are more acceptable.”

“When you’re in cost-cutting mode, a common tactic is to pick the low-hanging fruit,” added Louis Sousa, Executive Consultant, IBM Business Consulting Services. “But if that’s our only approach as CIOs, we’re not doing justice to the organization. If we do nothing but cut cost, cut cost, cut cost, when our organizations come out of the back end of the recession they’ll be out of business.”

“The economic climate demands swift action through the value curve, and every aspect of the value chain has to be looked at,” said Dave Codack, VP, Employee Technologies & Network Services, TD Bank Financial Group.

An informal poll held during this session asked audience members how their IT spend will shift. Interestingly, 47 per cent said it would shift from “lights on” to “innovation” this year, as opposed to 16 per cent who said it would shift from “innovation” to “lights on” and 38 per cent who said it would “stay the same”. The results were even more surprising for next year, when fully 78 per cent said the IT spend would shift from “lights on” to “innovation”, while only 7 per cent said it would be the other way around.

City of Toronto CIO Dave Wallace’s keynote, entitled “Leading Change in Municipal Government”, kicked off the afternoon proceedings. Wallace talked about Toronto’s focus on green initiatives, and its interest in social networking and Gov 2.0 technologies. He also talked about the imminent launch of the city’s 311 call centre, which will enable the public to access information and services through a single phone number or e-mail address.

The day’s second panel brought together four prominent legal specialists to discuss the topic, “Cyber Security and Privacy: The Legal Risks – What every CIO needs to know”. Dr. Gary Ellis, former Superintendent with the Toronto Police Service, warned of impending legislation that may make CIOs responsible for material (e.g. child pornography) found on computers within the organization. Panelists said that companies must have a culture of security ranging from the CEO down to the lowest level of employee. And there must be consequences for security breaches.

The first day’s proceedings closed with a lively presentation from Dr. Cindy Gordon, CEO of Helix Commerce, on “Balancing Innovation and Cost Biting in Disruptive Times”. Quoting John Kao, author of “Innovation as a Nation”, Dr. Gordon said that over 70 per cent of executives cite innovation is one of their top three growth drivers. However, over 65 per cent of executives are disappointed in their ability to execute innovation. Dr. Gordon said that Canada fares poorly when it comes to innovation, ranking thirteenth out of seventeen countries. She advised CIOs to take the initiative in fostering innovation. “You have to have an experimental budget for innovative work,” she said. “Organizations need to create the space for ideas to fail.”


One of Canada’s leading IT lawyers, Duncan Card of Bennett Jones LLP, had an encouraging message for CIOs as he kicked off the second day’s program. “I’ve always been a bellwether for the economy and since the fall I’ve never been busier,” he said.

These challenging economic times present “an unprecedented opportunity for leadership from the CIO office,” he added. “I think CIOs are the best positioned executives in the organization to lead transformation… And today, proactive proposals from the CIO will be very well received.”

In one of the highlights of day two, executive coach Nancy MacKay gave an engaging keynote entitled, “The Talent Advantage: Winning the War for Talent in a Dismal Economy”. MacKay offered some fascinating insights into the minds and management styles of CEOs she has worked with, and she advised, “You have to use whatever approaches you can to get your CEOs to be your advocates.”

MacKay outlined six strategies to help CIOs attract, retain and develop top talent, and she encouraged audience members to pick one and go back to their organizations and focus on it.

The first panel of day two, entitled “IT Leadership: Best Practices in Tough Economic Times”, included moderator and CIOCAN president Andrew Dillane, Group CIO, Ranstad Canada Companies, and the association’s founding president, Dr. Catherine Aczel Boivie, CEO Inventure Solutions and Senior VP, IT, Vancity Centre. Dr. Boivie talked about helping IT employees combat “survivor syndrome” after downsizing. “Three times a month I have ‘Coffee with Catherine’ sessions with about twenty-five or thirty of our employees,” she said. “They talk about whatever they want to talk about, and no notes are taken.”

Following the panel, Pat Finerty, VP Business Development and Alliances, SAS Canada and Dr. Nick Vitalari, Executive VP, nGenera Corp., provided insight into the use of Software as a Service (SaaS) as a tool that companies can adopt today and better position themselves for the future.

After a report on “The State of the Canadian CIO 2009”, presented by John Pickett, VP and Community Advocate, IT World Canada, the day’s final panel was held, entitled, “Attracting and Retaining the Workforce of the Future”. It included three co-op students in the Ryerson ITM program, who offered insights into the Gen Y workforce.

“High school students aren’t keen on IT as a career because it seems to be math and computer heavy and they don’t have the confidence that they’ll be able to do it,” said third-year HR management student Lea Seawal.

Gen Y employees should be given “freedom to work outside the box,” said Andrew Young, a third-year student specializing in Digital Media Solutions. Mathew Merritt, a fourth-year co-op student in Telecommunications and Network Design, urged CIOs to shorten the detailed list of requirements found in many job postings. Young people can’t meet all of these requirements, some of which may be only a very small part of the job, he noted. Ward Chapin, CIO, Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, closed the event with an inside look at the tremendous task of managing IT operations for the Olympic Games. Said Chapin, “When I took this job I felt like the dog that

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