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Building a digital platform should be a CIO’s top priority, Gartner Inc. analysts told their audience at the Gartner Symposium this week in Orlando.

This digital platform will be the new infrastructure of society, said Peter Sondergaard, senior vice-president and global head of research at Gartner, in his opening keynote speech. It will impact the way the world works in the same way that 100 years of building physical infrastructure has influenced the lives of global citizens and organizations.

“Expect that your enterprise will change, not just your IT department, ” he said on stage.

A digital platform consists of five key pillars, Sondergaard charted out:

  1. IT systems – the legacy systems that keep the lights on, deliver apps to workers, and move emails across servers. What CIOs have been doing for decades.
  2. Customer experience – putting the customer at the centre of the company’s activities, earning their loyalty moments at a time.
  3. Things – as in “the Internet of…” connected devices will blur the line between IT and operational technology (OT).
  4. Intelligence – of the artificial variety, machine learning applied to data for valuable business insights delivered contextually and quickly.
  5. Eco-systems – a partner network facilitated by digital touch points. Different organizations play different roles in this eco-system, but everyone involved shares a mutual benefit.

Now that we know what Gartner said on stage, what did those in the audience think of the vision? To find out we talked to three CIOs at site:the conference in Orlando – one with a private firm, one with a non-profit organization, and one with the government.

Ralph Michaelis, CIO, Canadian Blood Services

Sondergaard’s second pillar, the customer experience, is the one that resonated most with Michaelis as to why he’s building out a digital platform at Canadian Blood Services. This non-profit charity works with provincial governments to collect blood products from Canadian donors and get them to where they’re needed – hospitals.

“The traditional form of engagement is not working as it did in the past,” Michaelis says. “People live real-time these days.”

The charity traditionally had just two ways to reach out to potential donors – when they came to the clinic and with a call centre. But in the spring of 2014 that changed with the launch of an app, GiveBlood, to iOS and Android platforms. That fall, a new web portal was launched as well. In the first year alone, the app was downloaded 50,000 times. Now that number stands at 250,000 downloads and digital appointments have shot up from six per cent in 2014 to 22 per cent.

“We’re shifting our focus to customer experience and user experience,” Michaelis says. “We think it will be more effective but it requires a different way of thinking.”

Making a donation more convenient isn’t easy when you’re talking about a process that requires hooking up an IV to your customer’s vein. But Canadian Blood Services is trying to do that with more than just apps. This past Spring, it changed policy to allow donors to make same-day appointments. Now if a donor finds they have a free afternoon to visit a clinic, they can decide to do it right away.

As to Gartner’s fifth pillar of digital platforms, Michaelis says Canadian Blood Services hasn’t been making more partnerships lately. The charity is using social media to extend its digital ecosystem in terms of reaching existing and potential donors, and sees areas where there’s opportunity to connect with partners in a more digital context. Michael has a split business, he points out, dealing directly with consumers on one front, and then working with hospitals on another.

“Right now they’re ordering from by via fax,” he says.

Canadian Blood Services hasn’t examined how it could use artificial intelligence yet, he adds. But he sees opportunity to improve operations using analytics.

“Should we bump up our recruitment efforts if there’s inclement weather?” he asks.

Paul Wagner, CIO, National Research Council

Wagner’s just two months into his job at the National Research Council (NRC), but is coming from a posting at the Department of Justice, so he’s no stranger to how government relates to the sort of digital platform vision outlined by Gartner. He appreciated that Sondergaard didn’t gloss over the important first pillar of IT systems.

“For the new opportunities you do have to embrace the new technologies,” he says. “But it’s nice to see that the mentality of most people in the room isn’t startup mode.”

The principle of building digital ecosystems is also relevant to the current work of many within government, Wagner says. Government departments are undergoing a period of integration to provide services to citizens more seamlessly and from one universal touch point. That means not only building solid connections between federal departments, but also partnering with provincial and municipal level government services help cut through red tape.

“Citizens are expecting government services to be multi-jurisdictional,” he says. “Government is shifting to that model.”

He points to the example of the revamped Canada.ca website, which organizes government services by the events occurring in a person’s life – getting married, having children, looking for a job, and so on. That also links to the customer experience pillar, which Wagner says is about understanding what your service is offering and your customer’s expectation of that offering.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about what database you’re using when you want to search ‘Pierre Trudeau,'” he says. “Digital allows you to work from that perspective.”

Another hurdle for building a connected government are policies around data-sharing between departments, he says. Staying compliant can sometimes weigh against the desire to be agile.

Brett Gagnon, CIO, New Gold Inc.

New Gold is a mining company that manages the process that goes from the discovery of valuable minerals to delivery and technology is a primary focus in making that work, Gagnon says. He’s used to handling relationships with the other departments of this publicly-listed, Toronto-based firm as a service provider. That has his IT department well set-up to work with external partners in a digital ecosystem too.

“The role of CIO has traditionally been in mining that we’re going to give you a service and we’ll give you what you need,” he says. “We are partners with every aspect of the business.”

New Gold works with somewhere between three to five partners for its technology. That number hasn’t changed over the past few years, but how they’re working with those partners has changed.

“You can’t manage partnerships when they get into the double digits, especially at a company of our size, that’s too many divisions,” he says.

Gagnon is balancing the traditional roles of IT with a modernization of the business in as close to a 50/50 split as possible. New Gold has a “value creation team” that IT is involved with and the focus is on finding efficiencies and improving business processes that helps drive the innovation agenda.

“We don’t focus on what we already do well – we don’t forget it either – but we focus on what we can do better in the future,” he says. “The focus is on the energy do things better and more efficiently.”

As an example, he pointed to a recent deployment of a mobile maintenance application that bolts on top of New Gold’s ERP system. “It allows us to have our mechanic to spend more time on the truck and less time in front of the computer, and allow the supervisers to make better decisions on fleet management and lifecycle.”

Gartner’s “Things” pillar also resonated with Gagnon’s agenda, as he’s seeing a lot of opportunities to deploy IoT solutions to assist in making the work of mining more efficient. From automated vehicles that haul ore around worksites to modified tablets in the hands of miners working in the field, IoT could be a major factor in the mining business within the next few years.