Former B.C. CIO dons vendor hat

Only weeks after leaving his post as British Columbia’s chief information officer, Arthur Lee Denny said it’s clear to him that Canada’s public sector is facing serious challenges.

Denny, a 30-year IT veteran who recently accepted a job as SAP Canada’s public sector industry executive in his hometown of Calgary, said his 12 month stint as CIO in B.C. came at a time of massive change in the province.

“The last year in B.C. has been about dealing with a pretty drastic fiscal reality,” Denny said. “Most of our activity was around, in most cases, reducing the projects and certainly reducing the number of projects we were doing.”

That also meant cutting the number of B.C.’s technology staff, shaving up to 40 per cent off existing budgets and engaging in the “forced ranking” of initiatives. “Not many technology projects survived,” Denny said.

Although specific to B.C., the cost-cutting measures come at a time when all levels of governments are fighting to attract skilled IT workers – a problem the public sector has yet to solve.

“I’d say the public sector does have a problem,” Denny said. “And it isn’t all around compensation…you have to have an environment where the best and the brightest want to come, and they feel they’re achieving something.”

Denny is well acquainted with dynamic work environments. Early in his career he accepted a two-year position south of the border, but it would be 18 years before Denny returned. In between he worked as CIO at both the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Maryland, and overhauled Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defence network prior to the outbreak of Gulf War.

“I kept getting offered more and more challenging things to do. I couldn’t get the equivalent opportunities up here for a long time,” he said.

He’s also worked in the private sector, most recently establishing a consulting practice specializing in the oil industry. So what’s the biggest difference between corporations and governments for a senior IT executive? “Well, in the private sector we do things mostly around a return-on-investment approach,” he said. But In the public sector “you get into a lot more of…a model called EPISTLE – economic, political, institutional, social, technological, legal and environmental concerns, as well as your ROI.”

Denny said his government and ERP project experience will serve him well in his newest role. Having sat so often on the other side of the table facing vendor sales reps, he said he’s well aware of the traps both sides can fall into.

“You really have to align yourself culturally, and sometimes that means changing players on both sides…You’ve got to treat your vendors like allies. It isn’t about squeezing every last dollar out of them – that’s bad business for everybody,” he said.

But had he taken the job earlier in the 1990s, Denny said he would be facing a much tougher task. “We didn’t pay enough attention to basic change management then…And when we came to that epiphany in the mid-’90s, the success rate on these projects has gone way, way up.”

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