IT Leadership for a new decade

You could tell what a difference a year makes by the things we didn’t talk about at CIO Canada’s annual spring roundtable.

There was little attention paid to green IT. Business intelligence and security were not the hot-button issues they once were. Social media? Someone might have mentioned Twitter once, but that was it. Instead, the 10 senior IT leaders who joined me at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club were talking about the kind of things experts have been urging them to address for years: becoming more business-focused, developing cross-industry relationships and innovating their way out of challenges rather than complaining.

As always, the diverse set of guests were surprised at how much they have in common, from goals to problems. What follows is an edited transcript of the roundtable event, which was sponsored by Dimension Data Canada.

CIO CANADA: One of the challenges for almost every CIO is getting business to understand what you can actually deliver versus all the demands that they have. I wonder if you could talk a little bit on what you’re doing in that regard. 

DAN BLUMENTHAL, IT DIRECTOR, VITALAIRE CANADA INC.: The management team in our company has been changing dramatically in the last 24 months, so they’re new in their roles and their awareness of the systems in place today, and their support of the business process is kind of loose. From one side, they are not happy with the business processes and on the other side, they are not happy with the IT support for that. On a practical level right now, we’re starting to sit with the business units to prepare some kind of grocery list, to say, “This is what we want to do,” and “Okay, this is what we are looking to do in the next 24-36 months.” I’m not even talking about a vision, because I’m trying to find some low-hanging fruits and when we develop this grocery list, we will take it to something that I’m starting to build now, which is the IT steering committee. So the idea is to get all the business leaders around the same table, say “Here’s the list,” then let’s look at the total list and make decisions upon that. 

GEORGE SEMECZKO, CTO, RSA GROUP CANADA: That’s actually very much like the approach that we take. I actually host an in-progress meeting about every month with our executives and we manage from an IT project perspective. We have all the projects we are planning to do this year with costing, status, the whole lot. In the days gone by, we used to make decisions about which ones we would get to and how we would do them, but now, it’s back to the business so they can basically make decisions about where you want to put your priority. That has to align with the business process and the business priorities but more importantly, it’s coming back to, can I empower the business to either say, ‘Do you want to invest more money to do more projects, or do you need to cut back and be done with certain projects?” It’s certainly back to them to make that decision, but it’s still our job to equip the business to make that decision. With a live project, you have to have that for the business case to fully expound on how much it’s going to cost, what am I going to get for that and what are the timelines. With that, the business then can actually make a business decision about what they’re going to do, how that’s going to impact them and what they’re trying to do. 

CIO CANADA: Morteza, I think you’ve gone down this road already at RBC. Can you comment? 

MORTEZA MAHJOUR, CIOO, ROYAL BANK OF CANADA: Well, I think we may be at a different maturity cycle in comparison to what you’re saying. Traditionally, we haven’t been at a bad spot on our application development budget because, I think, we have aligned to the business platforms so the businesses feel quite in charge of what they’re going to spend. We’ve got enough of the mechanics down that we can do a demand/supply match. I think over the years as we’ve become more sophisticated, we’ve been able to turn this around. In the early part of this year, for the first time in the first quarter, we came back and said, “Here are 25 projects that you said you were going to spend on that you haven’t started,” and the reason is we don’t have any subject matter experts to start the projects. Until two or three years ago, we focused on execution optimization, capacity. So we were the bottleneck but we feel we’ve done a decent job bringing transparency to that capacity, so now it’s like we’re actually equipped to do as we said. Right now, we’re going through so much transformation — that’s been the best insight that we can provide to them. Because if the top of the house, the head of the platform, says “I want to transform and I want to spend billions of dollars,” now they’re beginning to see earlier on that they actually do not have a subject expert on that.


BRUCE FLEMING, CIO, AECON GROUP: What’s interesting is that comment about showing to the business just what their capacity is. I think that’s what we’re dealing with when you have the true black hole of IT and if somebody has an idea, it takes about three seconds and they throw it over the fence. Then they go, “How come that stuff at the end of the year is not done?” Our job, I think, has been to expose what the business involvement is in each of these things. If you want to do this project, this project, this project and this project, they’re not done in isolation and let’s just overlap those projects to see what resources we need. Then say, “Do you guys have the capacity to do all this stuff? You need 40 of these folks and you’ve got four.” That kind of comment can then help to level off that demand somewhat. 

MM: If I may, I’d just offer two pieces of data for your consideration. One is part of the fundamental shift. When we put a very sophisticated project management framework in place four years ago, part of the genesis of that was to actually demonstrate that project management execution is not an IT role. There are actually three swim lanes: IT, operations and business. Then it took us two or three years of cultural change, but it demonstrated it’s a three-legged stool for success, not one. Resource plans are not just about IT resources, which traditionally it always was. The other thing I would suggest to think about is we traditionally in technology are quite tied up with development and maintenance. We know how to innovate and how to run but traditional businesses are not organized like that. The same person who owns the mortgage product innovates, runs the day-to-day when there’s a rate change on the street and is also trying to run projects. They’re not resourcing. 

CIO CANADA: So Sandra, I would think that lawyers would also have some of the same petitions and ultimatums. How are you meeting that challenge? 

SANDRA HAYNES, CIO, BORDEN LADNER GERVAIS: First of all, let me start by saying that there was already a well set-up IT steering committee of long-standing members who not only have a keen interest in technology but truly appreciate the value that technology can bring to the particular practices. They also understand how, which is really key. We also like to manage by committee, a consensus by committee, at Borden Ladner Gervais, which has some very interesting characteristics and identifications, so some of the larger business projects are actually very much about engaging the committee members. The committees are comprised of the appropriate representatives from the two practice groups. I feel quite fortunate in that, as an example, I don’t have the challenges that you might have, Bruce. Very typically, ideas are not tossed over the fence. Instead, it’s very much a partnership of planning, strategic planning. Nothing is tossed over that fence and certainly anything that is talked about, thought about, planned and initiated, has to be very much an integral part of the business plan and that’s what keeps our team working very, very closely with the practice groups. 

CIO CANADA: I’m thinking about Ambles and Omri, just because it sounds like you’re both very close to some of the customer-facing activities in terms of working with clients or products. Are these challenges easier at an SMB? 

OMRI TINTPULVER, CIO, BRUNICO COMMUNICATIONS: I wouldn’t say it’s easier. It’s amazing to be hearing what the challenges at larger companies have in a microcosm, because we all have the same issues. We have to get the business house publishers on side on everything. We have to have consensus but at the same time, we have to move past that. We can’t always get consensus so there’s a paradox there that we’re working with constantly. 

CIO CANADA: Ambles, you’re part of a startup operation. What about you?  

AMBLES KWOK, CTO, SPRINGBOARD RETAIL NETWORKS: Well, almost the whole company is IT because when we started out, we focused mainly on the service of IT. Sales and marketing was kind of set aside because we wanted to make our own product, so in terms of making IT decisions, I don’t need to do any persuading or anything. I just say “Okay, this is the idea so let’s go do it.” (group laughter) It’s easier for a smaller company right now, but I used to work in a larger company where the strategic plan is set in the executive level and it was really difficult to do anything on the management level. I don’t have that issue right now. That’s a good thing but unfortunately, we have a much tougher relationship with partners because we are in partnership with much larger companies. Right now, we are having a pilot with Food Lion. They are a multi-billion dollar company and we are a small company of 30 people trying to navigate their IT department to do that. That is the difficult part. You guys wouldn’t experience it because for you guys, the entity is your own. You have your own IT department, so thank God for that. You are still in control of your IT department, although they are a black box and you don’t know how the marketing works with IT because they are always in conflict, especially over budgeting, but still, they’re in your company. If you work with a partner — and a much larger partner than yourself — it’s very difficult to steer the IT to work with you. We tried to work with Loblaws Canada but it was the same thing. Their IT shop is completely encapsulated. Innovation is not part of it. It’s just day-to-day business. When we throw out a new idea, if we throw it over the fence and say, “This is a new idea, and you want to embrace it,” they would just bounce it right back saying no. 

CIO CANADA: Ted, I’m wondering from a non-profit perspective, how pragmatic you need to be when those ideas are thrown over the fence. 

TED KAISER, VICE-PRESIDENT IT, KIDS HELP PHONE: Yes, and you know, in the age of Google, YouTube and social media, there are lots of people with lots of ideas. Anybody who can search on Google thinks they know IT (group laughter) so that’s just part of the reality of what we deal with. I mean because of what our organization does and because we serve kids through technology, we harness technology for a very important purpose. People take that very seriously and everybody has a point of view on that. I’m amazed hearing Morteza and Sandra especially, how similar the challenges are. I mean project management methodology came to Kids Help Phone about five years ago through me. In an official way, prior to that, we launched the Parent Help Line service and I taught myself project management methodology then because it was absolutely needed and nobody else had it. We wouldn’t have been successful launching that without it, but now the rigours of operating are very important. We launched a donor relationship management system three years ago and again, it’s the absence of the subject matter experts. We brought the tool, we had the people, but no one knew anything about the processes. In fact, we’ve just been led by our new president, who has been on board for less than a year, through a consulting process where many of our fundraising teams are being brought up-to-speed on modern fundraising pipeline process methodology and now they’re getting the tool. It’s very important to have that alignment and in our case, it’s interesting because I end up being the source of innovation and, you know, bringing the tools in that represent what other people elsewhere have learned of our processes. So we improve our processes by learning from the tools. Most recently, what we’ve done and what I’ve brought forward is the importance of cost benefit analysis, which hasn’t been as rigorous a process for us. We’ve actually now introduced a process where everybody with innovative ideas can bring them forward and subject them to that process. 

CIO CANADA: Stefan, you’re working on a lot of standardization practices so I’m wondering to what extent those kinds of processes and tools or methodologies are already there for you and how much of that is a challenge at your firm? 

STEFAN VIEHMANN, CIO, KUEHNE & NAGEL: I compare myself a little bit with Morteza from the governance point of view. The key for us to bring standardization into our global framework is that IT has to be part of the steering committee, and that means the CIO – the corporate CIO has to be part of the corporate board. On the regional board, the CIO has to have the same voice like his partners in the other functions and the same goes for a controller position. Then you have portfolio management, which comes into the play where the demand side then steers the supply unit. The key to success, for us, was to look for people with a business background. You need to also have a business background as the CIO of the country organization, but it’s also important to have the guy who steers airfreight, sea freight, customs or insurance – he has to understand what the business is about and he has to drive the processes or improve the processes. If you’re just talking tech, this doesn’t help at the end. You have to know tech but you have to speak occasionally of customs. 

CIO CANADA: Well, it’s interesting to me that we’re starting to see much more of a blend. I mean we have two people here at the table who have the COO role, not just a CIO or CTO, and Wes is one of them. Wes, how does the operational work you do feed into the overall governance that you’re putting in place for IT across Dimension Data? 

WES JOHNSTON, COO, DIMENSION DATA: As we’ve grown most recently through acquisition – we’ve just acquired a company in Chile – we find ourselves now struggling with many of the challenges that we deliver for clients. For example, what is the reference architecture that we’re going to use and impose upon newly-acquired companies and how quickly do you impose that? It might seem like a simple decision at the outset – we’ll just move as quickly as we can to adopt the standards we have in place – but you get into all of the cultural issues of this, the successful integration of that acquisition, in part, hinges on just the cultural sensitivities that you have to have. Yeah, we wrestle with that and we wrestle with it across the Americas. Just touching on a couple of people talking about service providers, the notion that we can create an internal service provider model and then work that across geographies is very high on our radar right now. It comes back to a much broader topic of sourcing: What do you develop internally and build out to a competency level so that you can act as an internal service provider? What do you source, whether it’s offshore from some other third party, and then how do you enable all of that into a framework where the business users can say, “Oh, I’ll take that?” We don’t necessarily have that licked. We struggle with that just like our clients. 

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