Nelson Lah has always had an interest in technology and that curiously led him from his native Singapore to study and work in the IT field in Western Canada. His diligence has paid off and he now holds the position of CIO, Ministry of Forests and Range, in British Columbia. In conversation with senior writer Lisa Williams, Lah discusses his award-winning initiative for electronic forest management, the often elusive work-life balance, and the importance of collaboration and staff engagement.
Q. The role of CIO is clearly changing and is about more than just managing information. From your perspective, how has your role evolved?
A. I think the CIO started out as just managing technology, and then it evolved to managing information. In the five years I’ve been here, information is still important, but now my role is mostly about leading people and transforming business.
I created a forum of government CIOs with all the forest industry CIOs. The forum tries to strategically look at what we need to do in order to go forward, transform and improve.
Leading people is really totally outside the technology arena. It’s all about trying to make sure that staff are engaged, that they understand how they contribute to the mission of the organization, creating a workspace that promotes staff health and wellness and that we recognize their accomplishments, as well as getting them to move beyond their comfort zones so they stretch their capabilities.
Q. What motivated you to become involved in this line of work?
A. I’ve always been attracted to tech work. I was born and raised in Singapore. When I was in Primary 6 (Grade 6), I had my own typewriter and a Pitman typing instruction booklet. This was a big deal back then, so I guess that must have started my IT career.
I headed to Canada to do my degree in IT, where I studied at the University of Calgary for my four-year double honours degree in computer science and applied math.
I spent four years programming on a supercomputer, doing seismic modeling and writing math built-in routines. I am talking about squeezing out every single instruction and checking every bit of the results with a Taylor Series. I had enough of that and moved out to Victoria. I love the West Coast and have been with Forests for the past 18 years.
Q. Could you discuss the work you do at the Ministry of Forests and Range?
A. I play three roles really. I’m the director, the CIO and also chair B.C.’s Advisory Council of Information Management, a peer committee of about 12 Ministry CIOs. As director, I manage the IMIT operations and as CIO, I leverage the strategic use of IMIT in business transformation.
In my roles at the Ministry I think I have the common mandate around information management and information technology. It may be slightly different from others in that I also have accountabilities related to freedom of information, protection of privacy, litigation and records management.
The part I enjoy most is helping not only to transform our Ministry, but also the forests industry in the use of IMIT. This links to my third role in helping the IMIT community inside core government to leverage the use of technologies as a corporate resource. It is most rewarding to see the positive changes rippling through various ministries, industry and our clients as a whole.
Q. You’ve won CIPA and GTEC awards for e-FM, the electronic forest management system that you lead. What really motivated this initiative?
A. The motivation started at the tail-end of the Y2K project. We documented 6.5 million lines of code from over 50 applications that we had to manage.
At that time, they were running on an IBM VM, which was a legacy system; so we wanted to move it into a thin client Web front-end. We took about three years figuring out what we would rewrite and what we would transform in terms of new processes and products. It was a “divide and conquer” strategy that we used to achieve that.
That’s really what e-FM was all about. We were the first in B.C. to negotiate directly with an offshore company in India to convert many millions of lines of code in order to help us get to that goal.
We also looked to the forest industry and worked with their information systems providers and forest companies in order to implement electronic submissions. We asked them to send in not just the information for tree-cutting permit approval, but also raised the bar by asking them to provide us spatial boundaries on where they wanted to harvest, and where they would be replanting the trees.
The e-FM project has many dimensions within it, and we tried many different things. We tried to push the limit of what we have with data integration, which is really tying together the three different kinds of data: the traditional kind of attribute data that’s in a database, the spatial information that in the past has been in GIS systems and the linking together of all electronic information.
I think the main reason we won the awards is that we did all this in a time when there was a core review being done with policy changes and business processes yet to be fully defined. Our staff did a tremendous job pulling this off.
Q. How did this help to optimize resources?
A. I like to call it “five days in five seconds.” In the past, when the forest industry was required to report to the Ministry, companies would have to ask their IT service providers to print the report and submit it to the Ministry of Forests and Range. The company would tell their service provider to print the paper, the service provider would then send it back to the company for verification, and then it was shipped to our district office.
The district, on receiving it, would then send it to our resource officer for validation and then it went to our resource clerk for input into our systems. We did some stats on that, and it was literally about a six-foot pile of paper for one year of submissions – it took us about a year-and-a-half to get it into our systems. Last year, the day after the deadline, we got 95 per cent of them through this electronic submission process.
On a Ministry scale, you can understand why we wanted to go directly to electronic submissions. We were drowning in paper and were not providing optimal service to our industry clients.
Q. Will you be adding on to the e-FM?
A. The next step is business intelligence. Basically, if you go into our database and pick a particular client, you’ll be able to see a consolidated view of everything they’re involved in: their rights, obligations, outstanding invoices, track records, etc.
To achieve this, we are putting in place a data quality framework to ensure that all the attributes of a good integrated database, such as data integrity, are being monitored.
We are also looking at a higher abstraction of data – rising above the physical data elements to logical entities such as people. We see this as an opportunity for horizontal integration. Imagine having the possibilities for tracking people, vehicles and even individual trees, and the opportunities from linking them together.
We want both us and the forest industry to be able to share information more freely and leverage more efficiency in our sector.
Q. Are there additional e-resources your Ministry is working on that you’d like to discuss?
A. The big one we’ve been working on is around the concept of collaboration. Socializing technology is another way of putting it. The Ministry has 40 offices across B.C., including some in remote areas such as Fort Nelson in the north and others as remote as Queen Charlotte Island. We have staff all across B.C., so we have a geographic challenge in trying to engage staff in corporate initiatives, and how to really get them involved in meaningful conversation and discussion.
We are trying to figure out what kind of technology we can put in place to enable us to bridge the geographic gap. One of the things we’ve been doing really well, and is now being used extensively, is video-conferencing. It’s an old technology, but has now come to the price point where it’s affordable and the network is able to sustain it. It’s being used regularly by six senior executives in remote locations to teleconference in for meetings.
We’ve been successful in implementing that technology to make our communications and organization more effective.
Q. Obviously the role of CIO must be very demanding. How do you maintain a work-life balance?
A. I have two young children who I’m heavily involved with. My life philosophy has been in this order of priority: family, work, community. Family trumps work and then work to some extent trumps community when I have to prioritize.
The trick is finding the right balance between the three of them. I sit on three boards of non-profit organizations; I’m heavily involved with my kids’ soccer, rugby, baseball, basketball, and violin, piano and music theory lessons.
I spend my time at work as effectively as I can, and then after 4:30 its family time and weekend is community time; so that’s how I manage it.