Thoughts on CIO Peer Forum 2016: practical takeaways, eye-opening insights and at times, just plain riveting

“Results always win.”

That was the answer City of Toronto CIO Rob Meikle gave to a pointed question of “how he handled the politics” of City Hall as a CIO.

Rob Meikle: Toronto's CIO
Rob Meikle: Toronto’s CIO

Meikle’s answer was, as was the rest of his presentation at this year’s CIO Peer Forum event — held at the Allstream Centre in Toronto —  frank and practical. His opening on the “Changing Role of the CIO” was nothing short of inspirational — he waded into the audience and engaged a usually sedate audience of executives.

But it was also practical: Meikle shared the blueprint for technology in the city. His observation was that, under Mayor Tory, the city is embracing technology to drive the citizen agenda and deliver a high quality of service within the ever shrinking revenue streams afforded to most municipalities.

Miekle’s speech gave me a lot to think about, as did the next two days. Here’s what I took away from this year’s CIO Peer Forum, hosted by the CIO Association of Canada:

CINO — Career Is NOT Over — Life After the CIO Role

Meikle was followed by two CIO Peer Forum panels. The first, showed three CIOs who’ve made career shifts, moving beyond the CIO role into business leadership and CEO roles. It featured Dean Doige who went from CIO of Clark Builders to President of LightHorse Innovation, Fariba Anderson who went from CIO of MPAC to CEO of AccuNet, a healthcare startup and Humza Teherany who has become Chief Innovation Officer of Compass Group Canada Limited. These three defy the myth that CIO has its own “single pane of glass ceiling” where it’s more common to find organizations moving non-technologists into the CIO role than moving

Fariba Andersen, CEO of AccuNet
Fariba Anderson, CEO of AccuNet

CIO’s into business leadership roles.

My takeaway: Each of the three leveraged their own passion for business and technology. Each was, in their own way, outspoken and unwilling to be pigeonholed into a purely technical role. And each made significant outreach into the business. Note to all CIOs: It’s not enough to know that you are business focused — you have to show you are business focused. Adopt that no nonsense, business speech. Get that MBA. Insist on taking on more business responsibility.

Why You Need to Wow Your Customers

This panel featured three technology leaders who have had significant impacts on their own company’s journey to an exceptional customer experience. Ted Maulucci, CIO of Tridel spoke with passion about the “connected community” and how technology supported that vision. Susan Doniz who has moved from CIO to corporate director roles spoke eloquently about importance of ensuring that the culture of IT — and the entire organization – supported the pursuit of the ultimate customer experience. Doniz, herself an engineer, noted that the real issue was learning to listen, a point echoed by Tridel’s Maulucci.  Stewart Wong, VP of Communications, Marketing and Advocacy for Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital shared what drove him – the site of kids who could overcome disabling injuries as a result of medical technology.

My takeaway: As CIOs we need to master active listening and observation. As Eugene Roman would later reinforce, we don’t need all the answers, we need to master asking the right questions, and then listening to what is said in response to those questions. 


James Alexander of Info-Tech Research Group presented the world as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Beyond giving us a new acronym, Alexander pointed out the dangers in this VUCA world. Between 38 and 58 per cent of executives fail in the first 18 months. Given the statistics that showed how misaligned many technology leaders were with senior business leaders, it’s no wonder. And while many CEOs agree with their CIOs on infrastructure need and relevance, when it comes to business needs, there are significant variances. Almost 38 per cent of CIOs are aiming higher than business executives want them to. And CEOs profoundly disagree with CIOs on the degree to which business barriers impede innovation. Given that most CIOs know that the “human side” of technology change is the real issue, the inability of top executives to see this reality is a real problem.

Alexander also pointed out the failings of what information we gather and how. Although the averages of business satisfaction aren’t alarming (74 per cent satisfaction is the average), when you dig deeper in the numbers, there are some significant issues. Much of the higher satisfaction numbers come from smaller IT departments. Larger IT departments, with greater resources, perform much more poorly on user satisfaction. Even what we measure is often out of alignment with the top business leaders. We’re measuring uptime, response and availability. Business leaders are looking at user (often end customer) satisfaction and business value.

My takeaway: The inability of CEOs to see the real challenges and our inability to convince them may be one of the most significant obstacles to the level of change companies need. There is no way that CIOs are aiming too high (see Eugene Roman’s presentation) and there is no way that technology is the real barrier to change. So how do we change this misperception?

Human-centric Analysis — Rahaf Harfoush of Red Thread

Rahaf Harfoush, a Canadian researcher now living in France refocused the idea of analytics to a real “people-centred” approach. The real questions, says Harfoush, is not what we buy or what we do. The real questions are “what do we want, who we are and how we feel.” Harfoush maintains that in a world where everyone is a data producer and where apps augment all the data we collect, we are all feeling overwhelmed as we sift through the abundance of data looking for signals.

Rahaf_Harfoush, strategist, digital anthropologist
Rahaf Harfoush, strategist, digital anthropologist

We are looking for meaningful experiences. We are looking to be heard.  Uniqueness is a valuable social currency.  Fulfilling these needs increases loyalty and builds relationships. When these expectations are not met, we lash out with the new power of what Harfoush calls “Microinfluence.” Harfoush gave the example of the 21-year-old waitress who took on the Bank of America and forced that bank and others to undo a fee for a debit card.  This new human-oriented, hyper-personalized approach has given us what Harfoush deems “ArchiTECHs”- individuals who have the power that organizations used to. Now that geography is no longer relevant and communications are done electronically, individuals with purpose can tap into our inherent need for connection and belonging. With the aid of social media they can create instant “shared value tribes.” These shared tribes have the power to do both positive and extremely negative things to corporations and their leaders.  When such a backlash occurs, companies need to be prepared to defuse it before it hits critical mass — they must have a plan and the ability to respond openly and honestly.

My takeaway: Harfoush articulated a way of understanding when a customer revolt would grow and when it would rise quickly and disappear. Her observation is that when there is a positive alternative, an action to take, the real potential for growth and impact are important to watch. “Occupy Wall Street” got great press but the “bank transfer day” where 3 billion in deposits moved from large FIs to credit unions had real impact. These types of analytical “rules of thumb” are especially important in helping us find the important information in the overwhelming sea of data.  And we need to discover how to get our message out.  As Harfoush pointed out, “In a room where everyone is screaming the challenge is how you ensure you are being heard.”

Work Styles

Steve Fast, vice president for Managed IT Services for Telus gave a presentation on Digital Transformation that was most compelling when he got to the subject of how Telus was attempting to transform itself. Speaking with real candor, Fast spoke of Telus’ goal to be “the most likely to recommend service provider in the industry” and how their work experience program supported that goal. Telus’ goal was not “work from home” but “work where you are most productive.” This requires use of a full range of collaboration tools, but it also requires some profound cultural and personal change. While many embrace the freedom to choose their workplace, others need the community and collaboration — and even a “place to call home.”

Fast noted that while many changes were welcomed, the removal of cubicles encountered a great deal of resistance.

The results were compelling. They have, according to Fast, saved millions in travel costs and reduced commute times enormously. They’ve saved over 150 million in real estate. His area, with its architects, business analysts and programmers was difficult to envision in this new world. “We took at nervous IT team and turned them into zealots.” According to Fast, his team has exceeded his expectations in terms of quality the new way of working has become the “new normal.”

“Today people need to justify why agile won’t work,” said Fast.

There were problems. Some abuse was inevitable. But the new work from anywhere is a “privilege and not a right” says Fast. We manage by measuring outcomes. We also had to learn some early lessons. Reliability is key. If you are fire fighting, you are distracted from the real job of innovation.  But Fast remains committed to the goals even in this “exciting and confusing time.”

My takeaway: I liked the idea of communicating that “work from anywhere is a privilege and not a right.” But my biggest takeaway was from a comment Fast made about data. “SaaS changes the idea of client data,” he said in reference to how development was changing. While he supports the need for SaaS, his principle is “we are going to own the data and we have to say no to multiple versions of the truth.”  

Seizing the Opportunity in Digital Business

Ken McGee, Vice President and Gartner Fellow, Gartner Canada
Ken McGee, Vice President and Gartner Fellow, Gartner Canada

Gartner’s Ken McGee is always compelling, especially on the topic of the move to digital. This “digital” revolution has put us in a new place, according to McGee. “For the first time in history, we are storing more information digitally than in any other form.” And that has changed the way we use and see information profoundly.

For IT leaders, there is an enormous impact as McGee noted, “For the first time in history, the real focus of corporate information technology is not cost reduction or process automation. It is, for the first time, aimed at revenue generation.”

My takeaway: This concept of IT focus on revenue generation will have profound changes on what we do. It might seem innocuous, but it changes everything. It forces us to embrace user experience. It requires us to understand not where the business is currently, but where the customer will be. Can we embrace that type of forward-looking approach? Fast and agile are no longer words to dress up vendor brochures – they are real and compelling needs.

Canadian Tire CTO Eugene Roman: “Canadian Aspire” 

In a world of retail, we don’t often think of Canadians as leaders. We’ve lost Eaton’s, The Bay, Zellers and more. One retailing giant has beat those odds and stands defiant and triumphant — and owes a great deal of that success to technical innovations by Canadians. Roman walked the group through a realistic, frank and often inspiring journey of technology led business transformation. Roman dismissed the idea of “best practices.”  He’s interested in “the next Digital Practices.” From anyone else this might seem to be a nice turn of phrase, and Roman is a champion at that, but he backs it up with real examples.

He’s challenged his team to find products “within 5 minutes — anywhere in the store” and pulled it off. How? A big part of it is people. Getting the right people can transform obstacles into opportunities. “I went after BlackBerry people who had been let go when others wouldn’t,” said Roman. He had a real issue with many Canadian Tire stores. His technological revolution requires great communications, but many stores have at best — paired DSL connections. Roman’s solution? He went after a number of BlackBerry staff that had been let to in wireless communications. When you take people who had to be efficient with data in the world of wireless and giving them the challenge of DSL, it changed the game. Where others were worried about moving from fiber to DSL, the wireless crew said, “think of what we can do with all that bandwidth.”

Eugene Roman: CTO for Canadian Tire
Eugene Roman: CTO for Canadian Tire

Roman isn’t shy about tackling any problem. When he couldn’t find a cheap and reliable point-of-sale system (POS) he assembled a team and built his own. Once again, he did it with talent that he’d recruited in Canada and around the world. He’s used his connections built over the years in Waterloo with Open Text and his work with the University of Waterloo and Communitech where he’s mentored and supported developers over the years. He’s gone to Winnipeg where he found the leading edge community of developers in gaming — over 500 companies — and leveraged that talent. And he’s scoured the world for partners from Europe to the Asia. While he’s not averse to partnerships, Roman prefers to keep the best talent close. He’s brought some of the brightest and best to work in the company – once a backwater of technology – he’s transformed it to a leading edge transformative group. And Roman is demanding about getting the right people. “If they can’t understand user experience, it doesn’t matter if they’re a database analyst, we don’t want them.”

Not that it was easy.  Some people had to go — over 40 per cent of the existing IT staff left in the first few months. And they were often in new territory where the answers weren’t always clear. Having all the answers didn’t matter. According to Roman, the real strength of his team is “we know how to ask questions.” That, of course, and a lot of hard work. Everyone, Roman included, had to meet tough deadlines. The workload has been relentless. “We’re tired,” says Roman, “but we’re proud of what we accomplished.”

My takeaway: The story of Canadian Tire is inspiring. Knowing the organization as it was before this, you have to be impressed with the changes. Many talented leaders have tried to move it’s IT forward, with mixed results at best. In that light, Roman’s transformation is more than impressive. But what I will remember most was an offhand comment on how to deal with business users. Roman called it the three T’s. Triggers, traps and a trick. Look for business triggers. Find the traps that block the way. And then use a Vulcan mind trick on them. He grinned when he said it, but I took it with some seriousness. The Vulcan mind is not a Jedi mind trick. A Jedi mind trick is used on the weak minded to bend them to your will. A Vulcan mind trick requires getting into the mind of another person and achieving deep understanding. When you hear Roman talk about the goal of technology being “customer engagement” and among the many triumphs, one he was proudest of was putting a large screen in a store so that customers could have a “tailgate party in the parking lot.” When IT turns customers into raving fans, we know we’ve done the right thing in this digital age.

Wrapping Up and Next Steps


I’ve only captured part of the event. editor Ryan Patrick will be posting additional content around the event. For those who are interested in more on Eugene Roman’s work at Canadian Tire, our reporter Christine Wong did a great piece on his keynote session.

And if you missed Rob Meikle’s presentation, you can see him on a panel with me at the IDC Directions and Canadian CIO Symposium on May 5th. Tickets are still available. If you were at the event, I’d love to have your comments on what your takeaways were. Please leave a comment or write me at [email protected].

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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