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It’s all about the human element for today’s IT leaders

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on January 3, 2018 by Erika Van Noort

We’ve enjoyed some wide-ranging and insightful discussions on all of our conference calls for the Innovation Executive Forum in 2017.

To wrap up the year, we hosted a group of experts from public and private sectors who discussed the challenges they faced this year and opportunities they believe lay ahead for 2018. This group of experts were none other than IEF members:

Shauna Begley, Director of Info Systems at White Spot Ltd. — a popular restaurant chain based primarily on the west coast of Canada; Shari Wallace, Chief Information Officer for the City of Burnaby, British Columbia; and Angela Moran, the newest Chief Information Officer at California’s oldest credit union — California Coast Credit Union.

And of course, we enjoyed a number of excellent contributions from the numerous industry leaders who were listening in.

Topics Covered:

  • Understanding the Human Element to Improve IT Outcomes for Customers, Citizens & Management
  • Why Communicating Value is One of The Biggest Hurdles
  • How Leveraging In-House Application Development Can Create Better Customer Experiences
  • Why Emphasizing Outcomes is the Right Way to Get Buy-in
  • Why Your Employees Are Probably The Biggest Threat To Your Network Security


Each speaker helped to remind us that no matter how advanced systems may be, we can’t lose sight of the human element that these systems are designed to serve.

This goes beyond simply ensuring a user-friendly experience. Technology leaders need to think creatively. It’s about finding more powerful ways to communicate the value of new initiatives to stakeholders and management.

And to be truly effective, communication needs to be a two-way street. All of our experts emphasized the importance of really listening to staff, management, customers and citizens to create exceptional services, processes and experiences.

As Director of Information Systems at White Spot Limited, Shauna Begley recognizes the importance of considering the customer in every decision she makes. “When we talk about the role of technology, it’s really about: how do we make it easier or more fun for people to do business with us?

California Coast Credit Union’s Angela Moran echoed a similar sentiment. “The role of technology for our membership is to make their lives easier and to help educate them and make them financially successful.”

This emphasis on the human element is not only relevant in the private sector.

Shari Wallace explained how the city of Burnaby is leveraging technology to create a new kind of relationship between government and citizens.

“I’m sure some of you are familiar with smart cities and two-way interactions… we’re all about trying to be more digital. And also to allow citizens to change us in terms of how we do our processes… It’s quite new for government.”


Enabling an easier flow of information between governments and citizens is the incredible promise of the smart cities movement. Municipalities involved in smart cities use electronic data collection to supply information that is used to manage city assets and resources more efficiently.

This can include everything from direct citizen input to raw traffic data collected from on-street sensors. According to the Smart Cities Council, the core objectives of a smart city are to use all this data to improve the livability, workability and economic sustainability of the municipality.

Burnaby’s own smart cities initiatives will surely all contribute towards advancing the city’s strategic directions — a set of roadmaps that Burnaby has defined to improve environmental, economic and social sustainability while also fostering community development.

With over $1 billion in development in 2017 alone, and more growth projected, the smart cities approach will become increasingly important to guide development in ways that benefit all of Burnaby’s 250,000 citizens.

But, the big challenge comes when it’s time to justify the costly IT infrastructure needed to make this happen.

The problem from Shari’s perspective is that cities are used to investing in infrastructure, but this typically takes the form of very tangible, long-lasting assets.

Street lights, pipes, and conduits in the ground often last for 50 years or more, so the expense is easier to justify. Even though IT infrastructure is just as essential, it has a much shorter lifespan.

Shari’s found an interesting approach to help her team get their heads around this:

“We started to talk about technology being in dog years. And although it’s kind of hokey, [our staff has] started to understand that it is a much faster sea of change.”

Shari’s learned that ultimately, when technology leaders can tap into these kinds of accessible conceptual frameworks, getting buy-in can be a much smoother process.

Another issue that Shari has been facing is helping her team understand that, as technology evolves, the roles within the organization need to keep pace.

In working towards the smart city goal, the city of Burnaby has just hired its first Chief Marketing Officer.

It’s a brand new role, and Shari and her team will now be sharing digital marketing strategy responsibilities. It’s been a difficult transition for some members of the team because digital strategy has historically been seen as an IT department responsibility. But Shari recognizes these kinds of personnel developments as an important step towards a smarter future for all.


Using technology to connect is front of mind in the private sector as well.

Creating powerful customer experiences often requires customized applications that meet the unique needs of your business.

Angela Moran has been navigating this territory in her work at California Coast Credit Union.

“So our biggest challenge in 2018 is going to be the selection of a digital platform that will help us provide that consistent experience to our members…. to actually do some custom development… we need the ability to drive our future.”

Shauna Begley from White Spot is also deeply invested in cultivating more in-house development.

The value of in-house development is especially relevant in the ultra-competitive restaurant sector in which Shauna operates. Shauna is dealing with a landscape of multi-billion dollar competitors who already have amazing customized apps that make everything easier and more fun for customers. Starbucks for example recently announced that they’re introducing augmented reality experiences in China, and even a feature on a new GM app to order coffee through your car. Of course this is all in addition to their already stellar cashless app, which saves countless hours of combined customer time each day.

Smaller companies like White Spot need to get involved in custom app development now if they ever hope to compete with these cutting edge industry behemoths.

Shauna also discussed the challenges surrounding the integration of the ever-growing ecosystem of third-party applications they all rely upon. As more and more third-party applications continue to emerge, in-house development is going to be an essential tool companies like White Spot can use to make everything work together.

But just as in the public sector, the real challenge for Shauna has been getting management on board. Shauna describes a scenario where her team spent two and a half years developing a key contract management and inventory management system:

“And as we present that to our ownership, the question is, okay, well…  Where did you buy this from? It’s like no, we did this.  So I think that is just that shift, which [is understanding that] we can and should be doing this where it makes sense.”

By emphasizing the many practical ways that White Spot can benefit from all her development team’s hard work, Shauna’s come to appreciate the effectiveness of one of the most important human-centric strategies in all of IT — finding the right narratives to get major decision makers on board.


Perhaps the key to meeting the challenge of increasing buy-in at the organizational level is to remember that people don’t want to invest in technology; they want to invest in solutions to their problems.

In fact, it’s this kind of thinking that has helped Shari Wallace get her team to say yes on a more consistent basis:

“And what we’ve started to do is when we take a business case forward, it’s not me selling it from a technology perspective. It would be the business leader standing up saying, here’s what we need to do. Here’s the cost of the program, and by the way, the technology is x percent of that. And it’s so much easier than me trying to sell something nobody wants.”

The focus on outcomes is also essential in making the right decisions in the world of risk management.

Angela Moran acknowledges that from a growth perspective, her organization has   historically been far too heavy on the risk mitigation side.

While risk is an important consideration, she recognizes the importance of re-balancing towards innovation:

“We really want to do more on the value generation, citizen engagement, and youth services, all of those kinds of things.”

The difficulty here of course again comes when justifying the expense to management. This can be especially hard when the initial Capital Expense is joined by an ongoing Operating Expense to maintain new IT infrastructure.

In these situations, conversations with management can get tense “Because, of course, your profit margins are shrinking, because you’re paying for things in different ways.”

Here once again, it’s all about creating that big picture narrative. The one that shows the value your investments will create down the line, and that convinces decision makers that intelligent IT investments are the best option for long-term success.


Another IEF participant on the call turned our panel’s attention to how the human element is impacting security in 2017:  “… our recent stat [is] that phishing attacks have gone up 6,000% so far in 2017. And that’s not a misquote, 6,000.”

In fact the Anti Phishing Working Group received an average of just under 100,000 unique phishing email reports each month in the first half of 2017.

With Phishing attacks becoming more common, and more sophisticated, it’s more important than ever that staff is on guard.

Shauna Begley says that White Spot has come to recognize the threat that their own personnel can present if they aren’t properly trained. White Spot recently sent out a professional-grade phishing email to test her team’s ability to detect it. They saw a disappointing 45% failure rate.

“You can secure the castle, you can secure the walls, the moat, all of that. You can lift up the bridge, but [the human element is] probably the hardest one to sort of stay on top of, from a risk perspective.”

The key realization is that an educated workforce makes for more secure IT systems.

Organizations need to commit to creating the right educational programs and incentives to ensure compliance from their team members.

Erika Van Noort shared a great example of a simple strategy that another IEF member shared with her offline.

It regarded an organization that decided to colour code all security messages that came from the IT department. If an email is coded red, it’s something that staff members absolutely have to act on that day.

“You had to read, you had to learn, and you had to action whatever it might be. Because if you don’t, it might actually stop you from performing your job,” said Erika.


Early computing pioneer Edsger Dijkstra once said “Computer Science is no more about Computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” The spirit of this notion can definitely be applied to the complex ecosystem of IT challenges we face today.

Ultimately, no matter how far we progress, the biggest problems that we face in the IT world will fundamentally be human problems.

Whether it’s the challenges Shauna Begley and Angela Moran are navigating in creating applications and interactions that add value to your customers. The challenges Shari Wallace is facing in finding innovative ways to communicate value to management and create the political will to advance the smart cities movement. Or the challenge of how best to show value and justify expenditure — reminding us that a compelling business narrative still might just be the greatest technology of all.

And of course, security is always a fundamentally human problem too. As long as humans are part of the equation, educating workforce’s is the only way to stay ahead of the ever-growing army of malicious attackers that surround the gates.

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