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The Evolving Role of IT

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on July 25, 2018 by Erika Van Noort

Today’s ideal “IT person” is somewhat of a unicorn.

To excel, they must be good with technology and with people. Their business skills are just as important as their technical prowess. For them, selling the vision of digital transformation is as important as delivering technical projects. It’s challenging to find someone with the right blend of skills.

IT once worked in a vacuum. Not anymore. Modern IT leaders contend with evolving technology needs in every facet of the business. At the same time, they face a new generation of talent with different ideas about the meaning of “a job”. Living up to these expectations is tough.

At our 2018 IEF dinner in Vancouver, we met with technical and business executives from around British Columbia to ask them how they rise to the challenge. We explore some of their key observations and insights in the article below.

Protecting the Business from Itself

To compete in the digital world, organizations must embrace technology. But as technology needs multiply, they soon eclipse the IT team’s ability to meet them alone. For this reason, digital transformation requires a partnership between IT and business.

To some on our panel in Vancouver, this partnership sometimes feels one-sided. “We don’t have the resources to do everything ourselves,” said one IEF member. “But the partnership is really difficult when it feels like one person is a ward.”

In fact, several of our guests felt IT had to assume a parental role to prevent the business from putting critical systems and data at risk. In their excitement to adopt new tools and services, other business functions tend to take on more than they’ve bargained for.

Protecting the business from shadow IT is all about saying, “no.” As one member explained, “it’s saying ‘no, you can’t go and purchase that subscription service. What are the contract terms and conditions in terms of privacy? Regulatory? Can you get your data back?’”

Another member detailed the decision by his organization’s HR department to adopt a free survey tool without IT’s input. “I said, ‘okay, give me access.’ Within ten minutes, me and two of my guys hacked it. We were able to access all the surveys this company had for all their customers.”

The lesson? Sometimes the cost of free-to-use tools materializes in unexpected ways. IT must protect the business from the “too good to be true.” What the business gains in low-cost functionality, it may lose in protection and peace of mind. “If it’s free, it’s worse,” argued one member. “If it’s free, you’re the product.”

While technology touches every facet of the business, IT must take the lead on data sovereignty and overall defense. “Protecting them from themselves,” joked one member. “That’s probably my mission statement.”

Encouraging that Leap of Faith

Digital transformation begins with a willingness to change.

But the prospect of change makes some organizations uneasy. When a technology goes from a luxury to a basic expectation, convincing the business to change takes on some urgency.

Overcoming this hurdle is a core component of the IT leader’s mandate. It’s not always easy.

One member representing a major sports franchise described his team’s efforts to introduce free public wi-fi in the venue – a project they had been pursuing for years. Nonetheless, management hesitated to make such a significant capital investment. “It’s difficult to change the perspective that wi-fi is a cost, rather than a revenue generator.”

But most other teams had made the switch. Fans had begun to see free wi-fi as a given. The need had reached a critical point. “It’s no longer a luxury. It’s an expectation.”

Another member represented a firm in the grocery industry that had operated for 115 years. His ambition: To introduce e-commerce and personalization into the company’s long-established franchise model before it was too late. “Change management, it’s a big piece,” he explained. “We’re trying to convince executives if we don’t adapt, we’ll become the video rental store of the grocery business. Amazon and these guys will be Netflix.”

As another member in education remarked, the slow pace of change can be frustrating. “Most of my time is spent convincing them ‘this is the way the world is moving.’”

Sometimes, entrenched resistance to change is the biggest obstacle. One member in post-secondary education described meeting internal resistance to her team’s efforts in business transformation. In this scenario, the solution is all about winning trust.

“We’re coming out of the Dark Ages. We’re the last university to get off our email system which was open source,” she explained. But influential stakeholders vetoed a cloud-based solution due to reticence about using an enterprise vendor. As a result, IT made a compromise. “We pulled back from a cloud strategy to an on-prem, which will cost half-a-million dollars.”

The solution? Earning sponsorship from the organization, argued one attendee. If your organization is serious about change, he said, “you have to make it part of a charter. You have to have a role. You have to have that authority and leadership to do it.”

Data, Data Everywhere

Data is pervasive. Data is everywhere.

Nonetheless, many organizations struggle to make effective use of it. Some fall into the practice of hoarding data, resulting in data lakes or swamps. Others embrace data but fall flat due to a negative customer experience.

As one attendee in the hospitality sector argued, there are countless ways data can have a meaningful, positive impact. But, all that data is useless until you determine what it’s telling you. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to experiment.

“The notion of being experimental is the new way to innovate; just keep it low-cost and don’t take two years to complete the projects. That’s the way Netflix was successful.” He used wi-fi in brick-and-mortar businesses and venues as an example.

“You can do so many things with wi-fi,” he explained. “If you can pinpoint how long people are spending in specific areas of the store,” he explained, that ‘dwell time’ “is worth a gold mine.”

The trick is to incent consumers to onboard in the first place. “There’s so much value in being able to have people walk by some digital signage and get a prompt for a promotion,” agreed a member in professional sports. “The wi-fi isn’t the value.”

But in the age of GDPR and growing privacy concerns, organizations must be cautious. Users are very selective about what data they share and with whom they share it. One member in municipal administration lamented, “people will give their data to Facebook, but not to the City.”

Problems occur when data-driven personalization crosses the line into “creepy.” Our host used the example of checking into a hotel. In that context the individualized touch isn’t intrusive at all, she admitted. “But if that happened to me digitally, I’d think, ‘who’s watching me?’”

The panel agreed, serving as “data whisperer” for the business is about layering sources of data to reduce the pain points preventing a great customer experience – and going no further.

“It’s scary, but it’s so powerful if used appropriately.”

Final Thoughts

Our members and guests who came together in Vancouver come from a variety of industries but share many of the same challenges. Here are their concluding insights:

–    It often falls to the IT leader to be the “parent” and protect the business from itself

–    When it comes to tools and services, sometimes “free” equals “too good to be true”

–    The IT leader must sell the vision of digital transformation before it’s too late

–    Overcoming resistance to transformation means educating the business about both the direct and indirect benefits of technology

–    Consumer data has enormous potential for monetization, but avoid crossing the line

Ready to join the discussion? #CIOTableTalk

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