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Uncovering inspiration in St. John’s: IEF 2016

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on June 3, 2016 by Tobin Dalrymple

Innovation knows no bounds. Consider, for example, the tech leadership of St John’s, Newfoundland.

A bustling city miles away from the Canadian coast, St John’s is best known for its gorgeous scenery and historic fishing industry. More recently, it is a land where leveraging the cloud was thought to be unfeasible, if only because the island’s internet connection suffered serious lag.

But none of these out-dated notions bore any resemblance to the CIO’s and IT leaders assembled for our 2016 IEF visit to the Newfoundland metropolis. From drones checking energy meters, to new collaboration platforms, to bringing joy to thousands of students on campus, this place is just as cutting edge, innovative and inspiring as the Silicon Valley hubs we visit during our year-long whistle stop tour.

For the Innovation Executive Forum in St John’s, “innovation on the island” was more evident than ever. In this post we will give you a detailed, colorful break-down of the ideas, advice and stories shared by senior leaders from all walks of life. From education, to government, to manufacturing and beyond, the lessons will surely apply to any IT leader looking for fresh angles to today’s most nagging issues and biggest opportunities.

Part 1: Four innovation examples

Looking for some bright ideas to bring change to your organization? The IT leadership at our Newfoundland IEF had plenty to share. Here is just a sampling of some of the unique concepts and actions shared by our members.

One conference to unify all: First, there was the CIO of a major educational institution. This leader had noticed a problem brewing across departments: fragmentation and division. Leaders at specific units were not thinking of themselves as part of a larger network – instead they had been acting like kings of their own specific castle. On top of this, adoption was a prickly issue with key users and stakeholders. Professors and deans alike seemed to never want to adopt new technologies, opting instead for their own shadowy solution.

To fix this issue, she put together a plan to unify her teams behind a common vision. Chief among the strategies to do this involved hosting a large conference, for over 250 staff across all departments. The conference, coming up a few days after the IEF meeting, would underline the connections between all departments, and define everyone as being on the same team.

Forget Email: Then there was the CIO of an industry hit hard by the ailing economy and tumbling oil prices. He talked about needing to innovate, not only to cut costs, but bring sanity and productivity to an over-worked, under-staffed organization. To help with that challenge, he talked at length about the value that Jabber – an office instant messaging tool – had brought to his business. He said it was instrumental in getting rid of email bloat, and brought collaboration to new heights at the office.

Automation Ahoy: Third we heard a story of an industry affected by falling oil prices. This CIO used automation and next generation robotics to help bring in more revenue and improve customer service. In this scenario, we heard about a tiny army of drones enlisted to check on customer utility meters, instead of costly human workers. The CIO described early results as a success and will be rolling out even more automation in the future.

Clarifying Cloud: We heard from another CIO who described just how far the island businesses have come in terms of supporting cloud initiatives. She mentioned that at one point, internet lag speeds made cloud seem impossible for many. However, that is all changing now. “There are a lot of things today where the cloud makes sense,” she said. For her institution, she decided to create a cloud assessment to help her team decide exactly what does make sense for cloud, and what doesn’t, in an efficient, transparent way. “Basically anytime we consider cloud services, whether for storage, services, or whatever, we use the assessment.”

The result has greatly sped up the time it takes for IT to make crucial decisions – all while simplifying the entire businesses approach to the cloud.

Part 2: Big data ethics

It’s probably fair to say that with every major technological evolution, there is an impact on society. The luddites and the looms. The industrial worker and the modern factory. The list goes on.

Today, the most obvious and contentious intersection of humans and technology is with Big Data and privacy. Sure, unleashing Big Data offers untold benefits and potential to businesses and consumers alike. But what about the negative consequences?

Balancing the ethics of proper Big Data usage occupied a large portion of the discussion with our IEF members in St John’s. What emerged was a mixed bag of opinion and personal experience.

On one hand, Big Data is offering Newfoundland businesses incredible gains and opportunities. The technology leader of a government-backed retailer talked at length about the value a new loyalty program has given his business. Simply by giving consumers a slight reward for using the card, the company has gained a wealth of useful information about shopping habits and demographics. The analysis of which has lead to a boost in sales, and better customer service, said the leader.

But is there a point where Big Data collection goes too far? Some members seemed to think so. The term “barcode babies” was used, facetiously perhaps, to describe a society where everything about everyone is known, tracked and used to up-sell to them, from the day they are born. While hyperbolic, the discussion did hinge on trying to identify what is too creepy, and how much access is just right.

At the heart of this debate is healthcare. For years, leaders at the table have followed developments of electronic health records, something the province has been slow to implement. On one hand, they all agree that there is an immense value to patients to be able to carry with them personal health details, easily available to doctors. However, this information is highly sensitive and needs to be properly protected – a task that perhaps the province hasn’t figured out yet, said one.

What is clear is that Big Data is quickly being adopted by businesses everywhere – but the ethics that come with it are often overlooked. If you are starting to wrestle this topic, check out this handy guide from Information Week, giving you 8 things to factor in when building a Big Data strategy.

Part 3: When change is needed, make it mandatory

Speaking of Big Data in health care, another IEF membered shared the story of how Estonia became one of the world’s most advanced implementers of electronic health records. In the Baltic state, the government was able to avoid years of slow adoption by doctors by doing one powerful thing right: they made it mandatory.

“They drew a line in the sand, and they said ‘this is how it’s done now,’” explained the IEF member. “And the results have been phenomenal. That’s what you have to do.”

This raised an interesting conversation on some of the barriers IT leaders face in terms of technology adoption. From dealing with “anti authoritarian” stakeholders, who simply never want to do what IT suggests they do, to consumers being against change, it is a common, multi-sided struggle.

Worse: it’s an expensive situation to find yourself in when a new initiative is not adopted by end users. As we have argued before, when a technology isn’t adopted en masse, you quickly destroy any hope of attaining its true potential and ROI. (See, for example, our series on Office 365 adoption).

What the example of Estonia above makes clear is that sometimes, if you need change to occur, the directive has to come with some authority behind it. The same leader added:

“We can have all the best technology in the world – but it doesn’t matter unless you have the policy, and procedures in place to make sure people use it,” he said. “You need to mandate it.”

This idea is particularly important when it comes to new security and safety measures, said another leader. Other key areas where mandatory change is essential is with major productivity tools, business processes and so on – basically any technology that is directly relevant to the safety and productivity of your business.

Part 4: Give them what they want

They rolled out the new solution without much fanfare.

After a few months of prep, and a few days of work, the underground tunnels at this Newfoundland university had finally been fitted with reliable, ubiquitous cell-phone data access. The IT department had a carefully planned communications plan, and was set to announce the change after a few days of testing in the wild.

And then they saw it.

Suddenly, all over Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites, people were talking about it. Students were suddenly sharing pics of themselves in the tunnel. Others were posting on Twitter about the newfound access. Even teachers and professors joined in the chorus. Finally, the CIO’s phone rang. It was the student newspaper. They wanted to know if IT had brought cellphone coverage to the tunnels.

“Well, yes we did,” said the CIO. “We had a communications plan…” The reporter laughed, and said: “Well if talking to the student paper was on your plan, you can scratch that off your list.”

This was the story shared at the IEF in St John’s, which in a way, directly confronts the point we were making in the previous section. Perhaps not all change has to be mandatory. If you give people what they really want, adoption takes care of itself.

“We were going to do Wifi at first, but when we polled people, everyone told us they wanted to have phone service down there instead, so that’s what we did,” explained the CIO.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just the millennial students who loved the innovation. The entire school seemed incredibly pleased. This is an important point to note, said one of the leaders. She explained that we too often talk about “fulfilling the needs of millennials,” but perhaps we have it all wrong.

“I’m tired of just hearing about millennials,” she said. “This is stuff that everyone wants. They (millennials) just happen to be the ones asking for it.


Next time someone tells you that innovation is only happening in the major hubs, you’ll know what to tell them. “You’d be blown away by what the CIO’s are up to in St John’s.”

From drones delivering profits to utilities companies, to a revelation that giving people exactly what they want is the best way to push adoption, the tech leaders here have seen it all.

Download the whitepaper here.

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