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Rethinking IT: The IEF Visits Vancouver

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on July 11, 2016

From schools to restaurants, and every industry in between, IEF members in Vancouver had a lot to say about the future of their roles in IT.

We saw a school board arming its students for a digital future; a smart kitchen powered by machine learning; and a paper producer relying on Big Data to carve an edge.

In all these stories, we discovered that the role of IT is changing – today it is all about surfacing the best ideas, empowering the business and understanding the needs of customers.

Leaders in the innovation trade need to take on these new responsibilities today, or else fade into obsolescence.

Part 1: Rethinking Schools

We’ve all heard that children are the future. So how do innovators, the ones responsible for making the future happen in the business, accomplish their job in the school systems?

According to one member of the Vancouver IEF, the task is easier said than done.

This technology director is responsible for one of British Columbia’s largest school boards, representing hundreds of children from kindergarten to grade 12. And while the kids he serves have little issue adopting and adapting to new technologies, the same can’t always be said for the parents, teachers and other adults running the show.

“Some people want things to be the way they were 30 years ago,” he said.

Throughout the night, education was raised several times. “IT is more front and center in education than ever before,” he said.

But there is a strong contingent that doesn’t see any room in the classroom for the latest tech.

The conflict of viewpoints is a real burden for the tech leader. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The tech leader explained that it is in the school system where children will be prepared for a future in the digital workforce. So it is more important now than ever before to make sure students are literate in new and emerging technologies.

“Why are we still teaching them cursive and not coding?” he asked.

Surfacing bright ideas in education

So where does an IT leader go when he or she wants to bring innovation to an organization? In the case of the school board, you go right to the source: the teachers.

The IEF member started the evening by explaining a unique program he’s helped establish to surface the best, most promising ideas for innovation from his teachers. His school board sets aside a budget each year, and then opens the doors to applications from teachers to apply for grants.

The ideas are discussed in a committee and awarded for their potential impact on students and the education system. The best part is at the end of the year, all the grant winners are brought together to present on their specific initiatives and report back on results.

As organizations across all industries struggle to find good ideas to move the business forward, perhaps this is one model worth borrowing.

Part 2: Customer Centric IT

For most of the world, it’s consumers, not students, that drive the business. And just like the education leader above, several organizations let their end-customers dictate the direction their innovation takes.

“For us, innovation is really all about meeting customer needs,” said one IT director. He works in a company that sells white-labeled electronics to business across the world. As the one in charge of technological change, he says he frequently relies on what his customer needs to help build his list of priorities and projects.

“It’s do or die,” he explains, “We have to build something the customer expects or we’re done.”

His industry in particular is extremely sensitive to how efficiently and easy the fulfillment process is, which means the company deeply relies on operational smoothness to win customer loyalty. Later it was established that operations, in specific, is one area where IT can really make a difference, especially with access to today’s latest solutions in machine learning and The Internet of Things.

Different customers, different needs

Even though listening to customers is key, it’s important to realize not all customers for your specific business are alike. The same leader above described how he has had to customize features for customer-facing portals depending on where the customer is located and what they want.

“What’s important out in the Valley isn’t important in the Mid-West,” he said. “They all have different expectations.”

Innovation expectations

Another IEF member, the senior IT leader at a large restaurant chain, said her leadership is very conservative. However, her customers are not – and that has made all the difference.

“The consumer is dictating the way we have to do business with them,” she said. “If they can order their Starbucks on their phone, they’ll ask why they can’t do it with us, too.”

As a result of new consumer pressures, the once-traditional leadership has now adopted a “holistic digital strategy,” said the IEF member. They have put significant investments in social media and online marketing, as well as cutting edge Internet of Things and Big Data innovations.

Part 3: The Rise of the “Things”

So much of IT leadership these days has nothing to do with how smart we are, and everything to do with letting the “things” tell us what is best.

Specifically, these things are internet-connected sensors, the big amounts of data they produce and the algorithms and intelligence used to learn about it all and make recommendations. Call it brainless IT. Call it whatever you like. According to a few IEF members, this is the future of innovation.

One member made it clear just how powerful these components can be for driving disruption.

He is from a large-scale provider of paper products. And while paper surely isn’t the first industry that comes to mind when thinking of new age disruptors, the leader at the IEF had plenty of insight to share.

For his company, they are leveraging Big Data and machine learning on two fronts: to save costs and generate new revenue.

For saving costs, he says the IoT and machine learning will be implemented to monitor machines, some of which are running 24 hours a day, and find new efficiencies.

“I believe machine learning is going to change the game for us,” he said, explaining how it will help avoid operational mistakes and make predictions to improve productivity.

On the other end, Big Data and algorithms are essential when it comes to creating new revenue streams. The paper business is frequently attempting new formats and new ways to sell a commodity.

However, understanding the true costs of the fabrication process used to be something so complex they could only guess it. Today, they are much closer to gaining a true picture of operations, and hence can create a much more robust, strategic business model – all thanks to Big Data and IoT solutions.

The smart kitchen heats up

It’s not just industrial manufacturers that can reap the rewards of an IoT strategy. The IT leader who spoke above about how customers are driving changes in the restaurant industry also described at length the important data, sensors and computer intelligence will play in her field.

“The smart kitchen is about to explode,” she explained.

Already, they have tightened up operations in their kitchen by installing what she called a digital “quarterback.” It used to be that a chef was in charge of deciding when to start a plate, a process that gets tricky when multiple diners each have meals that demand different cook times. Today, they use an automated system to triage orders and tell cooks exactly when to start and how to prepare a meal. The results have been spectacular, she said, saving time and leading to better customer service.

But they are only just beginning.

In the future she foresees a smart kitchen, where connected sensors take all the guesswork out of important safety measures. For example, fridge temperatures, to be able to proactively call in repairs for expensive equipment and boost overall efficiency in the high overhead industry.

“Today we are relying on a 16 year old kid to make sure the fridge is keeping food safe,” she said, saying that in the near future that risky set up will no longer exist, thanks to “dumb” sensors installed on the fridge.

Part 4: Go Dumb or Go Home

That same restaurant IT leader doesn’t want to take the credit for bringing Big Data and IoT smarts to her business. In fact, she says smarts has nothing to do with it.

“It’s dead simple,” she said, describing the process of bringing Power BI into her business. “For the longest time bringing in and understanding all your data was really expensive and really difficult. Not anymore.”

Indeed, for businesses considering initiatives such as machine learning, hiring data scientists and the smartest mathematicians is no longer essential – a reality that wasn’t the case only a few years ago.

This consumerization of next generation IT solutions is a continuation of a trend that is best observed in relation to the cloud, said another IEF member.

“The reason we are all spending billions on the cloud is to remove all the boring stuff,” he said. “It used to be really important to manage your Exchange in house. Today, who cares!?”

That same leader, who represents a major enterprise software maker, said that some of today’s biggest innovations all come down to making the jobs of IT simpler, and less expensive.

Only then is it possible to fulfill the promise of a two-speed IT, one that actively keeps the business running, while at the same time pursues new, innovative solutions to fend off the competition and better serve its customers.

Conclusion

Whether they are in charge of preparing our future workforce, or our next meal, the IT leaders in Vancouver have plenty of insight to share with their peers.

IT is all about finding new ways to innovate on old industries. It’s about doing this in the most customer-centric way possible. And it’s about leveraging all the latest tools and intelligence to make that duty as simple, and efficient as ever.

Download the full report here

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