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Right Time, Right Focus: Building a Digital Strategy with the Halifax IEF

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on July 15, 2016

The IEF held its annual touchdown in Halifax, for what one attendee later wrote was the the “best group yet” of innovative technology leaders from across industries.

Indeed, for all who attended, several stimulating ideas were shared that are relevant and useful to all executives leading the charge of a modern digital business. All of which will help you build a more successful, fruitful digital strategy.

We learned about the need to deeply understand the end-user when crafting an IT initiative –and we saw that customer focus is perhaps the one element every digital strategy needs to thrive.

We also saw the dual nature of security – on one hand, how the core problem hasn’t changed in decades (hint: it’s people). On the other, how a new generation of workers might be better equipped than ever to deal with information security vulnerabilities.

But to start the night, leaders collected their thoughts around a crucial topic that impacts every CIO organization: the core barriers to transformation.

Part 1: Getting in the Way of Good IT

Sometimes having the right solution isn’t enough. You need to be able to act on it, in a timely, productive fashion.

And as all IT leaders know first-hand, there are plenty of obstacles. Here are two key barriers to digital strategy that the IEF members discussed.

Death by Committee:

One leader from a provincial post-secondary institution says working in a large, bureaucratic organization makes successful IT execution nearly impossible.

At the organization, there are dozens of different committees and stakeholders that need to be consulted before a major technological plan is put into action. Worse, varying committees can’t even seem to agree on what the priorities should be. On top of all this, provincial legislature and organizational “red tape” make matters even more complicated.

The result is predictable. Plans are constantly “under review,” and it is excruciatingly difficult to accomplish any form of strategic, transformational actions.

“There are just too many important decisions that need to be made quickly for that to really be a model,” said the IEF member.

Lagging by Legacy:

Later in the evening, another nefarious obstacle to innovation became apparent: being married to old, legacy approaches. While this pain can be seen on all sides of the business, from customers to the CEO, in the case raised at the IEF table, we saw just how anti-productive it can be when employees fail to want to adopt new solutions.

The IEF leader, who runs the technology arm of a local legal firm, said that his industry in particular is allergic to transformation. Lawyers, she said, are very slow to adopting digital technologies that would ostensibly make their jobs easier.

“It’s like they aren’t comfortable unless they have 200 pounds of paper in their briefcases,” said the IT leader.

To make matters more complicated, there are systemic reasons for the legal industry to be slow to adopt newer technologies. Even if lawyers wanted to evolve, they still find themselves in a complicated terrain, where just brining an iPad into the courtroom could constitute a breech of fairness to the opposing council.

All of which is a real shame, says the leader, as there is no doubt that digital innovations present enormous opportunity to legal workers. Imagine, for example, the power of replacing hundreds of boxes of printed evidence with a simple, searchable digital database.

Part 2: Creating a Culture of Change to Overcome Barriers

Even if you aren’t in the education or legal industries, you can certainly relate to the obstacles described above. Bureaucracy and legacy laggards are common challenges for all IT leaders.

The way which our IEF members are facing those challenges head-on will be edifying for anyone facing similar pains as they seek to bring their business into the digital future. So how are they doing it?

Tell them Why:

When the IT Director at the post-secondary institution wants to get an idea through the maze of approvals and committees as fast as possible, he reverts back to a simple, old school trick. He creates a one-page summary explaining “why” the change is a good one –why it makes a difference, to who, and how.

He says this one simple document is the starting point to ensuring change can occur in his organization. Keeping your plans simple, explainable and focused on the value (the why), is essential, he said.

Start at the Top:

While grassroots approaches are helpful when it comes to adoption, getting buy-in and facing down these obstacles needs to be solved with a “top down” approach, said the same leader in education.

He explained that after creating his vision document, he goes to his boss, and any top level executive or committee member he can find, to get the ball rolling in his favor early on. With the support he builds up there, he is able to more easily gain the favor of every other decision maker involved in passing his plans into reality.

Change the Culture:

However, if you are dealing with an institution that is allergic to change on the employee level, such as is the case with the law firm, you need to go about things differently.

The leader at that establishment said that in order to bring new solutions to the firm, they first had to “change the firm.” In other words, they needed to approach the situation from the bottom up, and dive deep into the cultural and practical reasons causing friction to innovation.

“We go in there like a SWAT team,” said the member. “We have identified technology solutions to help increase efficiency of the work that we do, tools to do the job better, faster, and bring solutions to our clients quicker.”

In just 6 months, this focus on the immediate value to the users and the people involved has led to significant change at the CIO’s organization, she said.

Part 3: Right Time, Right Value

Is there a right time for an innovative idea to take off? Can you have the most advanced, most intelligent solution possible, but simply be bringing it to the table at the wrong time?

Listening to the members discuss in Halifax, you would have to say “yes”. In IT, like in most things, timing seems to be everything.

One IEF member took a moment to recollect about digital radio, a technological innovation that was emerging way back in the late 1990s. While the technology was more efficient for broadcasters, it really didn’t add any value to the customer. In fact, listeners would have had to pay a premium, just to get the same content.

Similarly, the CIO of a major grocery chain talked about how decades ago, his industry was looking at giving consumers barcode scanners to bring home, so that when they ran out of a favorite product they could scan it and then later head into the store to pick it up. The idea was a good one – but customers just weren’t ready for the idea to be successful.

The irony in both cases is that today, both of those technologies are wide spread, or at least make perfect sense to today’s mobile, digital consumer.

One clear reason for this change is obvious. At the time those innovations were first being explored, they didn’t offer much value to the customer at all. Decades later, with the Internet, mobile devices, and a familiarity with “on demand” commerce, customers aren’t just ready for this kind of solution. They have come to demand it.

“We have the same ideas on the table today that we did back then,” says the IEF member at the grocery chain. “But it’s about the value, and about reading when your customer will be ready to get that value. That’s when you invest in digital.”

We are entering an era where the timing couldn’t be better for a number of ideas that were once seen as futuristic. For IT leaders, it might be worth revisiting old ideas that failed due to a lack of consumer readiness, and brush off the dust for today’s modern ecosystem. You might just find it works this time.

Part 4: Strategy Before Technology

When the IT leader of a local airport equipped his crew of technicians with mobile devices, it wasn’t just because everyone wanted an iPad.

It was because giving out those devices was the best way to accomplish the goals of a previously established business strategy.

“It’s not just putting a device in someone’s hands. But it’s a strategy, and it’s using all the technology that we have in order to execute it.”

In this case, the strategy was to make responding to customer needs and troubleshooting problems on the runway as easy and efficient as possible. Doing so would save the airport untold millions of dollars and man-hours a year, and as a result deliver an even better customer experience.

This concept that a strategy should dictate your technology spend is a common one in these IEF forums. As we see frequently, when IT leaders don’t have an over-arching goal in mind, their technology execution is sloppy, and bound to fail. But when you marry a vision, and a strategy, to the technology you roll out, results are sure to be positive.

We saw this once again with the technology leader at a provincial utilities company based in Halifax. For years, he said his organization had been pressured to roll out a big data solution that would give customers real-time access to their energy consumption rates. Rolling this out would be costly, requiring an expensive smart meter, and time consuming. So naturally he asked: is it worth it?

As it turns out, customers don’t actually need, or even want, that deep of an insight into what they are consuming. Instead, what they really would benefit from is a cheap “dumb” device, that can tell them when there is a major surge in usage, or even help monitor household appliances for efficiency. They also prefer to get alerts and helpful advice curated for them, from the utility company, to help them better manage their consumption levels.

The result, his company is now pursuing a more valuable, but less expensive, path that will ultimately do more to make customers happy. The only way they were able to achieve this improved approach was by having a strategy clearly defined at the start.

Part 5: Are People Always Going to be the Weakest Link?

One IEF member shared a story that will make any IT leader cringe.

Apparently, one major national organization spent thousands of dollars on an intensive 30-day “Don’t Click” education campaign, hoping to teach users about the dangers of opening unknown, suspicious emails.

When all was said and done, a test was sent out to see if users had heeded the lessons. Predictably, they didn’t. Nearly 60 percent failed and still opened a fake malicious email.

Another example shared at the table discussed how one utilities company is trying to bring best practices to the power plants, with rules preventing such things as plugging in foreign USB devices. Unfortunately, many of the onsite engineers simply don’t want to listen, and don’t take the training seriously. That attitude problem can be devastating, especially if a breech or hack were to occur due to incompetence, the leader suggested.

Both these stories underline a very common theme in the IEF: people are always the weakest link in any security regimen.

But there is a new hope, argued one of the members.

This person feels that today’s younger generation is becoming much more savvy when it comes to digital privacy and security threats. Growing up in an era of “digital ethics” and constant exposure to high-level hacks in the news, will build a more robust, intelligent workforce down the road.

“Young people are very aware of how their data is used, exposed,” said this leader. “It’s going to change.”


From airlines, to power companies, to healthcare and education, the whole gamut of industries were represented in Halifax for our recent IEF meeting.

What all these leaders have in common is the desire to innovate and build the best possible digital strategy.

Sometimes, though, things can get in the way of their success. Whether it’s red tape, bureaucracy or lack of vision, or simply being in the wrong time, and the wrong place.

Thankfully, there is plenty of proof that you can do something about these obstacles. Focusing on the value to the end user is chief among these; having a clear strategy and goal in mind is a close second.

Download the full whitepaper here


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