ICT leadership on the menu

Computerworld breakfast briefing on ICT governance and policymaking

The theme of the Computerworld Breakfast Briefing earlier this month was ICT leadership – in management, governance and policymaking. The event was sponsord by Gen-i.

It was held simultaneously in Wellington and Auckland, with Gen-i CEO Chris Quin’s presentation being transmitted via video link to Wellington. Prior to Quin, the New Zealand Institute CEO Rick Boven spoke in Auckland, and the Institute of Directors CEO Ralph Chivers spoke in Wellington.

Where’s New Zealand’s economic strategy?

New Zealand Institute CEO Rick Boven began his presentation with the hard-hitting statements that “the value of our exports is relatively low” and “nowhere is there a New Zealand economic strategy”.

He went on to say that there is a disconnect between what students are learning at tertiary institutions and the skills that employers actually need. And he asked why there weren’t courses in international sales and marketing.

A bright spot in the economy was the technology sector, with “the top internationally orientated technology businesses exporting around $5 billion per annum with very high productivity,” he said.

Boven said New Zealand needs to make the economic transition from low cost commodity goods to producing differentiated goods and services for the international market.

This can partly be achieved through better international connectivity (he mentioned the Pacific Fibre cable), and a focus on delivering cloud-based products such as Software as a Service solutions.

ICT governance skills lacking

Telecommunications performed well in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, said Ralph Chivers, new CEO of the Institute of Directors – but ICT is not so brilliant in taking its role in governance and leadership of the businesses of which it is part.

With his background in telecommunications, Chivers is well placed to consider its role and that of ICT in the broader leadership perspective that he takes on in his new post.

Chivers, who was programme director for Telecom’s Christchurch earthquake recovery in his previous role, said the earthquakes showed the best side of ICT. The telecommunications infrastructure held up when many other infrastructure elements collapsed. ICT people sprang into action to provide a key plank of the recovery effort and ICT was the means for many people to continue working from home or another site when their office was not functional or inaccessible.

Business couldn’t have recovered with the speed it did if those quakes had happened only two years ago, Chivers said.

Yet ICT has not assumed the role it should at the top tables of companies, he said, and there is a lack of good ICT governance.

Given the crucial role of ICT in the functioning of many organisations, it is disappointing that less than 10 percent of board members in New Zealand companies have an ICT background.

“Most organisations could benefit from raising the ICT skills of their boards,” Chivers said, “but that’s not the same thing as having an ICT specialist at the board table.” Technically-minded specialists often fail to appreciate the broader concerns of the business, he said. “We need IT-savvy people for the social networking generation, where ICT is not a technical pursuit but an integral part of life and business.”

Some ICT specialists seem to think the business exists for their benefit rather than vice-versa, he told the gathering.

Finance company collapses

The finance company collapses of the past few years have brought directors to prosecution and conviction – not yet for dishonest acts, Chivers emphasises, but for ineptitude in not discharging their legal obligations.

“In ICT, fortunately, you can’t go to jail for doing it badly; if you could, there might be a few of us eating porridge [in prison] this morning instead of being here.”

“Governance is not hard,” he said, though some of its principles may seem counter-intuitive at first; an important element of it is in understanding what the accounts say about the performance of the company; when things are not running well and when it looks like information is being hidden.

Lack of financial skill is probably the biggest weakness in ICT participation and in governance skills generally.

“The ultimate insult to the IT professional is reporting to the CFO,” he said.

After breakfast, Chivers was in conversation with former Inland Revenue CIO Ross Hughson about efforts from within the industry to improve ICT governance. NZ Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews discussed the need in an article published in Computerworld earlier this year and New Zealand has two prominent figures on the International Standards Organisation’s ICT governance working group – Myles Ward and Alison Holt.

Quin talks change, leadership and the beneficial stress of disaster

With ultrafast broadband and other rapid advances in ICT, New Zealand has the biggest opportunity it will have for some time to accelerate its economy, said Gen-i CEO Chris Quin.

“We have had a basic strategy sketched out for us by the New Zealand Institute and other economic analysts, to get the country producing ‘high value stuff’ that doesn’t need more land as the market expands.”

What we lack, perhaps, is the ability to execute the strategy and one of the key factors in that is leadership, he said.

“Leadership has to be taken, not given,” he said. “You can give someone a title and put them in charge of a team, you can’t make them leaders; they have to choose to do that.”

Quin has worked with the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Trust and seen young people in particular show business-relevant leadership skills. He spoke admiringly of Canterbury University student Sam Johnson, leader of the Student Volunteer Army, formed to do the initial clean-up after the Christchurch earthquakes. Several hundred students every day were organised into teams, chiefly through use of social media.

“I asked him ‘what do you do now? You’re not going to go into an ordinary corporate job now you’ve started on your leadership journey’.”

Following the quakes many people acquired a new respect for business continuity process managers, who in normal times had often been seen as a nuisance as they put staff through drills and checklists to cope with a disaster most of the staff thought would never happen.

Gen-i will be faced with its own test of business continuity and effective process as technology supplier to Eden Park during the Rugby World Cup. It’s the first time a “non-global company” has been engaged for such a prominent role in a major tournament, Quin claims.

The technology for ticket processing is extensively duplicated; ticket information is held at two datacentres, communicating on two separate fibre connections run from opposite ends of the stadium.

Data to enable tickets to be checked is stored on duplicate SANs, again at opposite ends of the stadium; but each of the handheld terminals in the hands of ticket-checking staff also has all the information about sold tickets.

“So if you lost both datacentres, both connections and both SANs, you could still scan [tickets] at the gate.” The fourth backup, he said, consists of just ripping the tickets up so they can’t be reused.

In the year of the quakes, the qualities that mark leaders and well-led teams have shown through, Quin said. “The first is accountability.”

It’s easy to nod your head when asked to perform a task, and make excuses later; it takes commitment to follow through on the promise.

Collaboration is another essential quality that comes to the fore in emergencies.

People move beyond their siloed responsibilities and a defensive attitude to “my department, my people, my stuff” and just get on with doing what needs to be done. “The question we ask as leaders is ‘why can’t we get that reaction all the time?’”

The third lesson is to “play in position”; to meet your own responsibilities without becoming distracted by what others are doing.

Quin plays down the changes that will affect Telecom in structurally separating. “We’ve had operational separation for four years; to be glib you could say the only difference is that Telecom will write Chorus a cheque instead of making a ledger entry; it’s not quite that simple, but in many ways it’s not fundamentally different.”

One thing that will emerge from the change is a lot more fibre capacity. “Will that mean businesses will get more efficient, that we’ll get more exports, that we’ll grow? The answer is that it might if we do something with it.”

That demands imagination from companies and particularly their ICT teams, he said.

“ICT needs to get out from under just delivering; it means not just coming up with ideas for change, but leading people through it.”

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