by Byron Connolly

Australian CIOs reflect on a difficult year

Dec 03, 2020
IT Leadership

Tech leaders in the public and private sectors discuss how they have navigated one of the worst economic periods in recent memory.

Co-workers wear face masks while working at a dry-erase glass wall in a post-COVID office workspace.
Credit: Orbon Alija / Getty Images

2020 has been a challenging year for Australian technology chiefs. 

When the devastating COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, CIOs and their teams working at organisations across every market sector quickly needed to provide technologies that would support workers heading home to stifle the spread of the virus.

In some industries, digital transformation programs were halted while in others, organisations saw an opportunity to ramp up their digitisation activities. Companies in the travel (cruises and airlines), fitness, and accommodation sectors, in particular, went into survival mode with their revenues impacted almost overnight.

Brett Winn of Blackmores

Brett Winn, who spent most of 2020 as chief information officer at Blackmores, said that during COVID, the organisation, which sells essential vitamin, mineral and nutritional supplements, was dealing with lockdowns across the 14 countries where it operates.

Winn, who this month moved into the CIO role at healthcare services, group, Healthscope, said the company did complete a sudden ‘lift and shift’ of around 1,400 corporate staff around the globe, including 800 at six offices in Australia, to home environments.

It was about making sure that people who could move home to do so and keeping our manufacturing and production staff as separated as much as we could from any corporate staff.

We were fortunate that years ago we got ahead of the game on Office365 and Teams deployments so the logistics of moving the business out of the office and into the home was more about behaviours, processes and controls than it was about lack of technology.”

Winn said Blackmores learned that staff could work from home effectively with outputs increasing across certain parts of the business during the pandemic.

The lessons learned were around the lack of [human] connectivity and the cross-pollination you get when you are walking the [office] hallways. I certainly found as a CIO that while my connection with the executive team, our board and my team was very good [using collaboration technologies], my ability to get an understanding of what was happening on the floor in the business on a day-to-day basis … I really lost that.

It didn’t hamper our ability to operate the business but as an executive team we were looking at how we retain those connections. It’s about creating meaningful engagements and make people feel like they are being heard.

Steve Hodgkinson of DHHS

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in Victoria rolled out full Office 365 functions to its 11,000 plus staff last year, which chief information officer Steve Hodgkinson said was fortunate timing for the rapid transition of almost all staff to remote working in March 2020. This move from office to home-based work was seamless for most staff, he said.

He said connectivity issues have been a persistent challenge for some staff this year either due to local public network constraints or home Wi-Fi inadequacies. This has led to the practice of people “turning off video” in meetings to improve audio quality which isn’t helpful.

A key effect of the pandemic has been to reveal, once and for all, the manifest failings of ‘old school’ on-premise ICT infrastructure and applications.

Cloud services, ubiquitously and securely available over the untrusted public network, have won the day in terms of utility, user experience, scaleability and operational resilience.

DHHS now has around 60 per cent of its applications in the public cloud. These can be accessed from any device using multi-factor authentication with sophisticated security controls and monitoring.

“Geo-blocking, for example, has significantly reduced cyber security threats in the new world where staff are all located in Australia due to travel restrictions. My view is that our cloud services are both better and more secure than our legacy on-premise applications and I think that this is now accepted by most of our staff,” Hodgkinson said.

DHHS is planning for a hybrid home/office approach in 2021. Hodgkinson said this will be tricky to work out at scale but most staff are eager to find a balance where they work in the office some days and at home others.

This sounds easy but it will be difficult to coordinate teams to ensure that all or none are in the office on the same day. This will require new ‘air traffic control’ tools to help people coordinate among themselves when to attend the office and where to sit etc. It won’t work if each person just makes a random decision that suits them because the office experience won’t be what people were expecting.

It will take a while for tools to be implemented to support the hybrid workplace and for people to find the right balance.

Therese Chakour-West of Stihl Australia

In March 2020, Therese Chakour-West, the long-serving head of information technology at power equipment company, Stihl Australia, said that the onset of COVID-19 saw staff that had been hiding behind their old processes coming out of the woodwork and asking to be connected to collaboration tools that the company had already invested in.

Stihl’s staff have worked from home throughout two lockdowns and, in line with government advice, the company is starting to bring back 25 per cent of its workforce to the office.

Despite the uncertainty, Chakour-West completed a move to Dynamics365 in October 2020 and is now about to go live with a move to SAP’s S/4 HANA platform. “While we’ve been in lockdown, we’ve had to continue to drive these modernisation projects which has been more the focus for me this year rather than being overly innovative and delivering anything new. By default, we’ve seen great adoption results of the tools we had invested in heavily,” Chakour-West said.

She added that there as an initial adjustment period for people who were shifted to work from home environments. “Our executive team have looked at our own departments and seen what works for the business. I am bringing in to the office my tech and network team and application/analyst teams for two days a week so they can work together. Others in the business are following similar ‘return to work’ strategies,” she said.

The crisis response is a question of money

A managing executive partner at Gartner, Brian Ferriera told CIO Australia that the analyst firm is seeing different behaviours from CIOs depending on ‘where the money lies.’

For example, Flight Centre is looking at its bricks-and-mortar strategy and they are consolidating a number of ERPs right now to be ready so they can operate at a minimum level. And while they are doing that, they are actually fixing capability.

We are also seeing some organisations like [job website] Seek saying they are not going to cut staff, they have seen a drop in revenue … and they will hold on tight until the market returns.

He added that the challenge for government CIOs is that the ‘economic posture’ of their agencies has dictated their spend. “Any savings that [agencies] found was redirected to crisis support. Some CIOs were asked to give up some of their money to [fund these activities].”

Federal agencies that were supporting the crisis—the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Defence—were being ‘thrown money’ whereas mid-level and state government agencies were asked to redirect funds to [deal with COVID-19], he said.