by Kim Thomas

New breed of CIOs become custodians of data flow

Jul 23, 201210 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

When Paul Caris, CIO at global law firm Eversheds, decided to equip the firm’s lawyers with iPads, he met with a lot of resistance.

“If I had listened to anybody along the way I wouldn’t have done it,” he says.

“My own team was trying to tell me it was a folly. They were rolling out the usual excuses about security and supportability.”

Undeterred, Caris initially piloted 15 iPads and didn’t look back.

Two years later, 500 of the firm’s fee-earners have iPads, all equipped with full access to their emails, calendar and a cloud-based archiving system.

Deploying the software cost nothing. The users provide their own support, through an intranet forum that allows them to collaborate on best practice and share fixes.

New breed Is Caris a new breed of CIO? Traditionally the relationship between IT and the business has always been a tricky one of give-and-take.

But the time when IT was regarded as an expensive drain on the business has been replaced by an acceptance that IT can bring benefits to the business in terms of cost-savings, productivity gains and a competitive edge.

If Caris’s example is anything to go by, the relationship between IT and the business could be changing yet again, with the CIO taking a very different approach to business demands.

The IT landscape in most businesses already looks very different from five years ago.

Applications and storage are gradually moving to the cloud, and software-as-a-service providers are taking away some of the pain of day-to-day management.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the IT function has been left twiddling its thumbs.

Many would say they are being expected to do more with less, but the focus of its energies may be gradually shifting.

What is the likely impact of this slow shift?

Keith Wallington, chief customer officer of email management firm Mimecast, believes it will initiate a different approach to data.

“IT people are starting to think more about the information that flows through the business and how best to surface it and make it useful to their staff,” he says.

Modern organisations, the argument goes, are experiencing a deluge of data, both structured and structured.

It’s in Excel spreadsheets, ERP systems, Word documents, PowerPoint slides, email and social media.

There is a sea of data in most organisations, much of it irrelevant, out-of-date or contradictory, but within that sea there are pockets of valuable data that, retrieved and analysed properly, could give businesses insights that will enable them to be much more agile and responsive to changing demands.

The ability to retrieve, analyse and apply business data effectively is so important that, in future, Wallington believes that this will the principal job of the IT function.

The new breed of IT managers will be data custodians, focused on the benefits the business can derive from the wealth of data at its disposal.

It’s the difference, Wallington suggests, between the old-fashioned IT director and the newer chief information officer.

“The IT person might have been staring at the Exchange server and making sure it was up. The information analyst CIO type of person is looking at the data to find the trend and valuable to the company,” he says.

Data focus Alys Woodward, research director at IDC agrees that there are major benefits to be gained from a focus on data.

“When you get business analytics right, the value is huge. The increased revenue and reduced cost can be phenomenal, but improving your decision-making is a journey rather than a single step,” she says.

In particular, she believes that there is huge value to be gained from the wealth of information now available in social media data. Information within it can reveal how customers are responding to changes in a product, for example, or what they are saying about the company’s call centre.

The difficulty, she says, is that it’s a journey companies often put off.

“They know they want to do it, they know they should do it, they know they don’t have enough information. But in order to really get their hands round the problem, they’ve got such a lot to think about. It’s so much more complicated than a traditional technology product implementation.”

Woodward points out that in surveys of CIOs’ priorities, business analytics never comes top, it’s always sixth or seventh behind traditional IT concerns such as security, virtualisation and storage.

This isn’t because it is perceived as unimportant.

She says, “A CIO once told me it’s the most important thing they do but it’s the last thing they’ll do.”

The low priority given to business analytics is partly because concerns such as security appear more urgent, and partly because they are easier to implement.

Taking business analytics seriously requires the user to change how they work, and requires a very high level executive sponsor to make sure everyone gets involved.

Gartner’s 2012 CEO and senior business executive survey lends support to Woodward’s argument.

The report says: “Despite having good answers on their tactical needs for better information, we are concerned that CEOs don’t see or understand the disruptive forces of digitization that lie ahead for them. A significant proportion of CEOs could not name a new type of information likely to disrupt their industry.”

No innovation Furthermore, it adds, few CEOs asked to name their innovation leader mentioned their CIO.

“How then,” the report asks rhetorically, “can the CEO be assured of getting the strategy right when digital trends dictate industry shifts?”

But the price for IT of keeping the Exchange server going, while putting off the problem of what to do with data, is that the business increasingly acts independently.

The fight against consumerisation of mobile devices has already been lost in many organisations.

Users will bring in their own iPads, iPhones and Android devices and use them for business purposes, even if that flouts the organisation’s policy.

Now business users are also using these devices to access and download free applications, such as GMail and Dropbox.

Despite the concerns businesses have about documents and files being sent outside the corporate network, users are remarkably blasé.

A 2012 Gartner survey entitled Generation Gmail concluded, “Individuals are aware of the risks of sending work documents outside the corporate email environment but this awareness is not translating into behaviour change as a significant proportion still believe it to be an acceptable practice.”

The risk here is that, while business users may be deriving some value from free apps, IT is left fighting a rearguard action, trying to keep data secure and picking up the pieces when things go wrong.

Wallington’s view is that IT professionals tend to take two contrasting approaches to the popularity of business apps used on mobile devices.

One is to resist the trend as much as possible, and refuse to endorse any app not provisioned by the company.

The other is to embrace it and to recognise that the availability of business apps can, in the right circumstances, both benefit the business and make life easier for IT.

A more proactive approach is for IT to develop its own apps.

Richard Absalom, analyst at Ovum, argues that the publicly available apps are often of limited value, not only because of the security risks but because, they are too generic.

“Where you get the real value is through developing apps for line of business, and these have to be for very specific use cases, because you can do certain things with tablets that you can’t do with other devices,” he says.

“Custom apps are taking off a lot more – we’re seeing a lot of app stores being developed, and companies making a business out of developing applications.”

Absalom takes the view that a rethink in the relationship between business and IT is inevitable.

“IT departments need fairly wholesale attitudinal change in terms of what their role is now,” he says.

That change will entail looking at the business’s requirements for new, bespoke mobile apps and responding accordingly, with solutions that are tailored to specific requirements but meet security and compliance requirements.

“The CIO’s attitude has to change – it should be not so much about overseeing a locked-down environment as opening up and assessing new ideas from across the business,” he argues.

At the same time, business users should no longer feel free to go it alone.

He says: “When they’re going into a new project, business users should always have IT in from the very beginning. It goes both ways.”

Obviously this is easier said than done, but it’s possible that Caris and the Eversheds fee earners have together found the solution.

Caris discovered that once IT has secured the iPads and handed them over to users, the lawyers are more than happy to find their own apps and provide their own support, which means that the cost to the IT function is confined to the initial hardware layout.

His view is that IT needs to be led by what the business wants.

He says: “I want to change the whole ethos of my internal IT department, so that when anything does pop up, we look at how we can make this work with our systems and network, rather than whether we should prevent it.”

It’s not a question of allowing a business free-for-all. iPads and other corporate devices can be wiped remotely, and data on the devices is encrypted.

But it is an approach that values agility above consistency.

“We’ve moved away from trying to standardise everything, and allowed a totally bespoke IT experience where the individual chooses what the best product is,” says Caris.

“Why should I force a workflow engine on them if they can find an app on the iPad that suits the way they work more efficiently?”

Allowing business users to take charge of their own app procurement and their own technical support has freed up the IT function to concentrate on developing innovative custom apps, such as one that enables users to turn their PCs on remotely from their Blackberrys, so that it can be fully logged on and ready to use when they arrive at their desks in the morning.

Eversheds also makes extensive use of the cloud, and this has freed up the IT function to focus its efforts on the needs of its fee-earners.

A new job role of solution designer has been created: solution designers are embedded in different practice and sector groups within the firm, enabling them to work with the fee earners to design solutions from scratch.

“We don’t just develop technology solutions, we sit and work out what our end-to-end client proposition is and where technology can play a part in solving the fee earners’ daily struggle, but also our clients’ issues as well,” says Caris.

Clients have been helped to implement collaborative cloud-based system that enable them to work with Eversheds lawyers, with minimal overhead to their own IT function.

Cost concerns Caris’s approach is still fairly unusual, and may currently seem unrealistic for CIOs still bogged down by cost-cutting and day-to-day administrative headaches.

But it does give an indication of how the relationship between business and IT might develop as technologies enable the IT function to move away from routine admin and maintenance tasks towards a focus on innovation.

As business users take responsibility for their own IT, so IT becomes more responsive to the business.

As Caris says, “Once the CIO has got the basics right and it’s all humming, you justify a seat at the table, and all of a sudden the ability to transform your business comes within your reach.”

pic: gvgoebelcc2.0