by Divina Paredes

Glen Willoughby: Today’s CIOs wield revolutionary tools

Mar 20, 2016
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Glen Willoughby: ‘Some of the most valuable tools are outside your organisation’

CIOs usually have within their span of resources or capability all of the tools they need to innovate. They usually have the strong project management capability in the organisation, according to Glen Willoughby, general manager of IT at Downer. “They are closely linked with technology providers and other technology peers. They have the ability to share and leverage information within their networks,” he says. Willoughby believes these are just some of the reasons why today’s CIOs and other ICT executives are given “stronger roles” around driving changes in their businesses. This belief has been honed during more than two decades of business technology leadership roles across industries including education, dairy, healthcare and finance. What he finds useful as he moves across industries are the words of Dr Don Berwick, who was president of the not-for-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in the United States.

What is important is the ability to move and adapt at a fast pace.Glen Willoughby, Downer

He says Berwick and the IHI developed a value statement for health,referred to as the ‘Triple Aim’, which was around any initiative that health undertakes should ensure three things: improving quality, reducing cost and waste and providing equitable access to healthcare. Applying these three metrics to a commercial setting, any IT work should likewise be consistent with improving quality and taking cost and waste out, he says. “But I have replaced equity of access to healthcare to improving the competitive advantage of an organisation.”

He says the third point – providing competitive advantage – is important because “technology continues be so disruptive”. “Some of the smaller organisations that previously couldn’t have competed because they do not have the economies of scale can now do so in certain verticals where economies of scale are far less important,” he explains. “What is important is the ability to move and adapt at a fast pace.” Large organisations have an advantage, he says. “They can invest and afford to innovate at speed. The downside is most large enterprises tend not to be nimble enough to adapt the rate of change of speed required. “There are many organisations doing revolutionary things,” he says. “The trick to innovating well is not to move too fast.” says Willoughby.

Although moving quickly is important, technologists need to develop and select technologies that deliver enduring success, he states. “Short-term success is not useful alone, short-term innovation creating longer-term sustainable value improves competitive advantage.” A trend he has been seeing over the past five years is CIOs being asked to lead business innovations that are enabled by technology. “IT has come from an administrative activity, previously science and research based, to being very much a core and strategic foundation around how organisations grow,” he says. “IT is now a key enabler, it is a disruptive enabler.” Willoughby has been working with Tom Soderstrom, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a US government-funded research and development centre in California. JPL supports programmes including the Mars exploration and theHubble Space Telescope.

“It is one of most innovative organisations on the planet today.” Part of Soderstrom’s role is bringing technologies and innovation together to drive outcomes for JPL and NASA, says Willoughby. “Ten to fifteen years ago, that would have been unheard of. The executive of IT was not an executive role at all. It was at the back office, focusing on administrative systems.” Closer to home, he cites the role held by Rod Snodgrass, CEO of Spark Ventures as a good example of a company looking at effective innovation to establish new opportunities. He says its creation as a source of innovation for the bigger Spark (formerly Telecom NZ) organisation, he assumes, must have been quite a significant and radical move at that time by Spark CEO Simon Moutter. Willoughby recalls a recent discussion he had with Snodgrass where the latter told him an important question to ask when looking at innovation opportunities is:“What would you do if you were only setting up your business now?” Willoughby says he likes that question because it opens up people’s minds to the technologies and new ways of thinking that were not available when you first set up the business. “Look at organisations that are using innovation to transform the way people work, the likes of Uber, Air BnB, Netflix, Alibaba, Apple and Google. Simplification is the key,” he says. “We establish systems that evolve over time, under different market conditions, whether in healthcare, the dairy industry, education or civil engineering. We need to ask, ‘how did we get here, how did we create complex systems?’ “If we started it now, would we do it this way?’ For some organisations, the answer is ‘no.’”

Next: Disrupting well

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Glen Willoughby

One organisation Willoughby is keenly observing on the innovation front is Air New Zealand. “I am always interested to see what that organisation does,” he says. “They have gone from bottom of the pack to top of the queue in terms of their quality internationally.” He says a simple example of this is the way the airline simplified check-ins through the kiosks at the airport. “During a recent trip, I checked in online at another airline (‘which shall remain nameless’) and waited for a quarter of an hour in a queue. The queue was for those who had booked online,” he says. At the nearby Air New Zealand counter, the passengers who checked in online were spared this queue. “They have taken a small innovation to dramatically change the quality and efficiency for the customers, they added value. In the travel industry, the value is convenience.” He also follows Google closely, taking an interest in its acquisition strategy.

We focus on creating value and being competitive whether that is delivering better service to customers or being successful in the market. Nothing in that is new. But the technologies, tools, and methods we have now are.

Techie to business leader Willoughby is an example of how an ICT professional can move across sectors, taking their skills that can transpose to different industries. Willoughby joined Downer last year following five years as a CIO in the health sector at the joint Capital and Coast, Hutt Valley, Wairarapa District Health Boards; and before that at Hutt Valley DHB. In the early part of his career, he was also project director at the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health and manager information systems at the Waikato District Health Board. He also worked in the finance sector, as senior ICT advisor and project director at Cranleigh Merchant Bankers. He had a stint in the education sector, as manager information technology services at the Waikato Institute of Technology. He began his IT career at the dairy industry, as IT manager at the Tatua Dairy Co-Operative and then moved to New Zealand Dairy Group three years later. These multifaceted roles in IT provided him a dual background on both technology and business aspects of ICT. He has an undergraduate degree in information technology, and postgraduate degrees in management, including an MBA from the University of Waikato. When he worked in the health sector, he was a medical informatics fellow at two Ivy League medical schools and an advisor to technology startup companies. Interestingly, IT was not his initial chosen career. He was training to be a medical doctor and by the second year of his pre-med studies, knew that he was more interested in the burgeoning ICT industry. He recalled how at secondary school, he had enjoyed the new courses being offered in information technology. So he went back to school and enrolled in a three-year ICT program at the Waikato Polytehnic. “It was probably the hardest education I have ever done, much harder than my master’s degree,” he recalls. He went to class everyday (no online back then) and had to get at least 80 per cent pass in every course. “The final project was the size of my masteral thesis, and it was not a bachelor programme at that time.” Tough as it was, he enjoyed the programme which prepared him for the slew of technical roles that he went into in the next few years. His first career stop was at the dairy industry. “At that time if you can spell IT, you are an IT expert. It was a fledgling industry.” He says the dairy industry was the first to look at automating its process control centres. He says the technology automation provided significant value and productivity to the sector. Looking back, this was a pioneering shift as in the early 1990s, very few people were automating their business systems, he says. “Email was not around at that stage,” he says. He realised how advanced the dairy sector was in automating its plants and factories, when he moved to the health sector. At the time, the health sector didn’t really leverage information technology to support delivery of services and was regarded as part of the administrative function, he says. The investments were in back office systems to provide efficiencies and some useful reporting for staff. During a move to the education sector, Willoughby witnessed the emergence of online learning. Upon moving back to the health sector after 10 years, IT had become “absolutely mission critical” in delivering services with GPs and hospital care settings being very reliant on technology. “IT is a critical artery of the performance of businesses now, and its competitive position in the market.” Career advice Willoughby says younger IT professionals need to prepare for a disruptive future.Still, he says as much as things change, they stay the same.

At the end of every system, there is a person.

“There is the commercial nature of the business. We focus on creating value and being competitive whether that is delivering better service to customers or being successful in the market. Nothing in that is new. But the technologies, tools, and methods we have now are.” Willoughby advises that IT pros understand how they can create enduring value for their organisations. “From an IT perspective, what resources and tools do you have available? Some of the most valuable tools are outside your organisation,” he says. “Talk to your colleagues about their experience. You will learn about their challenges. “One of the strengths we look for in our IT teams is high EQ (or emotional intelligence) and strong communication skills,” he says. “Continually develop and work on your skills, learning how to communicate and how to add enduring value. At the end of every system, there is a person. “We are building things to support how people work, whether they are a customer, engineer, clinician, patient, engineer or an airline attendant. It is a people game,” he says.

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