by Byron Connolly

‘I didn’t appreciate the scale of the role’: Defence IT chief

Oct 26, 2015

Defence CIO, Dr Peter Lawrence, has admitted that he didn’t understand the ‘sheer diversity and scale’ of the role at Australia’s largest government agency when he took it three years ago.

In an on stage interview with Gartner’s Andy Rowsell-Jones, Dr Lawrence spoke about the highly challenging position and the differences to his remits as an IT chief in the private sector at Origin Energy, ANZ and Royal Dutch Shell.

“One thing I didn’t appreciate was the scale and diversity of the role. You deal with everything from day-to-day operations of your business right up to deploying forces into the field whether it’s a combat or humanitarian aid mission,” Lawrence said.

He also admitted underestimating where Defence was on its IT journey.

“I underestimated where the organisation was and some of the challenges it had,” he said.

Defence’s IT team manages around 100,000 user at 400 sites in Australia and worldwide. Dr Lawrence and his 2,000-person team is responsible for delivering several initiatives aimed at saving the department $20 billion up until 2023.

As a CIO with private sector experience, Rowsell-Jones asked Lawrence how he has avoided being ‘eaten up and spat out’ by the large organisation.

“The interesting thing about Defence is that it’s a world of acronyms and we create [them] on a daily basis. So you turn up on the first day…and they speak in acronyms and the assumption is that you understand every acronym on day one,” he said

“On day 1,000, I still don’t understand all the acronyms – and they still create them on a daily basis. I think the challenge is ‘how do you build effective relationships with the key people in the organisation?’

“And that sometimes stops you from getting spat out.”

Dr Lawrence recalls one of his first tasks during in the first four or five weeks of arriving at Defence was to list all of the key stakeholders in the organisation.

“I then for each of those decided who is a supporter, who’s on the fence and who is probably not a supporter. For each of those people, I wrote down my strategy to manage them. So to shift those who were not supporters to sit on the fence and those sitting on the fence to being supporters,” he said.

“There were 20 key stakeholders on the list – really it was about how do you build those relationships – what were their interests, what are my interests and how do you start to effectively at least get them so they are not detractors.”

Getting an opponent on board

Lawrence provided advice on how to get opponent on board with the IT team. When he was CIO at ANZ in New Zealand, the head of institutional banking wanted to run his own IT group, Lawrence recalled.

“This individual didn’t trust my team, we never delivered the outcomes that he wanted, we were slow and so on,” he said.

Lawrence and his team, sat down with the individual, listed the high priority items and asked what could be done to help.

“He defined a set of activities he wanted done and we did them. That started to build a level of trust that we could deliver the outcomes that the person is looking for so that changes the dynamics of the conversation,” Lawrence said.

An open door policy

Defence is a highly hierarchical organisation and Lawrence said that during the early days, he went ‘walkabout’, working out who he needed to align with in the organisation.

“I had an open door policy in the early days and a lot of people chose to use it,” he said.

This caused some angst in a highly layered ‘command and control’ environment, he said.

“In any organisation, as messages go through layers of management they get nuanced. The only way to find out is go and ask the person who is doing the work, the reality is this is a much more effective way of doing it.

“If you can’t talk to staff, connect to the people who are doing the work, then you are very disparate,” he said.

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