CIO50 2019 #26-50: Aaron Olphert, Kordia

Aaron Olphert, chief digital officer at Kordia, says the company has introduced potentially the most disruptive innovation in the workplace – robotic process automation.

There are generally two opposite reactions to the introduction of new tools such as RPA: pessimism or optimism, he says.

Olphert notes that at Kordia, RPA is generally seen as positive because it allows staff to be reassigned to more productive and challenging work.

Getting staff members to use new digital tools implies changing existing ways of doing things, and so it is very important for the benefits to be clearly articulated and the restrictions or shortcomings identified, he says.

The company takes an innovative approach to the introduction of automation, he says.

“The core team works directly with each business unit, with a focus on enabling people within the business units to build and support their own automations.”

A structure of users – which fall into the categories of either ‘ninjas’ or ‘Jedis’ – is established to facilitate knowledge exchange, providing business users with easy access to assistance and support as required.

“The approach we’ve taken is to play up the advantages on offer, especially as the selected toolset (from UI Path) doesn’t generally require coding; it can be used by a line of business people who inherently understand the process.”

Bob the co-bot

He says the team created a digital persona called ‘Bob Hansen’ to help identify the best toolset for RPA within Kordia.

“Our Swedish business optimisation manager named him and, since a process robot must act as an employee, Bob has an email address and corporate identity – he’s essentially one of us,” says Olphert.

“What Bob taught us is that there is considerable difference in the toolsets available from different vendors.”

To get the best from RPA, you need to match your business, and what you’re trying to achieve, to the right toolset, he notes.

“Some will require hard coding for system integration, others you can train to optimise processes through recording and training. Bob also taught us that there’s no value in automating bad processes: you will simply have a bad process outcome happening much faster.”

However, even good processes shouldn’t be automated unless they are repetitive, he points out.

“Bob demonstrated that there must be a business case, which must include the time taken and the frequency, for RPA to financially stack up. Above all, Bob confirmed that robots are dumb and cannot be relied on to make all decisions. If human intervention is needed to make decisions, then automation is probably not the answer.”

For Olphert, working on internal projects that use disruptive technologies, and then being able to offer these as a service to their clients, is part and parcel of the work his team does on the day-to-day basis at Kordia.

He says exposure to the latest technology and trends is integral to Kordia’s success.

“Not only do we actively engage with vendor partners that are some of the world’s leading developers of internet, telecommunications, cybersecurity and computer technology solutions; we also regularly share ideas with service providers across the globe that are in similar markets to Kordia and are exploring the same technology.

He says one thing they do particularly well at Kordia is collaboration.

“Our entire team places a big focus on working collaboratively with our customers to develop customised solutions that meet the optimal outcome needed for their specific use case.

“It is this environment, coupled with a culture that recognises and is built upon technological development, which drives innovation for the internal benefit of Kordia and the external benefit of our customers.”

He adds that this is what customers and expect from the company.

This working environment has allowed Kordia to launch innovative technology programmes that they are using internally and providing as a service to customers.

One of this is the Security Operations Centre (SOC), based in Auckland, and the creation of a dedicated security and design architecture team.

The SOC is a centralised unit dealing with security issues on an organisational and technical level. “It is, in effect, a ‘nerve centre’ from which information security issues are detected, managed and resolved,” says Olphert.

The Kordia SOC is dual use: it provides information security services internally to all Kordia business units, and it provides managed incident and response security services to Kordia customers.

As a mid to large sized enterprise, our security requirements and associated solutions are typically the same as those of our clients, he says.

Kordia is therefore uniquely placed to understand and address their customers’ security requirements – both from a commercial and technical point of view.

The SOC further enhances Kordia’s ability to deliver proactive security services, and to rapidly respond in the event of targeted or concerted cyberattacks.

The team has also launched CyberWise e-Learning, an online e-learning security training course, to all Kordia staff.

Secure systems depend on a culture of security, which in turn depends on the individual’s awareness of security risks and challenges, says Olphert.

“Employees are often an organisation’s first line of defence. This is one of the greatest challenges for every company in its quest to maintain a sound security posture.”

The course was developed by the experts at Aura Information Security, the independent cyber security division of Kordia.

CyberWise ensures every staff member (regardless of whether in the field, or in the office) at every level within the business understands online threats, how to identify them and what to do in the event of a potential incident or actual attack.

The course is used as part of the onboarding process and is usually completed by every staff member on an annual basis as a refresher, and to take account of the constantly evolving threat landscape.

While CyberWise requires commitment from staff and is compulsory, the design of the e-learning module is such that staff readily engage with it, says Olphert.

Routine planned cyber events, for example phishing attacks, are also conducted to aid staff in putting their training into action and continually measure the threat awareness level across the organisation.

Olphert says since CyberWise was introduced, the number of staff caught out by regular phishing attack simulation exercises has reduced significantly. At the same time, they are also able to offer this training service to their clients.

All these initiatives fall within a wider digitisation effort, which is focused on simplification, automation and security, says Olphert.

IoT as ‘practical reality’

Olphert says Kordia has taken steps to make Internet of Things “a practical reality” with the launch of a dedicated website, Kordiathings.io.

He notes an overriding problem with the IoT is around the hype. “It’s often difficult for those outside of the IoT industry echo chamber to see the practical implementation,” he says.

Others can recognise and appreciate the theoretical benefits of fitting sensors to monitor various assets – from refrigeration units in a factory, to mobile equipment in a trucking yard.

Where it can get difficult is knowing where to source the necessary equipment and systems to carry out a simple proof of concept, he says.

Kordiathings.io lets anyone buy a few, or a few hundred, devices using nothing but a credit card, he explains.

“It’s inexpensive and simple, and ultimately means that anyone or any business can have a PoC up and running in days for a wide variety of common use cases.”

“This allows innovation to happen where it really matters and in the hands of the people who know what needs to be done within their own operation,” he says.

“There’s no need for strategic plans, capital expenditure or lengthy project rollouts: either it works, or it doesn’t,” says Olphert. “Innovation wins.”

An extensive remit

As part of the executive team, Olphert works across all five Kordia business units, facilitating collaboration and looking for opportunities across and between them.

“I’m responsible for leading the technology and digital strategy for the group, which involves enabling secure and effective ways for employees to work. I’m also responsible for the development of innovative technology solutions for our customers.”

“My role involves constantly questioning and challenging the ICT performance in relation to the business,” he says.

“This isn’t just in terms of supporting current operations, but also requires ‘future-thinking’ about where we want to be in two, five and ten years’ time.”

Kordia has a small leadership team. “This is advantageous as it positions the team for ready collaboration, with agile decision-making,” he states.

“As well as quarterly planning, we have weekly meetings where top level discussions and strategy check-ups take place.

“If required, these meetings provide consensus for adjustments or even complete changes in tack,” he states. “In the fast-paced internet and information technology worlds, speed counts.”

He says one of the more challenging requirements for a CDO is to achieve a balance between looking to the future and providing outcomes for the present.

“It is impossible to live in the future and the nature of technology is such that attempting predictions is inherently risky.”

“That said, it is incumbent on a CDO to anticipate and identify those trends and technologies that are likely to have an impact, both internally and on the businesses of customers, and prepare the company for those potential outcomes.”

“In my role, this involves constant and consistent engagement across the business and with customers. This in turn informs engagements with fellow executives and directors at the boardroom table.”

Future focus

“We’re big on employees supporting each other,” he says.

Across Kordia, we have a gamified employee recognition and reward programme which provides senior management with a platform to recognise the achievements of their teams in real-time.

“What ties our people together is a joint belief in the future of ICT and the many exciting opportunities that lie ahead,” he says. This is also the reason why the company is actively promoting programmes to encourage more people to consider a career in ICT.

“It never ceases to amaze me as to how many of our people are keen to give up their time (of which we all have so little) to help mentor students, attend university information days, take place in seminars and the like. Our team really does get behind the next generation!” says Olphert.

This, he says, is also very much the case for encouraging more women to enter the industry.

He says Kordia is making progress on this front. “While there is more work to do, we regularly address the topic and remind managers of unconscious bias, and to look for ways to proactively get more women into ICT roles,” he says.

Kordia provides work experience, internships, and most recently, a Kordia Women in Technology Scholarship, launched in partnership with the team at the University of Waikato.

Olphert is cognisant he is exposed to a lot of hype around the technology space.

“You must have sharp senses to identify when the hype exceeds possibilities, which also helps identify which technologies should be backed, and which can be safely ignored,” he says on a critical skill for today’s business technology leaders.

“Again, no single person has all the good ideas. Innovation comes from unusual and unexpected places. As a leader, you need to make everyone’s ideas feel valued and welcomed; you never know who will come up with the next world-changing solution.”

“Being a good leader means your people can function just as well when you aren’t there as when you are. The people who you work with should be empowered to get on with their work. If they can’t, you have a problem – and your company has a problem.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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