‘The tech trends that look like challenges are also opportunities’

21 Mar 2018

Karl Flannery, CEO, Storm Technology. Image: Storm

Storm Technology’s Karl Flannery paints a picture of the ever-changing landscape of technological innovation, and tells us how his company keeps up.

Karl Flannery has been the CEO of Storm Technology for the past 15 years.

He founded the business technology consultancy in 1985 and it has gone from strength to strength since then, recently nabbing the Excellence in Talent Development gong at the 2017 Technology Ireland Awards.

Previous positions for Flannery include chair of the Irish Software Association and software engineer at TGT Ltd and Nortel.

Describe your role and what you do.

As CEO and member of the leadership team (LT), I work with the team to create and refine, on an ongoing basis, the strategy of the company based on our purpose and vision.

In my role, I must ensure that the LT has the resources and support it needs to successfully execute and operationalise our strategy. As with any successful organisation, it is mostly about letting people do their job and ensuring they are empowered at all levels to do so.

To a large degree, my part revolves around our external stakeholder relationships, be that customers, partners, suppliers, advisers or industry bodies.

In addition, ensuring we have the right talent for the growth of our business, and the financial resources in place at the right time to support that growth, are key components of the CEO role.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

As we all know, most plans – whether it is a battle plan or business plan, take your pick – rarely survive first contact with the enemy or market forces. For that reason, and the general unpredictable nature of events, a realistic level of flexibility is necessary – but I like to maintain a prioritised mental map around customers, strategy execution and future or horizon scanning.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Every generation seems to believe they are living through an era of profound change or every increasing rate of change, or both. So, in one sense, nothing has changed; and change, irrespective of your perspective, is constant. The ever-changing landscape of technological innovation – for example, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) to name but two – inevitably brings with it positive disruption. The challenge becomes how to integrate these advances into the world of business to give our customers a competitive advantage and, at the same time, setting realistic expectations and minimising risk.

Also, this shift in conversation from the feature functionality of technology to more of a conversation around the impact technology will have on a company’s business model and bottom line shifts the skills and competencies required in our company.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

The same technological trends that look like challenges are also our opportunity.

For our customers, the opportunity is to take advantage of the major technological developments (AI, AR/VR, IoT, big data, cloud etc) and integrate them in a way that transforms how they operate in terms of business model, productivity and operational performance.

For companies like Storm, the opportunity is to help these businesses to understand the challenges, and advise them on how to drive forward and operationalise a digital strategy that gives them a competitive advantage in their market.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

As a physics graduate, I’ve always had a passion for science and technology. I was lucky enough in my early career to get trained on the job by a major multinational telecoms manufacturer as a software engineer. It was moving from analogue to digital technology and needed both electronics and software engineering skills to deliver the next generation of products.

This early exposure gave me a passion for digital technology and how it could be applied to industry to drive transformative change. It’s watching and seeing how technology reinvents how things operate, and what people do with it, that keeps it exciting and challenging.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

If you are prepared to take risks, you are going to experience quite a few learning moments. A big mistake I have made a few times is not listening to my instincts about a potential hire in terms of their cultural fit, and hoping for the best, especially when under pressure to fill a gap in the organisation.

Another has been not moving quickly and decisively enough when faced with a challenge. Even though we may not have full information, as a leader and LT, decisive action is critical so the organisation is crystal clear on where it is heading and how it is going to get there.

How do you get the best out of your team?

An agreed purpose, direction and objectives across the team, and then giving the autonomy to deliver. 

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

First off, the criticism is justified. Notwithstanding the already considerable investment in this area with excellent programmes like SFI Discover, the Science Gallery in TCD, Inspirefest event, the bonus points for maths and the introduction of computing at second level to name but a few, the sector has not made much progress in diversifying its workforce.

We need both a top-down and bottom-up approach. The leadership of our organisations needs to be inclusive and balanced so that there are role models. We also need to evidence to our young population and their parents the exciting, accessible and attractive careers that are available when working in tech, whether it is within the sector itself or in one of the many other industries that are heavily reliant on digital technology.

Who is your business hero and why?

I have always been wary of high-profile CEOs that create a ‘cult’ following and then go to write a whole book to share their wisdom, promising ‘X easy steps to success’.

For me, having a wide network of colleagues and friends is my greatest source of inspiration, advice and feedback.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The most recent ‘businessy’ type book I have read is Unwound. It tells the unvarnished story of start-up life without the usual narcissism from an entrepreneur who did not fail fast.

Unsurprisingly, I enjoy science fiction and old classics like the Foundation trilogy, Dune or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. They stand the test of time by packing so many ideas into the narrative even if the science fiction has become science fact or evolved in ways not imagined when the books were written.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

First and foremost, the office coffee machine.

Secondly, my smartphone and smartwatch, with an array of apps revolving around everything from travel to banking, entertainment, social life and sports.

Thirdly, my Surface to organise my work through Outlook, OneNote, Teams and a myriad of other tools including MindManager, PowerPoint, Excel and Skype.

And finally, public transport – planes, trains, trams, buses, bikes and car-sharing schemes are a great resource in terms of using your time effectively.

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