Innovate to survive

9 Jun 2011

Tech employers and CIOs are struggling to find skilled workers. As consumer tech and the cloud begin to dominate the workplace, innovation is key.

There used to be a time when chief information officers (CIOs) were caught between a rock and a hard place. They were viewed as a cost centre in their business, had to fight for budgets and finding and keeping skilled workers was a challenge.

In 2011, the role has reversed somewhat: now IT managers and CIOs are being valued in terms of their ability to help firms become leaner and cut costs. What hasn’t changed, however, is that budgets are still tight and skilled IT workers are harder than ever to find.

CIO survey findings

A survey due to be unveiled next week by global IT recruiter Harvey Nash – which focused on 2,500 CIOs worldwide, including CIOs based in Ireland – has found that these pressures mean CIOs now have to think outside the box and be innovative in the face of trends like cloud computing.

The survey has found that Irish CIOs are more bullish about the role that tech innovation can play in driving business success, with 72pc seeing “great potential” compared with a global average of 67pc.

There is also greater perception within firms of the role of IT: 66pc of Irish CIOs see IT as essential to organisational competitiveness; 53pc see IT as shaping business goals; and 79pc of Irish CIOs believe IT is key to delivering timely information to support decision making.

Irish CIOs also claim greater success delivering technology innovation, with 42pc “fully” or “mostly” achieving success in innovation projects, compared with 31pc globally.

However, Irish CIOs currently utilise a smaller percentage of flexible labour than the global average, with 52pc employing 10pc of their workforces on flexible contracts.

Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis explains that the spiralling pace of change in terms of how firms are viewing social media, and with workers choosing their home tech over workplace tech, means CIOs’ views are now being sought more than ever by senior management.

The consumerisation of IT, which is seeing consumer-friendly devices like Android smartphones, Apple iPhones and iPads enter the workplace, is being accelerated by the rise and rise of cloud computing and desktop virtualisation.

“The purists and traditionalists are quite negative about the impact of all this new stuff on the organisation. The visionary free thinkers are embracing it and see all this cool stuff as an opening to have a conversation with senior people in the business about new projects,” explains Ellis.

“A lot of CIOs we’re meeting are saying they’ve got to embrace and get in step with social media, the cloud and consumer tech and use them to actually make their services and functions better.”

Consumerisation of IT

Ellis says one of the most interesting trends is some CIOs see consumerisation as a way to have direct communication with their board because many board members now carry iPads.

“Interestingly, thanks to the iPad, it’s the first time that one can really bring a device into a board meeting and nobody seems to argue. You were never permitted to bring a laptop in and to tap away because there was a sense of a screen separating you and a sense of being rude or not engaging in the meeting.

“Forward-looking CIOs are looking at devices like the iPad and see them as a way to enable their organisations, provide them with the equipment and services and then start an innovative discussion,” adds Ellis.

An example of how CIOs see new technologies like cloud and smart devices enabling change in their organisation can be best seen by the example of Irish firm Mainstream Renewable Power’s CIO John Shaw, who has transformed the traditional technology-buying relationship.

“We look at IT on the basis of how Ryanair works with Boeing. Other companies have an austere customer-buyer relationship – some airlines function with every aircraft known to man, while Ryanair has a fleet of 737s that are easier to manage.

“What’s happened with both Ryanair and Boeing is they moved beyond being involved to being committed, depending on each other hugely for success. At that level of procurement, there is greater sharing of strategy, initiatives and creative solutions,” explains Shaw.

“We’ve been successful with Microsoft on this basis. I’m now an adviser on Microsoft’s smart energy sector group. Both parties know it’s in our interest for the other to succeed,” he adds.

Good IT people wanted

The competition for good IT people or even a mix of tech-savvy people with business nous is a matter close to the heart of Colm Lyon, CEO of e-payments firm Realex Payments, which is in the midst of a European expansion. The company has won major deals with BNP, as well as significant business in the UK, driven by the Olympics.

“Our staff levels have doubled in the past year in Ireland to 90 people and one-third of our staff are non-nationals. There simply isn’t the availability of skilled resources in the Irish market,” Lyon says.

He adds that Realex is moving its headquarters from Blackrock to the city centre to compete with major players like Google and Facebook for skilled workers.

“Luckily, we have been able to recruit in France and Holland and we’re finding there is a pool of talent in London and Amsterdam. For an Irish business, if you’re going to grow, you’re going to have to internationalise as soon as you can.”

The managing director of Media Platforms for northern and central Europe at Google, Damian Lawlor, says that every week the internet giant receives 75,000 job applications globally. As well as recruiting in Ireland, Google recruits in more than 56 countries to find native language speakers.

“From a longer-term perspective, we cannot afford to get complacent about education standards in Ireland,” he points out.

“For years, we have been talking about the superb standards of education in Ireland, and have held it up as a unique selling point for Ireland, but I think we need to constantly look at the global education league tables and objectively critique where Ireland falls in these tables.

“This is equally true when we look at the intake and output from IT courses – we’re all familiar with the challenges we have in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects in secondary schools, and with the challenge of finding suitably qualified teachers in STEM subjects. This all feeds into the numbers and quality of people entering IT in third level, which ultimately impacts the availability of skilled IT graduates available to the workforce.”

The cloud push in businesses

Lawlor says there is a definite drive among businesses to begin using cloud technology, like Google Apps.

“Louis Copeland, the renowned provider of men’s designer suits and master tailors, deployed Google Apps for Business across five stores in Dublin and one in Galway.

“We see great potential for cloud computing in Ireland and we would like to see more Irish organisations making the move to web-based applications.”

According to Edel Lynch, senior executive with Accenture Ireland, cloud computing represents one of the best opportunities for CIOs in Ireland to innovate.

“The Harvey Nash CIO Survey 2011 finds that private cloud services have been exploited for core business activities to the greatest extent of any innovation technologies (22pc) in the last year, suggesting cloud is very much to the fore of the IT agenda.

“Although, perhaps not surprisingly, public cloud services have the highest discontinuation rate at 17pc.

“This may be down to security concerns but it’s just as likely to be a result of the short-term nature of some projects being delivered via cloud.

“Rather than jumping to the conclusion that this finding is a negative, it could be interpreted as an example of cloud playing to its strengths: a turn-on, turn-off service that doesn’t require the same level of capital investment as traditional approaches.”

Lynch says many of the same principles apply to cloud computing as with other IT systems and solutions.

“Companies have to be comfortable with the level of protection offered to data by their cloud service provider and ensure the audit and data management capabilities are sufficient for their needs.

“While migration to the cloud is not one-size-fits-all, it can provide flexible and cost-effective solutions for certain elements of the IT function. In our view, companies need to start with a set of limited objectives and then grow into the cloud. This kind of incremental approach can promote learning, mitigate risks and reduce the difficulties of replacing existing technologies, organisational culture, structures and sourcing arrangements,” she explains.

“It’s also important to get detailed information about suppliers’ capabilities and consider these in the context of a company’s own business strategy and technology trajectory. Involving business sponsors who have compelling business goals for cloud can help drive adoption and realise the business potential residing in cloud technologies.

“Above all, cloud is a service-based phenomenon, so success will ultimately depend on everyone – clients and providers alike – adopting a strong service ethos,” adds Lynch.

The 13th annual Harvey Nash survey will be unveiled on Tuesday, 14 June, at 6pm at The Gibson Hotel, Point Village, Dublin.

Photos: Irish organisations are learning that cloud computing plays to their strengths, says Accenture Ireland senior executive Edel Lynch. IT leaders are now seen as cost-cutting heroes and are taking advantage of innovation to effect change, says Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years