‘The tech agenda in business is being driven by HR, not the CIO or CTO’

15 Mar 2019

From left: Gerard O’Neill, Amárach Research; Tony Hanway, Virgin Media Ireland; and Jim Hughes, Innovate. Image: Maxwell Photography

As Virgin Media Business and Innovate reveal, the hybrid cloud journey will be underpinned by what employees want and need. To respond with agility, networks will need to be software-defined.

Talent wars as well as the rise of the hybrid cloud and virtual workforces mean that companies need to be more agile when it comes to the needs of workers, not the other way around.

At a recent Virgin Media Business event held in conjunction with Cisco and ICT provider Innovate to launch new software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) capabilities, the changing business landscape was summed up by Amárach Research chair Gerard O’Neill.

‘Businesses want technology to continue to play a key role in driving growth, but they know they must use it differently if they want to avoid a loss of momentum’

“In a way, the technology agenda in businesses is being driven by HR, not by the CIO or CTO. And maybe that’s a good thing from a business perspective – happy workers are more productive workers – but you can see why it creates a headache for those managing security,” O’Neill said.

While Virgin is best known in the market for its consumer TV and broadband products, it is an established player in the business-to-business (B2B) sector and works with companies such as Innovate to deliver high-speed networking products and telephony services to firms.

“We’ve always seen great potential in the B2B segment and it has delivered double-digit growth over the last several years,” Virgin Media Ireland CEO Tony Hanway confirmed.

Tactics for tomorrow

At the event, Innovate CEO Jim Hughes said that the overwhelming trend in the business IT market is a move to the hybrid cloud model. “But tactics are many and varied.”

The new SD-WAN capability deployed by Virgin and Innovate, using Cisco technology, effectively enables firms to move away from the complexity of sending data traffic over various network types such as L3 VPN, T1 or MPLS connections.

“We are moving into a world where 70pc of branch traffic is headed for the internet,” Hughes warned. “The explosion of software-as-a-service [SaaS] and platforms like the Microsoft Azure cloud has amplified the situation. This creates challenges for firms to manage connectivity, productivity, security and communications.”

This challenge is what has prompted the SD-WAN alliance between Innovate, Virgin and Cisco.

“Companies are looking for a true desk-to-data-centre policy and it doesn’t matter whether the device is in your hand … they need reliability as data traverses the public and private clouds,” said Hughes.

What workers want is creating a security headache

Managing this challenge, said O’Neill, is also a battle for managing complexity, security and flexibility.

To get a sense of the complexity businesses face, he cited the growth in online spending, which is now growing at four to five times the underlying rate of growth in consumer spending. “This tells you that e-commerce is the main source of growth for many businesses nowadays. We predicted this in reports for Virgin Media going back to 2014, and if anything we may have been conservative in our forecasts. But that creates its own challenges in terms of complexity, and the demand for robust software and hardware solutions that can cope with rapid growth.”

In terms of managing security, O’Neill said that 44pc of employees in Ireland have been victims of cyberattacks and that 28pc of employees use personal devices to work on sensitive files.

“24pc of those working from home have accidentally shared work-related material with friends and family. One-third are using personal email for work-related or customer information storage. Half of employees in Ireland claim their personal device is better than their work device. Spot the weakest link for those managing security!

“But you can see the dilemma: businesses want their employees to be more productive, but doing so the wrong way can create enormous business risks. It goes further; many employees are using their workplace devices and internet access for personal use (streaming music, videos etc), which creates its own vulnerabilities but also adds to the demands on broadband speeds etc.

“One of the key trends now gathering momentum is the emergence of the ‘virtual workforce’: people working collaboratively in teams from different locations [including their homes], whether located exclusively in Ireland or operating across multiple international markets. The location of the ‘office’ or the ‘branch’ or even the ‘store’ is increasingly abstract. Though most of us still go every working day to the same location, a growing share of the workforce don’t, and they’re happy about it.”

And because of this, O’Neill said that the tech agenda in business is being driven by HR, not the CIO or CTO.

“So, what do businesses want when it comes to managing security? They want to grow while navigating avoidable risks, which means using technology to empower employees to secure future growth without risking their employers’ security.”

O’Neill said that one of the biggest challenges facing businesses nowadays is how to increase productivity when the low-hanging fruit from technology adoption is already taken. “They want technology to continue to play a key role in driving growth, but they know they must use it differently if they want to avoid a loss of momentum.

“Which is why businesses are so enthusiastic about exploring the potential for the ‘distributed production’ of products, services and growth. Which is exactly what networks have always done and always will [do] – integrating distributed activities into one effective output – and why growth-enhancing services like SD-WAN are so important to what every business wants: future growth.

“The emergence of the flexible workforce, the gig economy and all that talks to a set of trends that are partly due to cloud and other distributed technologies, but also – maybe even primarily – due to the demands of employers and employees for more flexible solutions to share problems and common objectives.”

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