Storm’s Alex Ferreira: ‘Focused workers are key to digital transformation’

9 Mar 2018

Alex Ferreira is digital enterprise practice lead at Storm Technology. Image: Storm Technology

As digital transformation sweeps organisations, keeping employees and customers engaged is critical, warns Storm Technology’s Alex Ferreira.

Alex Ferreira is digital enterprise practice lead at Storm Technology, a key player in Microsoft’s digital transformation agenda, and a longstanding Microsoft Gold Partner.

The company has deep expertise in the wide spectrum of Microsoft platforms including Office 365, Dynamics 365, Azure, SharePoint, SQL, data and analytics solutions.

‘There have been a number of situations where people are feeling disengaged within organisations, and in some cases this is at a level that should raise an alarm’

Future Human

The company drives the digital agenda for household names such as AIB, CIÉ, Topaz, Kerry Group and Volkswagen.

In recent months it emerged that Storm Technology is to create 60 new jobs at its Dublin and Galway operations.

The company is also set to expand having concluded the acquisition of Ciall for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition will increase Storm’s revenue by 25pc and expand its client base to more than 140 organisations. Not only that, but Storm’s team of expert consultants, business analysts, management and service delivery personnel will grow to more than 100 staff.

Ferreira has been at the forefront of working with leading Irish organisations – in the public and private sector – to help CIOs create practical, pragmatic transformation plans. His expertise includes helping organisation with digital ambitions, creating digital strategy roadmaps, creating an agile culture, and balancing capabilities and transformation to match the pace of change at both an industry and company level.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I am very passionate about the positive impact technology can have on society and businesses.

I engage with organisations all over Ireland to help them understand how major advances in technology can have a real impact on the business and help them drive their set of desired business outcomes. A big part of my role is to ensure organisations take the best out of their technology investments and are able to make the link from those investments to tangible benefits and ensure their digital transformation programs are a success.

I started working with Storm back in 2011 and, for a period of four years, I led a team of 20 in the SharePoint/Office 365 architecture and development space, delivering on large programmes of transformation in internal communications, employee engagement, the way people work and collaborate, as well as how information is managed and taken advantage of. This work and experience building a modern workplace is one of the foundations of our digital enterprise advisory practice.

How are organisations dealing with digital transformation and change?

Obviously digital has been around for quite a while but what we’ve seen in the last few years is that technology and digital disruption have fundamentally changed everything. Things are changing much more rapidly and technology adoption is increasing. The pace of change, however, is really challenging.

Organisations around the globe are trying to adjust to this new reality. Some are under more pressure or less pressure depending on how technology is affecting their industries.

When you look the evolution of business, what people are commonly calling the digital business, organisations need to understand that as society adapts to this level of change, how do they really find if it affects them.

This digital enterprise practice that we’ve been building for the last number of years is really around that. What are the digital technologies – but also the societal changes, the trends out there – and what does this mean for organisations? And what kind of transformations do they have to go through to continue serving their customers’ needs and continue to be relevant in the market.

A big part of my role is also to evolve the organisation. Traditionally, we would be involved in business technology solutions but now, with these changes, organisations are more and more looking at, overall, how can technologies like the cloud and AI and other emerging technologies help them to achieve their business goals.

It’s not just about having technology for the sake of technology or adopting new evolutions, it is really looking at the business and asking: ‘How can my business benefit from this innovation?’

How has Storm Technology transformed itself to embrace the new digital reality of business?

For the last few years, we at Storm Technology have also been transforming ourselves. We have staff all over the world and some of them are coming to Ireland from all over the world. It’s a different culture and it’s a much smarter, diverse workforce.

As we are expanding it, for our own internal purposes and the way we use technology as a consulting organisation, we enable much more remote working, and across all of our systems there’s a demand on how they need to be integrated and provide insight around our customers and how to serve them better.

We work very closely with Microsoft and some of the evolutions that Microsoft has been going through in recent years, we’ve been going through the same ourselves.

Within Storm, we usually test the new technologies on ourselves before we go out and advise customers on their business applications.

When it comes to digital transformation, every company is different. But what are the things that all companies need to think about?

There are a number of areas because digital transformation can come in multiple flavours. One of the areas we’ve been working on with customers, given our background, has been creating a modern digital workplace.

Over the years, organisations really cared about the health and safety of employees, the environment they worked in, and when it comes to the digital environment, how to make employees feel safe, comfortable and productive.

Part of that digital transformation is to understand that your virtual working environment is also a key element of that. Creating that digital work environment, both physically and virtually, so that you enable your employees to reach their potential has been a key focus for us.

How are people within organisations being transformed?

Another key focus is how people work together. We’ve seen over the last five to 10 years that the amount of work that virtual teams do has been actually expanding.

10 years ago, the typical employee’s scope of work would have been two or three initiatives. But today it is very easy to be part of five or 10 virtual teams, to be part of different initiatives.

Having a digital workplace environment that can enable that every day has been a core focus for us. It is about enabling that kind of workforce to work more efficiently and to achieve more.

Another element, side by side with that, is also improving the employee engagement. There have been a number of situations where people are feeling disengaged within organisations, and in some cases this is at a level that should raise an alarm. Worldwide, the trend is that people feel less and less engaged within the organisation. Also, with the rise of the gig economy, people feel less loyal to the organisation.

Focused workers are the key to digital transformation. So we are seeing lots of managers, executives and external HR teams having a core focus on how to engage with their employees and creating an environment where they feel they are part of the company. This involves not only office workers, but all of the front-line workers to ensure that they have and feel that they are aligned with the goals of the company.

Ultimately, these employees are able to improve the experience the customer has in the end. This improves loyalty and satisfaction.

But how do you keep everyone on the same page with all the digital distractions, devices and apps?

Storm Technology saw a big trend in large technology companies a few years ago where remote work was being positioned as the new normal. In the last few years, we have seen that it is getting a bit more mixed, resulting in a kind of ‘work anywhere’ state of mind, and so collaboration is an important element of engaging with your employees.

This work anywhere ability has enabled part-time or full-time remote working, but the other element is actually a lot of workers will be on the go and everyone has smartphones. This means wherever you are, you get your phone and check something – be it an email, a document – and people expect each other to be available. When it comes to transforming the workplace, a big trend is having access to information in any media and in any location.

When we look at Office 365 and other Office cloud offerings, that is one of the big areas of appeal. Being able to collaborate with other people on mobile, tablet or laptop wherever they are.

Surely this raises security fears?

Absolutely. If you go back a few years, it was more locked in, maybe you needed a VPN and it was difficult and quite restrictive.

Another issue is shadow IT. Because employees have access to these tools as consumers, they expect others to have access to these tools and we’ve seen lots of challenges in terms of compliance where organisations that don’t provide these access abilities, employees are using their own means to get access in a way that is not secure or that the organisation is not in control of.

With the onset of GDPR, what do you think this will do to digital transformation and ‘work anywhere’ initiatives in organisations?

One of the areas Storm Technology is helping customers with is actually in terms of their various systems: how can we put together the controls and compliance elements that will enable you to fulfil your policies.

For instance, some of the typical platforms in organisations that contain data that you want to protect or where you store your documents, they need to be protected and the risk is if people take this data or access it remotely. As we have seen, people will lose their laptops or phones, endangering this data.

We work with organisations to ensure that security policies are in place so that not only those who should have access to a certain document have it, but also that there are a number of security elements in the platform that will actively protect the data.

One of the elements we are surfacing more and more is behaviour analysis. In banking, for example, if there is a payment or transaction that does not match a user’s normal behaviour, an alarm bell goes off and it may be a fraudulent transaction. We are seeing that kind of intelligence coming into the platform in Office 365, Dynamics 365 and Microsoft 365 and all the other cloud platforms. It protects the access to the information as well as protecting the data.

If a device gets lost, the organisation has an inventory of those devices, it can be reported straight away and all the data is encrypted so that if someone retrieves it they can’t get access to the data.

It also means infusing more AI to know if a device or data has been compromised or behaviour is out of character. That, together with physical security, encryption and automatic locking of the laptop – all of those come together with policies and compliance.

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