The five minute CIO: Gary Merrigan

1 Jun 2012

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Gary Merrigan, CIO of the Rehab Group

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Welcome to the latest in a series of exclusive interviews on Siliconrepublic.com, where IT leaders share their thoughts on technology trends and strategy. This week, we talk to Gary Merrigan, CIO of the Rehab Group.

The independent, not-for-profit organisation provides training, employment, health and social care and commercial services for 50,000 people each year, including the disabled and marginalised, as well as running businesses in its four countries of operation: Ireland, the UK, Poland and in the Netherlands. Merrigan heads up the IT function for the entire group, across all jurisdictions.

Rehab Group recently announced 750 new jobs – what implications will that have from an IT perspective, and what’s your plan to support that growth?

Obviously, this increase in staff has implications for capacity and support. The foundation to facilitate this growth has been in development over the last five years. We have made some key decisions which will enable this, including centralising our infrastructure in a data centre, replacing legacy applications and introducing virtualisation.

As a NGO, are the IT priorities at Rehab different from your peers in private-sector roles – for example, does it affect how large your IT budget is, and what you can do with it?

Rehab Group is a significant multinational organisation with the same needs and demands as any organisation of a similar scale. As a not-for-profit, of course we always have to ensure maximum value for money and that we keep costs to the absolute minimum.

What current technology trends are of most interest to you personally and to your own organisation?

Personally, I find the developments in gaming technology to be fascinating. The level of realism in games is staggering and new interfaces such as touch and gesture-based systems – for example, Kinect – are going to change the way that people interact with computers. I think this technology will lead to greater levels of accessibility, particularly for people with disabilities.

Corporately, the trends that interest me are virtualisation, mobility and cloud. It’s funny, five years ago I was sceptical about virtualisation, it almost seemed too good to be true. Today, about two-thirds of our service provision is based on virtual technology.

Mobility has been important for years but has focused mainly on delivery of email and calendars. In the last few years this has begun to include apps and timely access to information from the road. I find cloud computing very interesting but I am not sure it is a solution to every problem.

How would you describe your own approach to IT – do you see your role primarily as a technical one, or a business one?

My role is a business one. I have been working in IT for 26 years and I have seen technologies come and go. It is the application of appropriate technology in support of business needs that drives everything. Technology on its own is in one sense valueless.

To what extent does your job involve translating what the organisation needs into what IT can deliver?

To be honest, I don’t see my job as being one of translation. Instead I participate in the development of our business needs, contribute to business strategy and provide expertise and advice.

You’re speaking at the upcoming Citrix Virtual Computing Forum, 12 June, so it’s safe to assume you’ve adopted the technology – did you do so for reasons of cost-effectiveness, or were there other drivers (technology-based or otherwise) behind your choice?

Yes, we have embraced Citrix VDI in a box technology in our National Learning Network training division. In fact, together with our technology partner, Unity Technology Solutions, we have just won an ICT Excellence Award 2012 for the Best Use of Technology in Education and Training for this project.

We had several reasons for adopting this technology: centralised management, uniform experience and the ability to extend the lifespan of legacy desktop hardware. This has also led to improved speed and performance, and most importantly, allows for a personalised desktop for our students.

What’s your view of cloud computing?

As I mentioned earlier, I think cloud computing is interesting, but not currently the solution to every problem. Cloud computing is becoming an important part of IT service provision and deserves to be considered as a solution for business needs.

To me, the main attraction of cloud computing is cost and flexibility, but there are still some concerns: mainly around privacy, data protection, ownership of data, etc. I think a full transition to cloud computing is a significant undertaking for any organisation.

It is likely that we will transition some services to cloud and provision certain new services in the cloud, but I don’t foresee 100pc of my IT service provision being cloud focused anytime in the next three years.

Are you using cloud services and if so, are they private, public or hybrid?

No, not really. We use some hosted services that could be considered as cloud computing but we do not store line of business information or sensitive data online at present.

Is Rehab seeing much evidence of the bring your own device to work trend, and what’s your approach to it?

There appears to be a growing interest and my approach is to embrace it. It’s potentially a cost-effective way to empower employees in terms of flexibility in the way they want to work. Of course there’s balance to be struck – it is their device but it is your data, (so) where does the responsibility lie? We need at all times to be aware of protecting sensitive data.

Given trends like cloud computing, how do you think the role of the CIO – and IT generally – will evolve over the next few years? Some suggest that the role of IT managers will be diminished because technology is delivered more and more by external providers. What’s your view?

As I said earlier, the role of the CIO is about more than just technology. In my opinion, the CIO will continue to be an important senior role in organisations and will increasingly contribute to business strategy and the development of business plans.

I do think that the role of the IT department is changing. Certain functions are being outsourced to specialist providers and internal IT service provision is moving up the value chain and is more focused on business solutions than technology management.

New technologies such as cloud provide organisations with a lot of choice and a lot of potential. IT management will play a key role in selecting the correct technology provision and partners and ensuring they deliver cost-effective business value.

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