The five minute CIO: Lavinia Morris

20 Jul 2012

Lavinia Morris, head of IT operations for Friends First Group

This week, Lavinia Morris talks technology trends and strategy. She is head of IT operations for Friends First Group, a provider of pensions, investment and protection (insurance) products and services, and is responsible for aligning and driving the group’s IT strategy.

During her 16 years with Friends First, she has led several technology transformation projects in e-commerce, data centre rationalisation and infrastructure virtualisation and is now developing the group’s cloud computing road map.

How large is Friends First from an IT perspective?

We have a user base of more than 400 across three sites – our head office in Cherrywood, Dublin, and two regional offices in Cork and Galway. We use all of the typical applications associated with a large financial services organisation, everything from ‘green-screen’ mainframe-based applications to more modern e-commerce collaboration engines.

To what extent does IT contribute to the company’s strategy?

IT is very much viewed as a strategic asset for the organisation and therefore contributes to the development and delivery of the overall business strategy. In Friends First, IT reports directly to the CEO.

How much of your IT is in-house and how much, if any, do you outsource?

Not unlike other organisations in our sector, we host and maintain all IT services from our e-commerce portals to email to our core business administration systems – essentially the entire gamut of IT from our own data centre in Dublin.

More recently we have tactically outsourced some specialist skills but the vast majority of our IT is in-house.

What won you over to cloud computing?

Yes, I can see the merits of cloud computing. However, I do have to admit that I started out, like many others, as a bit of a cloud sceptic – having worked in the ICT sector for more than 17 years I’ve seen lots of technology fads come and go.

However, through my work with the Irish Internet Association’s Cloud Computing Working Group over the past three years, I have come to learn that cloud is far from a fad and has a lot to offer organisations both large and small.

Did senior management need convincing that this was the right way to go, or was it an easy sell?

In developing our cloud road map we have established a working group of representatives from across the organisation – compliance and legal, HR, group finance, business continuity, business management, information security and IT – both to establish the business benefits as well as assess the business risks. This has helped gain the buy-in of the business in the early stages, making the sell to senior management easier.

What’s the strategy behind your cloud road map?

Cloud for me is as much about innovation in operations and process as it is about the technology itself. We see cloud computing providing us with the framework to run IT as a business. Because cloud encourages standardisation this in turn will help improve efficiency, reduce overhead and enhance the quality of service we can provide.

Can you talk a little more about your cloud plans?

To quote a mantra I regularly use, ‘cloud is for everybody, just not for everything’. We are currently at the early stages of our journey to the cloud. As a financial services organisation, information security and regulatory compliance are very important to us and therefore the speed at which the public cloud matures to address these challenges will influence our adoption strategy.

That said, we don’t want to miss the opportunities cloud offers. Therefore, we plan to deploy a private cloud initially to allow us build competencies in cloud and to take advantages of some of the benefits of the cloud methodology.  

In parallel, we will consider public cloud for those business applications that have mature offerings in the public cloud space – for example CRM, collaboration and possibly email.

What elements need to be in place ahead of the move?

Firstly it’s important to take the time up front to lay out the cloud adoption strategy: understanding the business risks as well as the business benefits, and quantifying those areas of the business which are suitable for cloud adoption and those which aren’t.

Once that has been defined, a number of elements need to be put in place ahead of the move. We are going through an infrastructure revitalisation project which is out to tender at the moment.

From a technology perspective, through this project we plan to put in place the infrastructure foundations for our cloud road map – virtualisation, standardisation and automation of the core infrastructure. In parallel, we will redefine our operational processes and governance models in line with the new technology. Once these foundations are in place we will commence the build of our private cloud.

Is the next logical step a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, and what’s your view on this?

I can see certain areas of the business where it makes complete sense and others where the security requirements or application footprint of the user base make it unsuitable. We’re currently running a pilot of the technology to enable BYOD and will base our next steps on the output of that exercise.

We rarely hear it talked about, but cloud implies potentially massive changes for people in IT roles: do you believe your own job and the work of your team will need to adapt?

My own job is about identifying the opportunities for delivery of business value through the use of technology. Cloud is only one means of doing this, so I don’t believe it will massively change the role of the CIO.

The big change, I believe, will come for the IT team but in a positive as opposed to a negative way. Skills in the areas of virtualisation, automation and enterprise architecture will become more important while some of the more traditional IT skills will become commoditised or handled by specialist providers.

Fundamentally, the move to cloud will shift the focus of IT resources up the value chain towards the delivery of business solutions and away from the mechanics or ‘piping and plumbing’ of technology management.

It’s often said that IT and business people don’t speak the same language – what’s your view, and what can be done to fix this?

The extent to which this is an issue for IT departments depends to a large extent, I believe, on the overall governance of the organisation and the role which IT is seen to play – that of a strategic enabler or a tactical provider of utilities.

For organisations where IT is seen as a strategic enabler, as is the case in Friends First, business and IT alignment tends to be strong. To achieve this, the business and IT strategies need to be completely aligned from the top down. In Friends First, IT is measured on how well we have delivered on the business objectives or helped the business achieve its goals.

Yes, SLA achievement and system availability are important but these are hygiene factors that IT is expected to deliver on. The real value comes from the delivery of the business goals.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic