Challenges and Priorities for the CIO in Northern Ireland

At our most recent CIO Club in Belfast, there was little disagreement on the challenges that 2016 will bring for Northern Ireland’s CIOs and where their role is headed. No matter the industry, CIOs share the same concerns and challenges, but they are at different points in their journey on finding the best way to tackle them. Here we list the 5 areas of concern raised and discuss how they can be tackled.

Embrace IT as an enabler and not just a caretaker
Whilst some companies across Northern Ireland have shifted budgetary weight & resource from traditional ‘lights on’ activity to transformation, most have not broken free from the day-to-day demands on their IT department. Most companies are struggling to get to 40% transformation, and in the worst case the figure was lower than 20%. In this particular case, the lack of focus on transformation has led to the bulk of work being centred on cost-reduction measures, and the profile of IT being visible only in the context of service failures.

Industry analysts and commentators are clear: in the 21st century every company is an information technology company. The role of technology has never been more important, yet, according to a survey conducted by BPI Network, there is a clear disconnect across organisations between the recognised need to adopt new technologies and actually achieving that goal. The survey highlighted the top five obstacles: gaining consensus and support for new technology investments 44%, determining needs and optimal solution available 41%, minimising information security risk, vulnerability and threats 34%, successfully implementing and gaining organisational adoption 31%, and ageing IT infrastructures that need updating and modernisation 28%.

Get to know your CIO
If CIOs are to devote time to driving that business change they need to avoid getting bogged down in their daily responsibilities running corporate IT. This is the challenge faced by most. Shifting focus and budget to more impactful innovation was seen as a primary responsibility of the CIO role: selling – and delivering – the value of IT to the CEO and senior management team peers and building support for change and investment. This clearly makes the CIO role challenging, but also personally satisfying and rewarding.

In many organisations, CIOs don’t report directly to the CEO. According to Jacob Morgan, author of the book Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization, IT gains much better visibility into the key imperatives for the company with a CIO who reports to the CEO. These conversations between IT and business aren’t happening nearly enough, according to Morgan, who suggests that a CIO who reports to the CEO will give the business stakeholders a greater opportunity to learn about what’s happening within IT.
A typical CIO and their IT team can add value to a business in many ways, including: enhancing business processes, developing software to aid customer acquisition and retention, and identifying or developing applications that drive efficiencies in functions like finance or sales. But to do this effectively they need to be free from day to day ‘keeping the lights on’ tasks like ensuring the organisation’s infrastructure is operating at peak efficiency.

Can your network handle the pressure?
The company with the highest ratio of transformation projects compared to ‘lights on’ spend observed that the network is a foundation layer for any IT delivery. If that layer is unreliable or restrictive, all services depending on it are impacted. So he made the decision to tackle the historically problematic network first, moving to a managed service that dramatically improved the quality of overall IT service delivery.

As the consumerisation of IT, the rise of mobile, the automation of processes through machine-to-machine communication and the shift to the cloud become mainstream, whole industries are being transformed. In the middle of this technological revolution sits the network, the main super highway on which millions of terabytes of data from billions of devices flow.
At eir Business NI we’ve seen some of Northern Ireland’s most successful indigenous enterprises realise the value in outsourcing their network; handing the management of this utility to experts who can make sure it runs at peak performance. By taking this step, they’ve been able to return to the high-value tasks of using technological developments to achieve their business’ strategic goals. Not only that, they are confident that their network is being monitored 24/7 by experts whose job it is to make sure it is running at peak performance, at all times.

Are you in the cloud yet?

While cloud has become a ubiquitous topic and is impacting the role of the CIO, it is just a method of delivery, not an end in itself. For the CIOs attending our event there was some frustration with the disjoint between marketing messages and effective and practical solutions to business problems, represented at its worst by sales cold callers asking the question ‘Are you in the cloud yet?’, with little or no consideration of what such a question can really mean. Each business solution needs to be considered on its own merits, not in any dogmatic way, and in the short to medium term a hybrid of in-house and public cloud looks the most advantageous and effective approach.

Before jumping headlong into the cloud, we would caution organisations to understand why they are considering a move to the cloud. Investigate which applications or processes could be migrated to the cloud, and the benefits that would deliver. Are you thinking about adopting a remote working policy? Do you want to reduce your hardware costs? Will your legacy applications even run in a cloud environment? Every business is different, and will have different requirements and reasons for making the move to the cloud. At eir Business NI, we take a tailored approach, which ensures we are designing a solution that meets the specific needs of our customers, rather than implementing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

At a macro-level, while there has been a deficit in the availability of high quality data centre services in Northern Ireland, this market deficit has had little or no impact on IT services in the private or public sector. Many customers have worked around the issue by retaining in-house data centre rooms for their virtualised server farms, as well as leveraging cloud. But with the availability of high quality data centre services across the border, CIO’s in Northern Ireland should not feel limited in options. At eir Business NI, we have connected a number of Northern Ireland businesses to our state-of-the art ISO27001 data centre in Dublin. We ensure highly resilient, scalable network connectivity to the data centre across an all-Island IP Virtual Private Network. Coupled with our on-premise data centre capabilities, we are able to develop and deliver Hybrid solutions which combine the benefits of Cloud with the surety of premise-based data centres where needed.

Challenge your staff to keep them interested
There was also consensus that foreign investment and State support is impacting on availability and cost of IT and software skills, pulling candidates away from indigenous business. Retaining expert staff interest and skill-level is difficult in expert areas – challenges and projects are key to keeping the best in best condition. All agreed that this made managed services a no-brainer in many critical areas, including networking.

By outsourcing fundamental, ‘keeping the lights on’ tasks to third party experts, organisations can free up IT staff to work on projects that will make a real difference to business strategy. A survey by of IT recruiters and executives showed that, along with flexible working hours, IT staff were motivated by being included in decision making, provided a certain degree of independence, offered training, and given opportunities to work with new technologies. Hiring top tech talent to simply monitor and maintain critical IT infrastructure will likely result in unmotivated employees and an increase in staff turnover.

The role of the CIO is no doubt becoming more challenging. A lot of the sentiment is endorsed in Gartner’s 2016 CIO Agenda survey about what they enjoy most and least about their role. CIOs are excited by the opportunity and the imperative to lead and drive change; finding how to manage this within their current constraints is what keeps them awake. Complexity is still a challenge, finding a way to reduce it is the key.