By Paul Gillin, Contributing Senior Writer, Connected Futures
It may have once (or twice) been said by skeptics that “IT doesn’t matter.”
This notion no longer rings true. CIOs are being called upon more than ever to contribute to the company’s bottom line. It’s almost part of their job description: Securely drive business transformation through innovation.
But for many CIOs, the way to drive business value can vary. It can be anything from simplifying infrastructure to delivering revenue, to creating standards and policies that safely put more decision-making in the hands of business stakeholders.
But one trend is undeniable. And it’s been a trend for quite a while: “Everything is moving to a service,” said Peter Kehler, CIO at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).
With users taking an increasingly active role in technology selection and deployment, IT organizations are evolving into orchestrators, contract managers and guardians of the corporate jewels.
“Our role is to give people the ability to provision more of their own needs, but remain relevant and safe,” Kehler said.
In this orchestration role, IT often acts as the testbed and first adopter for services.
“When the business decides to implement a technology, and needs proof that it works, that’s my job,” said Bob Fecteau, CIO of Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), a federal systems integrator. That translates into bottom-line impact.
“If we can run a technology effectively in our $5 billion business, it’s also likely to run well for our government clients,” he said.
For Barry Libenson, global CIO at Experian PLC, LEGO blocks are the best analogy to describe how Experian PLC’s IT organization is putting standards and practices into place to drive efficiency, innovation and speed across the company.
Experian has traditionally taken a decentralized approach to IT, giving business units a lot of local autonomy. As a result, “People would buy a bunch of LEGOs of different colors that didn’t fit with the LEGOs that were being bought in other parts of the organization,” Libenson said.
“It was incredibly inefficient. My organization is now responsible for defining what the colors are going to be and how they’re being manufactured,” he continued.
Experian made a strategic decision to adopt an application program interface (API) approach to exposing services. IT chose the management platform and set the standards for how APIs should be exposed. “There’s now one team responsible for building, debugging and making sure things work reliably,” Libenson said.
“It accelerates the innovation process. The more building blocks I can deliver, the faster they can deliver” on the business side, he explained.
At Six Flags Entertainment Corp., IT is directly impacting the bottom line. The organization is making strategic use of the networks that run through its 21 amusement parks.
More than 700 big-screen TVs now entertain, educate and promote products and services from the company and its partners.
Six Flags’ national network is Nielsen-measured and uses advertising by some of the world’s largest consumer brands to make it “a great source of revenue for the organization,” said Six Flags Senior Vice President and CIO Michael Israel. IT is increasingly integrating video and even virtual reality into the entertainment experience, he said.
In many industries, the network is the engine of digital transformation. Customers, suppliers and other constituents expect to have instantaneous access to the information they need anywhere, at any time. That has many organizations rethinking the way they deliver information.
For example, Experian is in the midst of an 18-month-long project to overhaul its network in preparation for the transition to a “build anywhere, deploy anywhere” architecture based upon services, containers and APIs. “Our network is our spinal cord,” Libenson said.
In the amusement park business, having great rides and games is no longer enough. That’s why Six Flags is investing heavily in robust and universally accessible wireless networking that can support thousands of simultaneous users. “Guests can share photos and buy tickets from their mobile devices,” Israel said. “They expect to have access.”
CIOs in the higher education sphere face particularly high expectations from students, for whom mobile devices are as essential as food and water.
That’s one reason Duke University is putting much of its coursework online in a mobile-friendly format. This makes it possible for students to do everything from review videos of class lectures to pinpoint the arrival time of the next shuttle bus from their smartphones. “We want to make sure digital is at the center of all of our processes,” said Duke University CIO Tracy Futhey.
SAIT sees the opportunity to partner with other institutions across the city of Calgary to find efficiencies in areas such as shared data centers and remote workspaces.
Dark fiber that’s already running beneath the streets will make this possible. Ultimately, the institute wants to make information and services universally accessible to its employees and students through technology like collaboration engines and videoconferencing. “We want there to be a single pane of glass students can use,” Kehler said.
In some cases, delivering value comes down to inventing great technology. That’s the case at the law firm of DLA Piper US LLP.
“Clients are crying out for innovation, efficiency and better interaction. I feel strongly that my team can help move the needle on that,” said CIO for the Americas Donald Jaycox.
Last year (2016) the law firm introduced artificial intelligence tools that help speed the review of the mountain of documents that are involved in merger and acquisition deals. The technology searches and analyzes text in contracts to deliver faster and more complete reviews and analyses than conventional methods can provide.
The technology can handle standard and non-standard forms and provisions, including documents in more than 60 formats, and automatically extract and analyze key contract provisions to create summaries in seconds and analyses in minutes.
DLA Piper also built a custom platform that helps clients automate the process of comparing bidders for large outsourcing contracts. The common theme: “Deliver new legal services in creative ways,” Jaycox said.
Duke University is also taking a novel approach. The university is using its underlying infrastructure to improve the productivity of academic researchers. “The core mission of the university is improving academics and leading in research,” said Richard Biever, Duke University’s Chief Information Security Officer. “This is about making resources available to researchers immediately.”
Duke University’s IT organization is using pre-configured virtual machines fully equipped with analytic tools. This means that scientists and statisticians are spending less time waiting for resources to free up and more time working on projects.
Unified computing is enabling the university to “take what had been a shared high-performance computing cluster and co-locating it, so when one person is not fully utilizing all of their hardware cores, they can be used by another,” said Futhey.
“We’ve now taken that to the next level by virtualizing most of that cluster, so we can have distinct and varied compute images available to the research faculty,” she said.
IT has also begun experimenting with software containers, which are like mini virtual machines. This makes the process even faster.
The U.S. Air Force is also overhauling infrastructure to make the organization more efficient. It’s in the process of moving a half million users from desktop applications to cloud services applications.
It’s also switching from on-premises email, to a private Department of Defense cloud. The goal is to free IT employees “from the mundane and get them involved in warfighting,” said Deputy CIO Bill Marion. After all, that’s what they joined the Air Force to do.