Skills so Soft

Skills so Soft

Are soft skills replacing technical know-how in the CIO's armoury? Is this the era of the management specialist, without specific experience of the business activity they're managing? And can a non-technical person take on the senior IT management position and make a decent fist of it? In other words, how is the role of the CIO changing, and what does that mean for the IT department and the people who staff it?

These were all questions that Bruce Davis had to face, and not without some conflict on the way. For Davis has made an unusual move, from a senior finance position to head of IT, and in doing so has taken on regional responsibility for a global IT company. Davis is Asia-Pacific information technology director for IT vendor Unisys - which in itself raised some interesting concerns. For a company whose whole reason for being is information technology, how important is it for the IT director to be on top of the details of each and every technological twist and turn?

"I had a strong interest in applying IT," Davis says of his finance days. "I guess I was someone who might find out not only how to run a program but - given a skeleton of, say, an enquiry program - be also able to understand what was in the database, what the fields were, and be able to change that skeleton and get a slightly different view of the information.

"But I'm not the sort of person who can or would want to write programs and know about techniques of designing or laying out a database, a program or whatever. I have people in the organisation here who could do that, and I have people in the organisation who can help me solve problems, because they have enough knowledge about what can be done. I'd say to them, here's the business problem or requirement, now how can we best address that."

Which is the crux of Davis's appointment. Graduating in accounting in the mid 70s, he first joined sugar and building products supplier CSR as a factory accountant in the plastics division, moving up through various positions to regional accountant. In 1983, he joined Unisys. "I came from the bottom, working up through a range of accountancy positions to financial planning and even into commercial manager jobs. The normal process at Unisys would be - presuming you're good enough - that you'd be heading towards the CFO position, finance director, [and so on]. I may have ended up as a regional finance director."

However, an immediate future in financial planning and analysis wasn't really where Davis wanted to be. He had indicated earlier in his career that he had an interest in an IT role, but at the time management preferred someone with a technical background. Now, things were changing.

"There was a conscious decision to have someone in an IT role who understood more about what the users needed," Davis says. "All the way through I've had an interest in the system side of things, just from the point of understanding the flow of information and not having garbage in, garbage out. I was frustrated that IT here in Australia didn't seem to understand really what we were on about, how we were trying to use the systems.

"That was one thing when I got over to the other side of the fence: at least I understood what people were trying to do with the systems and use them to run their business . . . It's not: 'I'm from finance and I know better what IT should be doing'; it's a blending of skills and experiences."

But not all in IT were convinced that a non-technical person had what it takes to run the IT department. "Any new job creates some problems. There was one person who probably aspired to the seat I sat in. At one of the early meetings we had . . . on a particular project, we were part way through when [that person] said: 'You might as well leave now, because you won't understand all we're talking about'."

This sort of dismissive attitude was not what Davis wanted to hear. "What I said was: 'If you can't express what needs to be expressed in terms that I can understand, then you've really got the problem, not me'. That's not to say there mightn't be parts of the discussion that were highly technical, but do I need to understand that? No. But you should still be able to understand what it is that we're trying to achieve."

It is this lack of communication which has often plagued relations between IT and other units of many businesses (see, "Working with the Enemy", below). And it was this discontinuity that Davis was assigned to rectify when he was appointed IT director in 1993.

Relationship Management

Relationship management is the primary function of Davis's job - not writing code, wiring up networks or creating databases. His role is to ensure that IT fulfils the requirements of the business units, and that the business units appreciate what IT can offer.

Previously, each regional division of Unisys had its own IT support group. Now, while the Asian-Pacific business operations of Unisys are still divided into three regions (North Asia, South Asia and South Pacific), the three share a single IT support infrastructure. "It just doesn't make sense economically to have an Asian division and a South Pacific division [each] fully functional." With a single shared service centre (one of five that Unisys has established supporting its global operations), Davis manages IT for the Asian and South Pacific operations and has a staff of 63 (50 of them in Sydney, where Davis is based).

"I meet a lot of non-IT managers in regional centres. Initially this took me out of my comfort zone. They'd ask implicit questions like: 'What do you want to talk about?' and 'Why are you here?' So I'd go there with an agenda spelling out what IT can offer them," Davis says. "Now, I attend lots of staff meetings . . . I'm a bit of a sticky beak. That's how you find out what's going on. Some people find it annoying. But that's a useful attribute for a CIO - you need to be a stickybeak."

There are two aspects to the relationships that Davis manages: internal (within the IT department) and external (with other business units).

Within the IT department, he encourages "cross-pollination" of skills and expertise. In his first days in the role, he was bemused to find people coming to him for official permission to help other staff in need of assistance, a formal arrangement that previous IT management had instituted. This form of internal silos is something Davis wants to break down. "I certainly wouldn't want to see people over here working their butts off and people over there twiddling their thumbs," he says.

"This particular team of IT people is the best I've worked with as a team in any department. I've had battles not with them but with how the structure is organised. People are in silos [within IT]; they need to put their heads together; I encourage them to get together."

In particular, he likes those who have an appreciation of solutions beyond the limitations of their own skills and experience. Referring to one IT team member who was an expert in Oracle systems, but could apply skills to other applications, he says: "You don't have to understand the nitty-gritty of the code in all applications to manage a project."

In contrast, there was the case of "someone who was a very good Lotus Notes administrator and could write good applications, but whenever you asked him to help solve a business problem, he would always come up with a Notes-based solution. He might even say: 'Well, Notes doesn't handle that as well as I like, but that's the toolset we're going to use'. Whereas another person might say: 'Well, we could do it with this tool, or that tool, and this one would be the best fit'. I certainly like people who don't have a narrow focus."

It is this emphasis on solving the business problem rather than forcing the technology solution that is one of the things Davis considers he is bringing to the job. Certainly, he sees his main role as establishing effective relationships with other units, and in this regard he feels his background as a user is a major plus.

Not that he's one-eyed about the process.

Two-way Street

The relationship between IT and its internal customers is one that can often be fraught with problems, and can probably be characterised by the cry: "The users don't know what they want, and IT doesn't know what we need".

"The user community is not as good as it should be in terms of defining what it is they want. People might talk about the legacy systems not being good enough, but when you ask, 'What do you want? What is it you need? Let's sit down and specify it', they um and ah and aren't sure about it," Davis says. "I don't think that, generally speaking, they've as good an understanding as they should of the outputs that they need to help run the business. It's very easy to hide behind 'the crummy systems that we have' and 'sorry, this chart is what I was given by the system' and 'don't make any hasty decisions because the data's either out of date or incorrect'.

"Our job in IT is to help the user define what it is they need and to map that into what can be done. And less and less is impossible these days. But I still get a lot of users, even once they get what it is that's been defined as their requirements, saying: 'Ah, then it shouldn't be too hard to change that requirement'. It's probably not too hard, but it'd be more efficient if upfront at the planning stage they had thought right through what they needed and looked a bit further ahead.

"But I shouldn't be too hard on them; that's human nature."

Indeed it is, and sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. He readily admits that in finance he was frustrated that "IT didn't seem to understand what we were on about". To this end, he encourages IT people to wander around other departments, to understand how they operate and use the solutions that IT supplies. "Some people you have to push out into relationships. Others are happy to [form relationships]. You have to have a bit of an eagle eye to spot potential areas where IT can play an enabling role. But sometimes you tread on people's toes, and their response is: 'Get back to your box'."

Dismissive attitudes are evidently found on both sides of the fence. It comes down to collaboration. IT helping users better define what they want: putting together some sort of project plan with some targets, setting expectations, time to deliver, costs, and so on; and helping them to solve their problems with the tools at their disposal. Davis gives regular briefings to non-IT regional managers, non-IT staff generally and makes a point of addressing every new staff induction program, giving everyone in the company an idea of what IT does and can offer.

A couple of years ago, he established an IT council for the Asia-Pacific region. Drawing on a representative group of about eight, it meets every two months to learn what's "coming down the line in IT". This council mirrors an IT steering committee established at corporate level. However, as a sign of its success, Davis's council has apparently outlasted its global big brother.

Unisys has an incentive program for its IT people called "Q-bucks" (Q for quality), whereby IT staff are rewarded for good effort with goods or gift vouchers based on their peers' judgement. Drawing on his outsider's background, Davis has extended the review process to include users. They can now recommend particularly helpful or innovative IT people for recognition, giving IT a 360-degree view of their effectiveness. While Q-bucks is a global program, so far it is only Davis's IT regime which has opened users' contributions to assessment.

The Changing Role

In his time as a user and more recently as IT director, Davis has seen the role of IT change to one of empowering users, with less of the backlog of small process activities that used to be the bane of IT professionals.

"In the old days, I pushed for a quick-fix queue to get the little things done quickly. Even if they weren't major problems, it made users feel good that their problems were being fixed quickly, he says. "Now, a lot of that power is in the hands of the users themselves. There are more tools available to the user than there ever were - even five years ago. There's no need for them to go on bended knee to IT to get something fixed or set up. Which means IT can focus on more strategic issues."

The issue now is to ensure that these strategic workers get out of the back-room environment and develop an appreciation of the user's requirements: help them define what their problem is, what they need, and what can be done for them. But he is concerned that, with the increasing business-issue orientation of his IT people, this might mean that those who are more successful in developing business skills will be taken out of the IT department and absorbed into the users' realms. "The result might mean that you're left back in IT with more the boffin-type . . . an organisation of back room-type people."

Davis wants to develop user-oriented skills within the IT organisation. He does this by being as inclusive as possible. On one hand, he encourages his staff to work more effectively with each other, extending their solution offerings beyond their own immediate expertise. On the other, he presses his people to meet and even work with users on a more regular basis, keeping them up to date on what the IT department can offer.

"I enjoyed my time in finance, but I'm enjoying my time in IT even more. I think what I'm bringing to the job is a clearer understanding of what it is that the user is trying to do. But if I'd said I was going to [have] a bunch of my old accounting cronies around me I don't think that would have worked. What I'm bringing are soft skills - general management, presentation, leadership. You certainly need to have a team of people around you who are technically competent. But I think the soft skills are the most important skills for an IT director. That, and the drive and enthusiasm of being able to apply the tools that are available. As I said, nothing is impossible today."

But some things never change. Davis's final words are true for any manager, whether in IT or elsewhere, whether technically trained or not. "The more efficient you get, the more efficient you're asked to be," he says. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Working with the Enemy

IT's relationship with finance has often been a vexed one. Traditionally, finance has been IT's biggest customer, although this dominance might be changing. With greater emphasis on applications like e-commerce, customer relationship management (CRM), sales and marketing and e-business, front office arenas are gaining precedence.

But even if its position as user is changing, finance still wields an important sway over IT, primarily because of its budgetary influence. Many IT departments report directly to finance, and are therefore at the mercy of finance's appreciation of the technical issues. Even if there's no direct line of responsibility, the CFO can influence other senior management, and in particular the CEO, by promoting or dismissing an IT initiative at senior management or board level.

CFOs regularly put IT among their top bugbears, consistently suggesting that IT is performing significantly below potential and that IT people have no sense of business imperatives. IT, on the other hand, would have it that finance is made up of IT-illiterate people making important decisions on the future of something they don't understand.

Consequently, some have seen the relationship between IT and finance as one of mutual misunderstanding and possibly even hostility. Both groups have a technical language that is not always (or rarely) understood by the other. And both come at problems from different perspectives, characterised as the restrictive cost-conscious finance team vs the cost-inherent technology solution, when what is needed is a more central position of "what's best for the business".

"It definitely helps to speak the same language as finance people," says Bruce Davis, information technology director for IT at Unisys, who has made the transition from finance to IT. "I've seen people in the IT organisation here who are managers, but who have had no finance background, and they struggle in understanding how the finance operation works."

He's seen IT people who have no appreciation for the users' needs, nor for what is an appropriate solution. He despairs of the "boffin" or "techo-type attitude": "I like gadgets, but I like gadgets for how they can help me, not because they're the latest gadgets."

But Davis's finance background doesn't close his eyes to problems with prevailing attitudes there. "There have been plenty of finance people over the years who have had the approach to IT of 'don't call us, we'll call you. And by the way, when we call you, we're going to want a pretty speedy resolution of whatever the problem is we've called you out for'," he says.

Nonetheless, the relationship is an important one, and one worth trying to salvage. One solution suggested for solving this "failure to communicate" is to have secondments in place, even at the level of CFO and senior IT management. In this system, staff spend time (as in several days) in each other's departments so that they can gain an idea of what it is really like to work in that area and gather an appreciation of the problems and frustrations that each other faces.

Davis, however, is sceptical of such a system, at least on a formal basis. He questions the value in spending only a short time in another department, which will give only a taste of how others work. "Some IT time is spent in other departments. We encourage it and can afford to do it. We have shadowing activities, but nothing formally set up."

Working in unison is what's required, he says. "I pushed that from inside finance. But that depends on individuals' attitudes and personalities." He suggests that you can't force cooperation, even though it should be encouraged.

There are so many overlaps between IT and other areas, he says - particularly thanks to wider ranging applications like ERP - that it is impossible for any department to ignore the relationship with IT. That, and moving jobs. "Unisys encourages personal development. There's a lot of opportunity in larger organisations. It's important to move sideways as well as up."

Perhaps if more people spent time working in (rather than visiting) other departments, there'd be less antagonism and more action of the sort that would benefit the entire organisation.

- T Mendham

Think Global, Work Local

What role does a local IT department play when all the main decisions are made in head office? What frustrations arise when a standardisation directive limits the capacity for local operations to make individual decisions for local conditions. These were problems faced by Unisys' Asia-Pacific IT department when head office in the US made a decision to have what it calls "one Unisys, one process, one system".

Not without reason. Management complained that across the company's 36,000 people globally there was little consistency in the "method, manner and types of information used and how we related to our customers". For instance, there was a different order management system in the US from those used internationally. In addition, there were varied personnel systems, nine different mail systems, 19 different payroll systems, and about 40 different time reporting systems. This gave Unisys software development costs that were 22 per cent higher than industry standards and software maintenance costs more than three times higher. And it also gave its customers problems navigating with and through the company's systems.

As Unisys chairman Larry Weinbach put it, "How do we tell our customers to change their methodologies, processes and business practices, if we are not willing to do the same?" Something about the cobbler's children going unshod.

The solution was a program for global standardisation called Cornerstone,. This two-year program has meant reorganising the entire global IT operations (and associated processes) based around an Oracle ERP centrepiece. But Cornerstone means that local operations, such as those run by information technology director for IT Bruce Davis covering North and South Asia and the South Pacific, had little say and less flexibility in providing local solutions.

"We don't get to make some of the strategic decisions on how we're going to apply IT. A lot of the problems we get to solve locally are smaller ones [where] there's not a prescriptive global standard. That's actually quite good from a user's point of view, because you can give them quick turnaround; and from the IT point of view they can see it from start to finish rather than doing just one component of a larger work.

"Sometimes you wonder if the overseas decision maker really understands what you're trying to do, same as New Zealand wonders at decisions made in Australia. We need to put a regional spin on the global decisions," Davis says.

There are benefits though. "In a global environment, I'm not kept awake at night worrying if Cornerstone or Oracle Financials or whatever is the right approach. I'm usually more concerned about whether we're going to close the month using a new application, how my team is helping the business people to apply the system to do their job, and changing the processes.

"I might be thinking about more strategic issues (part of our coaching for management approach), but in the role you've got an immediate job to do," Davis says. "We have lengthy discussions within IT management on the pros and cons of global decisions, but at the end of the day, with the team I've got, we say how we are going to do it, not why we can't do it."

- T Mendham

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about CSRIT PeopleOracleUnisys Australia

Show Comments