IBM ANZ’s CTO of digital strategy Chris Howard admits he likes to get his “hands dirty” when it comes to IT, and also likes a good challenge. He has been “passionate about innovative technology” for the past 20 years, and now, more than ever, as head of digital strategy at Big Blue.
Ensconced in IT for the past 20 years, Howard has experience across digital strategy, data value creation and business incubation. He is IBM’s former technical leader and chief architect for big data and analytics across the Asia Pacific region.
Now as CTO of digital strategy, his remit involves partnering with c-suite executives to create, visualise, and achieve digital strategies that enable innovation, growth, and modern business reinvention. He aims to leverage four key pillars: agile, devops, emerging technology and data.
CIO Australia caught up with Howard who said he’s excited about the road ahead, and particularly the immense opportunities that digital brings to the table.
How and why do you like to get your “hands dirty?” Can you explain that, and how it applies to your CTO role?
Chris Howard: The phrase is really around remaining technically relevant, so that I can be credible, provide insight and deliver a point of view around disruptive/emerging technologies. This comes down to keeping abreast through application and experimentation. In my role, this is also about working the technology backwards to value. It is typically not the technology that drives disruption (much of this is down to the business model; technology is the enabler), and so I need to understand the business outcomes, and the value to be derived, if we were to leverage a given technology.
What are your main objectives in your current CTO digital strategy role?
CH: This comes down to a handful of key things, but at its heart it's all about assisting our clients with the challenges of digital. How to navigate disruption and industry transformation. How do we programmatically address disruption and the shifts taking place to accommodate the future? How do we innovate, differentiate and transform user relationships through digital (strategy, operations and technology)?
Digital reinvention is centred around experiences, enabled through a range of digital drivers covering areas such as emerging business models, responsive operations (IoT), actionable insights and emerging technologies.
Many of the industry disruptors are coming from a business model perspective, but technology is the common enabler here that fuels much of the opportunity to disrupt. How do we shift to a faster pace of execution - addressing the need to adopt agile ways of working, drive faster execution (experimentation, fail fast) supported with the right transformation around people and capabilities to fuel and sustain this shift. This is a mindset shift to new ways of working, a new leadership approach, new team design and a new culture.
How do we exploit the business value of data? As organisations look to move beyond optimising to democratising and finally monetising their data assets, what strategies do they need to employ? This is a key one with my background in the big data/analytics space and an area I am seeing increasing interest in.
What are some of your main work achievements and milestones?
CH: I have had an opportunity to work on some really innovative projects over the last decade - acoustic analysis of dolphins, hyper-spectral imaging for defence, multi language social listening, spatiotemporal analytics for customer behaviour and a real-time analytics implementation of a highly visible Internet of Things analytics platform for a major European cycling event. It is the diversity of problem, and the unique solutions we bring, that keep this interesting for me.
Why are you excited about being CTO of digital strategy for IBM?
CH: As part of our worldwide Digital Strategy team, I am focused on some of the hairy digital challenges that large scale enterprises are faced with today - how to remain relevant, how to avoid disruption or be disruptive, how to innovate and create new-markets, and how to do this with agility and at scale. Throw in emerging tech and what is not to like about working across this space.
What are your biggest challenges in this space?
CH: I guess there are three that are top of mind and fuel much of the work we are engaged in across the Digital Strategy space. Disruption - whether this be low-end (good enough) offerings to disrupt the current industry incumbents or new-market disruption (new offerings, new customers).
Digital technologies allow disruptive business models to emerge and expand almost overnight. We are helping our clients avoid becoming corporate dodos and going the same way as Blockbuster or Kodak.
Courage - for some organisation they need to question if they have the courage to change and is their strategy ambition enough to stay relevant. Agility - beyond that do they have the ability to flex/transform (people, capabilities, offerings) and can they do this at speed - are they agile enough?
What does digital mean to you?
CH: Opportunity. We have seen organisations approach digitisation to enable their existing business with ones and zeros - essentially exposing/measuring what they do today. IoT based sensing is a great example, giving an enterprise a pulse on their business - their digital dashboard.
Beyond this we are seeing organisations that take this concept to the next level and actually transform based on these ones and zeros - essentially doing what they do, just better. They are using analytics to drive process improvements, efficiency, predicting outages, understanding cause and effect.
Finally we are looking at re-invention through digital - this is all about new opportunity, new business models and tapping into new value streams that we may not have even considered today. Telco based data monetisation is a great example here where whole new markets are being opened up fusing mobility data with retailers, insurers etc.
What are some of the interesting tech projects you’ve implemented during your career?
CH: Some of my most interesting projects have revolved around IoT, things that move and analytics - everything from acoustic analysis of dolphins to drones, ferries and bicycles. Emerging technology is a great playground, a space that constantly presents new opportunity and routes to new business value.
What advice can you offer other CTOs looking to promote a digital strategy?
CH: Don't wait around - your competition aren't. Fundamentally, I would focus on the agility piece - the ability to react (to market demand, opportunities, changing regulation, your competition) is an ever more critical enterprise capability for any organisation looking to weave digital into the core of who they are.
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