Like cobbler's children running barefoot while their hard-pressed father mends other people's shoes, users in IT-specialist organisations often have to play second fiddle to the customers they serve. For IT management it means a delicate balancing act of constantly weighing customers' voracious technology demands against in-house requests for state-of-the-art technology to back service delivery and reinforce the company's image as a technological leader.
Today Bob Cook, group IT and R&D manager with HPA (Hermes Precisa), is adept at walking that particular tightrope. But it took a while; he was prepared for neither the role nor the vast range of technologies and continual evolution under way in HPA when he came on board five years ago. Cook's initial bewilderment is not unusual - everyone who joins HPA starts out being a little daunted both at the range and complexity of the technologies at play, and the challenges involved in servicing HPA's clients. Indeed, the external team helping with corporate strategy and planning still finds it difficult at times to fully appreciate what makes HPA tick, 10 years after it started consulting for the organisation.
"I really didn't know what HPA did until I walked in the door, so it was pretty challenging," Cook admits with a wry smile. "In the beginning, I even imagined I was moving into a CIO-type role." Instead, Cook's role is continually changing as HPA evolves to help large corporations embrace the latest technologies to better communicate with their customers and end users. His misunderstanding illustrates the very real differences between working as a typical CIO and serving as head of IT in an IT specialist shop.
Today, it's a role that Cook is clearly comfortable with, but years of IT management experience within the Bond Group of Companies, together with a stint as a consultant did nothing to prepare him for the new realities he faced when he first joined HPA as NSW IT manager.
"In my first few months, I didn't understand the difference between the role I was used to and the role I had walked into," Cook says. "I initially thought I was taking on a normal [internally-focused] CIO role. But in fact our business performs outsourced IT services on behalf of large corporations and so somewhere over 90 per cent of our efforts are directed at doing that business for our external clients. Inevitably, that's to the disadvantage of our own internal systems. Here the focus is the client, the priority is client, so when there's competition for resources, the client wins."
Such challenges have helped Cook to develop an entirely different philosophy to that of his previous incarnations as IT manager or even as a consultant with DMR. In past roles, Cook says his thoughts tended to revolve around the control and management of user departments, application portfolios and the infrastructures to support them, as he worked with business managers to determine how best to deliver their "wish list" of internal systems.
Things are not like that any more. Now he's preoccupied with "providing fodder" to a diverse group of people who are nonetheless united by their technological sophistication. Cook's "clients" include not only the customers themselves, but also the business development staff who are involved in selling these state-of the-art solutions, and IT and R&D staff who are developing and supporting core products. Each and every client is convinced that their technology needs are more vital to HPA's future interests than anybody else's. That gives Cook's role a subtle new twist.
"What you're trying to do," Cook says, "is contribute to an environment which allows individual business development and IT people to create innovative solutions and make them work for their clients. Each one tends to push the technological limits, so you never get a chance to stop and consolidate and feel comfortable that you've got this thing under control.
"The philosophy is to work with all these people to provide a sound technology infrastructure. That's important - everything's got to work even though you keep challenging and extending it."
Riding the foreground of B2B and B2C e-business, HPA provides a holistic suite of information and image management services to large organisations and governing bodies designed to help them communicate effectively with their customers. Within this brief, its offerings are broad and increasingly diverse and there are many examples. When Australia Post introduced a new system directly affecting how mail items needed to be addressed and lodged, HPA provided a range of services to help clients comply with the new requirements.
Another client, Macquarie Investment Services, uses HPA's outsourced billing service. Each month they provide HPA with a data stream for formatting and sorting. Statements are printed, and specialised bar-coding lets targeted inserts, letters and brochures be distributed to Macquarie's nominated customer groups. And when the NSW Department of Education and Training wanted to enhance the efficiency of its annual literacy and numeracy testing program, it turned to HPA to provide numerous services including forms design, printing, delivery and automated scanning and reporting to process the thousands of examination papers.
With 750 permanent staff (about 100 of which are IT people), HPA shares its entire infrastructure with clients. "All of the wires, desktops and technology is shared between our own internal systems and the client-based systems," Cook says, "and sometimes it's hard to draw the line."
Cook says the services on offer have evolved constantly since the company was established in 1989 to offer outsourced essential mail, direct marketing, imaging and microfilm/microfiche services for organisations wanting to talk more effectively with their customers. These days, the company gets involved in all manner of projects which allow big corporations to communicate with their customers, largely by providing the underpinning technologies.
"Across all of our current business, you can trace back the technology and its origins to those early days," Cook says. "Now we have an imaging system operating in transport companies, which involves scanning and presenting freight delivery documents across the Internet. Originally, this information used to be manually stapled to the back of an invoice and then mailed out. These types of industry applications have evolved and HPA pushes them ahead a step each time."
The company has also evolved its billing processes, having recognised the impact that the Internet would have on its paper-based billing processes. The result has been the development of its subsidiary e-BILL, which is Australia's first electronic bill presentation and payment service.
And new challenges constantly loom on the horizon. Like many other staff members, Cook focuses plenty of energy on developing new business opportunities. For instance, HPA is currently pouring considerable resources into developing solutions for the digital management of land registry and government title information. "We are client-driven; we start out working with a client on one particular project and as we move further into their business, we identify complex business processes that can be made more efficient," Cook says.
The team is also involved in internal process improvement projects, where once again the Internet dominates. For instance, HPA is currently building a workflow-based production management system, so that clients will be able to sign on to the Internet and view the progress of their jobs. Once again, a primary challenge is resource allocation.
"This is an internal project, albeit an important internal project. At the same time, we have new business opportunities that are banging at the door, so you can imagine where the priority lies. If a new tender comes up or a client wants to negotiate with you on price or content, it's all hands to the pump," Cook says.
And that inevitably presents a big dilemma. When a client asks for new functionality, even when it's essentially to an internal HPA system, any delay in delivering that functionality is met with little forgiveness. And clients these days are intensely interested not just in what HPA delivers but how it delivers it. For Cook, the dilemma highlights the single biggest challenge he faces each day - matching a bureau culture with the much closer inspection that clients now make on the way those services are delivered.
He says it's not enough for clients to see that you get the right answer. They want to see how you reached it. They want to see due process. They want to see methodology. And they want to see guarantees. "They're saying we're trusting you with this task and we're not satisfied to wait and see what comes out at the end - we want to see how it's achieved'. I suppose everyone does that," says Cook. "You can't resist going around and watching your house being built, even though you may not want to build it yourself. You like to see the builders demonstrating sound capabilities and methodologies in terms of the way they control the process."
There's another problem with collaborating with clients to deliver solutions. It is something which Cook believes every CIO would know and understand: collaboration encourages clients to increase the scope of their initial projects, which in turn leads to the extension of the projects. At HPA, that leads to discussions about how much the client should be paying for that solution.
"And if you don't manage variations closely - which is fundamentally opposed to a bureau culture - suddenly you start to see the pitfalls and problems. That's a major challenge," says Cook. "I haven't found the key to the kingdom yet, and I don't think there are too many CIOs out there who would claim to have done so. Mostly what you need to do is write it all down and get people to sign off on it. But in an outsourcer-to-client relationship, it is not as easy as being in a cooperative relationship acting in a CIO role and liaising with the finance manager or the warehouse manager."
To help him cope with the mountain of tasks that threaten to overwhelm him on a daily basis, Cook uses the annual planning process as a way to develop a prioritised list. "In my mind, I use it as a means of gathering the important issues and objectives, recognising that there's going to be other stuff coming in during the course of the year. I don't get too concerned about getting it all done, because at least it's on the agenda. Some things will drop off the list and others will be added - the skill is working with your managers to ensure you don't let something drop that really was important."
The company-wide process is done at general management, department and branch levels. Cook says the process continues throughout the year in a "roll down from the top process".
"Partner" is a word frequently heard within HPA. The company knows that unless it partners wisely, both backwards into its supply chain and forwards into its client relationships, its future success will be short-lived. But again it's a balance that's not easy to achieve. Cook believes when it comes to clients, HPA tends to share too much of the risk.
"Because we accept the responsibility of solving their business problems rather than creating solutions, it tends to be more of a movable feast," he says. "I think if you were to ask our clients, they would say that one of the things that characterises HPA is that it does give complete commitment to do the job, sometimes at its own cost."
At least it has made the company better at working the other side of the equation, with vendors eager to partner with it. Cook says the company understands more these days what partnering is and what partners have to offer in order for it to succeed. "We've had some failed attempts at partnering, and maybe we're a little chastened by that. I don't think we can be held up as an icon of partnering skills, but we're certainly out there trying."
While it's those challenges and the variety of services on offer that makes the company's true nature so hard to identify, they're also what makes HPA a rewarding place in which to work. Cook says people who start at HPA are first befuddled, then become excited by the variety of opportunities and challenges on offer. "Especially the techos - they love to work here. Eventually a few say: I can't cope with this' and leave, but for most people, it gets into their blood. I've had examples both in the IT world and in other parts of the organisation where people leave, then come back after a while. It's almost like a relationship."
But Cook has found it next to impossible to explain to someone who doesn't work with HPA exactly what the company does, or to a new employee what their next role might be. Hence his own state of blissful ignorance when he first joined the company. Somehow, to outsiders the entire technological picture seems impenetrable.
That poses challenges when it comes to attracting skilled staff. To get around the problem, the Victorian branch has recently experimented with recruitment ads that give almost no information about the organisation other than to point to its Web site. The hope is that the site will somehow convey some of the excitement on offer and build enthusiasm for the solutions being delivered. The jury is still out on how successful this approach has been.
The company also puts a great deal of faith in graduate recruitment programs and in "growing people" from within the organisation. "We've had people who've started as laser printer operators, then become computer operators and programmers and so on."
Cook recognises the importance of providing a career path for his people - and that includes planning a successor to himself. "It is a challenging area and I feel that I have managed to keep the pressure under control. However, I don't see myself doing this forever. And maybe letting some new blood in is not a bad thing. There certainly could be worse things than moving on and letting someone else pick up the challenge."