360-degree leadership: John Emerson of Tait Communications

360-degree leadership: John Emerson of Tait Communications

"IT’s not strategic unless it’s interacting with clients or it’s directly involved in the client delivery experiences, because otherwise, you’re just a support system, a cost, an overhead," says the global CIO of Tait Communications.

For John Emerson, global CIO at Tait Communications, his job is all about improving the organisation’s performance, with IT as the tool, and working with other senior executives.

Emerson joined Tait in 2013, after more than two decades in CIO roles overseas, mainly in North America.

With headquarters in Christchurch, the iconic New Zealand brand provides integrated, secure, mission-critical communication systems (software, hardware, networks and services). Its main markets include police, fire, oil, gas and transportation utilities.

Emerson spent the first months on the job setting up the foundation for allowing him to maintain a strategic business focus. One of the first things he did was he developed a global information strategy. “It was not an IT strategy, it’s about global information and how people use global applications.”

Once the strategy was accepted, his job was to support the team to get it implemented. “I’ve got six managers who’ve been with me 18 months and they pretty much know now in any situation what I’m going to say, because we talked about things a lot,” he says.

“Our helpdesk system is now global. We have service level agreements with each region.”

The strategy involves moving a number of software applications to the cloud. “Our policy, due to the limited Internet infrastructure to NZ, is to move all applications to Amazon Web Services that require access beyond NZ.

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“It was an issue of global provision,” he points out, covering anything that is accessed from overseas, whether by clients, partners, or staff.

“We do keep a private cloud here for R&D and things. So what we do is we test and dev, both for IT and for product services here, and then we provision through Amazon. When you’re using Amazon you’re also getting access to the Internet through Amazon and that’s very powerful.”

An example, he says, is Tait’s document management system. “I can go to any region – Brazil, Sydney, Houston or Vienna – and I can retrieve a document within two seconds. Now if I had to do that with my own network, it would be so much more expensive and so much more complex to run.”

Some of the “positive impacts” of cloud services is the reduction by half of the time needed to implement new systems, improvement in infrastructure team delivery and improved security. He says costs for global backup systems were reduced by about 70 per cent and IT capex requirement was reduced by approximately 90 per cent. “Staff are now focused on apps management, not hardware.”

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Due to their clients across the world, Emerson says he is working across four time zones. “We’re conferencing a lot,” he states, so a first meeting could start at 4am and there may be one scheduled at 11pm that night. “You just have to organise yourself.”

Return of the native

Emerson was CIO for Stanislaus County in Modesto, California before he was offered the global role at Tait.

One of the memorable experiences during this time was when the technology department developed an integrated system for agencies involved in justice, including the sheriff and the court.

“We would have issues with information not getting around and sometimes a criminal would go through – well, an accused person would go free because the paperwork went missing or it wasn’t done at the appropriate time.”

The Stanislaus County Integrated Criminal Justice Information System, therefore, was a major achievement. Emerson notes that while the County was just a small agency, the project won the JBoss (a division of Red Hat) innovation category winner.

He says he was able to do it because the CEO was “very progressive”.

“He was a change agent himself. And we change agents recognise each other,” states Emerson. “He wanted someone who looked at things differently.”

Emerson says the system is still being used, and continues to be enhanced. “Other state and federal agencies have come to it.”

At Tait, what impresses Emerson is the company’s “strong innovation concept”, which he attributes to the principles laid down by its founder, Sir Angus Tait.

Understand what the clients in your organisation are looking for and also backtrack and understand where the organisation could be better on certain things.

John Emerson, Tait Communications

“I have yet to see someone put down for coming up with an idea or discussing something. When you bring something they start exploring it, they start testing it, trying to understand it. And that’s very encouraging, because someone can come up with a question that makes you rethink an approach or maybe anticipate a problem,” he says. “They have just done you a massive favour.”

Out of the back office

Emerson is emphatic about CIOs and their teams needing to be in the forefront of customer facing applications.

“In my view, IT’s not strategic unless it’s interacting with clients or it’s directly involved in the client delivery experiences, because otherwise, you’re in the back office. You’re just a support system, you’re a cost, you’re an overhead. But once you’re working with clients or delivering products or involved in delivering products to clients, you’ve become part of the revenue side of the business.”

His message for CIOs is this: “Go talk to some clients in the organisation. Understand what the clients in your organisation are looking for and also backtrack and understand where the organisation could be better on certain things, so you can make that immediate contribution to improve that.”

“Very few people are just selling products anymore; you are also selling a service with that product,” he says. “That is one of the trends that has been going on, and it is a golden opportunity for IT to help.”

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At Tait, for instance, the ICT team set up customer portals. “Immediately we have a collaboration area. So as we’re talking through things with a customer and sharing documents, it’s all in one place.

“When everybody changes any document or adds a document there’s an email that goes out to the others. First, it is very dynamic. Second, you have broken down the barriers between your customer and your organisation, you’re sharing as one entity. It helps to differentiate you from other organisations that are not doing this.”

It shows a certain commitment as well, he says. “We're also a technology company. We ought to be using it.

“Over time, we get a track record, we build this information resource out so it gives us other opportunities to see how we can help the customer,” he states. “We can add all these other applications to it. That’s the benefit of all these apps in the cloud.”

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Emerson’s other day job

Despite his busy schedule, Emerson makes time to mentor some of his colleagues, both in IT and other divisions.

“My other job is teaching,” says Emerson, smiling. “It is more about listening than talking. I have been exposed to other businesses, so I just give them a different perspective. We look at different ways of solving [an issue].”

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This is a continuation of his days at Stanislaus County, where once a week he spent his lunch time at a nearby school, mentoring Latino students. It was part of a County project, so he and other staff worked with a number of children. “It was just talking to them and reading books together.”

“I got more out of that than what I put in. It is not often you get to see the impact of what you are doing,” he states. “If you can’t read, it affects your whole education process. It is absolutely critical.

“You spend your life gathering this information,” he says, “and if you can help others with it, why don’t you do it?”

John Emerson was interviewed for the 2014 Leadership Edition of CIO New Zealand.

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