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How Downer's CIO works with rocket scientists and brain surgeons

How Downer's CIO works with rocket scientists and brain surgeons

Glen Willoughby of Downer discusses his relationship with NASA-JPL’s chief technology and innovation officer, Tom Soderstrom, and how to balance smart innovations with long-term goals.

Glen Willoughby defines innovation as “creating sustainable value, but doing it in a fast way”.

As general manager, IT – the equivalent of the CIO role – at engineering firm Downer, Willoughby says a key challenge facing CIOs is melding this fast paced short-run innovation with long-term strategy.

Our market is turbulent, our customers are demanding. They can be unforgiving when we get it wrong, whether they are internal or external customers,” he explains.

Speaking at the recent CIO100 forums in Auckland and Wellington, Willoughby says he turns to organisations he has been involved with that are working against this backdrop. New Zealand has a wealth of organisations that are IT innovator exemplars.

These are the NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the joint district health boards for Hutt Valley, Capital and Coast and Wairarapa in the lower North Island; as well as Downer.

The role of the CIO is creating that environment of collaboration and fostering that collaboration fast. How do we do that with speed?

Glen Willoughby, Downer


Willoughby has been collaborating on IT strategy and innovation with NASA-JPL’s chief technology and innovation officer, Tom Soderstrom.

NASA-JPL’s Soderstrom participated in the CIO100 forum through a video message. He says while their workplaces are different (his is space), he faces similar opportunities to Willoughby around using technology to innovate and deliver sustaining value.

Willoughby explains NASA-JPL is part of the California Institute of Technology, whose customers include NASA, the US Homeland Security, to name a few. JPL also have a commercialisation division, bring their innovation to the world.

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“The JPLs staff live and breathe on the innovation they develop for their customers”, he says.

“They are in the forefront of robotic technology, IT interface, with a strong pioneering legacy of space exploration technology development and deployment (Hubble telescope, Mars Landers, Curiosity to name a few). Recently announced, JPL are working in NASA further exploration of Mar with the vision of human visitation to mars and the exploration and Europa (an ice covered moon of Jupiter).”

One of their challenges organisation face (NASA, health or really any industry) is that “when things go wrong they go spectacularly wrong,” says Willoughby. Innovation and fast innovation, by definition is risky.

The focus is on “failing fast ... it is a nice world, no one wants to fail especially when there are big stakes on board”, he explains. “Moving fast, testing fast and discarding what does not work fast is their catch cry.”

Along with their strategy for innovation is “progressing with speed to deliver strategy”.

He cites the first time JPL landed a vehicle on Mars. There were ‘seven minutes of terror’ when the vehicle entered Mars and has to land all by itself. The computer has to do it all by itself and if one thing does not work, “it is game over”.

This fast and quick innovative thinking is the only sustainable way JPL can have a future with Mars. “Extreme edge of innovation is the best way they the most efficient way of delivery optimal value in achieving organisational goals,” he says.

JPL’s innovative practices can translate to other sectors, Willoughby says NASA-JPL is looking at technologies like Internet of Things and reshaping these so these will create value for the industry they are working on.

The other is finding non-traditional partners such as startups for some of the things they are working on.

He says Soderstrom is also giving the freedom for staff to look at things differently. “They are looking at prototyping how they want to work now and into the future, within a strategic framework.”

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“The strategy is important because without clear direction, you never quite know where you will be prototyping in.”

'The trick is to balance smart innovations in line with long-term goals' - Glen Willoughby, Downer
'The trick is to balance smart innovations in line with long-term goals' - Glen Willoughby, Downer



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Lifesaving innovations

Closer to home, Willoughby cites innovation in the forefront of the district health boards.

Prior to Downer, Willoughby was CIO at the joint at the joint Capital and Coast, Hutt Valley, Wairarapa District Health Boards. Before that, he was CIO of Hutt Valley DHB.

He says health expenditure in New Zealand as well as in other OECD countries is increasing beyond what each country can afford.

“The only way to move forward is to be a lot smarter and more efficient with the limited resources you have got,” he says.

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New Zealand has outstanding innovations within the health sector like the systems around the Breast Screening and Cervical Service.

“The trick is to balance smart innovations in line with long-term goals,” says Willoughby.

Innovation is very much a team game - Glen Willoughby, Downer
Innovation is very much a team game - Glen Willoughby, Downer

He says when he became CIO at Hutt Valley District Health Board, he inherited an IT shop that linked up with two other DHBs – Capital and Coast and Wairarapa – to create an electronic clinical record system.

The system allowed the clinicians to get a record of the patient irrespective of what DHB they were in. “It was one small piece of technology that made a large difference.”

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This was significant because when patients go between the three DHBs, the surgery may be cancelled if their paperwork does not come on time. These cancelled surgeries comprised a significant percentage of total scheduled operations.

This is not good especially if the patient has been waiting for years to get a hip operation, says Willoughby. The system took two weeks to develop at a cost of a little over $50,000.

“It was the most significant IT development in the last 10 years,” says Dr Steve Dee, clinical director medicine for the Hutt Valley DHB, who joined Willoughby on stage at the CIO100 forum in Wellington.

These very small steps created the most significant opportunity to improve productivity and more importantly, the improved care for patients.

Dr Steve Dee, Hutt Valley District Health Board

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“The benefit to patient care was significant. You can be working blind if you do not have access to the right information at the right time.”

He says the IT team worked closely with him and other clinicians on four other products that were based on Orion Health technology set.

“These very small steps created the most significant opportunity to improve productivity and more importantly, the improved care for patients. And it only cost a handful of dollars,” says Dee.

Willoughby says the project also provided one great lesson. The DHBs know they have to move fast, so they are now taking the approach of innovating at one DHB and sharing the result with the two other boards.

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Safety first

At Downer Group, Willoughby says teams work on a range of projects, from mining to railroads, civil engineering, telecommunications, water, power and gas. The company has 16,000 staff across 50 countries.

“Maintaining a safe workplace is high on the agenda,” says Willoughby.

New Zealand is taking the lead on using geospatial technology. They are taking feeds from the private sector and government to create a picture of what is below the ground and above the ground, “essentially a makeup of the area they are working in”, says Willoughby.

“We are working in and placing that information in the hands of our staff so that they are more productive and more importantly safe. We have a long way to go to achieve our IT vision of empowering our staff with the best information tools they require. We will increase our focus on innovative practices to speed this up”.

Read more: New Zealand's first virtual health service goes live

Willoughby says a concept that links all these three organisations’ approach is this:


We have to change IT itself from ‘information technology’ to ‘innovating together’.

Tom Soderstrom, NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory


“The role of the CIO is creating that environment of collaboration and fostering that collaboration fast. How do we do that with speed? The key is to share off each other and understand the good, and more importantly, the not so good” experiences to learn from.

For Soderstrom, another change is needed to “effect meaningful innovation”.

Within all these organisations they have the equivalent of ‘rocket scientists’ and ‘brain surgeons’ in their midst. Identifying these people and collaborating with the IT teams is critical to deliver and IT strategy.

In a message delivered to the CIO100 audience, he said:

“We have to change IT itself from ‘information technology’ to ‘innovating together’. This is where end users and IT get together and come out with new ideas and prototype them quickly and iterate towards perfection.”

This is a “powerful approach” that the team at NASA-JPL strives for, he states.

“I foresee a future where a doctor on earth (New Zealand) will treat a human on Mars. Farfetched? Maybe not. Let us innovate together and see if we can make it happen.”

Related: At the end of every system, there is a person - Glen Willoughby

Glen Willoughby: “Innovation is very much a team game.”
Glen Willoughby: “Innovation is very much a team game.”

Glen Willoughby of Downer talked about the 'CIO's Innovation Agenda' at the 2016 CIO100 events in Auckland and Wellington.



Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

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