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Strategic thinking

Strategic thinking

Mike Clarke has been an IT vendor, consultant and CIO. These diverse experiences help him lead ICT in a complex environment

A Formula One racing car and heart surgery are not usually mentioned in the same breath to describe an ICT project.

However, these are the analogies Mike Clarke uses for the work of his team at SkyCity.

Clarke is the chief information officer of the entertainment group that includes properties in Auckland, Hamilton and Queenstown, and Darwin and Adelaide in Australia.

Each property is different, says Clarke. The Adelaide business is a casino with a massive valet car park. In Auckland there are two hotels, a casino, a convention centre and a carpark.

The hotels operate year round, though the casinos are shut on Good Friday. "That is counterintuitive to most businesses that operate, nine to five," notes Clarke. "And of course, Saturday night and New Year's Eve, are critical times for us."

Being a 24-hour, seven days-a-week operation brings enormous challenges, he says.

Clarke uses the analogy of a Formula One racing car. "It is a bit like trying to change the wheels of a car that is moving," he says of implementing IT changes in such an environment. "We can accept no downtime, no outage, but we need this change and it has to be right."

On the day of the interview, members of his team were implementing an upgrade on one of the games at the casino. The team had to do tests and switch to the new programme without the other casino staff and customers noticing. This operation, he says, is a "great example of absolute precision".

"This is real-time, there is still trading, and of course the guys have to get the machine up and running as quickly as possible with business as usual."

Like a heart bypass operation? He nods. "You put in the bypass, and you make the change and you take the bypass away. It is double stepping, so change takes longer and [requires] more thought."

Clarke started at SkyCity nearly two years ago and says at other organisations putting in a new piece of technology was much simpler. "You start at six o'clock [when] everyone has gone home, so eight o'clock in the morning everybody's happy."

However, at SkyCity, Clarke says, "We have no downtime. We have to plan the changes differently."

So how do they do it? "Stealth," he says, with a laugh. "We have to make sure we are very clear on exactly what that would do in a mission-critical world."

Customer impacting systems

Clarke and his team are in the midst of several business projects, but right now they are putting "a lot of energy onto customer impacting systems".

"We are a very customer sensitive business. If we don't do the right things in the restaurant or the bar or our service delivery, customers vote with their feet quickly."

For Clarke, it is about using ICT to support the staff. "We can make things happen faster and more seamlessly, so they can go and do that without having to worry about the system piece."

A recent change was moving to the latest version of the hotel management system from Fidelio. The system, he says, covers the whole gamut of operating a property as complex as a five star hotel and other services around it, such as managing conventions.

"What we learned from that was you have got to keep your eye on the business prize," says Clarke. "I know this is Project Management 101, but it worked."

Another area they are working on is business analytics. SkyCity has started a road mapping exercise around business intelligence it will take up in the next three years.

He says SkyCity's business intelligence systems, using Oracle and Business Objects, "are really in good shape".

"The challenge is, where will we take it in the next three years."

As part of this exercise, ICT is sounding out the business leaders across the enterprise for their specific business intelligence requirements, asking what information they want, how frequently they should have it, and the people who will be utilising it.

A general manager, he says, knows what he wants to drive the business forward, but he may not know visualisation and data set. It is up to ICT to help them reach the goal and demonstrate to them the technology tools that can be used. "This is how you can help bring technology and business together."

"Today" and "tomorrow" teams

Clarke says what his team is putting its energy into is customer centricity. He has structured the IT department into "today" and "tomorrow" teams.

The today team works on the 24x7 systems, focusing on business as usual support. The other team works with the business on what tomorrow will look like and considers future business applications and enterprise infrastructure perspectives. "What does the future look like for our business? What do we need from a systems perspectives? What will define a five-star experience for a hotel in three years?"

Clarke has started a programme for staff to move across the two teams, as well as have them work in different areas of the business. He also wants staff in other business units to work in ICT. It is about building expertise, he says.

For example, the staff can spend time in the kitchen to find out what works in the procurement terminal used by the chefs. By working with them you understand how the system works, says Clarke, and from there, can find or suggest a better system to do it. Doing so is important, because the procurement system for the kitchen is different from the system used to order stationery, he adds.

"Understanding the business is fundamental and you have got to breathe it right the way down the organisation. You can't just sit at the top.

"We are looking at the growth of our business. If we are embedded in the business we are making sure we are contributing to business success."

In an insight to the CIO role, he says this integration with and understanding of the business is what differentiates an IT manager from a CIO. "It is about knowing the business, it is about stepping from technology into technology for the business."

Clarke says the CIO is a partner of the business. "We have got to have standards and things we can support, but we should also be here to help.

"It is about what does this do for the business at every stage," he says. "We can follow all those hot things or leading edge [technology], but if it doesn't change the customer experience, then you have missed it."

A diverse experience

Clarke has worked across the spectrum of ICT -- as vendor, consultant and customer. His previous roles include managing partner with SPR Consulting, managing director for 3Com Australia and New Zealand, and Asia Pacific director, marketing and channel sales for Lotus IBM.

Clark says his diverse experience in ICT and in the business world in general, has helped him in his current role.

He started selling technology solutions and says that was useful given what he is doing now. "You have to understand the customer. It is also about positioning technology in the right space. You learn very quickly. It is seldom the bits and the bytes. It is about what is it going to do for you. And that exactly is what this job is about. It is a combination of skills. [You have to] listen to the customers and understand what the customers are saying. My customers are the people in the business. It is an enormous asset to have been on that side of things."

His stint as a consultant was the "bridge" to his current role. "Offering advice and taking people through a process is all about what we do as well. It is about taking the technology set and making it into something.

"The trick of the CIO, and the hardest one I find, is that you have got to be far ahead in front of the business so you can respond quickly. But you can not be too far ahead of the business in like a field of dreams world, building fancy things. Otherwise, you get criticised for wasting money and not being there.

"So that is the balance. Staying just ahead and anticipating the need, but not down there somewhere where you are building things they are never going to want or use, or trying to force technology-led decisions on to them. That is not what it is all about."

Preparing for the upswing

His team is preparing for the economic upturn. "We have an enormous amount of work already defined and projects have been rolled out for most of the year."

The focus for projects in 2010 is on customers. These include reinvigorating the web experience for the customer. "As we see some more uptake on the web, we are sending some special offers via the web or to mobile phones."

As to where the CIO role is going, Clarke says, "The CIO role has to manifest itself as a business value. It has to be more than just technology in most organisations."

After nearly two years in the role, he says SkyCity has reached this point. "It was about getting the systems right, getting IS forward into the future. There is some extra responsibility and value I can add to the business."

There is one area, however, he is not venturing into at SkyCity. Clarke is a stranger at the gaming tables, except when he is playing for charity as with a recent SkyCity fundraising for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. "I had the opportunity to play poker and prove that I could," he says with a chuckle.

Yet, when it comes to IT, he is not one for risk taking. "I have to say, I am probably the most risk averse in terms of technology," and attributes this to the group's round-the-clock operations.

He smiles as he forms the following play of words to describe him: "A risk-averse CIO in the gambling business."

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