While business transformation programs and successful on-line product innovation can lead some chief information officers and in-house technology strategists to glory and promotion, an unspoken career progression strategy for some has always been to follow a path of least resistance, and keep the boss off their back. This can be achieved in two ways. The first is to keep their heads down, not spend much and hope nothing major goes wrong. It is unambitious but effective in some cases.
The second is to create a false impression of the advanced nature of the company's technology and pander to executive fondness for new toys. In short, the CEO and senior management team gets the best PCs and the newest gadgets while the rank and file labour on with older kit.
No self-respecting CIO would like to admit to adopting such a policy, yet there are plenty of organisations around Australia in which senior executives tote new company-purchased iPads and smartphones to "assess their potential", while staff who could put them to meaningful use eye them enviously in the corridors.
Toys for the boss is far from the worst sin that can be committed of course, but it is hardly the tactic of a forward-looking and ambitious technology chief.
With technology budgets reported to be on the rise after the passing of the global financial crisis, CIOs are better served by demonstrating their ability to invest for future growth. And this has inspired a number of organisations to undergo in-depth assessments of how they have been running technology shops.
Accountancy and professional services firm KPMG Australia is one such organisation. It decided to draw a line in the sand and completely re-evaluate its technology use, with a view to taking advantage of the rapidly increasing mobility options available for its workforce.
It felt it wasn't getting the best value from its tech spending and commissioned an external organisation to conduct a productivity assessment, which has led to a significant company-wide IT overhaul. As an independent national partnership of a global giant, KPMG runs its own technology strategy locally, but also has some aspects of shared planning with sister organisations around the world.
When the firm's chief operating officer and chief financial officer John Teer speaks to MIS, it is by phone from London, where he is attending a meeting to discuss KPMG's knowledge management strategy from a global perspective.
The firm is developing an iPhone app – currently for internal use only – which will make articles and studies from KPMG experts available to staff globally. It is also taking careful steps to generate an open approach to social networking within the company's walls.
The recently completed productivity assessment focused entirely on local operations, but Teer says findings can easily be utilised by his equivalents in other regions. Unlike many large organisations, such as major banks, Teer says KPMG Australia is satisfied with its underlying core systems. This means it is able to focus on improving use of technology on top of the fundamentals rather than ripping everything out to start from scratch.
He says his firm has had a very stable SAP core platform for many years so hasn't had to invest hugely. Instead, KPMG just "enhances" its core systems as necessary.
In fact, Teer says the Australian SAP technology has been selected for global implementation over the wider KPMG network. This "significant piece of work" is under way and will include staff in 135 countries.
"In Australia we have chosen to invest more of our IT dollars into the front end, the devices and the telecommunications aspect," Teer says. "We knew there must be big productivity gains to be made through improved use of technology because of the mobility of some of our people."
Teer admits that the company had been drawn into the previously mentioned trap of giving the latest gadgets to the wrong people in its organisation. Something the productivity assessment, conducted by Telstra, quickly highlighted.
"The productivity assessment found that – typically for a professional services firm – our most mobile people didn't necessarily have access to the most mobile devices," Teer says.
"We put devices in the hands of employees from a hierarchical perspective rather than a needs perspective. The truth was that we needed to be more strategic in the way that we rolled these devices out. So we are now in the process of making sure our most mobile people receive these devices."
In fact, in one of the most glaring findings of the study, KPMG said while about 80 per cent of the workforce was in client-facing roles, only about half had full access to mobile technologies.
Teer says the company's productivity drive began in early 2009, and quickly took on the approach of assessing how much the business would gain by putting more mobile devices into circulation among its 5000 local staff. The company is now issuing about 3000 mobile devices to frontline auditors and advisers, including Apple's iPhone 4 and wireless data cards for laptops.
It has also invested in an upgrade for its data network, high-definition video-conferencing and telepresence facilities.
Teer says that developing the business justification for proceeding with the project is a challenge. The potential benefits were obvious when simply thinking laterally about how the firm's auditors and experts worked, but calculating a return on investment is not straightforward.
He says the company worked out a metric that showed there were significant benefits to be achieved if the firm was able to improve the productivity of its staff by just 1 per cent.
However, perhaps unusually for a firm so focused on accountancy, KPMG has not put a specific dollar value on the efficiencies expected from its technology overhaul. Instead, Teer says it has ambitious expectations about the potential competitive edge that will come from its improved productivity.
"It is a constant challenge to measure projects that are not as tangible as a straightforward dollar saving, but our business is measured in terms of hours charged to clients and hours recovered from clients, so we can measure the utilisation of our people in percentage terms to evaluate how we are going," he says. "If we can capture improved utilisation at least we can say that has been a positive result.
"When you have up to 4000 mobile workers, the benefit of them having better devices in their hands, so that their dead time can be made more productive, is pretty clear." As well as the iPhone 4, KPMG Australia employees are being given the option of a Samsung smartphone with a qwerty keyboard. Teer says he is not surprised the majority have been selecting iPhones.
KPMG Australia had not supported BlackBerrys for a number of years. Teer says that will continue as he has decided against taking on the extra investment required to deploy the platform.
Aside from the productivity benefits, improved access to new technologies is being seen as a staff attraction and retention tool as the skills market tightens.
The company's attitude to new devices and widespread access to social networking sites is to be as open as possible. Younger workers in particular react badly to being constrained by IT department edicts, Teer says.
"The whole social media piece is a very interesting one and reasonably controversial," he says. "A number of organisations have looked to ban social media because of the productivity drain, but we are looking at it from an opportunity perspective, certainly internally.
"It is a bit of a dilemma, because on one hand we don't want people to waste their time on social media sites, but on the other we want to encourage the collaboration and potentially significant productivity benefits of people sharing ideas. If our people are able to collaborate better and more easily then we should encourage that."
Bring your own
Despite the open attitude towards advancing technology in the hands of KPMG staff, Teer says the company is not yet planning to adopt a "bring your own" IT strategy.
This is an increasingly common trend for other employers that encourage staff to supply devices that will be supported on the organisation's network.
BYO has been advocated by leading information chiefs including the Department of Defence's Greg Farr and Commonwealth Bank of Australia's Michael Harte. However, KPMG has decided that, while it will not forbid workers from bringing in their own devices, it will attempt to retain a controlled technology environment by providing the tools necessary for working efficiently.
From the vendor side of the project, Telstra's executive director of network, product and services, John Paitaridis, says KPMG's approach to BYO IT is in keeping with the majority of customers for whom it has performed productivity analysis.
He says the trend towards BYO has been gathering pace mainly in the US so far, but predicts it is likely to become more common in Australia and elsewhere soon.
"In Australia we haven't seen this so much, and that comes down to the fact that most organisations want a standard operating environment, and the ability to manage and service their devices," Paitaridis says.
"Organisations are still concerned about security and access into their mission critical systems. So we haven't seen it take off in Australia yet, but the trend overseas suggests that it will at some point come here."
The market for vendors seeking to provide external analysis of firms' IT set-up is heating up as more dollars become available. Paitaridis says Telstra has made a significant breakthrough in its business providing productivity diagnostics in the past 12-18 months. Including the KPMG project, it has completed 40 engagements across industries including health, government, logistics and retail.
The benefits for the vendors are obvious as it gives them access to multiple parts of a business in the review process, which enables it to provide a much more individually tailored sales offering when the client comes to implementing some of the review suggestions.
It is therefore vital that the CIO takes an active role in the process to assess suggestions. "It is definitely true that it puts us in a strong position to win future business from these customers," Paitaridis says.
"We were already providing some of the underlying data and IP [internet protocol] networks to KPMG, and some mobility services. But through working closely with them, we have been able to start to prove out the benefits of things like high-definition video-conferencing, not just in terms of reducing air travel, but also in improving productivity on the ground."
Teer says he is more than satisfied that undertaking the review yielded suggestions that would genuinely improve operations, and leave KPMG well placed to implement its plans for enhanced social networking, improved knowledge sharing and more efficient working.
"The project is a significant investment, but we wouldn't be spending the money if we didn't think that the benefits we are going to accrue, both in terms of productivity and expectations of our people and our clients were worth it," he says. MIS Australia
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