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When IT is the business

When IT is the business

A look at the challenges of driving ICT in a technology services company.

“We look at our own projects as templates for our customers.” This, says Steve Matheson, is the first key difference he faces at Datacom New Zealand that his CIO colleagues in other enterprises may not otherwise encounter.

“What we offer, we do exactly the same. Otherwise, we will not be able to present it to the market,” says Matheson, who is also the IT service company’s chief operating officer.

Because of this, “there is a much wider range of user input and consideration than there would be in terms of deployment into an internal group,” he says. “The standards of delivery are much higher too, it has to be spot on, that is important to us.”

Matheson, who has been with Datacom for more than 30 years, cites, for instance that the company is currently rolling out 2010 versions of all Microsoft products across the organisation. “That is a huge thing, bigger than most of our customers will deploy themselves” says Matheson. This means, however, the staff will understand the product and can talk to customers about it. The internal deployment will be a “great reference” for how the system works, “what are the practicalities, what are the issues operationally,” says Matheson.

Datacom has three key businesses — IT management, software solutions and business process outsourcing. It has more than 3200 staff in New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia.

“We are crawling with people that know IT,” says Matheson. This type of environment has another deliverable. There is no “management lag in deploying things or finding the justification for it”, says Matheson.

This speed of decision-making, says Greg Davidson, chief executive of the IT services company, is “one of the key things we work hard at to differentiate ourselves from the competition.”

Davidson says the company has two advantages when it comes to scale. “If we need to put more effort in something we are committed to do, we have unparalleled ability to draw from a very, very large experienced workforce. That is breadth.

“The second is depth,” he says. “If we need point skills for a particularly complicated or difficult problem, we send a shout throughout the senior partners in the place who have the capability to help us solve this problem, or have seen this problem before.

“By and large we find we have got expertise sitting somewhere in the company who has seen a [similar] problem and can provide a better way [to solve it]. Those are the two things that enable us to go through the toughest projects.”

Davidson, who joined Datacom in 1998 and was appointed CEO three years ago, observes that it is important in any professional workforce, particularly in IT, to have “high performing small teams”.

These teams, he says, must have the ability to focus to work closely with the customer. They are the key, he says, to “really being agile” and respond to what businesses demand these days.

“It was small teams that lead dramatic changes in the organisation,” says Davidson. “I am a great believer in empowering those teams and with that comes also the need to make sure we have got very experienced folk leading those wider groups of teams to be able to spot when [are] corrections needed.

“Cultivating that concept of a high performing team is a key success factor in this business,” says Davidson.

“They need to achieve that sort of practise that comes with working together,” he says. “If you contract a team that understands how to work together, to do the job together, they can do it with a degree of efficiency.”

Matheson likens this to a team composed of smart athletes who never come together. “There is a difference in a collection of people and the team. At the end, it comes down on how they work [together].

He says, “We have to train them, shape them, put them in the right spot. You can’t buy this [talent] off the street.”

Interestingly, Davidson turns to his offline persona — as a basketball player and coach for the Basketball New Zealand national junior programme — for object lessons in teamwork.

“Being involved in coaching young athletes has taught me a lot about teamwork, mentoring, giving feedback in different ways, improved my patience and been an all-round positive experience.”

His volunteer work also spills over to the community events supported by the staff. Datacom provides the ICT team tracking the information for the Special Olympics. The team provides the infrastructure to run the games management system, and volunteers to enter the data and process the results. Employees have been involved in a range of activities that include The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge race, Oxfam Trailwalker 100 km race and the Mad Mouse Challenge, where members of the ICT community walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing to raise funds for the Kia Timata Ano Trust, a women’s refuge in Auckland.

Davidson says the teams working on projects across the group and with customers also have the “local autonomy” to proceed with a new product development, and share the knowledge with other parts of the company.

“Because we have this luxury of a vast team of engineers, we are constantly making these calls and they are judgement calls as to where to allow people to go, where to share technology between locations,” he says. “Intellectual property is important to a services firm — they could greatly benefit the entire company, we need to look for ways to shift that knowledge across the business.”

Davidson says one of the books they ask staff to read when they join the company is True Professionalism by David Maister. (“Act like a true professional, aiming for true excellence, and the money will follow.”) Davidson says the book emphasises how staff need to behave “culturally”, which is one of “constant professionalism and constant innovation”.

“Those two values dive deep into the heart of how we work,” says Davidson. “We understand that we are a profession, not a trade.”

It is understanding, he says, that every employee is self-motivating and self-starting. “Be a thinking person rather than a cog in a machine. It culturally goes right the way down the organisaton. It is empowering,” says Davidson.

The sense of empowerment includes the motivation and ability to question. “Encouraging that questioning nature in our staff is key to making sure they can handle themselves appropriately in customer situations.”

He stresses the importance of having these types of critical “soft skills”.

“The tech skills you have will be transient because the technology industry moves on and there will be a point where you have to relearn them,” he says. The soft skills, he says, “are the career skills that will last you a lifetime. We are placing an emphasis on that ability to work in front of the customer, to make good decisions to help the customer connect their business need with the technology solution.”

During the recession, one of the things the company offered its customers was flexibility. “We said to them we are happy to work with you with whatever your business will require. The customers experienced less business within their own businesses. We contract services for them, so when business expands, we expand likewise to suit their particular situation.”

In the next few months, this will be the case. Davidson says the project activities they are seeing in the market today, are “beyond anything we have seen in years.” The economic downturn covered up “two years of pent up demand”, he says.

“Some of our customers are saying, we put all these [projects] off for two years, let’s go.”

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