Carsten Larsen is not the CIO of the organisation he works for, despite the fact that he talks, lives and breathes IT. “I love IT, it’s my passion,” he says.
In fact, Larsen has gone beyond the CIO position, and has the concept of the ‘future-state CIO’ firmly in his grasp.
As general manager for corporate services and coordination at the Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA), the actual CIO, as well as the CFO and HR director, all report to him.
“I oversee a very wide range of issues,” he says. “In one day, I can deal with seven finance matters, and six HR issues, and whatever number of IT concerns. This can be enjoyable for some, but very stressful for others in that you never get time to spend on one thing specifically.”
Larsen obviously sits on the ‘enjoy’ side of the equation. In particular, he waxes lyrical about a new unified communications system – which has meant ACMA’s 600 plus staff no longer need to use their phones – although they still have them on their desks.
They can now be contacted seamlessly on their PCs, mobile phones, laptops, tablets. Everyone’s whereabouts are revealed according to where they are signed in (and whether they’re in a meeting), photos are displayed, and calls, emails and messages passed on when any one device is not answered.
“Some people would see it as a gimmick – it’s been promised for such a long time but it actually works, and we see a lot of benefit from it. Very few people have found it intrusive…none, in fact,” he says.
“We’re seeing people share desktops because they’re geographically-independent. It’s the biggest step forward since the introduction of email; it’s changed the way people behave.”
It’s the people that are his biggest concern. Not because they’re not good at their jobs. Rather he says he is ‘blessed’ to have three direct reports from people who are “experts in what they do”.
“They’re excellent people, which makes it easy for me. Those further down the ranks are equally important,” he says.
“As general manager, you’re the sum of your people. If you don’t have good people, you’re no good yourself. Your people are everything.”
There are some people who are even more important, and that’s his family. A serious illness affecting one of his children meant career changes for both he and his wife.
After periods working with large US companies SCJohnson Wax and Pharmacia & Upjohn, he returned to Australia because he was sick of travelling, taking up a position as CIO of the NSW State Rail Authority.
From 1999 to 2008, Larsen worked as CIO at the Canberra utility ActewAGL, during which he made major strategic and structural changes to the division. He reduced outstanding ICT support calls and costs, increased the range of services offered and delivered five ActewAGL ICT strategic plans.
In January 2004, ActewAGL signed a management services agreement with telco TransACT when Larsen assumed responsibility for ActewAGL’s commercial development (with a focus on sustainable energy development and mergers and acquisitions) and TransACT’s ICT and commercial development.
“This was the first utility of its type in Australia, offering electricity and gas, as well as broadband and telecoms.”
He says he’s happy to take credit for putting the ICT operations together, though he notes he is not taking credit for the company’s more recent demerger.
While still remaining CIO for both ActewAGL and TransACT, in April 2008, Larsen replaced his responsibility for commercial development with technology strategy and operations for TransACT.
At the same time, the IT department, under the name Cantech, was actually on-selling the company’s communication platform to other organisations. He says “9 years later all the Territory Government busses in Canberra are still driving around with ActewAGL’s communications package”.
Revenue generation by the IT department can work, he insists, though not at the ACMA, which relies 100 per cent on its government appropriation.
In 2009, he joined the ACMA. (By the way, it’s pronounced “A-C-M-A”, not “ackmar” – use the latter and you’re likely to get a reprimand and be asked for a donation to the swear box.) The government agency is responsible for the regulation of broadcasting, the internet, radio and telecommunications.
Its responsibilities include promoting industry self-regulation and competition while protecting consumers and other users, managing access to the radio frequency spectrum and representing Australia’s communications interests internationally.
The external representation is something Larsen takes very seriously: “Our mantra is to be the world’s best regulator, and that includes IT.”
To this end, he demands a neat, tidy and professional looking office, for branding purposes as much as for operational efficiency.
“When I joined, we literally got a giant skip and cleaned out a lot of stuff. You wouldn’t want to use a brain surgeon whose office is a mess; likewise for our leadership in the communications industry.” He describes the agency’s take-up of technology as leading edge, if not bleeding edge. He cites regular visits from other IT shops – 15 last year – which come to see how the authority operates.
He regularly presents at conferences, including some held by the IDG/CIO organisation, and talks with vendors to stress that they should not lead him “up the garden path”.
“I’m one of your best sales people,” he tells them. “Don’t push me around.”
Building such relationships, whether internal or external, is a key occupation for any manager, but particularly so for someone with so many reports.
“Our CIO has a tough job. I mean, who would want another CIO breathing down your neck?” he says.
“I’ve always got another opinion. He’s probably more cautious than I am, and I’m more gung ho, so he continually has to bring me back to earth and I’m continually having to pull him forward. It’s yin and yang; those two aspects work well.”
But does he see himself as a boss or a friend?
“My long life experience is that, if you become true friends with your staff and then have to make tough decisions, it can be difficult. Unfortunately you become a bit guarded about becoming friends. I deal with my staff with high respect, we are friends but we all know that that friendship is premised around clear professional boundaries.”
It’s all a matter of trust, he says. “If people think they can have trust the moment they walk in the door, they’re mistaken. We all have to earn trust.”
And this is part of what he describes as the ‘future state’ CIO’s journey – it’s not an end-goal, it’s not a personality. It’s a journey that some of us want to take. But just “some”? Can’t most CIOs do it?
“I think that many aren’t cut out for it; there are people who prefer to get caught up in the technology, not the business outcomes,” he says.
“A lot of people get caught up in the inputs and outputs and don’t focus on the broader business outcomes. If you want to move down that road you have to be outcome-focussed, but first you have to make sure the machinery works.”
Disclaimer: Carsten Larsen is chairman of the CIO Executive Council
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