Glen Willoughby: Today’s CIOs wield revolutionary tools

Glen Willoughby: Today’s CIOs wield revolutionary tools

And they must use these to deliver enduring value to the organisation, says Downer’s general manager of IT

Glen Willoughby
Glen Willoughby

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One organisation Willoughby is keenly observing on the innovation front is Air New Zealand.

“I am always interested to see what that organisation does,” he says. “They have gone from bottom of the pack to top of the queue in terms of their quality internationally.”

He says a simple example of this is the way the airline simplified check-ins through the kiosks at the airport.

“During a recent trip, I checked in online at another airline (‘which shall remain nameless’) and waited for a quarter of an hour in a queue. The queue was for those who had booked online,” he says.

At the nearby Air New Zealand counter, the passengers who checked in online were spared this queue.

They have taken a small innovation to dramatically change the quality and efficiency for the customers, they added value. In the travel industry, the value is convenience.”

He also follows Google closely, taking an interest in its acquisition strategy.

We focus on creating value and being competitive whether that is delivering better service to customers or being successful in the market. Nothing in that is new. But the technologies, tools, and methods we have now are.

Techie to business leader

Willoughby is an example of how an ICT professional can move across sectors, taking their skills that can transpose to different industries.

Willoughby joined Downer last year following five years as a CIO in the health sector at the joint Capital and Coast, Hutt Valley, Wairarapa District Health Boards; and before that at Hutt Valley DHB.

In the early part of his career, he was also project director at the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health and manager information systems at the Waikato District Health Board.

He also worked in the finance sector, as senior ICT advisor and project director at Cranleigh Merchant Bankers. He had a stint in the education sector, as manager information technology services at the Waikato Institute of Technology.

He began his IT career at the dairy industry, as IT manager at the Tatua Dairy Co-Operative and then moved to New Zealand Dairy Group three years later.

These multifaceted roles in IT provided him a dual background on both technology and business aspects of ICT. He has an undergraduate degree in information technology, and postgraduate degrees in management, including an MBA from the University of Waikato.

When he worked in the health sector, he was a medical informatics fellow at two Ivy League medical schools and an advisor to technology startup companies.

Interestingly, IT was not his initial chosen career. He was training to be a medical doctor and by the second year of his pre-med studies, knew that he was more interested in the burgeoning ICT industry.

He recalled how at secondary school, he had enjoyed the new courses being offered in information technology. So he went back to school and enrolled in a three-year ICT program at the Waikato Polytehnic.

“It was probably the hardest education I have ever done, much harder than my master’s degree,” he recalls.

He went to class everyday (no online back then) and had to get at least 80 per cent pass in every course.

“The final project was the size of my masteral thesis, and it was not a bachelor programme at that time.”

Tough as it was, he enjoyed the programme which prepared him for the slew of technical roles that he went into in the next few years.

His first career stop was at the dairy industry. “At that time if you can spell IT, you are an IT expert. It was a fledgling industry.”

He says the dairy industry was the first to look at automating its process control centres. He says the technology automation provided significant value and productivity to the sector.

Looking back, this was a pioneering shift as in the early 1990s, very few people were automating their business systems, he says.

“Email was not around at that stage,” he says.

He realised how advanced the dairy sector was in automating its plants and factories, when he moved to the health sector.

At the time, the health sector didn’t really leverage information technology to support delivery of services and was regarded as part of the administrative function, he says. The investments were in back office systems to provide efficiencies and some useful reporting for staff.

During a move to the education sector, Willoughby witnessed the emergence of online learning.

Upon moving back to the health sector after 10 years, IT had become “absolutely mission critical” in delivering services with GPs and hospital care settings being very reliant on technology.

IT is a critical artery of the performance of businesses now, and its competitive position in the market.

Career advice

Willoughby says younger IT professionals need to prepare for a disruptive future. Still, he says as much as things change, they stay the same.

At the end of every system, there is a person.

“There is the commercial nature of the business. We focus on creating value and being competitive whether that is delivering better service to customers or being successful in the market. Nothing in that is new. But the technologies, tools, and methods we have now are.”

Willoughby advises that IT pros understand how they can create enduring value for their organisations.

“From an IT perspective, what resources and tools do you have available? Some of the most valuable tools are outside your organisation,” he says. “Talk to your colleagues about their experience. You will learn about their challenges.

“One of the strengths we look for in our IT teams is high EQ (or emotional intelligence) and strong communication skills,” he says.

“Continually develop and work on your skills, learning how to communicate and how to add enduring value. At the end of every system, there is a person.

“We are building things to support how people work, whether they are a customer, engineer, clinician, patient, engineer or an airline attendant. It is a people game,” he says.

Read more: Digital technologies push employers to dismantle the classic management pyramid

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