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CIO100 2017 #31-100: Craig Columbus, Russell McVeagh

  • Name Craig Columbus
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company Russell McVeagh
  • Commenced Role November 2008
  • Reporting Line CEO
  • Technology Function 18 IT staff in New Zealand
  • Related

    Craig Columbus, CIO at law firm Russell McVeagh, estimates in a typical year, roughly 50 per cent of their IT effort goes toward innovation and modernisation.

    In the past year alone, 80 per cent of the overall effort of the team was towards transformation, necessitating the need to bring in additional temporary staff.

    “We're never static at Russell McVeagh,” says Columbus.

    This has never been more true than the work they have done over the past 12 months as part of the CEO and Board of Management’s mandate to transform the firm physically and culturally.

    “Part of the cultural mandate was increased collaboration, mobility and flexibility and one of the tasks I was given was to identify and implement technology to support the transformation,” says Columbus.

    He was assigned by the CEO and the Board to Chair the Premises Steering Committee. This committee is tasked to completely renovate their Auckland premises, taking the firm from offices to full open plan, while simultaneously replacing most of the core business technologies and introducing full mobility to all of the firm's employees.

    On the building programme, the work required working with architects, project managers, quantity surveyors, landlord, contractors and internal stakeholders.

    We developed the initial concept design and got tentative stakeholder approval in three months, he states. “Gaining approval was no small feat given that this wasn't merely a construction project, but a cultural transformation project, taking the firm from a cellular office environment to a fully open plan environment.”

    “The refit required that we completely gut two floors in our high rise, which meant decanting employees to alternative temporary floors without impacting our ability to serve our clients. The decant went off without a hitch in July and demolition began immediately.

    “A key design element of our new space is a large common area, complete with an open atrium between our floors and large, bespoke spiral stair connecting the space. This element particularly required a great deal of attention and coordination due to the removal of a large section of floor plate in our high rise and subsequent structural reinforcement required.”

    The mandate also included implementing a mobility strategy.

    For this, the technology team chose to upgrade to the latest in laptop technology, which included taking the firm from desktops to 2-in-1 laptops, Windows 7 to Windows 10, Office 2007 to Office 2016, replacing Cisco Unified Communications and physical phones with Microsoft Skype for Business.

    They also replaced most of the backend infrastructure and rewrote many of their proprietary applications to run on the new mobile platform.

    “Security was a key concern, so we deployed a number of state of the art security controls to ensure the confidentiality of our systems and associated data,” says Columbus.

    The project is nearly fully delivered, on time and under budget, he states.

    “Staff have embraced both the cultural change and the new technologies with open arms,” he states.

    “The perception of a cellular, rigid, old school law firm is now shattered. Russell McVeagh is open, collaborative, flexible and mobile and I couldn't be more proud of what the team has accomplished.”

    Looking at their work now, he states: “Any one of the many modernisation efforts would have benefited the firm, but taken in their totality, our firm now has the latest tools and technologies across the board, allowing for incredible capability and flexibility in serving our clients.

    “The ability for a staff member to work in any location with a full set of tools at their disposal is transformative.”

    As to what’s next, he says, “We are not one to rest on our laurels, we are actively investigating AI and machine learning.

    “These emerging technologies are going to transform our industry and it's imperative that we are at the forefront of this coming revolution. Watch this space.”

    He talks about how he manages the challenge of leading through a major business transformation programme with BAU work.

    “Balancing innovation and operational excellence is relatively easy if you know your environment well, have a good handle on what it costs to provide services and a realistic understanding of how innovation will benefit your organisation,” he explains.

    “There's really no magic in this approach.”

    “We don't implement technology without understanding the clear business benefit,” he states.

    He says an example of innovation in their operations side was the creation of a dedicated IT Governance Team.

    The team provides many functions, but one important function is independent oversight over our IT operations and associated policies and procedures.

    When there is a breakdown in policy or procedure or when someone simply proposes a better way to do something, the Governance Team initiates a Process Improvement Opportunity (PIO) process. This identifies the root of the problem and institutes corrective actions to ensure we don't make the same mistakes over and over.

    “The outcome is ever increasing process efficiency, allowing more time for innovation,” he says.

    Columbus reports directly to the CEO and is part of the Strategic Planning Group reporting regularly to the Board of Management.

    This requires working in a partnership as he has effectively roughly 35 owners of the business as primary stakeholders. “This requires a versatile leadership approach,” he states. “I lead through a combination of collaboration, influence and sheer determination and focus.”

    Columbus says having a thoughtful, and often unconventional approach to problems means he is often asked by the CEO or the Board to either drive or participate in strategic initiatives for the business.

    “Some of these initiatives sit well outside of the traditional CIO's technical mandate,” he says.

    An example is chairing the steering committee that oversaw the firm's multi-million dollar building construction project and associated transformation to an open plan environment.

    “The complexity of the building project forced me to become much more collaborative in my leadership and to lead through cooperation, influence and persuasion rather than mandate.”

    The IS team, meanwhile, actively engages with the rest of the firm though a raft of modalities. These include newsletters and personal conversations with various stakeholders. They also engage in “floor walks” where various team members walk through the firm and speak to staff about what is working and what can be improved.

    Columbus says he also occasionally joins the staff in these “floor walks” and meets with the firm’s various committees to solicit ideas, gather feedback, keep people informed on what IT is doing and to answer any questions.

    He says the team’s success is measured formally through KPI targets, regular surveys and an annual 360 review.

    Informally, he measures the team’s success through the number of complaints and compliments he receives daily, as well as “the vote of confidence that is implicit in being asked to lead, or participate in, large, strategic firm initiatives.”

    Divina Paredes

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